What PR Pros Must Understand About Journalists: 10 Top Do's and Don'ts

Laura CarabelloBy Laura Carabello, Principal, CPR Strategic Marketing and Communications; Publisher of Medical Travel Today and U.S. Domestic Medical Travel™

New communication channels are changing the face of journalism, creating a competitive climate for reporting news faster, more succinctly and in a format that is easily read online. Today's news is pieced together with a ground-floor view, relying on interpretation, expertise and knowledge—rather than old-fashioned fact gathering. The news is transmitted via laptop, read on smart-phones, and synthesized into tweets to be shared within siloed communities. Nevertheless, the vital role that journalists play in how the public perceives local, national and international events remains the same.

In terms of what "new journalism" means to strategic communications, journalists and PR pros must continue to rely on each other in a way that is unlikely to change. Sound strategies that optimize this symbiotic interaction continue to be critical for success.

Pitches and Placements

PR pros work diligently to create a pitch that captures a key message. Therefore, it's important to frame that message in terms of what the journalist is looking for, as well as the potential impact of the message on the target audience. Journalists work under tight deadlines, so the pitch should be as polished as possible, and as close to how it will eventually appear in the publication or channel of communication as possible.

Placing a feature article requires developing a relationship with the journalists who cover a particular industry, or "beat." It's important to learn their level of knowledge, interest in this area and any pet peeves that, if transgressed, could jeopardize the relationship. Knowing where journalists are coming from, and what they are looking for, helps the PR professional slant the pitch in the most effective way possible. The art of "pitching" is one of the most important capabilities that a PR professional can develop.

Press releases should be kept brief and to the point—usually under 400 words. Deliver the pertinent facts up front, without hyperbole or "hot air," and follow it with a highly relevant quote from an executive-level spokesperson. It's also critical to provide links to websites that can provide greater detail. Given time constraints and the average attention span, assume that journalist will only read the headline and first few paragraphs.

Whether pitching an in-depth feature or a small release about company growth, the goal is always to engage the journalists and frame the story in a way that enables them to quickly grasp its relevance for the target reader.

Developing and Maintaining Relationships

It's valuable to forge relationships with a variety of journalists, not simply from across media channels, but also across different demographics. Younger journalists are eager to put all of their energy into writing a story—and to establish a reliable news source. They are also more likely to have the kind of social media savvy that can give your story "legs."

More seasoned journalists are able to cast a wide net and plug your pitch into mainstream channels of communication. Also, they tend to be more in touch with key industry players and decision-makers at the top, like editors and publishers.

Despite time-constraints, it frequently pays off to research and follow the work of industry journalists. This approach enables you to build stronger relationships, stay abreast of industry news and know immediately when to pitch. Making the right pitch at the right time will indicate your knowledge of their beat and the industry, help them in their work, and make them predisposed to run with your pitch.

Five Do's and Don'ts

While understanding the overall strategy for dealing with journalists is important, failing to pay attention to details can prove fatal. Below are a five do's and don'ts:

Do:

  • Offer a journalist an exclusive, especially if it will potentially gain greater exposure.
  • Contact the journalist first to verify that they are the right person for the pitch.
  • Understand each journalist's area of interest and how they like to receive information – most prefer email rather than playing phone tag.
  • Respond promptly to all questions.
  • Develop a regular relationship with at least one journalist at each major media outlet in your geographical area to gain consistent coverage.

Don't:

  • Pitch to a media outlet you are unfamiliar with—do your research first.
  • Start a pitch or email with: "Dear Sir/Madam" or "How are you?"—unless you have already established a relationship.
  • Describe a pitch as a "story idea"—that's the journalist's job to decide.
  • Develop a relationship that is too close or overly friendly—this can weaken the journalist's credibility.
  • Call irrelevant or self-serving content "important news."

Keep in mind that the relationship between journalists and PR professionals is a two-way street. PR professionals serve as gatekeepers to expert sources who can provide quotes or inside information on trends, breaking news, story content, access to testimonials, ideas and industry insight.

PR professionals must carve out time to forge and maintain relationships with journalists—and never take them for granted. Sometimes it's challenging, especially in such a constantly shifting landscape. But maintaining robust, mutually beneficial relationships between PR professionals and journalists will help accomplish the ultimate goal of both professionals: disseminating meaningful, well-crafted stories.

Laura Carabello, a graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, has been a journalist, entrepreneur and a strategy consultant in both domestic and international businesses related to healthcare and technology since 1985. Founder and principal owner of CPR Strategic Marketing and Communications, (www.cpronline.com), Carabello has more than 25 years' experience in business development, marketing, and corporate positioning.She publishes the international online newsletter www.medicaltraveltoday.com.

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