Skip Navigation

UNL News Blog

How to make (media) friends and influence people

I had an advertising student in my office the other day who was working with a real-life client on a publicity campaign as part of a journalism school class. Her working group’s media plan needed to include a national news component, so she she came by to learn what kinds of steps she might take to get stories about her client into some big-time publications.

My main message to her was to be patient, that unless her client had a patent for cold fusion or Angelina Jolie as a spokesperson, cultivating sources and building trust with members of the national media is the quickest route to getting your story pitch a second look.

Well, how do you build relationships with the media? She asked. Well, that’s a good question. After 15 years in the newspaper business, I carried a lot of built-in media relationships with me to UNL — relationships I’ve used daily in efforts to land national placements for my university. But I’m also meeting new journalists every day, and these are some basic rules of thumb that I apply when launching and maintaining new relationships:

1. Know who you’re talking to. This one sounds simple, but you’d be surprised at how many communicators and PR pros badly misfire when sending an e-mail pitch to a reporter about Subject A — only to learn that the reporter covers Subject B, and has no interest in your pitch whatsoever. Think of what a misfire says to a reporter who receives it: If this person either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what I cover — what I’m good at — why should I bother to help them? And what kind of an organization hires someone who is clueless about what I write? Your reputation is shot after one e-mail.

So, spend some time to do some research on the target of your pitch. Read the reporter’s blog, or his/her last few stories, and scan through his/her previous articles in chronological order if you can. It’ll help immensely when the time comes to pitch them a story. After learning and understanding the reporter’s preferences and predilections, you should be able to craft a fairly personalized query that will specifically cater to that writer. And, doing some research on the journalist also will give you good insight into who they are as a person (More on that in a minute).

2. Be someone besides ‘that PR hack who always wants me to write about his school.’ In other words, don’t be the nag who is always asking for something. If a recent piece of a reporter’s work strikes your fancy, feel free to send the writer a quick note expressing that you’re a fan of his or her work. Go crazy and throw in a specific example of what, in particular, you liked about their story. Be their fan. Or, be an unbiased resource for them – if you see a story that has nothing to do with your organization, but think the reporter would be interested in it, send it along. Y’know, the old adage about catching more flies with honey, and all that. Again, it sounds simple, but it works.

3. Be briefer, and be the reliefer. Reporters are busy. Don’t waste their time. Keep your e-mails short and to the point. In fact, if you’re going to just hit them with a quick how’s-it-going note, maybe follow them on Twitter and carry out those niceties there. When pitching by e-mail, be sure to go over your finished note with the “scan test” — can a reasonable reader tell what your story is about in fewer than five seconds? If so, you’ve written just about enough. Every word counts, so use short, straightforward sentences; don’t get cute or overly descriptive. And resist the urge to throw in every detail but the kitchen sink. If they’re interested, they’ll take the time to ask for more.

4. Be sure to reconnoiter once in a while. Again, being sure to interact with them when you don’t have a specific pitch casts you as more than just someone who always needs something. Follow key reporters on social media and in the news pages to see what they’re up to, and check in with them from time to time. Unfortunately, in recent years there’s been a lot of tumult in the information industry, with reoganizations, bankruptcies, buyouts and layoffs. If you hear about something like this at a media outlet where you know reporters, e-mail those folks a note to let them know you’re thinking about them and to politely ask how they’re doing. This happened earlier this summer when a national newspaper suddenly reorganized its newsroom, resulting in nearly 40 positions being eliminated; I floated a handful of e-mails to the staffers with whom I’d worked in the past, asking if they were OK and if there was anything I could do for them if not — and got back grateful notes saying they were glad I was thinking of them.

5. As Joe Clark said in Lean On Me, “Move expeditiously.” If you reach the point in a relationship with a media member where they’re looking for your help, remember: The breakneck speed in which they’re working is often, how shall we say this nicely, much faster than what occurs in a university or college PR shop. Move their request to the front of the line and help them immediately. That will solidify your reputation with national reporters that you’re someone who can help them quickly, and increases the chances that they’ll turn to you for source help on deadline.

6. Most of all, be yourself. We’re all human, after all. Once you’ve reached a level of comfortability with your media contacts, don’t be afraid to go “off topic” from time to time. I’ve had discussions with national reporters about the best Halloween candy, college football, community art fairs, and whether the Watchmen movie should’ve ever been made — none of which had anything to do with the business at hand, but helped me understand the writer much better, and vice versa.

Those are but six off the top of my head. None of these are snap-your-fingers quick; building relationships online can take months, even years to create the types of results that you hope to achieve. But, as I often say, it’s time well spent. The potential payoff — national media coverage — is great, and in the meantime, you’re able to meet and learn more about interesting and often quirky people.

Comments are closed.