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How to Get the Free Press You Want

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Earned media. Free press. Whatever you call it, it's the stuff that people hear and read about your business—the stuff you don't buy.

It's earned because you work for it. You work to do something newsworthy, you work to package it for the media, and you work to deliver it.

Experts say that free press is worth more, inch for inch, than paid advertising. That's because free press has the appearance of being a third-party endorsement of what you and your business have to say.

So what are the dos and don'ts? What can you do to enhance your chances of getting what you want... and avoiding or minimizing what you don't?

No Promises


First, beware of agencies or consultants that promise to get you a story, get one killed or get you one that says such-and-such. While the chances of getting covered get better every day (see "The News Hole," below), there are way too many imponderables for such a guarantee to be worth much.

Don't Try This Alone

As with most things, two heads are better than one. Some businesses recognize this by convening standing communication groups... or somehow otherwise staying intentional about the media.

A lot of corporate communication groups meet routinely. This helps keep you ahead of stories, looking for opportunities, serving as a reality check, shaping up messages, and more.

A word about routine. When communication groups meet routinely, a lot less falls through the cracks. Maybe more important, the inevitable crisis or bad news has less energy when you're looking at it as a group, with intention and some context.

The News Hole

It's huge. And getting even bigger.

I don't need to repeat what just about everybody already knows. That content-hungry blogs and podcasts and cable and specialty print and electronic media have created a practically bottomless, international demand for whatever sometimes remotely passes as news.

So, the chances are excellent that you'll get your 15 minutes. The question is, Where will a story do you the most good?

Scratch Where There's an Itch When you're planning your story, think about who should hear it, when and where. That'll make a difference all the way around... from when you release your news, to whom, and so on.

Your tactics depend a lot on your strategic goals. Let's say that you're a professional practice looking to beef up your bench by poaching recruits from other firms. Or looking to attract a merger prospect or buyer. Then wouldn't it make sense to focus your pitch on trade or industry media that get read or heard by PLY (People Like You)... and not on general B2B media or general circulation papers?

The Media Are Like a Conga Line

Your client or boss says, "Get me profiled in 'The New York Times.'" Maybe this is realistic. More likely, it'll take a little ramping up to get her or his story to the Big Time.

Tell them OK, but that this sale will take some softening. Explain that the media often follow whatever and whoever they see in front of them. That reporters and editors at the Times read other media—some equal in stature to the Times, most not.

It's these lesser beings that offer your best bet to get covered. Start where the sale is easier and then leverage whatever story you get into a bigger one and then a bigger one and so on.

The Myth of the "Exclusive"

Editors and reporters live in a very competitive world. Despite what they'll preach about "balance" and "fairness," they want a head start on whatever news you have to report. That's why they call it a "scoop."

The risk used to be that you'd only get one bite of the apple. If you showed preference to one paper over another, for example, then the paper you slighted would probably regard the story as stale.

I'm not so sure that's the case nowadays. Or, that it makes much of a difference. If you get the play you want, where and when you want it, then it shouldn't matter much if your story doesn't get decent play in a competing medium in the same market.

What has changed is that the market for news has become so elastic. Though, granted, you're liable to step on some toes if you offer an exclusive to a particular news outlet, there are a bunch of other media openings that don't see themselves as threatened or injured by a prior story on your piece of news.

Timing Is Everything

Let's say you actually want coverage. If you have the freedom to announce or release or schedule on any day of the week, it makes sense to do it on the day that will result in the most, best play.

Assume, for example, you want the weekly business paper in your target market to do a nice story on your company's recent whatever. It would make sense, therefore, to know the reporters' deadlines and any other lead time they might need to prepare a decent story.

Don't forget that most print media post their stories online, sometimes in real time. Some, however, delay the electronic version or otherwise give paid subscribers a jump on the rest of the world.

The same approach applies to your town's daily general circulation paper. Is there a day of the week where business news gets more space? Or, maybe, there's a TV or radio station does a "business spot?"

How do you find about the media's production schedule? Pay attention, because they may actually publish it. Or, just ask.

Lights, Camera, Action

If you want coverage of an event, don't merely send a press release... and hope that the media show up. In fact, don't send a press release at all.

Send a "media advisory" instead. Lay out the who, what, where, and when in See-Spot-Run simple language. Be sure to include whether there's anything visual that might warrant assigning a photographer. Leave the assignment editors a way to get in touch with you 24/7.

Acknowledge that getting a reporter to cover an event requires a sales job. Editors need to be pitched, so figure on a follow-up call or email that will move their So-What Meter.

Avoiding the Yawn

Editors and reporters know when they're being yanked around. So, avoid puffery in your press release and anything else you put in front of them. It'll be easier for them to get to the meat of the story if you go easy on the parsley.

Stick to the facts. And package them in a way that they'll be able to weigh the significance of your news in 10 seconds or less.

Never written a press release? Relax. If you've ever read a business article, you've seen the template. A strong, clear lead—with the who, what, when and where—followed by sentences and paragraphs of ever-diminishing importance.

Think of an upside-down pyramid. If, for space reasons, an editor needs to cut, they can start chopping at the bottom and keep chopping upward without doing any harm to the meaning.

Plant, Fertilize, Water

OK. You've gotten someone interested in doing a story. They have your finely crafted media advisory or press release. What else can you do to control the story, getting the most out of the opportunity?

Start with some reality. Recognize that reporters are busy people with unforgiving deadlines who are sometimes assigned stories on totally foreign subjects.

Then do yourself a favor. Prepare a separate fact sheet that lays out any detailed background (e.g., your company's history) that might be helpful but tangential and, potentially, overwhelming.

If the size or depth of the story warrants, offer a "key contact" list. Offer these experts as arm's length background resources, something reporters will appreciate if they're on unfamiliar turf.

But don't be too detached. Make sure—at the very least—that the people on your contact list are OK with being contacted. In the best case, you've briefed them on what's going on, your message, their role, etc.

If You Have Bad News

Experience has taught me over and over again that it pays to deliver any bad news yourself. That's because the chances are very good that the story is going to get out anyway.

When—not if—the story gets out without your help, the media will suspect that you had something to hide, with predictable consequences. Why start off on the wrong foot... and then have to repair a bad first impression? Why not score points for candor and honesty instead?

I cannot imagine anything that the media dislike more than arrogance. The arrogance they infer when they smell a cover-up... or anything less than early and abundant disclosure.

Finally

All things being equal, there's an advantage to knowing someone in your targeted media. So, invest some time getting to know who's covering your client's business and industry in your markets.

Let them know you exist as a resource. Do something to make their life easier... or to give them a competitive advantage.

Such as sending them a link to MarketingProfs.com.


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Doug Stern (www.doug-stern.com) is a freelance business writer and marketing strategist based in Louisville, KY. Contact him at 502-599-6624 or stern.doug@gmail.com.

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