How to do PR for your company, actually get media coverage, and not annoy journalists

Woman being interviewed for TV

Every day, journalists and content producers everywhere are looking for stories to fill the pages of whatever website or magazine they work for, and every day, those same journalists are bombarded with pitches and press releases from organizations looking for media exposure and their PR companies, most of which they can’t use. It’s disappointing for everyone. What should be an easily symbiotic relationship – I need you, you need me – is made far more difficult than it should be by people who don’t understand how these things are supposed to work. Even people whose job it is to understand the media – the PR companies – don’t seem to understand the media much of the time. So, I’m creating this handy-dandy primer, and addressing some of the issues that affect everyone but go unaddressed, with the hope that we can all do our jobs better in the end.

First, an anecdote: Recently I was asked if I would like to do a story on the most in-demand tech skills, interviewing the head of a technology company about what those skills were. I said, sure. Job seekers like to know what skills employers are looking for.

When I got on the phone with the company owner, it turned out to be a conference call with three people. The person I was supposed to be interviewing was on a speaker phone, so she was muffled and I couldn’t hear half of what she was saying. When I asked about the most in-demand tech skills, she started going on at length about what makes her company different, and how they’re a family, and how they want candidates who fit into their company culture. Whenever I tried to bring the conversation around to tech skills, she brought it back to plugging her own company. Finally, I gave up and tried to end the call. That’s when a PR person asked if she could see the article before it was published. I wanted to scream.

I never wrote the article, of course. There was no article to write. These people did everything wrong. A conference call? Everyone hates a conference call. Same for muffled speaker phones. What were they thinking? I’ll address their other mistakes in the following list of things to keep in mind when trying to get media exposure for your business.

Don’t confuse editorial with advertorial. Editorial is content that is commissioned/paid for by a media outlet that reflects the interests and/or views of that outlet, one of which is in getting people to read it. Advertorial is paid advertising in the form of editorial that reflects the interests and/or views of the company the story is about. Those who want to hide the fact that this is technically advertising call it “brand journalism.” The main difference is that, with advertorial, you are in charge of the final product. With editorial, you are not. No, you can’t see the final draft, because you’re not the boss and you don’t actually have any say in what goes into the article.

And editorial is not just a chance to shamelessly plug your company. It happens so often that we communicate with people who claim to be experts but wind up just droning on about why readers should use their product or services. I’m not going to publish that. You must be an expert first, and the plug will come when I refer to you as the president of your company in the article.

For example, if you run a staffing software company and I ask you about how to spot the right candidate, don’t tell me to use your software, tell me what to look for in a candidate. Specific to the example above, when I ask you about tech skills, don’t tell me what makes your company special – I’m not writing an ad for your company – tell me about tech skills. If you’re a dry cleaner, and are asked how to get stains out, tell me how to get stains out, don’t say “use my cleaning services.” I’ll scrap your interview and contact someone else.

You’re not undermining your business by telling people how to do it themselves. Don’t worry. Most of them won’t.

Know your audience. I get press invitations to nightclub openings in Los Angeles all the time. I live in Toronto, haven’t been to a nightclub in over a decade, and have never written about them. They’re not offering to fly me there and put me up in a hotel, by the way, they’re just letting me know about the event. Why? I have no idea. I get press releases about political books, fashion events, and, once, the grand opening of a flooring store. I’ve never written about politics, fashion, or flooring.

There are thousands of people out there with probably hundreds of niche interests, writing on blogs and websites, and in print and online magazines. Find the exact right people, and target them – and only them. Don’t just blindly toss out emails to all media. You’ll waste your time and theirs.

Understand the new media timelines. When you’re contacted by a journalist or content producer, get back to them as soon as you can, preferable that same day. Unless it’s a glossy magazine, where people are working on stories 3-6 months in advance, just assume the person’s deadline is either that day or within a couple of days. That’s how new media works. News stories are reported in real time and the stuff that appears in print papers is already old by the time you read it the next day.

Many of us are publishing at least one story a day. We need to produce that content in a timely manner and we can’t wait for you. Sometimes people don’t get back to me until two weeks after I contact them, also known as two weeks after the article is already written.

Don’t complicate things. If you want coverage, do what you can to accommodate the content producer. If they ask for an email interview, don’t insist on doing it by phone. This involves coordinating schedules, and then the person has to transcribe the interview, which takes a lot of time. Don’t insist on a telephone interview the following week if you have five minutes before that. I’ve had people complicate interview times so much that they could easily have answered my two or three questions ten times over in the time it took to write the scheduling emails. Don’t drone on. I’ve got about 700 words and will only use about 150-200 of yours.

I know I speak for all journalists and content producers when I say that, if your story or insight is interesting and relevant to our readership, we want to share it. We really do. But you have to give us something we can use. OK? So, if your PR company doesn’t follow these rules, you should scrap them and get a new one.

And please, if you’re reading this and you’re in PR, take me off your mailing list for nightclub openings in Los Angeles.


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