Think like a reporter

For three years I worked at The Oregonian—a top 25 newspaper.  While there I saw major news break: September 11, U.S. troops invading Iraq, the Bush/Gore election snafus, to name a few.  It was an exciting first “real” job where I learned a lot; my editor called it “baptism by fire.”

One of the many things I learned is that reporters often have similar personalities and ways for processing information.  Having been on the “inside”, I am better equipped to successfully pitch a story on behalf of my clients.

Top 4 tips to better understand reporters and gain more PR wins

1. Reporters have an insatiable need for information; they want all the information so they can choose what parts to cover and what parts to discard.  This is actually what I miss most about the newsroom: knowing the full story.

How to turn this into a PR win: Provide the information you want a reporter to have but be prepared to answer any question they may ask immediately; this includes the difficult questions your clients may not want answered.  A reporter does not want to have to wait for you to get the answer.

2. Reporters are inundated with options (i.e. press releases, pitches, etc.).  It is not uncommon for a reporter or beat editor to receive a hundred news releases in a single day.


How to turn this into a PR win: Assuming you have targeted the correct reporter or beat, make sure your press release or pitch is short, to the point and includes a catchy subject line.  I threw away countless press releases every day that:

  • Were longer than 1 page
  • Required more than a scan to determine the point
  • Used a lot of “marketing speak”—this was a particular pet-peeve
  • Didn’t include an intriguing subject line

3. Reporters work under crazy deadlines.  A lot of reporters—definitely not all—are huge procrastinators and work up until their deadline.

How to turn this into a PR win: Write your press release and/or pitch in a way that could be copied and pasted into a column and is written in a bulleted format—a just the facts ma’am style—so they can do their own piece.  From personal experience I can tell you I chose stories that used this sort of format when I needed to fill 7 – 10 inches and was on tight deadline.

How can you do both in under a page, you may be asking yourself.  The best way is to write a traditional-styled “story” (i.e. press release format) and include a “fast facts” box somewhere on the page.
Reporters are not your promoters and hate being treated this way.  Reporters likely do not care about your new product or event.  It’s their job to report the news and/or tell stories their readers would find compelling.   Reporters can feel undermined as a professional when a press release is more of an advertisement than a news tip.

How to turn this into a PR win: Find or create a news hook to compel a reporter to cover your product or event.

Good PR Should be Invisible

The best PR is the kind you think just happened spontaneously…a reporter stumbling upon a great, feel-good story.  But twice in one week I was hit over the head with PR.

First up: the TODAY show’s coverage of the New York Yankees’ HOPE week.  Every day for a week the TODAY show covered the Yankees players’ doing good in their community.  On Friday, they interviewed the “mastermind” behind HOPE week: the PR Director for the Yankee’s.  Instantly the HOPE program lost credibility.  A person with a PR title should never serve as the spokesperson; it comes off as spin and lacks authenticity.  Then, he opened his mouth and as the saying goes, all doubt was lost: “I designed HOPE week to serve the community.”  No you didn’t, I thought.  HOPE week was designed to show the Yankees in a positive light in news media!  The statement wouldn’t have been as bad coming from a Community Director or someone with a similar title, but coming from the director of PR, it came across as a bold-faced lie!

Second: Food Network’s Challenge – Renaissance Festival Cakes.  In case you’re not familiar with Food Network’s Challenge, let me provide you a brief description.  Each week cake decorators are challenged to produce a cake that best fits that week’s surprise theme under very short time restraints.  This week was Renaissance Festival cakes.  The first five or so minutes were devoted to showing what goes on at Renaissance Festivals to give the cake decorators ideas.  So far, this was good PR.  And then they introduced the guest judge: the PR Director for a Renaissance Festival company.  NO!  While not as hypocritical as the New York Yankees gaffe, the PR Director should not have been the judge.

If a PR person is the only option to serve as a spokesperson, they should change their title for the moment.  The same goes for people with “marketing” in their title.  When PR and Marketing people serve on the frontlines instead of the background, authenticity and credibility are lost.

The Wonderful Wizard of PR

“…we hear he is a whiz of a wiz if ever a wiz there was…”

Recently I saw Wicked, and it reminded me of something consumers of public relations have often shared with me: “I heard she/he is the best and that’s why I went with that firm”.

Oftentimes PR firms are led or even named after a “Wiz of a PR guy/gal,” a single contact with a specific area of expertise.  But I have never understood selecting a firm based on that one person.  Just like the “great and powerful Wizard of Oz,” your Wiz may not be great and powerful in certain PR situations.  And you do not want to be stuck with a man behind a curtain who can put on a great show and turn some tricks but lets you down in the areas you really need help.  Put another way, different PR needs—crisis communications, media relations, social media, influencer relations, etc.—often require different PR practitioners.   And, if you choose your PR firm based on one “Wiz” you better be sure that your “Wiz” is leading—or at least very involved in—your work.

Before selecting your next PR firm, be sure to ask:

  1. Who will lead my work and what experience does that person bring to my account?
  2. Who will likely be on my PR team and what experience have they had?
  3. How often will “Wiz” (e.g. president, vice president, etc.) be involved in my account?
  4. Will I have direct access to “Wiz”?
  5. About how many hours each week/month will be invested into my account on average?

Asking these questions will put you on the right path—the Yellow Brick Road so to speak—and help ensure you get both the “Wiz” you need and the “Wiz” you expect.