Media relations: From ordinary to extraordinary

Sharon Fenster
Sharon Fenster

Sharon Fenster

More times than I care to remember, I have sat in front of a word-processing page, trying to concoct a news angle for my organization.

That was my first mistake. What I should have been doing was speaking on the phone to editors to find out what they were working on.

The point is that ivory-tower thinking will never get you on the front pages of The Wall Street Journal.

It is time to open the doors of your mind and let in the ideas of top-flight journalists at leading media outlets.

But you say, “What if I can’t get any of them to spend time with me on the phone?”

That, my friend, is negative thinking. Extraordinary media relations requires you to step out of your comfort zone and take a risk.

As long as you have something compelling to say to an editor, there is no reason why you cannot engage the editor on the phone.

Sending an email won’t cut it. Be bodacious. Be daring in your thinking and push the envelope into new territories.

“Okay,” you say, “You’ve got me going. But what do I do next?”

Simple: go to the publications you would like to target and read them regularly. Yes, it’s time-consuming, but it will pay off.

Track which writers are covering news related to your organization.  What angles are they covering? What is missing from their stories? That is what you want to pitch them on the phone.

Go back to your organization and see what is happening or being said by some of your execs that can dovetail. Granted this may take a lot of time and energy but that’s why they pay you the big bucks, right?

Trust me, success breeds success, and once you start this process you will be amazed at the results.

What I am talking about is a domino effect. Once your organization gets noticed by a major news outlet or two, the others will often follow their lead.

So, think of yourself as a conductor. Orchestrate a symphony of media attention by following these simple rules:

Follow the news.  Are you keeping up with the news every day?  There is no substitute for a daily review of local and national news. Don’t forget industry news. It can often be your ticket into the arms of a high-profile editor.

Keep track of editors whose beats are related to your agenda. Be fearless and call them with related ideas that will advance the kind of coverage they generate. Even if they have no interest they will respect your diligence and you can begin building a relationship with them. There is nothing more valuable, period.

Have expert spokespeople in the wings. What could be more frustrating than finally garnering a media opportunity and not being able to produce an expert who can address the subject with substance and finesse?

It is your responsibility to keep in touch with these staffers regularly. Make sure they are media trained and can represent your organization effectively. Do they understand how important it is to be brief and to the point?  Can they generate compelling sound bites?

Have case studies in your back pocket. Nothing helps get a story published like a case study that tugs at the heartstrings. Who has a life that they love as a result of the work of your nonprofit?

Be brutally honest with yourself about the stories you find in your agency. Are they truly unique?  Will they shine above the norm? Keep in mind that editors have already heard just about everything — so be critical.

Even if it takes you months to come up with just the right example of your organization’s work, that could be the example that will cement you permanently in the mind of a reporter. They will keep coming back for more once you have hit that first home run.

Be mindful of a reporter’s time. Before you pick up the phone, remember: you are not the only one calling this writer. Reporters are busy and they’ve heard just about everything.

Before you launch into your pitch, make sure you do the homework I’ve mentioned. Once you make the call, ask the editor if he has time to talk. Only then should you go into your pitch. Be brief and to the point.

You may want to write out a script before you call. Remember, this is the only chance you’ll get. Make the most of your one chance to make a good first impression.

What is the most important principle of media relations? Tell the truth, always.

Exaggeration or omission of key facts may get you in the door, but once the editor does his homework and discovers you’ve put a misleading spin on the facts, you’ll never work with that journalist again.

Operate with integrity and you’ll soon have a trail of reporters behind you.

Sharon Fenster is a nonprofit marketing consultant based in New York City and a Shoestring Creative Group Affiliate. Sharon can be reached at or 1-888-835-6236.

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