Preparation the key to winning publicity

As you read this newspaper and other publications have you ever thought that you have a better story to tell about your business? I know I have. So, how do you submit a story idea without getting laughed out of the newsroom? The following are some tips to help you on your quest for more news coverage for you and your business. These tips relate to any media, whether it be traditional media or digital forms.

1. Be prepared: Don't pick up the phone or e-mail an editor without organizing your thoughts. That first phone call or e-mail is the most important. If you seem unsure, or don't have all of the facts, your idea may get shot down before it has a chance to fly. Follow the steps below to make sure you are prepared.

2. Is the story timely? What makes this a story that you think should get published now? Story ideas that have timeliness to them will produce the best results. A new branch opening, a staff promotion, a new product launch, a special event to which the public is invited, all fit into this parameter. These short stories are the easiest to pitch and the facts are simple to assemble. A feature story on you or your business takes much more planning and forethought.

3. Evaluation: Being in the news is not always the ultimate goal. Stop and evaluate what you are trying to accomplish before cotracting the media. Does the idea agree with your business's values and vision? I had a boss 25 years ago who told me any news positive or negative is good news because they are talking about you. With the hour-by-hour news cycle today, I don't necessarily agree. If you open the door, be prepared to answer the questions. Does this story show your business in the best possible light? Would it be better to wait? If you have a new piece of business, do you want your competitors know the details before you have cemented the relationship? Do you want the world to know about a key hire? If the answer is yes, then proceed.

4. Does it coincide with a national story? If you can localize a breaking national story and make it relevant, don't be timid about trying to pitch it. For example, a new computer virus is spreading and you have advice on how to prevent it. Or, how about a product recall when you are manufacturing a product that addresses that flaw. There are thousands of angles here. If you are watching the national news in the evening and something about it relates to your business, it is worth thinking it through and doing something about it.

5. Is it saleable? If you don't know five people who would be interested in investing time to read or view your story, don't bother an editor with it. Talk through the story idea with some co-workers or family members first.

6. Develop the package: Can you support the information with a photo, statistics, graphs, links to other websites?

7. Write out the information: This is how you will ensure that the facts get published correctly. Follow the basic Journalism 101 guidelines and make sure to cover who, what, when and where. Why and how should also be answered in most cases. Why are you opening a new branch? Why did you select that charity for that new special event? How are you going to manufacture that new product?

8. Bullet points work, too: Terrified of writing? We get calls all of the time from small businesses and charities that just want someone to help with writing. I usually tell them to bullet point the guidelines above in tip number seven and assemble the information into an outline instead of paragraph form.

9. Verify the facts: You can't believe how blind you get to your own information. We not only have at least one other staff person, as well as the client, proof all of our work; we also verify all addresses, Web sites, phone numbers, and the like. What I mean by this is even if you think you can recite the Web site or phone number in your sleep, click on it or dial it just to make sure. I can cite many disasters in error-ridden press releases. Not only will you lose the trust of an editor, but if the story runs with errors that you provided, don't expect a correction. And if the phone number or Web site address is live, you'd better be sending some flowers to the one receiving the contacts, so that the information is relayed on to you.

10. Tell the truth: Period.

11. You are ready: After all of these steps, now you should be ready to make a contact either by e-mail or phone.

12. Know who to contact: Of course the managing editor is the ultimate decision-maker on content for his/her newspaper, magazine, blog, website, or station. But, get to know that particular media. Where does this idea of yours fit? Business, lifestyle, technology, real estate, food, recreation ... There are topics and section editors who might be more appropriate to contact and more apt to entertain your pitch.

13. If you are calling, know when editors are on deadline: If you don't know, just ask if this is a good time, or should you call back.

14. Follow through: If you haven't seen your story picked up, call or e-mail the editor after a couple of weeks. Ask if there is something else you can provide that would make the story more interesting. At this time, also find out the preferred method of contact: phone, fax or email? Also, do they want documents attached or in the body of the email? Then start compiling a file on your media contacts for your next venture.

15. Humility: No matter what you think is great news, every publication and media have parameters for what gets published. Every editor has his/her own way of applying those guidelines. So, a good rule of thumb is to take feedback with an open mind.

Don't be intimidated if you don't have a seasoned PR/advertising staff person or agency to make your pitch. Sometimes I think reporters and editors would rather listen to someone who's in the trenches and running a business. PR professionals do not have some kind of professional magic when it comes to selling story ideas to the media. We have experience in knowing when a story simply isn't newsworthy and we also have the unfortunate job of letting our clients know.

Through lots of meetings and phone calls, we also get to know the editors. If we have treated them well, and have given them correct information, we may have a better track record than does a rookie. But, nothing takes the place of a good story idea.

Preparation to pitch a reporter or editor as you can see has more to do with straightforward preparation than creativity or education. Day to day, this is all you will need. You can't dig up or make up a blockbuster, front-page story. The only advice I can offer is that you will know it when you see it. Then, you can go through the steps above to make sure you are prepared.

Publicity, and the resulting news coverage, can magnify a company's image and amplify the impact of advertising, marketing, promotions and special events. When the topic of publicity comes up, there is a saying: "Advertising you pay for, publicity (news coverage) you pray for."

With some of the tips outlined above, you might spend a little less time praying for news coverage.

Marlene Olsen is president of Olsen & Associates Public Relations Inc., in Reno. Contact her at molsen@o-apr.com.

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