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Learning Magazine

Volume 1.1 Spring 1997

Making the Most of Your 15 Seconds

Basic Strategies for Gaining Media Attention

by David Keith Cohler

© 1997 David Keith Cohler

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1.  The Scope of the Problem

2.  Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

3.  Who Are All These People Crying "Me, Me, Me!"?

4.  Breaking the Logjam:  Understanding Media Priorities

5.  Compiling a Master List

6.  Making Your Pitch

7.  Accessibility...(Yours!)

8.  Where Do I Go from Here?

1. The Scope of the Problem

[1]  Not long ago, before computer workstations, e-mail, high-speed printers, and facsimile machines became part of the common landscape in print and electronic news offices, journalists could be relied on to scan every line of every communication they received. The intake of unsolicited material, although always high, was inherently limited by the relative slowness of pre-Computer Age hardware. Deadline-driven editors could feel that they were more or less on top of things. And petitioners could be relatively assured of a full and fair hearing.

[2]  Things are vastly different today. News offices receive unsolicited material of such volume and complexity that giving everyone a full and fair hearing is nearly impossible. Consider the following snapshot case:

[3]  One Tuesday not long ago, the news assignment desk at KCBS, a Los Angeles TV station, received unsolicited communications from Nissan Motor Corporation, the National Restaurant Association, the United Negro College Fund, Governor Pete Wilson, and Luisa Fernandez, a 31-year-old welfare mother of four. All five were seeking news coverage

[4]  Despite the absence that day of any major local, national, or world news stories, KCBS covered none of the five. Nor did any other news organization.

[5]  Why? Because of lack of space or time? Because they weren't considered newsworthy? Because they somehow slipped through the cracks? Any or all of those are possible explanations.

[6]  But the most likely explanation is newsroom overload. When assignment desk staffers began opening the snail mail, clearing the fax machines, and checking e-mail, these five requests for coverage were among nearly 1,000 received that day. They followed 1,000 others received the previous day. There would be another 1,000 the following day...and the next...and the next: an unending torrent of pleas to "Cover me, me, me!"

[7]  And no one even attempted to count the requests that came in by telephone.

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2. Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

[8]  News staffers open every envelope, glance at every fax and e-mail, and answer every phone call because they never know which (if any) will announce, say, the Second Coming. But because of the sheer volume, they spend just long enough with each one to determine that it is NOT the Second Coming before moving on to the next.

[9]  The result is a sort of editorial triage in which each communication gets a mere 10 to 15 seconds' attention before being rejected out of hand, scheduled for coverage, or set aside for possible followup. Ten or 15 seconds may seem like small reward for the many hours of preparation that went into preparing and sending the request -- but that is the current reality. The size of the city makes no difference. Relatively speaking, small-town news media receive the same flood of coverage requests day after day after day.

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3. Who Are All These People Crying "Me, Me, Me!"?

[10]  Although the daily mix varies somewhat, the seekers of news coverage fall into the following categories:

[11]  Corporate communications departments and public relations firms use every conceivable ploy to lure the news media into covering products and services, often through sponsoring pseudo-events or "photo opportunities," with a goal of garnering legitimacy or, at the very least, free advertising. Frequently a news release is accompanied by videotape, free product samples, or other seductive attention-getters. Journalists may prefer never to cover such blatant come-ons, but in the real world, a frivolous, commercially-promoted event often makes the coverage schedule because newspapers and broadcasters believe it will interest their audiences.

[12]  Although some agencies may be following a mandate for periodic public disclosure of their activities, others are merely seeking to justify their existence. Rarely do the news media act on these requests for coverage -- largely because they are superfluous.

[13]  The news media routinely follow and report on important government actions; they consider a mailed news release largely a waste of trees.

[14]  In or out, politicians all claim responsibility for successful policies and disclaim it for failed ones. Of all the types of coverage requests, this type receives the least attention from journalists...with two important exceptions: if the politician is in a close electoral race, or if he/she is somehow involved in a personal or public scandal.

[15]  Typically these are trade associations, labor unions, or lobbying organizations seeking publicity for their points of view on controversial issues or pending legislation. Journalists sometimes find them useful as background material for coverage of related daily events, or for leads in seeking interviews.

[16]  The overwhelming majority of these are related to fund-raising for churches, charities, or volunteer public services. In size the petitioners range from small neighborhood groups to such major organizations as the American Cancer Society. Ordinarily, the news media are well disposed toward such groups and their activities, but increasingly they find less space and time to cover them.

[17]  These include museums, universities, the performing arts, public and private libraries, etc. Occasionally these serve as sources for feature stories -- but otherwise such institutions must rely on paid advertising rather than news coverage, or be satisfied with a small listing in the Sunday newspaper.

[18]  Example: If Barbara Walters lands an exclusive interview, ABC wants everyone to know about it...and is not shy about sending out news releases to build viewership.

[19]  People who feel victimized, seek redress of perceived grievances, want to promote themselves, or who are just plain nuts -- these are among the individuals who want to see their own faces in the newspapers or on TV...but who rarely succeed.

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4. Breaking the Logjam: Understanding Media Priorities

[20]  To sum up so far: Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television have severely limited space and time. They can honor only a small percentage of the mountains of requests for news coverage. So why do some coverage seekers succeed where the vast majority fail?

[21]  First, those who succeed understand the news media's priorities. They know that the news media's primary concern is building their reader, listener, or viewer base by covering the news of the day, and that the day's news is largely unpredictable. They know that the news media prefer stories and events which affect broad segments of their reading or viewing publics. And they know that the key to attracting their attention is to tailor their coverage requests to conform as much as possible to the news media's own priorities and working conditions.

[22]  This requires a marketing mindset which asks not what is most important to me as a petitioner, but rather what is most important to them, the news media. And it requires an understanding of how the various news media are organized internally, in order to channel a coverage request into the right hands. The point is to get scheduled. The schedule may be altered by breaking news -- but neither you nor the news media have any real control over that; the world, hence news coverage, is chaotic. Once scheduled, though, only breaking events can suddenly leave you dressed up with nowhere to go.

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5. Compiling a Media List

[23]  Anyone who sends a coverage request addressed simply to the "Daily Bugle" or to "WWKK-TV" might just as well seal a message in a bottle, cast it into the nearest body of water, and expect it to reach a remote Pacific island by a week from Thursday. Any bets? And yet, an astounding 50% of all requests are misaddressed in just this way!

[24]  Step One, then, is to find out specifically who is in charge of what at each local news outlet. At newspapers, the City Editor makes most coverage decisions. At radio and TV it is the Assignment Editor. It is vital to learn these people's names and to compile them into a Media List. Other key decision-makers in local media are the reporters, editors, and/or producers in charge of "beats" -- that is, specific areas of coverage such as health, the economy, the arts, etc. Don't forget the editor of a newspaper or magazine's local events calendar. Sure, you'd rather be the subject of a story than a mere listing among many...but a "mere" listing is better than no mention at all. All these names, where applicable to your service or product, should be added to your Media List -- along with the relevant telephone numbers, street addresses, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses.

[25]  [Unless you are promoting an event or activity of interest to huge segments of the local population, there may be little point in compiling a long, detailed Media List. Instead you might be better served by a targeted list of just those local media and specific beat reporters who may be directly interested.]

[26]  Other key information for each listed media outlet must include its deadlines. Coverage of your event is discretionary, and word of it must reach key media personnel well in advance of their deadlines. You must ask each local outlet how far in advance of your activity it needs to know of it. You'll find this may range from only a few days to as long as several weeks.

[27]  Local radio, and to a lesser degree television, often run Public Service Announcements (PSA's for short) at no cost to you. The tradeoff is that you must write them. Therefore you'll need to add to your Media List information on the required length of acceptable PSA's (in seconds) and how long in advance they must be submitted.

[28]  And finally: Turnover in the news business is high. Personnel change assignments within an organization, or move to other organizations entirely. Therefore a Media List should be updated at least twice a year.

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6. Making Your Pitch

[29]  Despite the growing popularity of e-mail and the Internet, and the ubiquity of fax machines, the standard medium for approaching the news media remains the mailed news release. But given the absolute certainty of only 10 or 15 seconds' initial attention by its targeted readers (news media personnel), there is little point in making a news release long or elaborate. The essential element is to put the key information in the very first sentence.

[30]  In other words, use the technique the news media themselves use to get readers' or viewers' attention, but target it to their ultimate purpose as well as yours: Write a lead sentence that tells why your event or activity (or product) is important to large numbers of people. (Repeat: important to other people, not just to you. Remember, you must provide a legitimate news angle rather than an empty gesture whose transparent purpose is to improve your bottom line.)

[31]  The rest of the release need only elaborate somewhat on the lead sentence by touching the basic elements that journalists themselves hold vital, namely Who, What, When, Where, and Why (known as "The Five W's"). In toto, a news release should be no longer than about 250 words covering no more than three-quarters of a single double-spaced page.

[32]  In fact, the most effective news releases these days are not "traditional" releases at all but rather a truncated form called a News Advisory. This is a single page styled in two-column, outline form; in the left column are the words Who, What, When, etc., and immediately to their right is the relevant information. A Media Advisory does not even have to be written in formal sentence structure! It's a time saver for you and the news media both. If they want further information, they will call you for it.

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7. Accessibility...(Yours!)

[33]  Let's say they do call. Will you be available? Presumably you've remembered to put your office telephone number atop the release or advisory. But did you forget to put your home number as well? Or forget to switch on the office answering machine or modem voice line (giving a forwarding number) before going home?

[34]  Okay, you get the point: It goes back to understanding news media organization and priorities. Journalists do not work 9 to 5. Because it suits their deadlines, they may call you in the early evening...or early in the morning -- i.e. within the framework of their working hours, not necessarily yours. You would be ill-advised to treat such a call as anything but a welcome opportunity to advance your cause.

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8. Where Do I Go from Here?

[35]  By now it should be clear that there is no magic formula for obtaining media access. Inevitably, unless you're among the fortunate few who can afford to hire a knowledgeable public relations firm, you will need to do a considerable amount of work yourself, most of it in compiling an effective Media List tailored to your specific needs and activities. I have described the pitfalls into which most small businesses and nonprofit organizations stumble when seeking news media access, in hopes that you will avoid them. Other links on my home page provide further information on news media priorities, preparing news releases, PSA's, and so forth. But if after exploring them you still do not know how to proceed in a particular case, please do not hesitate to contact me by fax (at 818-799-2993) or by e-mail to DKC.

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About the Author

David Keith Cohler is a media affairs consultant for the Foundation of American Communications. He is the author of Broadcast Journalism: A Guide for the Presentation of Radio & Television News, a college textbook published by Allyn & Bacon (Prentice Hall).

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Copyright ©1997 by David Keith Cohler. All rights reserved. Reproduction in any form without prior permission is forbidden.