Any publicity is good publicity, the saying goes, which makes free publicity even better. A mention in a magazine or buzz on a blog can put your company on the map and help boost sales, in most cases, without costing you a dime. But how do you get on journalists' radar screens?
A well-crafted press release or story pitch can land your company more free advertising than you could ever afford. However, a bad one will almost immediately make its way to the "Deleted Items" folder. The harsh truth is, most media outlets have little direct interest in helping your business succeed -- they're looking for solid, relevant news and features that will interest to their readers. And while finding a newsworthy angle is a very important part of getting their attention, that angle is just the beginning of a bigger process.
Want to make friends with the press? Here are five things you need to know.
1. Know the media outlet.
You need to know important details about the various publications you intend to approach before constructing your pitch. You should also familiarize yourself with the types of stories each individual editor and reporter typically covers to make sure you're relevant. Jennefer Witter, president of The Boreland Group, a New York-based public relations agency, says she frequently hears the same complaint from reporters and editors. "Many pitches that go to them simply do not apply to their beat and they find this more than annoying," she says. "To them, it's an indication of laziness on the part of the sender and a huge waste of their time." If you -- or your trusted PR representative -- send a press release or pitch without first knowing basic information about the reporter's typical subject matter, your pitch as well as future pitches will likely be ignored. "Review past stories to determine what a reporter is interested in," Witter suggests. "There are several ways to do this. Many reporters now have LinkedIn pages. Get on the page and read up on the reporter. You can also go to the media outlet's website or Google their names to get a list of stories. Go back at least six months, and you'll see a distinct pattern per the reporter's writing style and story selection." Once you determine that you have the right audience for your pitch, you should keep it short and sweet and end with your contact information and a note of action: "I'll contact you once you've had the opportunity to review this information."
2. Know where reporters hang out.
You need to know the places reporters hang out, at least online. Which websites do they scour for information? Where do they network to find sources for their stories? There are many sites, like Help a Reporter Out (HARO), that connect reporters to sources and business experts, and vice versa. Founded in 2008 by serial entrepreneur Peter Shankman, HARO connects about 30,000 reporters and bloggers, over 100,000 news sources and thousands of entrepreneurs daily. Because it's free for all users and independently owned, it provides an unbiased place that reporters trust. To find open pitches that relate to your business, and then connect directly to reporters who are actually looking for you, you simply have to provide your e-mail address and some basic information about yourself. Regardless of where you choose to search for reporters, your best bet is to go where they're expecting to see you, and will be happy to hear from you when you get in touch.
3. Don't send the same pitch to reporters at the same publication.
With e-mail, you can send out the same pitch to many different sources within a few seconds. But as an entrepreneur looking for media coverage, you must resist the temptation to exploit this fact. Reporters and editors, especially those who work for the same publication, talk to each other frequently. Spamming them will depersonalize any professional relationship you're hoping to develop with this media source. Witter describes the way the editorial process works at many publications: "An editor I know at a major publication says he and his reporters pool pitches and review them together to determine which ones they will pursue," she says. "Many times, they'll see identical pitches from the same person. He feels the sender believes that someone within the editorial group will cover the story, so that sender blasts it to the world. That just doesn't work. Send one pitch to one reporter. If it's a good pitch, the reporter will pick it up."
4. Follow up.
Some entrepreneurs fail to follow up after they send a pitch, and others follow up too quickly or too much. If your pitch is met with silence, it doesn't always mean a media source isn't interested. Witter cites three reasons you may not hear back about story ideas. "Reporters get hundreds of e-mails per day and may not have the time to read them all," she says. "They also may be on deadline, or your e-mail may have gone into their spam folder." It's fine to follow up with a reporter, but be aware that e-mail is easiest for many of them. Resend the original e-mail within a couple days of the first e-mail with an attached note: "I am following up on the pitch below. Please let me know if you are interested in the story." Just make sure you let it drop after a second attempt. And what about a phone call? "If you choose to call, keep it brief," Witter says. "Say who you are, note that you sent a pitch and when you sent it, summarize it and ask if there's interest. That's it." If you're going to pick up the phone, you really need to be sure the reporter isn't on deadline, when stress levels are high and patience is low. If you call, you can expect to be greeted by voicemail at best, or an unfriendly, annoyed voice on the other end at worst.
5. Say thanks.
Once your story pitch gets accepted, don't forget a critical step in the process of approaching the media: Express your gratitude. That will help build lasting relationships and potentially get you coverage again the next time you have a story idea, or even get reporters to come to you when they need a source. "Whenever a reporter writes a story featuring my client, I send a thank-you note," Witter says. "It show an appreciation of their work. And like all other professionals, reporters like to be acknowledged. It also helps build the relationship." However, she stresses to keep it simple: "Don't send a syrupy, long-winded note. A simple, two- to three-line message is fine."
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 5/31/11.