Most PR professionals have had this happen to them at one point or another. You’re in a meeting with top client/company executives, and to gain some insights into their thinking you ask them, “What would be a home run for the PR program?” The answer comes back, “A feature article in the Wall Street Journal” (WSJ) or some other national media outlet.
That’s great in a way. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big. For most companies that aren’t already established industry giants, however, there’s more to getting into the national media that simply wishing upon a star – or listing it in a set of PR program objectives and telling your agency or internal staff you’ll be holding them accountable for it.
Remember the reason you’d like to be in one of those outlets is the prestige they will offer the company. Yet how much prestige would there be if they ran puff pieces on every company that wanted to get in there?
It’s the selectivity that makes them valuable. Appear in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, TV network news, highly rated cable outlets or other top-tier media outlets and you’re immediately deemed one of the select few who have proven worthy.
Of course, there is debate about how much value a placement there actually has to the business, as my colleague Marcia Rhodes points out. For many organizations, especially those that need sales now or have specific messages they want to get out, visibility in trade journals that reach a high percentage of your target audience will normally deliver much better (and more consistent) results. Fish where the fish are.
If the C-suite is insistent, however, here are a few things you’ll need to know.
An individual end user with a story is essential
Look at any WSJ story about a company and where does it start? With an individual’s story – preferably one of challenges.
The typical structure starts out saying that Joe Blow had problem; in healthcare, it could be uncontrolled diabetes, or a need to get blood thinner medication results checked out once a week even though he couldn’t drive, or something else that tells a human story we can all relate to.
Then it usually moves to some of the things the company’s user (a hospital, physician, health payer, etc.) tried without success before bringing on the company’s product or service.
So right away you need two things: a customer/client who will speak to the media about your products (which as we all know can already be tough to come by) PLUS one of their customers/clients who will share an interesting story. You will need to supply both when you pitch the story.
Can you get by without supplying that final end user? Maybe. But you don’t want to, because you’ll lose control of the story that person will tell.
I saw that happen once with a retail technology that helped companies ensure they could reward their highest performers by scheduling them to be on the sales floor at peak times. Sounds like a pretty upbeat story, doesn’t it?
The technology company didn’t want to push their retailer customer to supply an employee who was affected by technology, so the dogged reporter decided to find her own. The woman she discovered cared for her invalid mother at night, and the new whiz-bang technology that had been implemented had made that difficult by scheduling her for hours that she would normally provide care.
What should have been a positive story about innovation instead became a toxic story about the human cost of using technology blindly. The technology company got into the targeted media outlet, but they now wished they hadn’t.
The lesson here is that yes, the story needs that final person in the chain. Be prepared to supply him/her.
Tie to an industry – or national – trend
No matter how awesome your individual story may be, it’s going to need to tie in to a broader trend. Preferably something with an immediate news hook.
In the diabetes example the general rise in diabetes in the U.S., and the toll it is taking on healthcare costs or business productivity, is good. Especially if the figures come from a new report. A pharmaceutical company that just announced it is doubling the price of its diabetes medication is better.
It’s a question of newsworthiness. There are only so many reporters available, and so many hours in the day, to cover everything that happens on a national basis. If the hot news topics for national media involve politics, a plane crash, a major retailer shuttering its doors, etc. it’s going to be difficult to get them interested in your healthcare story right now.
But if there is a debate in the House or Senate about what should happen with the Affordable Care Act, or a report is issued that shows opioid use continued to be a leading cause of death in America, your pitch about something healthcare-related that offers a solution to the news item may look far more intriguing.
Be persistent – and patient
Walking the line between persistent and pest is always difficult. But it’s even more important when working with the national media.
It’s ok to check in briefly every month or two with a question about what the reporter is working on and if there is anything you can do to help. But no matter how much pressure your executives are putting on you, you never want to ask, “When are you going to do that story on our organization?” Any of my reporter colleagues here will tell you that’s a quick way to get on the “ignore” list.
The good news is when national reporters says they will file something away for later they often mean it. I’ve seen reporters come back a year or more after the original pitch to ask if that company executive is available for an interview in the next 12 hours (more on that in the next section).
Why did they wait so long? Because they knew there was value there, but needed something newsworthy to tie it to. That’s just the way it works.
What that also means is that the C-suite in the client/company will also need to be patient. Explain to them how things work, and assure them you’re doing all you can to make it happen. But if it does happen, it will happen on the media outlet’s timetable, not the company’s. That’s part of the price of admission.
Executives need to make themselves available immediately
Congratulations! You did all of the above and it finally paid off. You have your shot an article in the WSJ or other major media news outlet. Now there’s just one more step – getting your designated executive to drop everything he/she is doing to speak with the reporter or go on-camera.
The timing almost always isn’t optional, and most of the time it’s short notice. Most reporters working in national news have constant tight deadlines and short windows of opportunity to speak with company executives. If the executive can’t meet the timetable either the story is killed (if it was about your client/organization) or it proceeds without your client’s/organization’s input (if it’s a more general story).
Again, this is the price of admission. If the CEO is out to dinner with clients when the call from the WSJ comes, he/she can’t just pass on it until after dinner.
Instead, he/she should explain what it is and excuse him/herself (then read the room). Most executives will understand and wish the CEO luck with the call – and may even be impressed that the national media outlet is calling him/her.
I know of one CEO who didn’t follow that advice when a cable news network wanted to speak with him. He was busy and said he couldn’t take the call at that time. The second call never came.
The bottom line is these highly desired media outlets hold all the cards. If you want to be in them, being available when they call is essential.
Competitors may appear
National media outlets like to go from the individual level to the big picture, and demonstrate that the story is part of a larger trend. That includes what is happening with competitors, which means they may also appear in the article that’s supposed to be about your client/organization.
Be sure the client’s/company’s executives are prepared for that possibility should the opportunity for the story arise. They should view it as a victory, because of all the companies named in the story, theirs is the one that was featured.
More to the story
Obviously there is more to it than what’s listed here. Otherwise everyone would be doing it – and would be successful.
Look at what’s listed here as the essentials. Make sure you have them lined up first, and that everyone understands how the game is played. Then it’s time to dig in for the hard work ahead.