Build Your Media List the Right Way

Valerie Kulbersh
Valerie Kulbersh

As some of you recall, there was a time when building a media list was a very different process than it is today. It started with books instead of an Internet database and, more important, it required you to do the research yourself. But then the books became databases and those databases got good— really good—and people started relying too heavily on them.

As great as those databases are, they can’t possibly hold every outlet and they can’t make up for you picking up the magazine, visiting the website and learning a journalist’s personality. So, is there no place for technology in media lists? On the contrary, technology is a crucial part of building a media list.

The key is to use technology as a research and organizational tool, not the end-all, be-all solution. These proven strategies will help PR people strengthen their media efforts by relying a little less on technological shortcuts and a little more on targeted research.

Start at the very beginning. It is, after all, a very good place to start. What are you pitching? What angles are available to you? While this may sound obvious, people can overlook it and end up building a media list that’s two degrees to the left of center. It’s not just about identifying that you work for X product and want someone to write about it. Is the product part of a trend? Do you have recipes or usage ideas? Is there an interesting business story that complements the product? Each positive answer to one of these questions opens you up to a different group of journalists or outlets.

Where do your clients want coverage? Based on your pitch angles, you can determine beats and media genres: women’s health, community news, home improvement, etc. Then, your clients provide the other piece—do they want long lead, broadcast, target market coverage, or something else?

Once you’ve identified these things, you have the tools you need to go to the database.

Are we there yet? At this point, your palms might be a little sweaty and your eyes might start to twitch—you’ve spent at least an hour on this list and still haven’t logged onto your database.

Now that you have the answers to the questions above, you can go to your database of choice, check all the boxes, and hit “search.”

You will end up with some- where between 10 and 2,000 journalists or outlets who might be exactly what you’re looking for. To which you then think, “Fabulous! Wait, why are there 22 people from the Chicago Tribune?”

This is where the database shows its shortcomings. It’s possible that one of those 22 is the perfect person, but it’s up to you to figure out exactly who that is.

Review your magazine rack. Every PR office I’ve ever been in has a library of magazines, newsletters and newspapers. Read them—and not just the most recent issue. In fact, flip through a year’s worth. That will give you hints about their editorial calendars and how much space they tend to devote to home, food, health, etc. Make yourself a chart with lists of anything related to your clients—outlet, topic, brands mentioned, journalists.

You’ll start to see the patterns, like realizing that one food editor always covers recipes while another always covers health benefits.

Well, you just so happened to have a ton of health benefits to talk about but only a handful of recipes. There you have it—your perfect person. An online database probably wouldn’t have told you that.

Likewise, search the Web. You won’t have every outlet in print, so now is a good time to visit technology again.

Search topics on key websites and search the people that appeared on your media list if you’re not already familiar with them.

Weed out inappropriate contacts and find new ones. The Internet has allowed people to become very niche.

As PR professionals, we have to know that and do our research. A person can run a successful, widely read food blog and never write about a recipe or a new product.

Recognize the changing media landscape. It’s not just about the masthead anymore. Freelancers play a huge part in the media, from magazines to newspapers and blogs, so do not forget them.

One prominent freelancer might write for 10 magazines you’re interested in. To find her, leave the database behind completely.

Instead, major websites and magazine blogs provide a wealth of information about these people. While this search won’t give you an exportable list, the one you build cell by cell will be top notch.

Make good use of your notes column. So often, people either don’t have this column in a media list or they leave it blank. Use it for links to recent stories the person has written, topics they’ve covered, or anything else you know.

This is also where social media research comes into play. Do you follow the person on Twitter? Make note of the topics they tweet about and the tone they use. These notes will help you tailor your pitches later on.

Build your media list every day. Building a list this way isn’t fast, but it’s productive. Once your initial media list is in a good place, update it constantly to avoid needing a complete rebuild in the future. Did you receive a bounce back email address? Find another one. Have you read an announcement about some- one new at a key outlet? Add that contact.

Did you stumble across a new blog that fits your clients perfectly? Pitch and add it. You’ll still need to check contacts and outlets the next time you pitch, but you won’t be building the list from scratch.

Still, could you end up with a media list just by using a technological shortcut? Sure.

But, as the saying goes, you get out of something what you put into it, so spend the time on maximizing your list and you’ll be maximizing your chances of great results.

Sidebar: Write It Down. Suggestions for a Solid Media List

The key to a good media list is to combine your research abilities with time-saving technology to create a perfectly targeted list of people who would be interested in your client.

▶ Embrace the fact that a good media list takes time to build.

▶ Read, read, read. Set aside one to two hours each week to read the magazines in your office and make notes of the articles and columns that pertain to your clients.

▶ Don’t overlook freelancers. They are becoming more the norm for websites and print outlets.

▶ Know whom you’re pitching. Just because you know the person’s email address and whom they write for does not mean you know them.

▶ Use social media to help get a better understanding of the journalist’s personality.

▶ Constantly update your media list.   

(This article is an excerpt from PR News’ Media Relations Guidebook, Vol. 2, which covers most every facet of communications related to media relation. To order a copy, please go to


Valerie Kulbersh is a VP at Pollock Communications. She can be reached at


This article originally appeared in the July 14, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.