Relationship Training: Building a Media Network One Reporter at a Time

Building relationships with journalists is not much different than with anybody else in business: It takes time and effort and you get out of it what you put in. But the dividends from that effort can pay off repeatedly.

Media training for public relations clients often focuses on interview preparation: how to conduct yourself on camera or with a radio or print reporter; how to “bridge” yourself away from a tough question; and how to stay on message from beginning to end. It’s the right type of advice. But the training shouldn’t end there.

Sometimes the best media strategy is having good relationships established long before you think you might need them. That’s something we stress with most of our clients, especially those that we anticipate will be interacting with the media, either proactively or reactively. Every company establishing an overall PR plan ought to start building its own network of media contacts. But it means doing a lot more than just running a Media Map search or collecting bylines from Google News.

Filter of Information
When it comes to doing effective PR, a company should see itself as a news and information factory. They might make industrial widgets, develop new consumer products, serve food or sell houses. Information is the currency that the media trades in, and that’s the value they have to offer them.

Even before they start reaching out to establish a media network, executives should be encouraged to start building a culture of storytelling or story collection within their companies. Help them identify the things and the people that are most compelling or interesting. Even the tiniest sliver of detail within an organization can be the start of a great story idea.

Tackling Hurdles
The first major challenge with many clients is often helping them overcome a great misunderstanding of how the media works: deadlines, editors, a thirst for good photos or other art, exclusivity, on the record versus off, and so on. Spend some time explaining these things to take the mystery away, and your client will be in good position to begin building a network of useful media relationships.

You will be doing your client a big favor by setting expectations appropriately, too. Everyone would love to see their product launch in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. But if a company is just starting to develop an image and reputation through the media, the best place to start is with a local foundation: regional newspapers, local network affiliates, local news and industry Web sites.

Taking the Initial Step
The first step might be a press release or even a simple personnel announcement. That puts your client on the radar. Then it’s time to ramp things up with direct outreach to journalists. Make sure your client is armed with the right targets: healthcare reporters for a community hospital or health plan; feature writers for a theater company or music hall; and/or journalists who specialize in poverty or human services for a non-profit or charity.

An outreach plan can involve a series of informal lunches or deskside briefings. Reporters almost always prefer learning about an executive’s company or organization by spending some time in the executive’s natural environment. Help your client set up these meetings and prepare talking points for the discussion. But always make sure the terms of the discussion are clear from the start.

The introductory meeting is the start of a good relationship. The way to nurture it, however, is with periodic or regular contact. Remember, the currency the media trades in is information. And it doesn’t have to be a huge exclusive or front-page worthy tip to be valuable. Contributing to a journalist’s ongoing understanding of an issue or industry is an important way to build on a relationship. Sharing meaningful observations, even if there is no immediate interest for the client, is a smart media relations practice.

It’s in this area where a client needs to practice some enlightened self-interest. A healthy media relationship is a two-way street. The more an executive or company puts into this give and take, the more they will get out of it over time. We like to tell clients that the best practice is never to have to ask favors of reporters, but to bring them good stories, good opportunities and good information. By doing so, a client earns an attentive and receptive audience when they have their own story to pitch. It also helps in the event of a crisis or negative story, when appealing for fairness, care and sensitivity in reporting comes into play.

The Reciprocity Factor
Respect is crucial in relationships with the media. Phone calls should be conversational and pleasant. The same goes for e-mails, which have an eternal life and can be circulated with damaging effect if they are inappropriate, aggressive or profane. A self-righteous or disdainful tone is a sure ticket to poor relations with the media.

Lastly, make sure your client knows some of the tricks the media plays. Let them know it’s okay to play along. Reporters will sometimes make it sound like they are doing you a huge favor by publishing or posting a small item or NIB (news in brief), even if they’re just routinely filling some space. If they don’t feel like telling you they think your story is lame, they might say “my editor doesn’t like it.”  Deadline might be “five minutes ago” if in fact it’s an hour away.

All of this is fine. News organizations are hectic, busy places. And your client won’t always be a priority.

But by respecting the limits and realities of their work styles, your client will earn the respect and attention of journalists. That’s the foundation of a good relationship. And it’s a foundation for long-term success in dealing with the media.

This article was written by Cosmo Macero Jr, vice president at O’Neill and Associates in Boston and a contributor to the Fox 25 Morning News. It is excerpted from the upcoming PR News Media Training Guidebook. Please check back on for further updates.