When someone once asked Yogi Berra what makes a good baseball manager, he replied, “A good ball club.” Similarly, if you asked me what makes a good public relations professional, I’d say, ‘A good client.’
Here’s an illustration. In September 1987, I had just started a job in Chicago with a Jewish advocacy organization, and it was exactly on the eve of a visit by Pope John Paul II to the U.S. One of our leaders from Chicago was going to Miami to be part of a small delegation to meet the Pope. Could I, my boss asked, call some local Chicago media outlets to see if they might be interested?
Until then, I had never done any sort of media relations work for anyone (I was a writer and editor working on the other side of that divide). But I made some calls (this was before e-mail), and, much to my surprise, all the local TV stations and daily papers interviewed my guy and ran nice pieces about the meeting. Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, everyone around me assumed I did.
The lesson: sure, it helps to have someone who knows which calls to make and can shape how a client presents itself. But there’s no substitute for a client with a good and highly relevant story to tell, especially one that contributes to an issue that’s playing big in the news already.
Like most local news outlets trying to insert themselves into a big national story, the Chicago media were looking for any hooks that would be relevant to the Pope’s visit. And they got it when they heard that a Chicago Jewish leader would be part of the Pope’s audience. It was a small part of everything else the Pope was doing during that trip, but it just happened to give media what they wanted: a local angle. Who knew? Certainly not I, at least not then.
Now, I don’t want to be accuse of false modesty. I’m not saying that we in the public relations game don’t do anything and that we just wait to get lucky (which I was in September 1987). In fact, much of what we do is to try to find elements of a client’s story that we think will connect nicely to dominant narratives already bouncing around the media. When we do, we maximize the odds that some journalist (and maybe many) will want to include our client’s views and information in their pieces.
It’s not about our relationships with editors and reporters, as so many of our clients assume and some p.r. professionals misleadingly suggest. Yes, it helps to know some people on the inside of various news organizations. But that means nothing if we don’t have a story that they’re likely to want to hear and repeat. Some of my biggest hits were with journalists I’d never met.
We can’t usually know for sure what will sell. I’ve had client stories that I thought would interest no one but that got a lot of attention and others I thought would be hot that no one would report. But there are some rules of thumb that help us get the most out our pitches:
- Relevance. You don’t have to be a careful consumer of news to know that there are, on any given day, a half dozen or so national stories that eat up the lion’s share of media attention and conversation. The same probably goes for any other news segment: local news, specialized trade outlets and so on. It helps to understand what those big stories are, especially before they hit, whether they have any staying power and where, if at all, a client’s story can fit into them. It may be that the client has nothing relevant to say about those stories. In that case, it’s important to find out what is being said about other, quieter stories and who is producing that coverage. What, you must ask, can a client offer that will help illuminate that story more and better educate audiences who care about that story?
- Credibility. Is the client an expert on this issue? Does it have relevant information that few others can claim? Do people really want to hear what this client has to say? Without such credibility, it’s hard to induce any reporters to pay attention.
- Illustrative examples. It’s not enough just to have an opinion or to speak in general or in the abstract. Media organizations want to be able to cite concrete examples of experiences or initiatives that help illustrate what the issues are truly about. Can you point to activities or scenarios (preferably recent and photogenic) that can help journalists illustrate the story they’re writing? That’s where you will score.
- New information. It’s not called “news” for nothing. Reporters want to be the first to get information that no one else has, and if you’re the one who can supply them with it and it meets most and maybe all of the criteria above, you just might get coverage.
- Something that answers “Why should I care?” As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, what you and your institution think is important may not be what most people think is important. You have to address the issues that most people care about — something in the broader public interest. How will what you say affect, for example, the economy, people’s personal needs, the direction of our geopolitical aims, the well being of the local community, or, as was the case in 1987, the state of Catholic-Jewish relations? Answer those questions and you will heighten your chances of getting coverage.
Again, this is all rule of thumb. It’s impossible to predict exactly what will sell and what won’t. But I can guarantee that unless two or more of these elements are at play, you’ll have a shot at some coverage.