Thoughts on Media Strategies

On June 14, 2024, I presented an hours’s discussion on “Get the Word Out — Media Strategy: Today’s Best Tools for Organizing.” It was part of the 2024 Summer Leadership Conference of the Arkansas Education Association.

I am glad to share the slides used in the workshop. My remarks are developed from my efforts as 2022-24 vice president of UA-Fayetteville Education Association/Local 965, years as a generally volunteer publicist for various non-profits, and several decades as a professional editor, reporter and writer in news media.

The presentation was recorded via Zoom.

One point I don’t have time for in this workshop is how to be effective in emailing groups of people. Here are some links:

Of course, contact me with questions or comments.

An “extra” for this workshop is the following lesson on news media announcements geared toward small or local non-profits. The first version was written for the late Gary Lee of Little Rock. My wife and I attended the sifu’s weekly tai chi class for a couple of years in the mid-1990s. When volunteers for non-profits asked for press release help later I would update or customize this piece. Here in the 2020s, extensive revisions were needed. I’m not sure where a press release postal-mailed to a newsroom would end up! That and other tips are now up to date.

Press On for News Releases

By Ben S. Pollock

You and the media have complementary needs and goals. You need publicity, and the media outlet needs content to fill its space. You both want this done efficiently. Often, you also want an ongoing, if occasional, partnership.

The media outlet — be it the newspaper, weekly entertainment guide, as well as public radio, local TV stations and other broadcasters — wants plenty of notice as well as reliability. Don’t underestimate the power of courtesy.

A whole month isn’t a bit too much notice. If you would like your event to be considered for a prominent position like the front of a section, then 3-4 months in advance would be good to get the ball rolling. Yes, news outlets plan far ahead; they have to, in order to accommodate all the surprises that make the news the news.

If you know a journalist, ask them for the name of the appropriate editor at their place. Then email the news release yourself. (It may be counterintuitive, but news releases sent directly have more success than those relayed by a colleague.)

Otherwise, phone the general newsroom number on a weekday morning and ask the person who answers for the name and title of the editor who should see your news release. The person you wrote six months ago might have been promoted or transferred. Sometimes the editor’s successor gets your news release, but other times it may have gotten lost.

Unfortunately, learning which department would like to know about your event, though vital, is mercurial. A fitness event, for example, might be of interest to the Sports Department, the Style Section or the City Desk. Also, what one editor used one season, another may want next time. Their needs change. So find out in what section your event fits at this first phone call. None of these folks ever sit down together and sift the dozens of news releases they each receive daily. Editors have lots of other responsibilities.

The website of virtually every news outlet has a contact form, sometimes specifying News Tips. With an enticing subject line and first sentence, these do end up with the right person. (Still it’s quite possible that they won’t be interested.)

Everybody sends news media their press releases. The solution is not to use blue paper and tie a balloon to it, although people do stunts like that. The solution that consistently works is to email a clear news release, under a clear subject line, and follow up with a phone call or another email.

The ideal news release is brief yet clearly and fully explains the Five Ws — What, Where, When, Who and Why. Also, a concise paragraph of background or history is helpful. One more necessity, the “silent W.” That is $ — a mention on whether the event is free, admission charged or donations welcome. That includes a note if an RSVP or registration is needed.

There are advantages to writing the release as an article, with an enticing opening paragraph then the facts in descending importance. A second option: Putting your details in bullet points or outline form; if marked for publication, a staff person will format the information appropriately. Otherwise your announcement would go to an editor or producer to assign. Don’t count on a reporter interviewing you to flesh out the announcement: It is vital that your news release be complete. It should not be long: About a page, at 250-300 words, is recommended.

The more writing or editing a news release requires the more likely mistakes will crop in.

Before typing up your release, calculate why you want your event in the paper. To get a bigger audience? To recruit participants? To advertise without paying for it? To boost your group’s morale? To brag? And so forth. Be frank, honest, blunt. Your purpose — which you certainly are entitled to keep to yourself! — will help you focus how you present your information.

Put the name, email and phone number of the “contact” person for your event on the release, at the top. This is all-important. The editor needs to know whom to contact for more information. It might be you, the event planner or both. The editor is very busy, pulled on all directions by different responsibilities and may not know very much about what concerns you so much. If someone from the media emails you or leaves a voice mail, return the call within one hour. If you delay responding, it is your fault if the publicity doesn’t work out like you wanted.

After you’ve sent the perfect news release — and with plenty of days to spare — you should telephone or email the person you wrote. Call late on a weekday morning, between 10 and noon. Summon all your sincere charm and ask if the person got the release, if they can use it and if they need any more information from you. I say sincere, because journalists bristle at phoniness as well as threats. If you pull an act, your news release still may spawn an article and even a photo, but you might have gotten better play if you behaved. And your next request for publicity will be better received. Besides, what journalist or publicist wants to do business like that? Offer honey, not vinegar.

That said, do not expect a news media outlet to acknowledge receipt of the press release by emailing you a reply. It’s rare.

Another tip: An event set for a Saturday or Sunday — daytime not evening — has a slightly better chance of live TV coverage or a print story the next day. These are slow days for news, outside of sports. Media outlets need plenty of lead time here as well for staff scheduling. Saturday mornings or afternoons are good for print coverage. Small to medium newspapers for example will have a skeleton crew working then, needing something to do besides listen to the 911 radio scanner. Such papers usually do not have a reporter on the clock Sunday but might have a photographer on call. TV news staffs similarly have only a few reporters and videographers working Saturdays and Sundays.

What’s it mean, should the news media outlet not give your event the amount of publicity it deserved or, heaven forbid, didn’t publish at all, even though you did everything to form? It could be anything: competing events, breaking news, last-minute ads ate the allotted space, half the reporters out with the flu … and an editor makes choices, based on circumstances, and often a lack of time and resources for perfect decisions. Do not count on the media outlet posting your announcement when and where they plan, either. That changes fairly often, due to the nature of news.

Please forgive them, and try again next time. The media needs news.

The public service announcement is similar. It announces your upcoming event very briefly on radio at any time and perhaps TV stations late at night. The form doesn’t allow many words, about 60-75 words, to fill 20 to 30 seconds. After all, you want the announcer to read it clearly, not machine-gun it, and have time perhaps to repeat a key detail. Such a brief message also reads well when displayed on a website’s community bulletin board or event calendar. If you set the What, Where, When in sentence form, along with one or two brief sentences of explanation or background, then you’ve got a workable PSA. Do NOT expect a broadcast liaison to rewrite or condense your news press release for you. That is your job, not theirs. Do not expect a news media outlet to acknowledge receipt of the PSA. With luck you or colleagues will hear it, and that’s your confirmation. If the station does pare down the announcement for you, as a favor perhaps, it may not include the details you believe are vital. That is not malicious, they’re just not on your wavelength.


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