What I Wish Clients Knew About Earned Media Coverage
Of course your story is worth top billing. So why are news directors ignoring it? Ceisler Director Keegan Gibson has 10 suggestions on getting the attention you deserve.
My most successful news pitch was the time a car caught fire outside my office. In terms of time and effort invested versus coverage earned, I’ve never topped it.
I recorded the video below and sent it to the three television news desks in Pittsburgh with the subject “Video: car fire on gen Robinson St.” (Thankfully no one was injured.) I went three for three that day: Every station aired it.
If only every pitch were so simple.
People hire Ceisler Media when they have information that they want to share with the public. At the most basic level, my job is to translate that information into a format that:
Gains media interest, and
Gets the right message to the audience.
There are a million factors that affect media interest and coverage. Every situation is unique. That said, working in this field every day (and previously as a reporter) has given me the chance to observe some universal rules of the road. Not to mention I can consult with colleagues who have a wealth of experience working with and for media outlets.
I tell my clients that media interest is the more important goal of the two; a perfect message can move hearts and minds only if it reaches an audience. Clients are justifiably passionate about their work and want to convey to the public all at once. That usually means that the hardest decisions are about what information to leave out of a pitch.
These are the most common insider tips I share with clients.
Be brief. Media outlets are inundated with pitches; a television news desk in a large market may receive 400 a day. You only have a few seconds to hook someone’s attention before they move to the next email. That means the subject heading and the first two sentences are the most important elements of a pitch; everything else supplements your opener.
Be even briefer. You have to be ruthless, set aside ego, and be clear-eyed about what the average person (and thus the average member of the press) is most likely to relate to. Emphasize that, and cut extraneous content. You can elaborate on your message after you secure a reporter’s interest.
Stand out. Include the most interesting aspect of a pitch right at the top. You don’t have time to build up to it. Ideally, you can phrase the news in a way that helps a reporter or editor visualize what the headline will be.
Identify a main character. Whenever possible, frame a story around an individual or small group – especially if a topic is complex or abstract. A compelling personal story makes a narrative easier to understand and more relatable. And, it’s what reporters look for. Interesting characters are always a priority when television reporters compile a portfolio of their work.
Relationships matter. Someone who has a rapport with reporters, editors, and producers will be more likely to get a direct answer about coverage plans. We build that up over time by demonstrating that we understand the kinds of stories they want, and that we are known entities who are easy to work with.
Be deliberate. It is always better to work from a big-picture strategy and a consistent, well-developed message. That way you don’t live and die on the outcome of one pitch and can think about a cadence of news. It also puts you in a better position to leverage reactive situations, not just proactive ones.
Know who you’re pitching. Reporters and outlets aren’t as likely to have dedicated, subject-based beats as they used to, but all of them have areas where they specialize. Take the time to review previous coverage and calibrate your pitch accordingly.
Know how they operate. News outlets have a rhythm based on publication timing, broadcasts, etc. For example, TV stations usually decide what to cover at a daily morning meeting and not before. When pitching TV, the goal is to get an event included in the station’s daybook. And make sure to schedule events that fit their timeline (i.e. mid-morning or early afternoon).
Follow up (within reason). Media outlets are understaffed. Just in the past decade, total employment in journalism has dropped by 14 percent. Don’t pester them. There’s an art to reaching out after you send a news pitch, and you can get away with one effort a day. Any more than that and you risk an informal penalty.
Have a backup plan. Even in the best case, fate plays a role in coverage. I have had some really beautiful pitches blown up by breaking news. That’s why I always capture some video and photos from an event and share with media after the fact. I have secured some very nice coverage this way. (Just know that there are some tips for sharing video files with media that increase your odds of success).
Working with the press is just like anything else outside our direct control: There is an inherent degree of uncertainty. At the same time, there is no substitute for the type of reach and validation that comes from media coverage. And there is no better feeling than landing a truly good pitch.
If you have ever want to talk through your situation, and bounce around ideas for a media pitch, please reach out to me at Ceisler Media.
Terminology note: “Earned media” is news coverage generated by public relations efforts. It is the opposite of paid media (i.e. advertising).
Keegan Gibson is a Director at Ceisler Media's Pittsburgh Office.