The art of developing story ideas that attract attention and build relationships
By Steve Smith
Paul Garland for CASE
During a recent dinner with a national newspaper reporter, the subject of what makes an effective pitch came up. "I gotta admit," he told me between short ribs, "I don't follow up on 99 percent of the pitches in my inbox. I barely read even half. I know that sounds bad, but they're like spam. So unless I trust you, unless you're already in my Rolodex, there's not much of a chance I'm gonna read what you're sending."
That admission, while not exactly surprising, did raise a few questions: How many emails and phone calls must this guy get in a day? How bad must those pitches be for him to compare them to emails from alleged Nigerian princes? How does an average PR person get into a reporter's Rolodex? And is this reporter the last person on earth who still uses one?
The important takeaway from his comments—presuming they're at least somewhat representative of the media—is that it's increasingly difficult to get a reporter's attention with a pitch, much less consistently land your school in the news. These days, newsroom resources and reporters' time are stretched so thin that a campus communicator's margin for error can be measured in millimeters.
Reading this, it might seem as if there's no way to gain any traction. But as someone who's been on both ends of story pitches—I was a newspaperman for 15 years before moving to higher education media relations—I can say with confidence that there are two rules to landing stories in the media: First, you need a good story to tell. Second, you need credibility with journalists.
Sounds simple, right? OK, it's easier said than done. Coming up with winning story pitches can be time-consuming, exasperating, and full of false starts. And if you don't know many journalists, how can you establish enough credibility to get them to notice your pitches?
It's imperative to know your campus. I sit in a third-floor office. I can confirm that no news has ever happened here. That's why I spend as much time as I can in the various buildings on campus. I can't see what's new with faculty and students, check out interesting research, discuss a clever journal article, or report on classroom feature stories while sitting at my desk or by reading emails from campus administrators, most of whom have a very different idea of what news is. The best stories come from those in the trenches, so the next time you're struggling for ideas, arrange a few visits with faculty and simply ask them what's going on. You'll be surprised by what you find.
Next, you have to know the news. The only way to understand what attracts reporters' attention is to pay attention to what they cover and how they cover it. I spend at least an hour a day, including weekends, looking at news sites that I regularly pitch. Each morning I check Google News, Twitter, and other social media platforms to get a sense of what news topics are trending and try to identify hot topics I might be able to exploit. Do this long enough and you'll start to detect patterns in national news coverage that you can then use to anticipate certain types of stories and prepare better pitches.
It's also helpful to think like an assignment editor—the person in the newsroom who supervises the reporters. When you examine the day's headlines, imagine you're in charge of content at the local newspaper or radio or TV station. How would you localize, say, an earthquake in Japan? The latest U.S. unemployment figures? Uprisings in the Middle East? A recent development on the presidential campaign trail? Picturing and predicting the news coverage by local outlets will often inspire you to find relevant faculty, students, and programming on your campus, which you can use to develop pertinent and timely story ideas.
The key to any relationship is balance. This includes your dealings with reporters. Hold up your end of the relationship, and don't be so needy. If the only time you talk with journalists is when you want them to write a story about your school, then your relationship is probably out of balance.
Journalists are people too. They have likes and dislikes, passions and pet peeves. Feel free to occasionally engage them on those topics, in email or on social media platforms such as Twitter. If you liked something they wrote or produced—even if it had nothing to do with your school—send them a note saying so. Along those same lines, from time to time suggest a source or a story angle on their beat that has nothing to do with your institution. Little by little, you can go from being The Naggy PR Person from That One School to The Trusted Professional Resource with Relevant Story Ideas.
This credibility will allow you to pitch with precision. The better the relationship you have with a reporter, the better you know him or her and what to pitch when the time is right. When pitching, a surgical strike is always better than a cluster bomb; a personally tailored pitch has a much greater chance of success than a mass email. Think of pitches like cover letters: If you are even remotely familiar with the recipient, you're going to have a leg up on your competitors.
Before you rush off to contact a reporter, rigorously challenge your story ideas. Of course there's pressure to frame every pitch to make your school look bright, shiny, and awesome. But sending shallow, unvetted pitches to journalists, who are paid to be skeptics, is a losing proposition. Before you hit "send," be brutally honest with yourself, your co-workers, and your superiors in evaluating any story pitch. If your story can't pass the basic news test—Is it timely or unique? Does it affect a broad segment of society? Is there conflict? Does it evoke emotions?—consider whether it's worth risking your reputation and your relationship with the reporter on the remote possibility of snagging a one-time story placement.
If you're not sure, bounce your story ideas off of co-workers and friends. Pay attention to the questions they ask, and then answer those questions before you finalize your pitch. In addition to standing a much better chance of success, the story ideas that survive a thorough in-house vetting are cleaner, leaner, and more likely to protect your standing as a reliable source.
Developing good story ideas and establishing yourself as a dependable resource require a fluency in how reporters work and in what they most often need. The stories are out there on your campus waiting to be told. And there are journalists around the country eager to make your acquaintance and learn exactly how you can help them. Whether you can make that leap into their contact list is up to you.
Steve Smith is the national news editor and public relations specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He worked as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers in Iowa, California, Nevada, and Nebraska from 1994 to 2008.
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