It’s become fashionable to talk about the pet PR hates of journalists, yet the articles I’ve seen appear to miss the trick. My partner is an award-winning garden journalist and I’ve also had the chance professionally to work with many talented journalists from around the world. Here’s my common-sense guide to working with these elusive, heavily-stalked creatures:
Check you have a story
Don’t waste time pitching lame ‘news’ stories. You may be fascinated by every aspect of what you do, but others won’t be.
Don’t expect them to write to your agenda, but if they produce stories about your industry each week, they’re almost certainly looking for good ideas. They’ll be receptive to the right story, especially if it’s unusual, creative or even quirky. Have some of your best stories ready to go, and make sure you have great pictures to support them.
Respect their brand
Remember that journalists are not just creatives, they’re also business people. The most successful are often building their personal brand to help differentiate their writing: they’ll care about it as much as you care about your own. Help them to identify the story angle about your business that is the best fit for their brand.
While it’s OK to create general or new product press releases, show you’re willing to work with them on unique stories too. And if you’re chatting to them at an industry event, ask if they’re working on anything you might be able to help with.
Think outside the box
If they’re not writing in your industry, you’ll need to find an angle that they’ll happily cover – for example, if their speciality is business, they may be interested in financial or sales results that are unusual or linked to a new trend; stories about the local economy; your heritage or expansion plans; your experience of exporting; future product lines under development, etc. Otherwise, don’t go there. Their editor isn’t likely to say ’write absolutely anything you fancy this week’.
If you’re pitching a seasonal story, make it timely. Think about the lead times for their particular publication or form of media (it could be hours, days, weeks or months). Most garden, home and countryside publications plan their main features a year or more ahead – they’ll plan to commission seasonal pictures the year before the feature.
Expect them to have ethics and high standards and show that you have them too. The odd ones who don’t aren’t the people you want to be associated with, long term.
Be ready for the debate
Many people want to write professionally. These people made it. They’ll have lively minds, will research several angles before starting to write and tend not to suffer fools gladly. They may articulate strong views or have powerful egos. Be prepared to answer probing questions honestly and openly, or don’t seek publicity.
Don’t bug them
Journalists will often respond if you approach them in a thoughtful way – but if you’re essentially spamming them, of course you shouldn’t expect a reply. How often do you respond positively to spam? And don’t interrupt their work – when a writer’s in full flow, the best thing you can do is stand well back!
Offer product samples or reader offers
You’re proud of your product, so let it speak for itself. It’s a great way of getting contact details too. But remember the U2 iTunes fiasco: offer, don’t just send samples out the blue.
Seize the opportunity
When you’re fortunate enough to get a chance to work with them, be respectful of their needs. Treat them as fellow professionals who are trying to do a great job, just like you. Help them shine: you want them to create the best, most interesting feature on the subject you’ve ever read. Resolve that if it doesn’t turn out that way, it won’t be for want of trying.
Always say ‘yes’
Others may advise you differently, but I believe you should respond to all requests from journalists, regardless of where they’re working for, and provide the means for them to create a great story. One article often leads to another. But be proportionate: check credentials and circulation or reader numbers before involving your MD or CEO!
Be responsive – speak to a few journalists and they’ll tell you it’s amazing how few people are. You can’t just fit PR work in when it’s convenient for you (even planned, general outreach press releases work best when they’re timely). If you truly want good PR for your brand, get into the habit of prioritising requests from journalists, no matter what else is going on. If things are unusually hectic, just briefly explain the position, thank them for their interest and find a way to quickly cover the basics.
Ask for picture briefs
If journalists are researching pictures to illustrate their story, try to provide two or three high quality choices. Get a decent picture brief to make sure your selections are on the right lines: for example, are they looking for a product shot or lifestyle shot? Find out what position the pictures are being considered for – a cover shot usually needs some quiet space, a full page pic needs to be strong visually while a small thumbnail can’t be too detailed. Check preferred image sizes, formats and preferred method for supplying them – don’t grind their e-mail account to a halt by sending multiple, unnecessarily large files, unless specifically asked.
Ask for a photo credit
Publications are often generous about crediting those who help them. Don’t forget to ask. Your credit might be small or well-hidden, but every little helps.
Exchange contact information
It’s blindingly obvious, but make it easy for journalists to register for information from you. Always provide them with all the contact information you’d ideally like to see in print as this will maximise your chances of getting what you want. Include a retail phone number, website and postal address. I learned this the hard way when my direct phone number was printed as a contact for retail customers.
Establish Your Organisation As Industry experts
Give them an authoritative perspective that’s on message for you. Offer direct access to interview specific experts or business leaders, if that’s what they’d like, or agree to facilitate answers to a series of written questions. By helping them succeed at what they do best, you have the chance to become one of their go-to people: industry experts they know they can rely on when the chips are down.
Don’t expect a miracle
An extensive, positive feature in a major publication rarely brings immediate commercial success. It’s one small part in the puzzle. Keep going: never rest on your laurels.
Finally, remember that journalists are people too. Many writers work in relative isolation, to demanding deadlines. For the time you’re working with them, treat them like a colleague. Give them support they can depend on, and you’ll not go too far wrong.