Media relations

Three times you’ll get bad coverage and what to do about it

A spilled ice cream cone

Working with the media, you’re not always going to get the story you want.

That’s fair, since it isn’t a reporter’s job to uncritically cover the specific piece of news you want covered.

However, sometimes, you’re going to get bad coverage. It’s a fact of media relations.

Once a story is published in print, there is little you can do to change it. Corrections are rare.

Besides, how many consumers check the next day’s corrections after reading a blaring headline?

It’s important to know not all bad coverage is created equal. Here are three different types of bad coverage and what you can do about it.

1. Missing information

This first one is the easiest. Sometimes, a reporter will leave a key piece of information out of the story. 

Since so many stories are written for online publication, once I see the web story is up, I will email the reporter with a nice note and then mention that there was extra information we had previously discussed that readers might want to  know.

It’s important that your request is relevant to readers. A reporter will be more willing to add extra information if it’s directly relevant to the readership.

Sometimes, if the story is technical in nature, I’ll offer to take a look at the story — not to vet it for favourability — but to ensure the technical portions are well represented. 

This is an opportunity to emphasize any points you think are missing.

Another consideration is timeliness.

You want to make sure the web story is updated, and you also want to make sure the story is updated for tomorrow’s print run.

It doesn’t hurt to ask if it will be updated. That way, if you think it won’t make it, you can update your executive in advance and propose a solution.

Lastly, if you see web coverage on a radio station’s site, make sure to tune into the news broadcast. Sometimes, team reading the news every hour won’t have the updated web story and may need a reminder as well. Sometimes, the reverse is true: the news team has the latest but no one has updated the web.

While rare, it’s important to make sure all your bases are covered.

2. The sensational headline

One Monday morning, a few years ago, I distributed a media release hoping it would get widespread, balanced coverage. 

It definitely got widespread coverage but for all the wrong reasons.

It began when a radio station tweeted out a headline for the web story of a radio interview I had just given. 

The headline did not match the facts of the story. Nonetheless, it went viral. 

All other outlets in the province saw this traffic-driving headline and wanted in on the action.

I spent the morning giving media interviews and the afternoon correcting headlines.

It’s important to note that reporters rarely write their own headlines. That’s the job of the editor. In many cases, the print editor and web editors will even create different headlines for the same story.

You are more likely to see a sensationalist headline in the web version of a story rather than the print version. 

It is what it is: clickbait.

In this case, I tracked all our coverage. For each story with a sensational headline, a member of my team or I would call up a news room or email the editor and let them know that the headline was inaccurate. I would lay out the facts, based on key messages. 

Each one of them changed their headlines, no questions asked.

They had gotten the morning news coverage and clicks they needed and understood the need to portray the story accurately. 

It was important to do this quickly. I wanted to make sure the headline was changed before the sensationalism was embedded in Google News forever by the search engine’s web crawlers.

3. The one-sided story angle

Sometimes, a reporter is so focused on a story angle that they won’t let the facts get in the way of what they want to cover.

They believe that other sources for a story are so strong that it will override a piece of information you have provided. 

Typically, without that one-sided angle, there’s really not much of a story.

If you experience this, usually the reporter has invested so much time in the story that it’s too late to back out, even though they should.

That’s why I like to send emailed statements. If I have to do a phone interview, I will be sure to follow up with a recap email, if it’s a sensitive story and I fear the reporter has an agenda.

Like the inaccurate headline, If the story angle is one-sided, I will usually follow up with an email reminding the reporter of the organization’s position and the facts from our point of view.

In this case, if the facts are truly misrepresented, and the reporter will not change the story, I will get in touch with an editor. 

This should be a last resort.

Think of the last time someone went straight to your boss with a problem you felt that you could have handled yourself. 

If you wouldn’t want it done to you, don’t do it to a reporter.

So, only do this in cases of major misrepresentation. 

An alternative is to engage an ally — a supportive stakeholder or advocate for your organization — to help correct the record. 

This is PR 101 and it’s also a reminder why PR and media relations skills are both part of a well-rounded practice.

On the other hand, if you’re with a large organization, don’t fret over small details.

I’ve had executives push for corrections to stories that weren’t a big deal. I warned against this since it can come off as insecure, petty or bullying, especially from a large organization.

Sometimes you just have to let the small stuff slide. Save your powder for when it matters.

As a communicator, you should be equipped to handle bad coverage the right way. Remember, regardless of the type of inaccuracy, the principle of respectful media relations still applies. 

Why the way you treat reporters affects your long game

Someone writing in a calendar

I once worked with a client who asked me what to do when a reporter inquired about layoffs in the area due to office closures.

“Let’s prepare a statement and get back to him,” I suggested.

They huddled with the lawyers. “We’re going to hold on this,” they said.

One inquiry then turned into two.

Still, the client wanted to say nothing.

Don’t get me wrong. The story was complicated and wasn’t easy to explain, but what if this business wanted to return to that area one day?

For some organizations, this approach works. Until it doesn’t.

For those organizations that rely on public trust to ensure business goes smoothly, communicators cannot take the risk of not treating reporters with professional respect.

It means asking about their deadlines.

It means responding in a timely fashion.

It means having something to say, even if it’s just a holding statement.

Last blog post, I mentioned reporters pitching your story to internal producers or editors for you

There’s a caveat to this.

You have to make sure your organization has the respect of these reporters. 

As a communicator, it’s your role to make the first move.

How to get reporters to pitch your story for you

A single, yellow telephone

For communicators in large organizations, it’s not only a challenge handling incoming media inquiries, it’s also a challenge knowing who to pitch out your good news stories to.

What if you already had a customized list of reporters who already knew about your organization who you could pitch to?

Of course, you can pull lists of reporters from a subscription service, like Cision, or call on those “reporter friend” contacts you’ve had in your back pocket for just this moment. Or you could just Google.

They might not know or care about your organization, though.

Or, you could use your incoming media inquiry call list.

Yes, the one you update whenever a reporter calls. You do keep one, don’t you?

It’s important that all team members save the details of all incoming media calls (date, reporter contact details, outlet and subject matter) in a central Excel spreadsheet. Don’t forget to note who on your team took the call.

Over time, this list will grow. Maybe into the hundreds.

Eventually, you’ll be the one reaching out to select reporters to get coverage you actually want. 

“But they don’t cover the beat I’m pitching,” you might be thinking. “They were only calling about an issue we didn’t want covered in the first place.”

That’s not a problem. 

If you pitch a reporter on your list, and they’re not the right person to cover the story, you can always ask them to pass it on to their editor or producer. 

After all, you were friendly to them when they called you the first time, right?

If they do decide to pass the story onto their boss, in essence, they’re pitching your story for you!

Once you get the producer or editor’s contact info, you’ll have it for future reference (use a different tab in your Excel spreadsheet).

It’s this professional give-and-take between communicators and reporters that is the essence of good media relations.

So, when was the last time you updated your reporter call list?

Q&As, what are they good for?

A question mark sign

In my last blog post, I mentioned that questions and answers (Q&As) are where you put the answers to hard questions. 

This contrasts with your key messages, which you want to get to the forefront of any news story.

It’s important to remember, when the media are for hunting a story, it’s not all fun and games. It’s not their job to promote your business uncritically. 

They need to tell a story.

Sometimes, that story isn’t perfect.

Sometimes, there is something to the story that you’d rather not discuss.

Regardless of whether or not you want to talk about it, you have to be ready with an answer.

That’s where Q&As come in. 

To start, you want to think of the most difficult questions you would never want to be asked.

Then you answer them.

You answer in the best way you can at this point in time.

If something is under investigation at your organization and there is no immediate answer, then say so. You’re not hiding anything. You’re being honest about where you are in the process. You’re also not going to step on the investigator’s toes by getting into hypothetical outcomes, despite the wishes of the reporter.

Sometimes, you don’t have to answer questions. For example, private companies are under no obligation to declare their revenues publicly. That doesn’t mean you can’t say it in a nice way.

Q&As give you the opportunity to massage a message to make sure you’re coming off as helpful, even if you’re unable to address a specific question.

A good set of key messages should give you the confidence to move forward with a media opportunity, despite what else is happening with the organization.

Once you’ve answered the hard question, you should bridge back to your core key message.

By writing Q&As, in addition to key messages, you’ll be ready to answer reporters’ questions with confidence, even if you wish they were never asked in the first place.

The only key message format you’ll ever need

someone holding an old fashioned radio

Whenever I draft key messages, I imagine that radio personalities with commanding voices, like Rick Cluff, Bill Good or Matt Galloway, are announcing news that just came across their desks. 

What kind of words would they use?

Well, you can capture this on paper by standardizing your key messages.

This format isn’t exclusive to radio, but it helps to imagine it’s being read live, on air.

The first part of a key message is your motherhood statement. 

It’s like a headline.

For example: “ABC Corporation is proud to announce its support of Initiative X.”

This statement is a start, but it’s incomplete.

It requires support. In the form of bullets.

I recommend three.

These bullets should include details like numbers and facts. It lets your audience know there’s substance behind the headline.

The format looks like this:

ABC Corporation is proud to announce its support of Initiative X.

  • 40 per cent of Initiative X patrons need support with D, E, F, which aligns closely with ABC Corporation’s goals.
  • ABC Corporation will be committing $100,000 over the next three years to Initiative X.
  • ABC Corporation and Initiative X expect they will be able to achieve its goals of D, E, F through this collaboration.

The key message above explains what the support looks like (lots of money), what the support will do (achieve Initiative X’s goals) and when (the next three years).

But we’re not finished. 

Your audience will have more questions. 

For each of the supporting bullets, your audience will have questions about the details. Will the money come from shareholders? Why did you choose Initiative X and not Initiative Y? Who at ABC Corporation will be responsible for delivering on this? What does it mean for me as an ABC Corporation customer? What do I need to do? Where can I learn more? 

Anticipating these questions, you should have two or three more sets of motherhood statements combined with bullets to unpack everything to give you a comprehensive who, what, where, why, when and how.

By needing three bullet points for each motherhood statement, you are forced to dig into the details to justify each statement.

But what about the hard questions? The ones that are kind of uncomfortable to answer. Do those go in your key messages?

You put those in your questions and answers (Q&As)

That’s a blog post for another time.

Until then, standardize your key messages. That way, you’ll have everything you need the next time the phone rings and you hear a radio producer on the other end.

One simple trick to get a reporter off the phone so you can enjoy the weekend

In a 24-hour enterprise level organization, an operational issue or emergency can strike at any time. Those of you who handle the media hotline know this more than anyone. When it’s your turn on call, your weekend plans can go out the window.

Many years ago, when I worked for a natural gas company, we got inundated with media calls on a Friday afternoon all because a whole city smelled funny. Everyone assumed the company was responsible for a rotten-egg smelling gas leak. Our dispatch team scrambled technicians across the city with special equipment to investigate. No leaks were detected.

Instead of cancelling my plans so I could respond to media calls all night, I posted all operational updates on Twitter. Whenever a reporter called, I assured them that we were sharing all updates with customers on Twitter as soon as we had news.

This did two things. First, it showed transparency. We had nothing to hide, even if it was us causing the stink. Reporters understood we were trustworthy, which gave us the benefit of the doubt in future scenarios. Second, it made the information accessible to all reporters, which meant there was no exclusive scoop. Reporters knew that no matter how often they called, they’d get the same level of information as their peers.

I was still available to take reporters’ calls, but they knew it would be a slower process than just checking Twitter. They saved time, since they already had to make dozens of calls to find out who was really making the stink. Plus, we got more reporters to follow the company’s Twitter account.

After tagging local news outlets in our tweets that afternoon, I could continue with my Friday evening plans. I still checked in with the 24/7 dispatch team from time to time for new updates. If there were any, I could post them to Twitter directly using my phone.

We never found out what caused the stink that weekend. Some say it was from a pulp mill. Others thought it was a broken sewage line. Despite this mystery, reporters got all the information they needed from my organization — at least to rule out a gas leak — and I got to enjoy my weekend.

Four tips for crafting a killer news pitch to get the coverage and quote you’re after.

Despite being slammed, reporters still want to pick and choose their stories. They don’t want you to write stories for them. They don’t want to get the same release that two-dozen of their colleagues were simultaneously BCC’d.

At best, you can obtain the same level of coverage without spending all your time on a news release.

At worst, you will make the reporter’s spam list.

The only time I’ve had news releases printed verbatim was when I shared them with weekly newspapers that served mostly rural communities. They had only one or two people in their newsroom, and even then, the news still needed to be relevant to their community.

Here are four tips to whittling the story down into a pitch note to get a reporter pick up the phone and call you for more information.

  1. Spend time on the subject line. Other than your name in the from line, the subject will be the first thing the reporter sees. This means the subject line of your email is actually your headline. 

If your organization is a household name, like Microsoft, use that. Everyone knows them. But if it’s not, you should use a generic descriptor like “software company.” Is it a local story? Then make sure you say “local software company.” 

Does your story involve money? If so, include it in the subject line. Dollar signs attract attention.  A showstopping headline will simultaneously be relevant to the story, eye-catching and play to the reporter’s interests.

  1. Sharpen the hook. To do this, think of the stakes for your target audience. What is the consequence of your organization’s actions? Conversely, what happens if it fails to act? The hook tells the reporter what’s at stake, which is inherently newsworthy.

If there are no stakes, you may want to reconsider why you’re pitching in the first place. 

Find the stakes and the story will develop itself.

  1. Kill all your darlings. The worst thing to see after opening an email is a wall of text. Yes, your beautiful prose is precious, but you must edit ruthlessly. Know that a killer pitch will have lots of missing information. The purpose of a killer pitch is to provide enough detail to whet the appetite, not enough to gorge on. To get over this, just think: you can give a reporter all this background over the phone once they call you.
  1. Offer up interview subjects. This is the exchange of brown envelopes behind the laundromat at 4 a.m. Access to key personnel in your organization is what’s in it for the reporter. 

In exchange for getting people to know about your story, a reporter will want to be able to talk to an influential member of you organization. If you’re a regular corporate spokesperson on the communications team, you don’t count this time around (sorry!). 

If your story deals with a technological development, offer up a subject matter expert (SME) to provide the flavour that preapproved key messages often miss. If it’s a larger corporate development, put forward an executive with the experience and confidence to speak as an industry representative. 

Keep in mind, the more people who are directly impacted by a news development, the less killer your pitch will need to be. 

If a transit company needed to announce that half the city will be without service for two days, that story will get picked up by all news outlets, regardless of the level of spokesperson or catchiness of the headline. 

On the other hand, if you’re wanting to share the organization’s vision for the next five years with a business reporter, you will likely need to put forward a top-ranking executive to demonstrate the importance that this news holds for the organization.

Five times you’ll still have to send out a news release

Last week, I said you should kill your news release and go with pitches to get coverage.

However, ol’ man news release is a ghost that will still haunt the beige cubicles of communications departments throughout corporate Canada. Thanks to its long legacy, his memory lives on, oftentimes in the minds of those who are non-communications people.

You’ll want to pick your battles and make sure you’re not on the losing side of a news release tug of war. In each of these instances, it’s up to you to squeeze the story angle out of the announcement.

The following are among the few remaining instances that you’ll still have to issue a news release:

  1. You work in a regulated industry

Congratulations! Your organization requires the services of a communications professional by law. 

While these releases will likely delve into the arcane world of regulatory jargon, your job should still be to elevate the language to something your audience understands while remaining as accurate as possible. This will require some negotiation with your regulatory department.

Also, don’t discount getting coverage on these kinds of releases. Many industry publications and analysts will be interested in this news. If you work for a utility supported by ratepayers, you can bet your assets that reporters and your customers will want to know what’s going on with this quarter’s rates.

2. Someone already negotiated an agreement. Keeping your ear to the ground at your organization is part of your job, but you’re not going to catch everything. Sometimes, project managers on the operations side of your business will negotiate business deals with external contractors who don’t have a communications team of their own. The agreement will often require that a joint news release be issued to announce a project milestone. If they had looped you in earlier, it might be a different story, but if it’s in a legal contract that’s already been signed, it’s probably not a good idea to push back on this one. Sometimes, these can be newsworthy. In many cases, it serves the interests of the contractor providing the services to your organization.

3. Stakeholder expectations have been set. In a vein similar to the one above, a non-communications person will have promised issuing a news release on a specific initiative without speaking to you first. For example, many organizations issue awards to their best customers or clients, and these clients are expecting to see their name in black and white on a newswire web page. There is definitely a market for these kinds of awards stories, it just may not be as extensive as everyone imagines.

4. Internal cohesion. Believe it or not, issuing a news release is sometimes used to promote internal cohesion. While other approaches may be better, these instances take place when a nascent committee initiative has been developed by your organization and participants need an indicator of its legitimacy. For these groups, an external facing, “official” news release from the organization serves as a marker that what they’re doing is tangible. When this ask hits your desk, don’t despair. While they may not be generating newsworthy material now, it will give you an excuse to delve into the new initiative and see what’s on the horizon, giving you time to plan accordingly. 

5. Official record. Sometimes, a news release needs to happen just because something needs to be in writing. At some time in the future, the organization can point to what they previously communicated to show that certain information was originally disclosed at a time when it may not have been newsworthy. If you’re doing this, it is likely part of a larger approach. It should prompt you to ask more questions about the underlying reason this is being done.

Bonus reason:

“Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Tradition. It’s a powerful thing. Just try telling a six-year-old you’re cancelling Christmas. This is clearly not a strategic excuse, so it gives you an opportunity to ask questions about the real objective behind issuing a release. Outline the cost to your organization to produce this kind of release and suggest a more efficient alternative that will get you closer to those objectives.

News releases don’t just happen. There’s a reason behind them. Understanding the reasons for requiring them will allow you to shape your organization’s tactics to serve its strategy. Change won’t happen overnight, but awareness is the first step.

Kill your news release and get coverage at the same time. Here’s how.

Every morning, word counts in the millions fly over newswires. They’re slapped up on corporate news web pages and are spammed to lists of BCC’d reporters.

Like the nine-to-five office worker writing the next Great American Novel on his evenings and weekends, the majority of these releases never get picked up.

This copy is sometimes drafted at the last minute, with reviews taking place late into the evening. 

Sometimes it’s prepared weeks in advance, only for an executive quote to be tweaked minutes before it goes live.

It can be stressful.

If you believe there must be a better way, you’re right.

It’s time to put ol’ man release on the leash for one long, final walk to the recycling plant.

Reporters are slammed, and news rooms are shrinking. We know this already. That doesn’t mean they want us to write their stories for them via release. It also doesn’t mean they’re happy to cover the same story you’ve simultaneously sent two dozen of their colleagues. 

Fear not. The answer lies within you, young Jedi.

You’re already drafting pitch notes when you email these releases. You’re already crafting compelling subject lines. You’re already offering up a value-add interview subject, either a subject matter expert (SME) who can dig into the details of a fascinating development or a senior executive who can share sector-shaping thought leadership.

If you’ve got interesting news to share, a reporter will make time to cover it.

If you draft your pitch only discover there’s nothing worth covering, then you’re doing yourself, your organization and reporters a favour! None of them want you to spend time on something that won’t achieve your desired result.

A pitch note takes a fraction of the time and bureaucratic approvals that a news release does.

If you’re saying, “Yeah, but my executive wants to tell the story our way,” then the premise for sharing a release is misguided. Tell them that you value the relationship you have with the media. 

Reporters don’t want to tell your story your way.

Tell your executive that you’d hate to put the relationships you’ve cultivated in jeopardy by being the person a reporter clicks the spam button for.

When attention is a commodity, you lose when you waste time.

If you want to tell the story your way, turn it into a compelling blog post on your own channel. Cut out the middleman and aim the copy at the eyeballs of your target audience. Your executive can email this blog post around to internal and industry contacts they think need to see it. You can share it on your social channels. If you really want to make sure people see it, you can boost it with paid promotion.

Yes, there will still be smoky corners that ol’ man news release’s ghost will haunt, shuffling his deck of cards in a never ending game of Klondike solitaire.

But for the coverage you need right now, a well crafted pitch note deployed to the correct reporter and a thoughtfully-selected SME or executive to speak on the matter will get you there.