By Jeff Crilley
When I was growing up as a preacher’s kid in Detroit, I just figured everyone’s father was interviewed on the news and quoted in the paper each week. It seemed like there were always cameras in my father’s church doing positive stories about his ministry.
It wasn’t until years later, when I began my career as a TV reporter, that I began to understand just how brilliant my father was. He was a master of free publicity.
Do you have a great idea for a story but no clue how to get it in the news? Are you tired of pitching press releases the news media simply ignores?
After 20 years as a TV reporter, I have a scoop for you: the media needs good stories. But most stories are pitched so poorly that they are lost in the blizzard of faxes that blanket every newsroom.
So, here are a few steps to increase your chances of getting covered that even some PR pros don’t know:
1. Be unusual
The old adage about “Man bites dog” still holds true. The news doesn’t cover what’s normal. We cover the abnormal.
One non-profit in Dallas knew this when it held a “Celebrity Garage Sale.” For months, the charity sent out letters to local and national celebrities asking for the old stuff in their garages that they were ready to toss out. Before long, they had everything from Bob Hope’s old golf clubs to Roger Staubach’s long-neglected neckties.
Not only did all the items sell, but by making an ordinary garage sale extraordinary, the media was instantly sold on the story. The story was picked up by the cable news channels and was seen around the world.
2. Be Visual
Reporters tell stories with pictures. If the pictures aren’t there, chances are the reporters won’t be either.
Even the most non-visual story can be made visual if you’re creative. Year after year, my father received amazing publicity by releasing doves on Easter Sunday morning. To celebrate the resurrection, he would lead the congregation outside after the service and release the birds with half-a-dozen cameras looking on.
It was the visual of the crowd, the birds, and the church that captured the media’s interest. I remember waking up on more than one Monday morning after Easter and seeing the photo on the front pages of the Detroit papers.
3. Choose the right reporter
Perhaps the most common mistake that even some PR pros make is trying to sell a good story to the wrong person. Most reporters have a specialty, like “crime” or “business.”
So, seek out the reporter who will have the most to benefit from your story. Start studying the news. Before you call a TV station or try to pitch the newspaper, become familiar with a reporter’s work. Don’t try to sell a light feature story to a hard-nosed investigative reporter.
Does your local paper have a religion reporter? Or have you ever watched a TV reporter and felt something “spiritual” in the way the story was delivered? That’s the reporter you’re looking for.
4. Use the phone
When I’m asked to speak to church groups about publicity, I always suggest calling the reporter. With faxes and the Internet, it seems we’ve gotten away from the personal touch of a phone call. When you find the reporter you want to pitch, call him or her.
Here’s an example of a perfect pitch:
“Jane, you tell stories with such compassion that I thought you would like this one. Our church has a special ministry. Instead of just talking about loving our neighbor, our youth group is doing it.
“Every Saturday, a group gets together to help serve food at a local homeless shelter or visit shut-ins. In fact, this coming Saturday, they’re grabbing hammers and paint brushes and they’re going to help fix up the home of an 80-year-old woman who lives near the church and can’t afford to pay for the work to be done. She doesn’t even know they’re coming. I want you to be there with a camera to see her face when a small army of teenagers begins fixing her house for free.”
Here’s the best thing about a phone-based pitch: When you strike out, you know it.
Let’s say the call isn’t going well. The reporter is typing on the computer and seems disinterested. That doesn’t mean you have a bad story; you just pitched the wrong reporter. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, pick up the paper and try again — “Joe, you tell stories with such compassion ….”
If you simply fax or e-mail a newsroom, you never have an answer. You don’t know whether your news release was thrown in the trash. All you know is that your phone isn’t ringing.
5. Wait for a slow news day
Holidays are the slowest “news times” of the year. When government offices are closed, so are most of our sources. Take advantage of it.
Take out your calendar and begin circling government holidays, as well as the days before and after major holidays. If the government isn’t making news and the large corporations that normally supply us with press releases are shutting down their PR machines for a long weekend, we reporters are scrambling to find something to cover. Pitch even an average story on a day when the media is starving for news, and you’re much more likely to get coverage.
The news is no different than anything else. It’s a supply-and-demand business. The demand for news is constant. TV stations have to produce the same numbers of newscasts all year long, and newspapers will always have to put out another edition.
Do you see what I mean? The demand doesn’t change. Only the supply of news does. And around government holidays the supply of news dries up. The news has to be filled with something; it might as well be you.
There you go. Now you’re armed with knowledge that even some well-paid public relations professionals don’t practice. If your idea is unique, visual, and pitched to the right person when the supply of news is running thin, you’re in!
Jeff Crilley is an Emmy Award-winning reporter with KDFW-TV in Dallas and author of the book, Free Publicity. His Web site is www.jeffcrilley.com.
Posted Feb. 2, 2005