2019 Legislative Conference Review: Media Relations 101

Tips of the Trade

By Liz Carmack, Sr. Communications Specialist

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Working effectively with the news media hinges on three things: building relationships with reporters, pitching positive stories and preparing yourself for news interviews, according to Leslie Rhode, a strategic communications consultant and media specialist. Rhode shared essential media relations tips with county officials in mini-sessions during the 2019 Legislative Conference in Austin. 

Strategic Communications Consultant and Media Specialist Leslie Rhode

Build and Maintain Reporter Relationships 

1. View reporters as partners in storytelling. “You have to shift from the idea that reporters are the bad guys,” Rhode said. “If you have a good relationship, you have a better chance of telling a story that is beneficial to you.”

2. Position yourself as the expert in your area. Reporters need credible sources to do their work. Offer yourself as a source and make yourself available, especially when a reporter contacts you and needs a quick response. “Don’t just wait for them to call you,” she said. “If you know something’s going on you can call and share that information.”

3. Get to know the reporters who cover your community. Visit the websites of news organizations that cover your community and read staff bios. Learn what beats local reporters cover. Find out what you have in common to make simple human connections.

4. Be intentional about connecting with reporters. Introduce yourself via email. Ask them out for coffee and explain what you do in your office. Invite them to an event you have planned. Visit the newsroom and make a point of meeting the assignment editor or general manager. “Spend 10 minutes a week or a month talking with your coworkers on ideas about how to reach out to tell your story a better way,” she said.

5. Connect with reporters on social media. “Follow reporters on Twitter,” Rhode said. “You might find out what they are working on. Feel free to reply to something they posted, such as a story, especially if they wrote something on you. Share it. Reporters love it when you share their story. If they get something wrong, correct it.”

Plan and Pitch Proactive Stories to Reporters

1. Determine your county’s (or your office’s) story. “What’s your mission, your values? Rhode asked. It should tell who you are, what you do, what you value and how you get it done. It might include keywords such as safety, transparency, partnerships, duties, relationships. “Know that story and make sure everyone in your office knows that story so you are all on the same page.” 

2. Pitch a story to promote something or get out in front of a controversial issue. Identify the top three talking points. For example, if announcing a new program, talking points might be its purpose, when it’s happening, how residents can get involved. “So when I pitch the story, I’m thinking these three things,” she said. “Every time you pitch a proactive story, (also) keep in mind how your story fits into your larger county or office story.”

3. Pitch the story with a news release to all news outlets. News release format: Main headline; subhead; contact information; logo; date; first paragraph to include who, what, when, where and why details; additional paragraphs with interesting details and quotes from stakeholders affected by the story; boilerplate paragraph about your county (or office) value, mission. Make follow-up calls to assignment desks to call attention to your release and gauge their interest.

4. Pitch a story to a specific reporter with whom you have established a relationship. This is the best way to pitch your story if you’ve developed a one-on-one relationship with a reporter. Be mindful of the best times to contact the news staff — not while on deadline or right before they go on the air. Pitch format: Why you are reaching out; mention a personal connection, such as what made you think of pitching to them; bullet points of the facts/selling points of the story — help them envision the story; story components you can provide such as an interview and images; your name; attach your news release.

5. Post information about the story you are pitching on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. “Reporters look on Twitter before they go anywhere else, so you have to be on there,” Rhode said. “Twitter is like the new police scanner.”

Sell Your Story in a News Interview

1. Organize your talking points. Determine the three most important things about the story and the three points that are your county/office message. If you haven’t had a chance to talk about them in the interview, state them at the end when the reporter asks if there’s anything else you want to add. Expect the reporter to ask you to summarize the topic you’re being interviewed on. Practice, practice, practice (out loud if talking to TV).

2. Connect with your audience. Ask the reporter who their audience is and picture yourself talking to that type person. “Don’t forget the human stories that offer connection,” she said. Mention only one number or statistic that’s powerful and stick to it. Tell them what the issue is and how it affects them. Keep it conversational.

3. Stay on message. Set a positive tone at the beginning. Never repeat a negative or controversial question. Briefly answer it and redirect your message. Have a landing line you can go back to — the why of the story —  when you ramble and get off topic.

4. Use bridging phrases to make your key points. Answer the question in some way, but you can use these phrases to get to your key talking points: the bottom line is; what we really want people to know is; what really matters to people is; however, the real issue is; to sum it up; here’s the thing.