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Bill Bennett


Dealing with journalists when you want publicity

If you have a product or service to sell, you want customers to hear about it.

Word-of-mouth marketing is a great jumping-off point when you’re starting out; eventually you’ll need to reach a wider audience.

Popular web sites, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio have the wider audience. Publicity is an effective way of reaching it.

Publicity often means working with journalists. There are ways of doing this properly and there are traps to avoid. First the background:

Publicity isn’t advertising

Businesses can get media attention through advertising or publicity. They operate in parallel universes.

Advertising is a commercial deal between you and a media company. You buy access to consumers. You provide what the advertising industry calls ‘copy’.

If you’ve got a large budget, hire a creative team to prepare your copy. It is worth it if you’re running a major campaign: talented advertising specialists know how to press the right buttons and get results.

Advertising means you get to say where, when and how often the copy runs. You control the message and the delivery. Up to a point. Some publishers refuse certain ads and there are laws about what you can and can’t say in an advertisement.

Journalists control your message

In contrast, you have almost no control over publicity. Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make the important decisions. They may listen to you, they might not.

It all depends on newsworthiness. If your message strikes a chord, they’ll take notice. If the message is boring, they’ll ignore it.

To get publicity, you must convince journalists your story will interest their readers.

If publicity is that simple, why does it often go wrong?

No easy short cuts

Straightforward marketing messages are rarely newsworthy. Rather than working to find fresh, newsworthy angles, companies look for short cuts.

The most obvious is applying pressure. It can backfire badly.

Some companies imply they will place advertising with a media property in return for favourable editorial treatment.

At best this insults journalists or offends their professional pride. At worst ethical considerations mean they either can’t touch your story or they choose to take a more hostile approach just to prove their independence.

This is good business

You might think editors and journalist would jump at the chance of promised advertising. As we’ll see in a moment, some will.

The best ones won’t. That’s because readers prefer editorial with a strong ethical code.

Not only do more readers read the editorial in an ethical publication; more readers get to see the advertising material. Better still, properties with strong, ethical editorial standards deliver better – more involved or wealthier – customers.

Advertising works best when the editorial is credible.

Their story now

Even when a journalist responds favourably to your publicity pitch, they still get to choose what is said, where it is said and when the story runs. Their loyalty is to readers, not to you.

Journalists get to choose the angle. They decide how many words to devote to your message and they choose whether your rivals comment or not. An editor might use your supplied photographs or other graphic material, they may not. A journalist – usually a sub-editor, will write the headline and captions.

There are media properties that will ask for a payment to run your publicity material or agree to run it if you buy advertising elsewhere. You may be tempted. The audience won’t be as good and you may be disappointed by the results.

Using a specialist publicist

While many businesses organise their own publicity, others hire specialist public relations or PR consultants. Their job is to know which media properties and media professionals are receptive to which message.

A good PR company will save you time and trouble. They’ll prepare your message and train you to handle the inevitable follow-up questions. They’ll make sure the message gets to the right people at the right time.

They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each potential outlet.

Public relations companies rarely guarantee results. You should go out of your way to avoid PR operators making that kind of promise.

Checklist: Dealing with journalists

  • Publicity isn’t advertising. You’re not in control
  • Newsworthiness is everything.
  • Journalists want material that will interest readers
  • Journalists aren’t your sales people
  • Publications with strong editorial values are the best outlets
  • A PR or publicity professional can get better results



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