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How to reach out to media during COVID-19 pandemic

Coronavirus news


I’ll be honest, I am growing a bit tired of the how-to-do-X-during-COVID-19 blogs. If I read another “How to make face masks from scraps of wrapping paper” or “How to saw paper towels in half to make toilet paper,” I may just have to social distance myself from the internet. But, alas, here I am, writing one myself.

The reason I’m putting this together is because I do think it’s very important. So, title be damned, I will press on.

As media relations professionals, we’re getting a lot of questions from clients about reaching out to the media during all the COVID-19 related activity. We’ve been doing a lot of counseling/course-correcting in this area, too. That’s because sometimes knowing when to stay away from a story is just as important as inserting yourself into one. And of course, every business feels they have a fantastic story to tell right now.

I recently read a blog post by a San Francisco-based reporter titled, “Thank You Heitz, you are so generous! Please don't call me anymore” that hit close to home for me. The article critiques a winery in California, after its PR firm had reached out to the author to propose a story. According to the pitch, the winery’s ownership donated $10,000 in beef to partner organizations and was able to retain/compensate all of its staff, even though the company’s tasting rooms had closed.

I know what you’re thinking — who cares? That’s what the reporter thought as well.

He followed up and told them he was not interested. Then the PR team called, followed up via email again… and again… and again. Sounds annoying right? It was. Enough for this journalist to write a scathing piece about them on his blog.

While I certainly feel for my fellow PR pros out there just trying to get a bite, I’m using this as an example to point out some epic media relations failures that everyone should try to avoid — especially right now.

Recognize when you have a story to tell… and when you definitely do not

This can be really hard to do. After all, if you donate $1,000 to a local charity when you’re hurting yourself, doesn’t that warrant a news story? We run into this a lot when clients look for coverage on industry awards. Even though the Manufacturing Association Management Awards (uncommonly known as the MAMAS) is incredibly prestigious in your industry, that doesn’t mean the New York Times cares at all.

Why is this so hard though? Because we’re proud people. We’re just so elated by the work that we perform and we want everyone to know about it. This is an admirable trait, but one that should be used to drive your business forward, not your media standing.

Instead, focus on building a comprehensive story over time that hits on all your core messages and aim for a larger piece. Ask yourself, would you rather have eight, one-line mentions on the back page of a section or one front-page feature. Also, does your business even have a direct connection to COVID-19? Are you a thought leader on the subject? Can you speak intelligently on the recent news headlines? If you’ve answered no to any of these, it’s best to lay off the pitching.

Understand your niche

When we first start working with a new media relations client, we often ask them “What’s the Wall Street Journal of your industry?” The intention isn’t to push clients away from pursuing national media, but rather to get them thinking where their audience really lives. I once had a client who thought national media was their sweet spot, so we landed them a bunch of stories in many well-known dailies. The hits were great for SEO and general notoriety, but which story do you think landed them a multi-million-dollar sale? Yep, the local feature.

The key here is understanding who you want to influence and where your voice is best suited. For instance, if you’re an attorney and you’d like to get your name out there as you navigate complex real estate contracts during the COVID-19 crisis, you might have better luck and reach by engaging with real estate trade publications rather than CNN. Not only will your pitch be relevant, but if it lands, you’ll be exposed to hundreds of readers right within your target market.  

Know when to quit

In the example I shared earlier, I really have do have a soft spot for this PR firm, because I’ve been there. Client X wants coverage for their non-story, and you have to be the one to pretend like it’s the best (hooray!) and sell it. The first failure here was managing expectations with the client, but with our economy in such rough shape, they may not have had the option to say no.

That said, even if that were the case, continuing to follow up after a reporter passes on a story is a major no-no even in the best of circumstances, let alone during a time when reporters are bombarded daily with thousands of similar bland email pitches.

Think of it like dating. Do you really want to be the desperate single asking for repeated dates after being turned away? My guess would be no. And it doesn’t help to have these exchanges when you’ll probably be reaching out to this reporter in the future.

Closing thoughts

At the end of the day, we all have the best intentions when reaching out to media with our company story. But it’s better to keep a strategic eye and maintain your brand especially during major news events like we’re experiencing now.

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