Three Steps to Better Media Coverage (Case Study)

Question: How do we write a strong press release? What are the standards, if they exist? How do we put it to use most effectively? Should a professional be hired?

– Candace Roeder, Executive Director
Seniors First

Dear Candace,

Your question is a great one. Many of us nonprofit communicators see media coverage (a.k.a. earned media, vs. advertising or paid media) as a cost-effective means of marketing. Here’s what it takes to make your press releases really work for you:

  1. Press releases are just one part of your earned media work. Press releases are important but remember, the release is just one step in your campaign to secure media coverage. Most important is that your media efforts are fully integrated into your marketing and communications plan, timetable, and budget.Media strategies should be selected only when they will help reach a specified communications objective for one or more target audiences. Messages and ‘look and feel’ should be consistent for EACH AUDIENCE throughout all strategies and campaigns, including media.The success of your media campaign comes from media relations – your cultivation of strong relationships with the carefully-selected journalists and editors you want to cover your organization. Your goal is to create an ongoing dialogue between a news outlet and your spokespeople in an effort to have your organization discussed in a positive manner in a publication or broadcast.

    First developed a brief but potent press list, begin by identifying the top ten media (including both traditional and online) outlets that you’d like to see cover your news. Make sure you identify the right person in each outlet and introduce yourself and your organization, inviting reporters for a site visit or special event or arranging interviews with leaders.

    Follow these folks closely to learn what kind of stories they’re looking for and shape your news to provide them with what they need. Although relationship-building is a long and labor intensive process, media relations is the only way to get good media coverage.

  2. Shape press releases that grab reporters’ attention Once relationship building is underway, how do you shape releases that engage reporters? Here are some musts:
    • Be judicious about when you craft a release, doing so only for significant developments. Make sure that you’re covering hard news for the most part as soft news items or features don’t have the same urgency. Send hard news releases to news editors;features releases to feature editors.
    • Establish your organization and leadership as experts in your field. Your goal is to generate incoming press calls seeking insights on the field and issues, as well as to place your stories. Consider listing your experts with HARO (100% free) or ProfNet, services that help you connect your expert sources with the media who are seeking them for stories.
    • Sharpen your messages. Develop three or four core points that you want to communicate and stick to these in the release and interviews. Also, make sure you hone a brief (four-twelve words) description of your organization and use it consistently throughout all of your marketing and communications materials.

    Remember to make it easy for the press:

    • Structure releases so that they can be digested at a glance, printed on a recognizable letterhead, including a clear headline, a one-sentence sub-head that clarifies its importance (if necessary), and crisp, succinct copy with quotes from relevant leaders and experts.
    • Write releases so that the copy can be cut-and- pasted by interested journalists (and more likely that your news will be picked up). Style should be fairly standard for easy extraction.
    • In every release, include a release date and clear contact information at top and an ‘About’ paragraph (following the release body) detailing key information about your organization.
    • Make sure that you know how each recipient prefers to receive releases (email, fax, carrier pigeon) and stick to that preference. Nothing is more frustrating than a huge release distribution that generates no interest.
    • Join the right wire service(s) to supplement your distribution and ensure that your releases get into news retrieval databases. Options include PR Newswire and Ascribe.
  3. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.There is nothing more important than following up on your press releases. Journalists receive stacks of releases and contacts from folks wanting to place news. It’s your relationships and your follow-up calls that generate interviews and story placement. Ideally, you’ll work with your press contacts to shape feature releases to their needs prior to distribution.

In-house or outsource?
Although media responsibilities are frequently outsourced to an agency or consultant(s), that’s not a must. If you’re just initiating your media effort, you might want to outsource strategic media planning including special events and news conferences (based on your organizational and communications goals for the year) and press list and press release template development. If possible,it’s best for a staff person to develop relationships with key media contacts. You and your colleagues are the subject experts and must be prepared to work directly with the press to ensure powerful, accurate coverage.

Whatever approach you take, never release all control and involvement of your earned media effort. You’ll generate the most coverage, and the greatest results, when you plan in the context of your overall marketing and communications agenda, review results, and revise accordingly.