Re-engineering media relations: Help me out, OK?

Today I’m thinking about media relations — my least favorite PR task, but one our bosses expect us to perform in our sleep.

I’m thinking about MR because I’ll be teaching a course in the topic next summer, and for some years to come. It’s been 3 years since I last taught the class, and a good bit has changed — the influence of blogs most notably. The way we connect to journalists also has changed. I saw a tweet this morning claiming that 50+ NYT journalists are on Twitter. Me, too.

I need your help on this one. Because many of you do media relations day to day, you know the skills and the mindset it takes. So check out my list and leave me an idea or two on how to improve the course.

Here is what I think we need in a senior-level course called Media Relations & Publicity. Well, a first draft, anyway.

What students will produce:

A plan. The process begins by researching client and specific project involved. Students produce a situation analysis and detailed recommendations on how to optimize news coverage for a specific project or event. Each plan contains objectives and ways to measure outcomes.

An online newsroom. Students will customize a template and populate it with content relevant to their media-relations objectives. They will produce and post news releases, fact sheets, backgrounders, bios and a feature story. Each element must fit strategy and objectives, but we insist students write short- and long-form elements to test their writing skills.

What should we add to the newsroom? Still photos and video are an obvious answer, but keep in mind that most PR students aren’t competent in those specialties. A major challenge to PR education is the ever-expanding skill set required of practitioners. We’re workin’ on it.

A printed media kit. Why producing a media kit on paper? I’m not sure. But some employers still ask to see traditional portfolios, and I’m willing to sacrifice a few trees to help my students land jobs.

Media lists. Students learn to use a Web-based tool like BurrellesLuce for building and updating of media lists. The list becomes part of their final project, the online newsroom and all its content.

Media analysis. Each student will do a short paper profiling one of the target media outlets. Message: Know the gatekeepers you’re pitching and fashion messages to meet their needs.

What students must learn and understand:

Redefining “media.” Only 5 years ago this course focused on mainstream media only. Today we address relationships with freelancers who now provide tons of content to the MSM. Bloggers are also a focus, as are gatekeepers at e-zines and digital newsletters that serve vertical audiences. Also, traditional trade and professional publications. Who am I missing?

Blogger relations vs. media relations. Bloggers claim they require treatment different from the MSM. I’m not so sure. Like journalists, bloggers strive to tell a story that’s meaningful to readers and one that will elicit a reaction. They hate being spammed, but are generally receptive to information from sincere people who take time to learn their needs and interests. Sounds like media relations to me.

Targeted pitches vs. broadcast distribution. Certain high-impact stories must be sent to a broad list of media; others work best when offered to targeted outlets with a measure of exclusivity. Students must learn to distinguish the difference.

Social media news releases (SMR). We’ll spend a day talking about Todd Defren’s template for the SMR, and I’ll require my students to read Tom Foremski’s “Die, Die…” post. I love the concept of the SMR but am troubled by the resources it takes to produce one. I get it. I’m just not an early adopter.

Evaluation tools. We expose students to the many ways PR professionals measure media coverage — even discredited approaches like “advertising equivalency” (so they aren’t surprised when an employer asks them to do one).

Connecting to media. A few months back I wrote about Tom Foremski’s invitation to get to know him via Facebook. I’m seeking case studies on how PR pros use social networks to enhance media relationships via online conversation.

Practice pitches. In the final week of class, we’ll do mock pitches that mimic the interchange between media and publicist trying to sell a story. It’s one of the most intimidating tasks an intern or entry-level hire must tackle, so we’ll try to de-mystify it.

Write, write, write. Students will see a writing assignment every week for 15 weeks — 3 per week in the summer. At least 6 of those assignments will be done in class on a 60-minute deadline. They’ll write news releases, fact sheets, pitch messages, feature stories, backgrounders and talking points. They will adhere strictly to AP style and all work will be letter perfect on grammar, punctuation and usage.

Oh, yeah. AP Style isn’t required on Twitter.

What can you add?

21 Responses to Re-engineering media relations: Help me out, OK?

  1. Paige says:

    Hi Bill.

    You might want to have your students check out this e-book for the difference between blogger and media relations:

    I think it would also be great to arrange a field trip to a newsroom, print and broadcast, so that your students can understand the difference and how busy the media is. Having worked in a newsroom for a short time before entering PR, I think it’s a great experience.

    You might also cover Twitter-Pitching. It’s an emerging art form. @NBCSquire is an expert on the subject.

    I think Cision has a great document on calculating ad equivalence, but I couldn’t find it online…It includes valuation for online stories.

    Good luck with your class!

    P.S. I’m so sad to hear that MR is your least favorite part of PR. I’m always shocked by the number of young pros who are scared of it. I love it, mostly cause it’s measureable and requires lots of interaction.

  2. That’s a very thorough outline. As I mentioned in my recent blog post (, I think your students could use as much “real world” experience when it comes to writing and speaking. You’ve got the writing part covered for sure, but I bet if you had them pitch once a week too, you’d be amazed at how much they’ve improved by the end of the semester. Doing is learning, and pitching is incredibly tough, whether you are in PR or in sales (as I have been for 20 some years). If you’re not doing it under live fire, role playing is the next best thing. You mention having your students ready with a portfolio to land a job, how about a verbal pitch, which is a big part of the interviewing process and landing that first job? Keep up the great work Bill!

  3. Bill Huey says:

    I urge you to reconsider teaching “advertising equivalency.” The concept was always rather specious, and it has become even more so in today’s media environment. Agencies tend to use published or “rate card” rates to inflate the value of their work, but practically no one ever pays those rates. That is especially true of digital media and cable.
    The other problems with equivalency are content and placement. What if the story is negative, or partly negative? Does that discount its value? You won’t find any agencies accounting for that in their reports. What if the story appears on the back page of the grocery advertising section? Is that the same value as the front page of the business section?
    BTW, I’ve found role-playing to be a very effective tool in getting students to present and defend their work, because it forces them to think about what they’re doing and why. Give them some juicy stories to pitch (Michelle Obama is speaking at Kent State) as well as some dogs (Cleveland’s largest concrete pour ever!).

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    Looks like we need to include a lot more role playing and presentation in the class. Practice makes perfect, and we’re very much a hands-on program. And let me clarify our position on “ad equivalency.” We don’t actually ‘teach’ it, rather we bring it up so as to make fun of it. Rest assured we’re on the same page, Bill — completely. But I gotta tell you, I hear from at least one grad or intern per year asking me precisely how to do it. The hacks are our there, and they’re still calculating publicity value based on advertising rates.

  5. Scott Juba says:

    This looks like a very beneficial class for students.

    I agree with the idea of having the students profile a targeted media outlet. Have you considered broadening that to require them to profile one traditional media source and one non-traditional media source?

    I also think it’s worth pitching people who run Facebook Groups. Can they truly be defined as media? I’m not sure, but when I have information that pertains to their area of interest, I’ve had nothing but positive results in approaching them and receiving placement.

    In the media lists, I think it’s worthwhile to create one list that only has the deadline of each publication. When dealing with a lot of long lead publications, it’s easy to forget these deadlines and miss a key opportunity.

    I agree that producing a printed media kit still makes sense. My last employer used printed kits for key events.

    Overall, it looks like a great class!

  6. Dino Baskovic says:

    Regarding print kits: I get reporters all the time that still want them, especially foreign journalists (assuming international coverage).

    Additionally, the cost savings of wholly abandoning print was never clear. You still had to put man hours into designing an online newsroom and/or pay for an OTS solution. CDs, DVDs and eventually disposable thumb drives are only as inexpensive as your creativity won’t allow, and let’s face it, do take their toll in landfills.

    Like newspapers, print kits will eventually die, but it will be decades before we see that. Architecture students must still learn drafting by hand even though CAD/CAM is the clear winner. Same goes for us PR types.

  7. John Kerezy says:

    You’re sure going about it the right way Bill!

    Hope your Christmas is a Merry one. I’m in Florida until next Monday. Media relations is changing so rapidly because media is now changing so rapidly. We’re offering a blogging course in JMC next semester…..

  8. John Kerezy says:

    Saw your other posts BIll…COMPLETELY AGREE about the need to still pick up the phone and talk to the media! Nothing is better than identifying the journalists covering a beat or a topic, communicating with them, understanding their priorities, and communicating and acting accordingly.

    But hey — what do I know? Last time I did any “serious” media relations was more than three years ago…..

  9. Rob Jewell says:

    Just a few thoughts. First, is it still important these days to make a distinction between “earned media” and “passive placements”? For instance, you can distribute a news release — via PRNewswire, etc. — that it will appear on Yahoo Politics. It may never be printed anywhere else, dead tree or online. Still, if the audience you are trying to reach looks at Yahoo Politics — does it matter that it isn’t “earned” media. I hear that a lot these days.

    Second, should part of any media relations strategy today consider how to bypass the traditional news media all together? Obama did that pretty successfully during the campaign. And it looks like he will continue that approach as part of an overall communications strategy once he moves into the White House.

    Third, Kent State has an excellent “role-playing” class that helps students become better PR pros. It’s called Print Beat Reporting.

  10. Your outline looks strong. But you could help develop students’ empathy with those on the receiving end of their news releases.

    I give students piles of current news releases (from eg PR Newswire, corporate websites, the UK government news network) and ask them to identify any containing news. Tip: you need to precede this with some discussion of ‘what is news?’ They find most very dull and lacking in news, though in fairness they’re probably written for a specialist, not generatlist, press.

    Once they’ve identified some they think contain news, get them to anticipate the type of publication and the extent of the article that will have arisen. It’s often possible to check against Google News to explore any coverage that did arise.

    If nothing else, it’s a lesson in humility. Most news releases lack news; many are boring. Surprisingly few achieve any notable coverage. A valuable lesson, I think.

  11. Christina Klenotic says:

    Bill, get the students on the phone to do mock pitches. Sometimes that’s the scariest task for an intern/entry-level professional. Also, if students still come up with a “client” to create a press kit for, consider drafting mock headlines (depending on how many are in the class) and ask them to create a pitch for their client ASAP related to news of the day to teach proactivity/adaptability.

  12. Phil Gomes says:

    When I was leading a group primarily tasked with media relations, the team members were not allowed to pitch anyone unless they read that journalists last three articles.

    To help ensure that the staff maintained consistent, meaningful contact (and didn’t just call/email journalists when the client had an announcement) I also insisted that they participate in proactive issues-response — delivering a sound, persuasive argument that bridged the gap between the “dramatic arc” of the journalist’s work and the client’s agenda. This, for example, is how we took 2nd place in the PR Platinum awards in 2001 with just 10% of the winner’s budget. I hate coming in second, but I don’t mind losing to Volvo’s 75th anniversary. *8-)

  13. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, Phil. And welcome back from Down Under. I love the suggestions, and am struck by their simplicity. Research the journalist you hope to engage. Study your topic. Practice the art.

  14. Sally Hodge says:

    This looks like a great course; I don’t know that I’ve yet seen a candidate who has undergone anything nearly this comprehensive. I concur with Phil’s notion of making sure no one pitches unless they’ve read the journalist’s recent articles. We do a lot of very targeted business feature pitching, and to that end, our media lists go beyond just the standard info — we do searches on Nexis (and on the publications’ websites) of targeted reporters to see what they’ve written about recently that’s tied to the topic at hand. We include recaps and links in our media database, and spin the pitch to demonstrate its relevance and ability to advance to reporters’ recent coverage. Another really important thing is pitch writing. I think it’s less important to have students do phone pitching because, really 90% of the pitching is done via email. Most of the email pitches I see are horrible — too long, off point, no upfront, clear statement of “this is why your readers should care.” Have a great holiday!

  15. Mr. Sledzik:

    Great project. You need to share your study with the WORLD, i.e., Linkedin, etc.

    In 1987, I did a public opinion poll for Arizona’s American Heart Association. At that time, television was the medium where Arizonans obtained their information. Specifically – and scary – advertising.

    With newspapers news holes shrinking, and I’m still seeing TV news doing what it has since the ’50s, reading newspaper stories, how are people getting their news?

    I believe this needs to be part of your research. I’m confident you’re teaching your class the RACE formula for PR and SWOT of strategic planning.

    I know people learned of 9/11, Sarah Palin and other hard news not from blogs, but traditional news media. Yet it was TMZ that broke the story of Paris Hilton going to jail.

    Happy holidays.

  16. Tim Roberts says:

    Late as usual, but I have one basic rule that cannot be stressed enough – how does this relationship add value to my client and/or my company? If it doesn’t add value, why continue it? Sometimes we fall in a trap of feeding the beast without using strategic discretion.

    As for bloggers, a major caveat. Many have no journalistic training and their stock and trade is gossip, rumor and innuendo. A previous poster’s research suggestion is extremely relevant to bloggers. If a blogger is legitimate (has a following, is objective and writes professionally), treat them as such. If not, ignore them.

    That might be a good assignment. Pick a field or profession and have students select one legitimate blog and one that doesn’t merit attention. And have them explain why.

  17. Bill Huey says:

    But what is a “legitimate” blog? There are good blogs (like this one) and bad, but none of them can claim legitimacy. That’s more of an earned status.

  18. Bill Sledzik says:

    Good question, Bill. I think the simple answer to “What is a legit blog?” is one that your key publics would have to answer. So it’s something we should be asking when we do our research. Of course, we can also lean on Technorati “authority” and other ranking systems, but those numbers are easily gamed.

  19. Hi Bill,

    Long time, no talk. Media relations sure have changed since I was in your class three years ago. You definitely have a great outline here. But there are couple tools students are likely to come across once they enter the workforce that you might want to at least mention in MR class.

    One of those is Peter Shankman’s Help a Reporter Out (or HARO for short). You basically just sign up for the service here: and you get three lists of news queries delivered right to your inbox each day. The best thing about it? It’s free, you’re helping journalists out on their terms and Shankman’s e-mails are enjoyable to read.

    Another service you might want to check out is PitchEngine, a social media release builder. This one is also free and might be useful for students to build SMRs for their MR client.

    These are just a couple tools that have been most helpful to me in the PR dept. of my first job where I am working with a limited budget. Happy New Year!

  20. Bill — two points:

    1. Social media news releases — I expect they’ll be every bit as effective as MSM releases — it will depend on the importance of the news and the priorities of the specific outlet. Much of the blogosphere scoffs at the use of broad releases — releases need to be tailored to the outlet based on knowledge of the blogger, audience and history.

    2. AVE — as you know, the Institute for PR has myriad work that examines (at least) this measure. That shouldn’t discount the role of volume of coverage in measurement, but should debunk the use of AVE as a rational measure of success. Helping students develop a talk track from AVE to other, outcome-based, measures would be a worthy effort. At the heart of it is not relying on media coverage as an end to itself, but drawing the conclusions related to why that clip is important to the business… That’s by no means a quick, easy task, but it’s essential.

    I’d also suggest that financial media relations be a required emphasis — explaining the performance of a company to a journalist is very high on the list of things one needs to do in our profession, and most of us are singularly ill equipped to do so… Have students read financial releases and rewrite for clarity, then self-edit in teams, comparing the original releases to the resulting coverage.

    That also works for understanding content analysis — what are the main messages in the releases, and how are they represented in the resulting coverage? (or not, as the case may be…)

  21. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for those additional suggestions, Sean.

    I’m all for social media releases as a means of sharing news with all publics (not just media). What makes me uncomfortable is the idea that an SMR is said to work best when accompanied by video, audio, still photography, infographics, etc. That takes a slew of resources that most clients or shops are unwilling to commit. I’m all for tagging releases to drive non-media readership and using key words to fuel SEO, so long as we’re not spamming our media contacts with those releases on a daily basis.

    And that’s a great suggestion on ad equivalency. Let’s help students make the case for more meaningful measures, including content analysis. As for financial information, that, too, has a lot of value. PR student tend to roll their eyes when we talk numbers, and that’s a problem all of PR education must address. At Kent, we require our students to take Financial Accounting, but I’m not sure it helps. They just roll their eyes for an entire semester!

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