5 Essentials to Working with a Local Journalist

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This article is taken from the Build Your Queue podcast below, Season 3 Episode 24 with Mary Fortune, Staff Writer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and Editor of EDGE Magazine.

Your business is doing all these great things, so how do you get people talking about them?

You need media coverage to get the word out about your successes, but that also means taking time to build relationships with local journalists so they want to share your story. And before you can do that, you’ll need to know:

  • What kind of stories will appeal to a journalist?
  • Which journalist is the best fit for your story and how should you pitch it to them?
  • What is a journalists’ daily schedule and how can you fit into it?
  • How can you continuously build relationships with journalists?
  • What expectations should you have once your story is selected?

We’ll help you answer these questions and learn how to get the coverage you want by building quality relationships with media pros. Keep reading, or listen to the full audio in the player above.

1. What kind of stories will appeal to a journalist?

Every business thinks their story is important. How do you know if yours is worth telling?

You have to start with a general audience (because that’s who local journalists care about). They need to see how your story relates to the community.

So how do you get a general audience to view your growth or new product as central to them? The answer is usually within the wider context surrounding your business, including:

  • The current trends reflecting your businesses growth
  • The current events driving the need for your service

The backstory around your business is also just as (if not more) important to journalists as the success side—especially when it involves the community. So keep the human element central to your pitch, including your backstory and why you’re relatable.

That “why” aspect is always important to any story, and it’s easy to demonstrate when you directly connect the community to your pitch.

So how can you tie the community into your story?

Sometimes it’s as easy as having a quote or listing the name of someone in the community who can act as a witness to your story. For example, if your business is doing charity work, you could list someone from that charity as a resource in your pitch.

Local business reporters will always be interested in talking to your customers, employees, or third party observers for real world context (as long as there’s a genuine connection to a broad audience, and it’s not just forced praise for your business). It helps them paint a better picture and offers additional angle to the story.

Features will never be completely dedicated to customers or third party observers, but a few sentences on their positive observations can be vital to putting your business’s story into a real world context that can appeal to local journalists.

2. Which journalist is the best fit for your story and how should you pitch it to them?

After you’ve defined the kind of story your business wants to tell, you can figure out which journalist is the best fit to tell it. Research who is responsible for which beats, or types of stories, at the publications you’re interested in. Then make it your goal to learn the name and interests of the one who can best tell your story.

For example, if your business is a dental clinic and you’re trying to pitch a story about the free hygiene classes you’re giving to local high schools, you’ll want to reach out to the journalist who focuses on health-related stories.

Read the outlets you decide you want to be in and see who’s writing what. Once you have the names of the writers who would cover what you’re doing, shoot them an email that shows you know them and their topics. This will make your pitch standout and prove your story is a good fit for them when you writing something like:

“I loved your article on the [Topic] that appeared in [Publication Name] last [Date/Time]. The detail on why [XYZ] was important to the community was great!”

A good pitch will also include:

  • The journalist’s name, instead of a generic opening, like “We hope this reaches you well”
  • Your own name and brief introduction, so the journalist can remember who you are
  • What your story is and why it’s relevant to the general public
  • Any important dates, times, and locations
  • Direct quotes or the contact information of witnesses who could provide them
  • Any related visuals like graphics, photographs, or videos

There's probably more than one journalist in your community who's a good fit for the kinds of stories you want told, and it wouldn’t hurt to build relationships with all of them.

These journalists will most likely not run with your story immediately, but this puts it in their mind for when the right opening appears in their schedules. We’ll talk more about what I mean by that next.

3. What is a journalists’ daily schedule and how can you fit into it?

Journalists are on a constant deadline and their turnaround time has to be fast. How can you be prepared to jump into their schedule when an opportunity arises?

It starts by knowing what their schedule is like, and how it will differ depending on the kind of publication they work for.

The news cycle at a daily newspaper is nonstop. There are reporters who cover different beats and they’re experts in different fields. There’s always a morning meeting where the team talks through their focuses for that day. That’s where stories are assigned. Then the journalist goes out into the field immediately once they have the story they’re going to report on. It’s quick, and it’s all day long.

For a magazine, there’s a much longer period of planning, sometimes weeks or months out. An editorial calendar for a magazine can cover an entire year. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t flexibility with that calendar, especially when major events take place.

The key is to already have pitched to the journalist before these openings appear. That way when someone on their team makes a request for a story, they can pitch yours if they already have it in the back of their mind.

If a journalist does come to you saying they’re ready to do the story, be quick to respond and help them as best you can. It may be that you have to skip prior engagements to get any talking points the journalist still needs. It’s much better to be accomodating and let your team know that you’re taking time that day to finalize the story, than it is to just blow off the reporter and risk burning a bridge with them.

4. How can you continuously build relationships with journalists?

Your first pitch will most likely not result in a story. Instead, you’re planting the seeds for when an opportunity opens, and also establishing yourself as a friend to the journalist.

From there your goal is to continue building a relationship by being pleasant to work with.

You can do this by sending the journalist story ideas that don’t immediately benefit you, and by telling them about the content you enjoy by them. The key to this is actually reading their stuff, so you can have organic conversations and build mutual respect for each other.

PC: Nasdaq

5. What expectations should you have once your story is selected?

The journalist will not always go exactly with the story you gave them. They may not directly follow the press release you send, or they may stray from what you originally pitched for a more interesting angle. You might have a 30 minute conversation and only see one line included in the story, and that's part of it. Journalists have to tell the full, broader story. They can't just highlight you.

A good journalist knows what to change about the story to make it stick with an audience through a wider context. Their job is to tell original stories, not regurgitate what’s on the press release.

These journalists will also make their story balanced. For example, if your business has been involved with anything controversial, the journalists won’t just ignore it. They’ll always want the scope and broader side of a story, even if that side is negative.

This can either be an opportunity for you to redeem yourself in the eye of the public, or a grave misstep if you’re not prepared to respond. Either way, you should always respond if a news reporter does come to you with questions about something negative your company may or may not have done—even if it’s just to say you have no statement.

Your goal in these situations is to deny anything that isn’t true, and to admit and apologize for anything that is.

Related: [Podcast] 4 Steps to Earning Positive Local Media Coverage

How can you start getting your business’s story out today?

Working with local journalists starts with:

1. Knowing your audience

2. Putting your story in context

3. Connecting with the journalist and understanding them as a person

Journalists will know you can successfully work together when you do a bit of leg work and make sure your story is a good fit for them and their audience first.

Related: [Podcast] 3 Steps to Crafting Your PR Gameplan