5 Tips to Develop a Positive Relationship with Reporters
I spent more than a dozen years as a multimedia reporter and freelance journalist before transitioning to the role of communications manager at Seacrest Country Day School (FL). My insight into how reporters work and what information is truly important to them has helped boost Seacrest's coverage in local media outlets, including two cover stories in the area’s main newspaper, a few television/digital news stories, a half dozen magazine articles, and countless mentions in captioned photo spreads. We also landed national coverage in Independent School magazine.
This turnaround happened in one calendar year (2017). I was hired midyear to manage the communications office, led by the director of development and including support from a number of team members in other departments. My immediate charge was to find creative, effective ways to increase our school profile with the public and boost our word-of-mouth marketing. Collaborative meetings with team members from the enrollment department helped us define our strategy, which was to move away from paid advertising and focus on delivering quality content that could act like inbound marketing. Paid advertising was effective for specific things like open houses or promoting free family-friendly community events, but it didn’t communicate our mission well. We needed to place an emphasis on storytelling and then figure out how to get that story into the right hands. The key: developing better relationships with reporters and editors.
Here’s what we’ve done at Seacrest to build, develop, and maintain relationships with reporters and boost the buzz about our school.
Think like a reporter. Take the time to gain a better understanding of what’s newsworthy and what isn’t, says Annika Hammerschlag, education reporter for the Naples Daily News. She recommends reading reporters’ recent coverage and comparing it to the story you’d like to pitch. “The more selective you are about the pitches you send me, the better,” Hammerschlag says. “My biggest piece of feedback would be to avoid contacting me about ‘fluff’ stories that don’t carry community interest.”
In August 2017, Seacrest reached out specifically to Hammerschlag to promote our school’s unique story about the solar eclipse. A group of upper school students and faculty traveled to Georgia to experience the eclipse in totality. We asked Hammerschlag to “embed” with us on the camping trip. The result? Two back-to-back front-page cover stories.
Understand deadlines. “Deadlines are everything for a daily news reporter,” Hammerschlag says. For every journalist who is calling you for sources or fact-checking information, there is an editor urging the story to be filed. Most reporters work on several stories per day, especially television reporters who may be working on up to four assignments and producing different versions of each for multiple newscasts.
Try to arrange for television reporters to have all interviews and video b-roll completed before 2 p.m. Not only does this time fit better with your school day, but this strategy provides TV journalists at least three hours to “turn the story” before the 5 p.m. broadcast.
Newspaper and digital journalists also face time constraints because they’re competing to break the story first on the Web before it heads to print. Don’t know a reporter’s daily deadline? Ask them. They’ll remember the courtesy.
Write a media release in their language. The way a newspaper reporter writes a story is different from a television journalist. Instead of making one blanket media release, write a few different versions. Newspaper writing is more formal, presented in past tense (said vs. says), and attributes sources at the end of a sentence. Television writing is more conversational. It’s presented in present tense (says vs. said). It lists sources at the beginning. Sentences are shorter and simpler.
Know your audience. Research the blog or website to find style cues or locate writer’s guidelines for more instructions. Even magazines vary. The point is, when you craft a media release in the media outlet’s “voice,” it’s like handing the journalist/editor a completed article. As a bonus, your school has controlled the narrative to a degree. Always include your contact information, including email and mobile phone, and indicate whether you’re open to receiving text messages and after-hours inquiries (you should be).
Give great photos and video. Providing journalists with top quality images, opportunities for b-roll, and interview sources is probably the most important thing you can do because it makes their jobs easier. This one-stop shop eliminates extra time spent chasing additional content or leads and increases the likelihood a reporter will deliver their story by deadline.
Case in point: As of the April 2018 issue of Southwest Florida Parent & Child magazine, Seacrest had earned mentions in eight out of the past 12 issues. “You understand what makes a good story…and you send us great photos, and you always have all the information (who, what, when, where, why),” editor Pamela Hayford says. “Communications professionals aren’t very knowledgeable about photography; specifically, they don’t always understand the difference between high-resolution and low-resolution images.”
When it comes to video, think action. Think about how to bring that class to life. Speak with the teacher ahead of time about finding a new location or some new props for the day. Chat with some students before pitching the story, and see how you could personalize the story. Seacrest got terrific coverage in Neapolitan Family Magazine about a middle school English class by finding a student who had started his own at-home garden after being inspired by reading Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman.
Face time. The old-school, get-to-know-you, no-pressure meet-and-greet is helpful for any school communications professional and is particularly useful for any rookies on your team or if you’re a “one-man-band” new hire. It's really hard for a reporter to turn down a story pitch when they know you as a person.
This approach works well with magazine editors, particularly of niche parenting and family publications who have a bit more room in their daily schedules since they usually go to print monthly or bi-monthly. They are looking for original, snappy, and free content (it’s not wise for a school communications pro to double-dip and get paid freelance rates for writing school-related articles) and are hoping your school will advertise with them in the future.
Stacy Nicolau, co-publisher of Neapolitan Family Magazine, says face time feels like a more collaborative process and helps clarify how the relationship between school and publication can be beneficial to both parties.
When Nicolau delivered magazines to campus earlier this year, it evolved into a scouting opportunity for an upcoming cover shoot. Neither of us intended for that to happen, but our comfort and familiarity with one another was the catalyst to landing Seacrest on the cover of the February 2018 issue.
“My best advice for any school is to understand that [magazines] are here to provide a service to our readers and fill your seats with students,” says Nicolau. “If one student enrolls after seeing an ad [in our magazine], it pays for the whole year of advertising.”
Finally, here’s a timeless tip that will always pay off: Send a hand written thank-you note after receiving coverage for your school. Reporters usually only hear when things go wrong, so definitely reach out when things go right.