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If advocacy is one reason your organization exists, then media relations must be an important component in your communications plan. When you talk to the press, you want to sing like a diva rather than chirp like an annoying cricket.


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Sing Like a Diva

EXECUTIVE UPDATE – February 2003
By Fred H. Hutchison and Bill Black

How does a talented – but unheralded – recording artist go from playing at a small jazz joint in Georgetown one year to two sold out performances at the Kennedy Center the next? If we could get past Diana Krall’s traveling hairstylist, personal assistants, stage crew, and overly protective bass player, we’d ask her.

Better still, we’d ask her publicist.

Actually, like all seasoned Washington hands, we know the answers to our own questions. Diana Krall went from fabulous to famous as a result of effective publicity and good media relations. The talent was always there. She just got better at getting the public to listen to her play piano and sing.

Musing about this jazz diva’s “rapid” success (after years in smoky bars) got us to wondering: Why do some folks get great press coverage while others don’t?

This is a salient question for organizations with ambitious communications objectives. We know many association executives, for example, who don’t understand how to work effectively with the press, especially as part of a multifaceted advocacy campaign. While we don’t have all the answers – media relations is more art than science – there are lessons to be learned. In the end, we may not have you singing like a diva, but at least you’ll know where to find the sheet music.

Public Relations and Publicity 101
Public relations is a strategic communications process that helps manage, protect, and enhance the reputation of an organization, its people, its products, and – in the case of associations – its membership. Public relations includes several specialized disciplines: marketing and branding; crisis management; employee communications; issues management; and publicity and media relations.

Of course, the lines between these disciplines are fuzzy. Some would argue, for instance, that publicity and media relations are really part of marketing and branding. In a way they’re right – publicity is the only aspect of an organization’s marketing mix (advertising, direct mail, etc.) that cannot be purchased directly. Publicity must always be “earned,” inasmuch as news directors, reporters, and editors ultimately judge whether the “news” in a news release actually reaches readers/viewers or ends up as trash on the newsroom floor.

As a result, publicity always bears the implicit approval of the media in which it appears. Readers and viewers understand this (albeit sometimes subconsciously), and they typically attach more credibility to publicity in news columns or on news programs than to paid advertisements. That’s why “earned” media is such an important part of a broad-based communications program.

In fact, a media relations campaign will, at some critical juncture, be an essential element of every association’s communications effort. We make this assertion because the news media is still the primary source of information for the public at large and virtually every audience that an advocacy program may target. The reasons?


The media is credible, timely, and easily accessible.


It has the power to shape public opinion.


It can either help build or derail reputations.

Having established the importance of the media, let’s move right into some specific suggestions about improving your media relations.

To Make News Be Newsworthy
A successful publicity strategy has three essential elements: Announce the news when you have something to say; make the news when you need something to say; and respond appropriately when someone else says something in the news about you (or comments on an issue that matters to you).

The common element here is news, and if there is one lesson above all others, it is that obtaining positive publicity is all about finding newsworthy ways to be recognized.

This point is vitally important. If the media do not perceive information to be newsworthy (either as hard news or as a feature), it simply will not be publicized. Therefore, always ask yourself the following questions before you approach a journalist:


Is it really news?


Is it relevant to this particular reporter or producer?


Is it important to his or her editor?


Is it important to the readers/viewers?

Assuming that your information does in fact have news value, what do you do next? Before whipping up a juicy news release, take a few minutes to consider the nature of the legendary creatures you’re about to feed.

Understanding the Media

The News Business. The news media is not a monolithic giant. It’s more like a Hydra, with four heads (which, by the way, grow back, so leave your sword at home):


Print (dailies, weeklies, monthly trade publications, verticals, locals, regionals, and nationals).


Wire services (Reuters, AP, Dow Jones, Bloomberg, etc.).


Electronic (CNET, ZDNews, eWeek, Newsbytes, and other online media).


Broadcast (regional, national, global television, radio, and Webcasts).

The Newsroom. Four simple facts: Journalists are always overwhelmed. They work under constant deadline pressure. They contend with a never-ending flood of information and publicity material. And, literally everyone who pitches an idea to them makes the same claim: Cover my story! It’s news!

The People. Journalists fall into two categories: reporters (beat and general assignment) and editors. Reporters are generally the first point of contact. However, reporters report to assignment editors who have the final say on where a reporter will be assigned on any given day. Once a story has been written, it must still make it past the managing editor who wields the ultimate decision-making power over what ends up in print or on the air.

The Tools. There are a number of different ways to reach the media, including: news releases (print, audio, video); media advisories; news conferences; surveys; arranged media interviews (either live or through a satellite media tour); desk-side briefings; and Webcasts. To obtain consistently positive publicity – in addition to superb timing and creative packaging – you need to understand how and when to use each one of these tools.

The New Realities. Back in the olden days (about five years ago), journalists only had to contend with information overload via telephone, facsimile, and regular mail. Now, like the rest of us, they are overwhelmed with email as well. Nonetheless, a recent nationwide survey of journalists showed that in 2002, for the first time ever, a majority of respondents said that email is their preferred method of working with new or unknown sources. The telephone also ranks high with reporters, but only for dealing with established sources. (Source: Middleburg/Ross Survey of Media in the Wired World.)

The Value of Relationships. Like other professionals, journalists place great stock in building and maintaining long-term relationships. Therefore, your own long-run media relations objectives ought to be to get to know the key reporters/editors who cover your “beat” and to gradually, one-by-one, build trust with these individuals until you graduate from “salesperson” to “source.”

Having provided some insight into the nature of the news business, we turn now to some recommendations about how to increase your effectiveness with the news media.

Step-By-Step Approach

Communications Audit. A blue ribbon media relations plan begins with a communications audit. If you’ve conducted one recently, great. If not, dig deep into your file drawers and Web site folders. Take a look at the totality of what you’ve got and ask tough questions such as:


Is the information up-to-date, relevant, and readable?


Is it easy to ascertain our position on key issues? Are the messages clear, concise, and consistent?


If a reporter needed background for a story, could he or she find it on our Web site? If they needed a contact, would they know whom to call? Even at 9:00 p.m.?

Communications Plan. With the results of the communications audit fresh in hand, sit down with your communications team and others from the association to update (or create) your communications plan. As you do this, keep in mind that news coverage is only one element of such a plan; it’s the component you employ when you are in a position to make news, announce news, or respond appropriately to someone else’s news. Otherwise, you must resort to paid advertisements, direct mail, or other means to get your messages across.

Although communications plans vary widely by association (and its related profession or industry), we have found that most winning efforts have these common elements:


Research – thoroughly identify the competitive environment, target audiences, gatekeepers, and influencers.


Strategy – set concrete objectives and formulate a sound strategy. Determine appropriate communication channels. Develop and test key messages and proof points.


Tactics – produce a tactical plan that brings the strategy to life and delivers core messages.

Implementation. With the audit complete and the plan in hand, it’s time to assemble your media list, create new content, update existing materials, and generally get down into the nitty-gritty. We recommend an overall approach that is both proactive and focused on long-term results. Clearly, you want to be alert for opportunities (commonly called “news hooks”), but the first priority ought to be learning which reporters are working your beat, and finding subtle and relatively frequent ways to get your information into their hands.

A final suggestion: once you begin to implement your communications plan, stop from time-to-time to assess progress and make midcourse adjustments. While we all focus on quantitative measures of success – number of stories, etc. – qualitative metrics should also be a part of this assessment. Some examples follow:


Are you getting your messages across?


Are the stories that do run of a higher quality and do they generally favor your point of view?


Do you have reporters calling you almost as often as you call them?

Effective media relations is less a mystery than a methodical process. If you focus on the long-term, understand how the news business works, and package your messages creatively, you’re bound to improve your success rate. But, above all else, remember this: It ain’t over until the diva sings – so, clear your throat and step up to the mike.

Author Link
Fred H. Hutchison is a Vice President of Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations. He also serves as chairman of GWSAE’s Editorial Advisory Committee. He can be reached at (202) 551-1440. Bill Black is a Senior Vice President in Fleishman-Hillard’s Washington, DC office. He can be reached at (202) 828-8889.

Resource Link
To read two cases studies that detail how associations make news, announce news, or respond appropriately, follow these links:

Case Study 1: HMO Reform
Case Study 2: Cybersecurity Conferences

Reprinted with Permission
This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Executive Update Magazine, published by the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives. It is reprinted here with permission.


  © 2008 Fred H. Hutchison. All Rights Reserved.

Edited on: May 19, 2006