I am just starting to get the word out about my company and need some advice on how to pitch stories or get a writer's attention.—K.V., Victoria, B.C.
Reporters are bombarded with pitches from companies seeking exposure, but very few of those companies approach the task properly. Effective media relations is based on research and discipline. If you are approaching a journalist strictly with the mindset of using him or her to write a story to jump-start your business, you're not likely to get far. Most credible journalists will be put off instantly by someone blatantly looking to use them for free publicity. There is paid advertising for that purpose.
First, familiarize yourself with the publications most likely to write something about you or your company. These might be your local newspaper, community newsletter, chamber of commerce or town Web site, or regional business journal. Read these publications and figure out what they are writing about. What other small companies get covered, and in what context?
"Newspapers and magazines closely follow formats and if you analyze them closely, you will see a discernible pattern," says Eric Starkman, president of Starkman & Associates, a public-relations firm in New York City. "Also research to see what, if anything, the publication you are targeting has written about your business or industry. If you detect a certain negative bias, it's probably best to stay away, unless your business offers a solution to an issue the publication has raised,"
Develop a Relationship
Next, identify the reporters and editors who cover your niche and read their articles to get a feel for what they write about, when, and why. "Start sending them e-mail comments on their articles, even simply to say good piece," says Mark Amtower, a small-business author and consultant. Don't be surprised or discouraged if you initially get no response, but if and when you do hear back, offer to send a one-page white paper on a topic about which you have some expertise and that you think they might be interested in, based on your familiarity with their work.
"If your pitch is self-serving and focuses on your company, it will have little chance of pickup. Think more broadly, and offer trends, tips, insights, anecdotes, surveys, predictions, or warnings relevant to your line of business that outsiders are unlikely to know, but would appreciate learning. Appearing smart and well-informed is the best positioning for any company," says Gordon Andrew of Highlander Consulting, based in Princeton, N.J.
Once you develop a relationship with a writer or editor, you can become a source of information about not only your company but also your industry. If you are not the best person to answer a question about a trend, but you're well-connected and can offer another good source to a reporter, that's something that will be remembered over the long term. "Now you have the beginning of a longer-term relationship," Andrew says:
If your quest for mainstream media mentions falls short, look for places that will take submissions. Industry journals or trade associations often fill their pages with columns written by business owners who are not looking for compensation beyond getting their name and their company's name into print.