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Tell Your Story Confidently
Understanding reporters

By: Andrea Brunais
Published: February 2006
Have you often wondered what it takes to get a story in the media? In this article, Andrea Brunais, media-relations trainer and co-author of the forthcoming book, I See Your Name Everywhere, provides tips for pitching your story, ideas for building relationships with reporters, as well as context for understanding what motivates reporters.

Every time you generate positive publicity for yourself or your organization, you are building credibility with the public and reaching new markets. Count up how many people you interact with personally each day. Even if you give a luncheon speech, you're reaching a few hundred, max. The news media reach thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of your potential customers or constituencies.

First: Why should you care what motivates reporters?

They will tell your story to the public. The public is more likely to believe them than to believe information from other sources, including information coming directly from you or your organization. Surveys show that people are eight times more likely to believe information that they get from articles or news coverage than information from advertising.

Radio, newspapers and television news are the only constitutionally protected industry in our country. The First Amendment safeguards free expression. News reporters take this facet of their job with extreme seriousness. In some cases their attitude of upholding the public interest creates an inflated sense of self-importance. But almost always, news reporters strive to dig out the "real" story. They do this by interviewing as many "sources" as time permits, under the governing precept: "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."

Any reporter but the greenest on the beat has been lied to. The job creates skepticism as an occupational hazard. No matter who you are or how lofty your mission, the reporter will be looking to define your self-interest for himself or herself so that he or she can better understand where you are coming from when you answer questions.

It pays, then, for you to examine the reporter's self-interest. What are the desires, dreams, fears? All three come to bear on any given story. The story is the vehicle by which the reporter makes a mark, advances a career, maintains a reputation.

At the end of the day, the story is turned in and judged against every other reporter's story. The best story becomes "lead" news. The difference between the criteria that newspapers use to select their best story and that of TV is summed up in a saying that describes television news: "if it bleeds, it leads." Turn on your local TV news and, if there has been a homicide or gory traffic accident that day, the news anchors will tell you about it before they turn to any other happenings.

However, as a person who is seeking to generate positive publicity, you can take advantage of this general climate. To provide contrast, editors are always on the lookout for bright stories of human interest and also for stories that provide "local color." Your hometown media most likely will be far more interested in details about you than will regional, statewide or national media.

Here are some examples of content that generates reporter interest: the involvement of money. Trend stories. Scientific breakthroughs and cures for disease. A yearly anniversary date of a big story.

Here are some factors that make a story bigger: timeliness. Proximity (closeness to home). The prominence of the people involved. The size of the impact once the story plays out. The human interest level of the story.

Now that you know the basics of a news reporter's motivations, here are some tactics for cultivating the news media.

Reporters are human. Many prefer to deal with someone they know than to make a cold call. If the local reporters who cover medicine (news or features) or the business of medicine (the business section) have not contacted you, reach out to them. You can say you simply want to get to know them should a situation arise where they are covering you on deadline. If you are important to a reporter's area of coverage, you might invite them for a field trip or tour.

If you make a phone call to the reporter to set this up, speak crisply in a businesslike way and get right to the point. Reporters' phones ring off the hook. Many reporters, even at medium-sized newspapers, receive one e-mail per minute or more. They are meeting daily and sometimes hourly deadlines.

Your goal is to create a relationship.

When you are networking with reporters, don't always be focused on your self-interested goal of generating good publicity for you or your company. From time to time, contact a journalist you know just because. You can write them a congratulatory note about a story they wrote that you admired. You can introduce them to a source they have been trying to meet, perhaps even someone in an industry outside of yours. You can also give them leads and tips that might result in a good story that doesn't involve your organization in any way.

Here are some major distinctions between print and TV reporters.

Reporters from broadcast and print media are motivated by the single desire to make a big splash with the story of the day. That being said, key differences exist.

The print reporter may hang around for a long time, asking question after question and seeking many people to talk to. The TV reporter may buzz quickly in and out, shooting a soundbite from a key member of your organization before rushing off.

The print reporter may ask for documents, articles and printouts of e-mails. The TV reporter will probably ask for "visuals" – a picture of something to illustrate the topic or a "B-roll” shot of people at work.

The print reporter may seem devoted to dissecting the nuances of the subject matter. By contrast, the TV crew may be more concerned about the practicalities of lighting and places to plug in their equipment.

The print reporter will want to do speak slowly enough for note taking. TV people prefer crisp, smooth soundbites.

So that reporters will want to hear your story ideas, teach yourself to recognize a good-news story. Look for human-interest stories within your organization. Have recent hirings occurred on a scale that would interest the local business reporter? Are there any sweet coincidences? Did two people from across the globe – say, Chernobyl – meet at your workplace and marry? When I worked at Moffitt Cancer Center, we discovered that two people with different types of cancer had met at a support group and married. More than 10 years later, they both were still healthy survivors. Of course we pitched the story for Valentine's Day. True, the story was about them. But Moffitt’s name got out there once again. Sometimes all you want is for your name to be mentioned. That's a good goal for one day's news cycle.

Here are some tips for getting a reporter interested in your story and responding to reporters after they decide to write about you.

1. To pitch the story:

Make sure you have all the facts on hand. Be ready with what they will need – contact information for the primary source within your organization as well as the names and numbers of other relevant people they might wish to interview. Anticipate questions and know your stuff. How many people within your organization worked on this project? How many constituents will it affect? Provide context.

Understand which editor or reporter will be interested. Don't bore the city editor with a heart-tugging people story that the newspaper usually confines to the feature pages. Don't expect a general-interest reporter to understand the significance of how your company's spinoff may affect the stock market. Don't expect a TV reporter to salivate over a story for which there are no pictures.

Keep your story pitch succinct and to the point. Make it obvious why readers and listeners would be interested in this story. You can send your pitch by e-mail or fax, or you can make a phone call unless you know in advance that the reporter prefers e-mail.

2. When a story is in progress:

work to get the information requested as soon as possible

think what visuals you or your organization might provide to a TV reporter

prepare a one-page list of bullet points to help the reporter better understand the story

e-mail the reporter the correct spellings of all the names and titles of people interviewed from your organization.

Never ask a reporter to show you the story before it goes on the air or in print. This just isn't done. You sometimes can get away with asking to read certain technical paragraphs of a story to check for accuracy.

3. Now, do these things between stories to maintain the relationship:

keep a list of their preferred methods of contact and the story types that most interest them

call to give them a lead on a story unrelated to your organization so they know you are interested in them and not just what they can do for you

follow their work so you know what they have been covering and send them feedback from time to time

never give gifts, but unless their employer has a strict policy against it, treat them to coffee or lunch once in a while and allow them to reciprocate.

Former newspaper executive Andrea Brunais is a media-relations trainer and co-author of the forthcoming book, I See Your Name Everywhere. From 2004-06, she ran the media-relations operation for the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa. You can e-mail her at

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