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Jim Gray is a speaker, communication skills coach, principal of Media Strategy Inc. in Toronto, and the author of How Leaders Speak. (John Morstad For The Globe and Mail)
Jim Gray is a speaker, communication skills coach, principal of Media Strategy Inc. in Toronto, and the author of How Leaders Speak. (John Morstad For The Globe and Mail)

LEADERSHIP LAB

Looking for media coverage? Don’t make it about you Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Never have so many stories been looking for a home.

Organizations devote significant resources to the goal of generating media attention for their products, services and people, but while they pump out countless news releases, reports and events, the opportunities for influential coverage – conventional and online – are limited. Communications materials are voluminous, but credible news space and air time is tight.

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Companies and individuals, though, are often their own worst enemies when attempting to create meaningful coverage by the media. Too often, they start with the wrong focus – on themselves.

Reporters hate that.

As the competition for media attention gets ever more intense, those seeking it need to think with a wider, more inclusive perspective.

Here’s how you can enhance your prospects of business-building exposure in a media world that so often seems inaccessible, or, at its best, disinterested.

Ensure it’s not all about you.

Even in these days of instant, omnipresent communication, when anyone can tweet (or, post) anything at any time, established media has enduring power.

Why? Because conventional and online coverage has most often gone through some sort of human filter – an impartial editor, or at least a somewhat objective staffer – who has deemed the material worthy of dissemination.

That very process produces credibility, and credibility produces value.

Journalists take their responsibility as evaluators of news seriously. They’re committed to telling stories that affect people – voters, consumers, residents, shareholders, patients, retirees and children, among countless other groups.

Develop your pitch so editors and reporters can quickly see how your offering benefits or affects people.

Others come first. You come second.

Refine your story – and your strategy.

Will your story withstand rigorous journalistic interviews? Is the rationale sound? Is it free of contradiction and gaps in logic? Finally, is it – in the words of the long-ago editors I worked for straight out of university, “tight and bright?”

Short is always better than long. If you can’t summarize it in two sentences or less, you don’t have a story. You have a treatise.

Media is simply a conduit for you to reach your target audiences, not an end in itself.

Be clear about your communication objectives. Envision your ideal coverage. What’s your dream headline? In which publications and on what stations and websites would reports about your initiative appear?

Have you considered all the risks? Are you prepared to open yourself up for scrutiny, even about subjects you’d rather keep confidential? If not, don’t engage the media.

Assuming that you’re good to go, with clearly established goals, develop a strategy for attaining them. There are innumerable ways to communicate your information – from a single call to a reporter, to a full-blown media conference (if the news warrants it.)

Think about your outreach all the way through, the up-side and the down.

Winston Churchill said: “Plans are useless, but planning is invaluable.” The exercise of considering all the options for disseminating your information will invigorate your strategy.

Prepare thoroughly.

Develop the 20 most challenging questions that could be asked about your subject – and straight, forthright answers to them. You can bet most of them will get asked.

Journalists have a responsibility to convey the truth. If they sense you’re being disingenuous or evasive, you’re done.

Budget cuts and technology have reduced the size of newsrooms just about everywhere. The editorial staffers who remain are busier than ever. They often have to file several reports a day to meet online demands, and may well be working on three or four different assignments each day.

They don’t have time to figure out your story.

Keep it simple. Prepare a short (no more than a page and a half) clearly written news release, and, if required, a backgrounder with definitions of technical and scientific terms, along with the appropriate contact information.

When you call reporters with your pitch, be succinct. If you get them live and in person, find out whether it’s a good time for them to talk before launching into your narrative. If you get voice-mail, keep your message under 30 seconds, and repeat your phone number – slowly. Follow up with a short e-mail.

If a reporter declines to cover your initiative, never push or argue. You’ll never win. Build the relationship for next time. It will come sooner than you think.

Listen and learn.

Telling your story through the media can be challenging, even for the most experienced practitioner.

No one – including the most savvy public relations consultant – knows it all. In fact, acknowledging what you don’t know produces a healthy respect for the entire process. Embrace the opportunity to commence your education.

Get to know an experienced, respected journalist and find out how she views the world. Contribute to blogs on industry issues, or articles on local events to a neighbourhood publication. Write letters to the editor.

After a while, you’ll start to think like a member of the media. And that’s the best media relations skill of all.

Jim Gray, a former reporter, is a senior communications adviser in Toronto. An associate of Sussex Strategy Group, he serves organizations at the senior executive level, developing strategy, managing issues, and providing expert crisis, presentation and media skills coaching. jgray@mediastrategy.ca

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