Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How to Get in the Local News: A Primer

A friend of mine found himself in the middle of a do-gooder kerfuffle this week when the promoter of one event that dovetailed with an event he promoted felt slighted because her event didn’t receive the media adulation that his event did.

Needless to say, words were said, accusations were launched, toes were stepped on and pretty much everyone lived up to what Molly of Fibber McGee and Molly said about such kerfuffles: Don’t everybody bow at once or you’ll bump heads.

As a disgraced former local newspaper reporter* I’ve got a thing or two to say on the situation.

How do you get your do-gooder event in the newspaper (or, conversely, on local television)?

DO make it a photogenic event. In the afore-mentioned kerfuffle, the event that got the ink and video tape happened to involve a string of more than 400 motorcycle enthusiasts, complete with gobs of facial hair, black leather, do rags and other motorcyclish accoutrements, compared to a baked potato dinner fundraiser. No matter that it was the fundraiser that brought in $6,000 for the distressed family, it was the motorcycle parade featuring the seven-year-old cancer survivor grinning ear to ear that got the play.

So, DON’T get bent out of shape if your well-meaning but unphotogenic potato bar fundraiser doesn’t get as prominent play as the motorcycle parade. Cameras, reporters – and readers – like the motorcycles and the grinning kid. Not to belittle the effort of the potato bar, but nobody is interested in photos of people eating or a story about people eating, unless they’re eating bugs, Rocky Mountain oysters, or other such delicacies.

As you pick a photogenic event, DO make sure it’s unique. My experience in newspaper reporting will tell you that a principal jumping into a vat of macaroni and cheese is photogenic, a cow wandering around a field as a crowd waits nearby waiting for it to poop on the coordinates they bought in the raffle is not. Costumes are good. I’ve yet to see an event headed by someone in a gorilla suit not make the paper. Speeches, big checks, ribbon cuttings, and people standing around in suits (unless they’re in the proximity of someone in a gorilla suit) are not good.

I only know of one non-costume wearing guy who got himself into the news consistently, and that's Paul Yarrow, News Raider.

DO plan on making your own media of the event. With Facebook YouTube, blogs and the vastness of the Internet available at your fingertips, counting on some hack (I include myself in this hackitude) to get the word out as you see fit is silly. Get the word out yourself. Provide a link to your whatsit to the media and generally insist it get included somewhere. As long as it’s not overtly commercial, you’re bound to get the link – and the publicity – you want as you want it done.

DON’T, however, refer the news media to your web page as they call you or approach you for information. Be affable. Answer their questions. Be courteous, kind, and forgiving. They’re there to talk to you.

DO have an official spokesman at your event, someone the media can contact and talk to. If you’re not the official spokesman and don’t want to be quoted as such, SHUT the HELL up and get the media to the official spokesman, then wander off. Nothing, repeat, NOTHING looks worse than having a bunch of lookie-loos hanging about as the media does its thing. Don’t get in the way.

DO ensure there is cross-coordination between events meant to help the same cause. Part of the above kerfuffle arose – and I’m getting this second-hand – is because the news reporters who inevitably flocked to the motorcycle parade, assumed that organizers there knew everything there was to know about the other event. That wasn’t so, and it appears – again, this is all second-hand, but I know how this works through experience with sloppy reporting – the journalists were looking for one-stop information and when it wasn’t forthcoming (not out of malice or negligence, but because the organizers of Event A simply didn’t know enough about Event B to be helpful) they didn’t pursue it further.

So, if you want your event in the paper, DO get in the face of the reporters and editors as much as you can. Make yourself a nuisance. Don’t wait for them to call you; call them yourself and force as much information on them as you can. This way, even if your event isn’t the photogenic one, you’ll at least rate (hopefully, if the reporter is worth his or her sauce) bigger mention in the main story or at least a sidebar (a secondary story that accompanies the main one).

DO get to know your local reporters, well in advance of your event, so you know who's most likely to pick up on an event.

DO keep your expectations in check. Not everyone who waltzes into the local paper or TV news station with a tip is going to get top-billed coverage. Or coverage at all.

But DON’T be surprised if your particular event is relegated to a sideline in the story detailing another event, or sent to the purgatory of the community calendar due to its lack of overall photogenics. See the first DO, because the first DO trumps all.

Also, if your event doesn’t end up getting the coverage you felt it deserved, DON’T spread lies about the organizer of the competing event, get all whiny with the media outlet or otherwise make yourself look like a fool. Content yourself with your unsung good-deed-doing and keep your eye out for the next do-good opportunity. Otherwise, you’re going to sound like an attention whore trying to drag the name of your business (strictly for promotional reasons) into the media limelight.

If you DO organize a “competing” event that you know is going to be more photogenic, make sure you’ve got contact information for the people organizing the other event and foist it upon the media. The media are so used to being blamed for passing on stories that it doesn’t faze them, so do your best to shift the blame.

DO realize that if you spend a lot of time thanking people for participating that this information is going to be the first thing cut out of any news report. That information may be important to you and important in keeping the peace, but if it’s going to compete with a cute kid getting to ride with a motorcycle gang through town, it’s going to get cut because space is limited. Keep your thanks to a minimum, start with the big hitters AND the organizers of the less-photogenic event. Have a printed list of people you want to thank ready to hand to the news people and suggest the put it up as a sidebar to the story on their web pages. It’s not going to get into print with the initial story, in full. Then follow up with a letter to the editor of the local paper with a list of people you’d like to thank. Your thanks are much more likely to be published that way. If you’ve got a long list, buy an ad. Or approach the paper (especially the smaller ones) with articles in hand expressing the goodwill their coverage elicited in the community and suggest that they provide, free of change, some small advertising space that you can use for your thanks. Remember, you don’t get what you don’t ask for.

And if all else fails, of course, call on Chuck Norris for the defense.**

*Rightfully disgraced for screwing up on some law-and-order stories. Quit my job and went through more than a year of underemployment hell as penance, so if there’s anyone still out there who still wants blood over the incident, they’ll have to come take it out of my nose.

**Not really. DO NOT do this. Ever. Unless you want jail time.

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