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Meet the press

March 1st, 2010 / By: / Feature, Marketing

Grab—and keep—media attention by following a few simple guidelines.

When flu season hit and H1N1 vaccines grabbed top-of-the-news, above-the-fold status, Mahaffey Fabric Structures stepped up to help and gained valuable name recognition. The Memphis, Tenn.-based company set up a tent outside a children’s hospital for the influx of patients. First used as a waiting area and then as a treatment center, the tent provided Mahaffey with a lot of positive (and free) publicity.

“We got a lot of coverage in the local newspaper and local TV news channels,” says Beth Wilson, marketing manager. “Our involvement in community events puts us a step ahead, and helps us to gain more leverage with different news media.” A tent for a radio station toy drive also earned Mahaffey free publicity for an entire week on the radio.

While paid advertising allows businesses controlled, targeted and measurable value, free publicity isn’t just for companies without an advertising budget. Germany-based BASF maintains a 10-member media relations group at its Ludwigshafen headquarters to deal with media on an international basis, but also has “media relations units responsible for specific operation divisions or that act at the country/regional level,” says Gareth Rees, senior manager of corporate media relations. Distribution lists for press releases contain several hundred media.

A full magazine

With a staff of 70, Eventscape Inc. of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, maintains a four-person marketing department that works with the CEO and project directors in promoting the company. “I think we are all aware of projects coming up that are pressworthy,” says Elaine Allen-Milne, marketing communications manager. She reviews the editorial calendars of various publications to see where topics and Eventscape structures merge.

“[Magazines] are always working several months ahead, so I have to look forward and plan to fit into the editorial,” Allen-Milne says. “It’s a matter of being aware of what’s going to sell for each magazine.” In other words, it’s important to understand the publication and its market.

Bringing the discussion even closer to home, IFAI publications such as Specialty Fabrics Review are constantly on the lookout for sources to fit topics, even for stories that will be published six months down the line.

“We hold a planning meeting before we assign each issue and invite people from all over IFAI—division managers, membership, marketing and research, advertising and conferences—to give us their ideas on hot topics and possible sources for each feature article,” says senior editor Galynn Nordstrom. “We add that to the information we’ve collected ourselves on a particular topic, do some additional research to narrow the focus as needed, and then select people to interview whom we think would have the most current and useful information on that topic or in that field.

“What we most need—and value—is someone who is both knowledgeable and experienced in the topic and very willing to share that knowledge (and opinion) with us and our readers.”

If you don’t find your niche in those upcoming feature articles (or even if you do), don’t overlook the rest of the publication.

“We’re often hunting for information for sections of the magazine like ‘Swatches’ or ‘Problem Solvers,’ new products and our calendar of events,” Nordstrom says. “One key thing that companies with news about new products or new projects can do to increase their chances with an editor is to include large, high-resolution images for publication.” (See How to get your photos published)

PR is personal

While personal contact with members of the media should be your first line of offense, much can be gained by regularly sending press releases (to the right people, of course) and newsletters with information about new products, procedures and accomplishments to clients and media.

Of course, disseminating information is only half of the process. When an editor or writer calls for more information, you need to be prepared—but not too prepared.

“I’m least likely to use sources who are so scripted that they won’t answer the questions, insist on their right to review the story (not only their quotes) before publication or clearly know little about the topic,” says Katherine Carlson, a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn. “Sources can answer the questions you ask and provide you the message they want to get across if they are skilled and open.

“Sources also can tell stories,” she continues. “For one [Review story], a source from Miller Weldmaster described not only a new ‘road show’ trailer for demonstrating its equipment to customers, but also gave amusing anecdotes about the salesman driving all over his area and his adventures on the road. The road show was news. The guy sampling local cuisine, homey accommodations and varied receptions from employees at businesses he visited made it interesting news.”

Remember, too, that editors and writers conduct a lot of research prior to selecting sources and to learn more about companies. Much of that research is done online. The best websites include company history and profile, detailed information about products and services, contact names and titles, corporate policies and strategies (i.e., commitment to sustainability), a ‘media center’ with news releases and downloadable images, a site map and a search function.

An excellent example of rich online content for journalists can be found at www.basf.com. In addition to general company and product information, BASF’s website includes a News & Media Relations center. Press releases (with photographs), speeches and television interviews are archived here, as are podcasts. BASF even reaches out beyond company-specific information with podcasts related to “chemistry in our lives,” i.e., how sparklers work and how to brew nonalcoholic beer. The site also features downloads of high-resolution press photos, computer animation and fact sheets. “We are eager to use all tools that improve our service offering to journalists,” Rees says.

Once you get included in a published story, capitalize on it. Order reprints for marketing kits. Ask the publication for permission to ‘reprint’ the article on your website or provide a link to the article on their website. In your newsletter, mention articles in which you are featured. And take that relationship you’ve established with an editor to the next level: Keep the lines of communication open so you can take advantage of future opportunities to get free publicity.

Strategies for free press

You should continually check the editorial calendars of publications in your industry, or community, to see what topics they plan to cover. Offer yourself as a resource where appropriate. Remember that magazines work far in advance of publication, so reach out early.

Send targeted press releases when you introduce a new product or service or for other newsworthy achievements, such as winning an important award. Keep your press release short and to the point, but be sure to explain what is newsworthy about your announcement, and why it will be important to the publication’s readers (and not just to you). Provide contact information and indicate if photographs are available (an embedded image is nice to show off a new product or project, but be aware that editors have definite opinions about ‘grip and grin’ photos). Avoid hyperbole and superfluous quotes from the CEO.

Make your website journalist friendly. Include news releases, white papers, company background information, product information (including images of products and projects) and contact information. Try to go beyond listing a generic “info@XXXXX” contact and list real names and direct e-mail addresses for the media. Don’t put barriers between your company and free publicity.

Answer or return calls from editors and writers as quickly as possible. They may be facing a deadline, and “I can talk to you in a couple of weeks” probably isn’t going to cut it. Remember that you probably are one of many sources they will call upon, and they may no longer need or be able to use your input if you call too late into the interviewing and writing process—no matter how good your information is. If you don’t have time for an interview immediately, ask the writer to schedule one when you are available. If that’s not possible, see if there’s someone else in your company you can appoint to respond.

Be ready to meet the press when you travel, too; trade shows, whether you are exhibiting or just attending, are another good opportunity to reach local and national media. Make sure you and your representatives are prepared to discuss your company’s latest developments, not just with people who might be interested in purchasing your products and services, but with people who might be interested in publicizing them. Have written materials on hand; if possible, also have CDs of high-resolution images for print publications.

From a local news station to an international publication or interactive website, there are people waiting to tell a good story to your potential customers. Publicity can be just as powerful a promotional tool as marketing and advertising if you do your research and make regular efforts to get the word out.

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and editor based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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