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Media Relations: Ending the Press Release Crutch

By Brad Phillips
Posted Tuesday, February 15, 2005

When most people think of media relations, they think of press releases. To be sure, writing and distributing them is one of the most important parts of the job. But press releases may be the most overused tool in the media professional’s arsenal to the detriment of other tools that might have greater results.

When I worked in broadcast news for ABC News and CNN, the fax machines virtually never stopped. We got press releases by the dozen, and by the end of each day, we had a ream of press releases. They each had something in common. They each went unread.

To break through the clutter, you’d be wise to occasionally skip the press release and send a personalized note to a reporter instead. This works particularly well when offering a reporter an “exclusive,” a story that you will only pitch to a single news organization.

Here are three tips to help make sure your letter gets read:

1) Offer an Exclusive -- News is a competitive business. If a reporter likes your story – and is convinced that his or her cross-town rival won’t have it – they are much more likely to carry your news. The offer of an exclusive is an effective tool, but should be thought out carefully, since the news organization that doesn’t get the story may hold it against you.

2) Conduct Reporter Research -- You may have a brilliant pitch – but if you send it to the wrong reporter, it’s useless. Make sure you properly identify the correct reporter for your type of story.

Once you’ve done that, indicate to the reporter that you’ve been following his or her work, and that your story is similar or related to another story he or she has recently written. Mention his or her previous articles by name. A shockingly small number of media relations professionals take the time to do this, so the reporter will instantly deem you more credible than the average “PR flack.”

3) Subject Line -- Reporters from National Geographic Traveler and People magazines recently told me how critical they consider an e-mail’s subject line. A boring subject line means that the e-mail will probably never even get opened!

There are certain things you can do to break through the clutter. I’ve found it effective to write “Offer of Exclusive” in the subject line, or to include the reporter’s name in the subject line, as in “To David – New Research Shows Children Increasingly Illiterate.”

But virtually nothing beats a genuinely creative and attention-grabbing headline. I recently saw an e-mail sent by a company that uses clamshells to make jewelry. Their subject line? “Clams aren’t just for chowder anymore.” You better believe that most reporters were curious enough to open that e-mail!

About the Author
Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations (http://www.PhillipsMediaRelations.com). He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and also headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.