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Building relationships with journalists

Yesterday I was on a panel with Larry Bommer, who reviews theater for Chicago Tribune, PerformInk, Free Press and other area papers and Karin McKie, a publicist in the performance world. The Athenaeum Theater’s Arts Management Project sponsored the event, which was on ‘building relationships with the media.’

What I know about Chicago theater is basically nil; fortunately Karin seemed to know just about every company and every reporter who covers the biz, and Larry described how he has been on both sides of the news–as reviewer and also having plays he wrote reviewed (The Reader, where he works, panned one of his pieces).

My biggest surprise of the evening was how many folks were unfamiliar with the idea that they have to begin their relationships with journalists by pitching them, the way you would pitch a book idea to a publisher or an ad idea. Of course, this is how much of the news gets made–someone calling up a reporter and asking, “Do you have a minute for me to pitch you a story?”

In fact, we always preach “Call, Fax [or Email], Call.” In other words, figure out which reporter or reporters might be interested in your story, then call that reporter to pitch the story and only then–if the reporter is interested– do you send the news release. Since so much random wordage comes in to newsrooms, the advantage to pitching ahead of time is to make your press release a wanted press release, which helps to move it above the rest of the dreck coming to reporters.

I used to say in trainings that 60 percent of the news came from pitches, but that’s not based on any very scientific information–I wonder if anyone has any idea how much news comes from pitches?

The real point to being thoughtful about pitching is in support of the Workshop’s other sermon: the reason to communicate with a journalist in the first place is never just about seeing your name in the paper, but about getting out the story you want told.

That’s why we urge folks not just to pitch, but to be thoughtful about what goes into that pitch before picking up the phone (also important so as not to annoy the reporters on the other end!). How do you write a good pitch? We urge folks to play the ‘headline game.’

The headline game is, if you were writing the headline on the story you want to see in tomorrow’s newspaper, or as a teaser before tonight’s TV news, what would it say? Nine times out of ten, that’s pretty close to what you ought to say when you speak with a reporter.

We discussed what to say in terms of how to write it down and package it into a press release. To be clear, the connection between the pitch and the press release is this: write a strong release and the pitch will be easy.

So how do you write a good press release? Larry Bommer had the quote of the evening on this (he is a playwright, after all): “If you’re blowing your own horn you’re going to hit wrong notes.”

Theater, he said, is about creating “subversive alternative universes” not reflecting their own image back at smug bourgeois audiences — and a good press release must capture the energy of your play, dance, or other performance work and just straightforwardly present what makes it stand out.

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Category: Trainings

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  1. [...] Community Media Workshop has a bunch of great tips for working with reporters, like this one, Building Relationships with Journalists. [...]

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