The Unwritten Rules of Media Relations

Earlier this week, a normally low-profile regular season baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers became national news due to a wild benches-clearing brawl. This fracas was sparked by Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista, who was hit by a 97 miles-per-hour pitch earlier in the inning. Later that inning, Bautista slid hard at the legs of Rangers infielder Rougned Odor at second base, leading Odor to land a hard punch to Bautista’s jaw and bring more than 50 players and coaches onto the field.

So what caused this chaotic scene? The unwritten rules of baseball.

Baseball has a long tradition of rules that aren’t officially encoded in the rule book, but are nevertheless important to the honorable way in which players are supposed to play the game.

It turns out Bautista broke the Thou shalt not show up thy opponent unwritten rule of baseball last October, when he dramatically flipped his bat in the direction of the Rangers’ dugout after this massive go-ahead home run in the decisive Game 5 of the American League Divisional Series. That made him a target of a “bean ball” on Sunday, and things escalated from there, leading to suspensions and fines for multiple players and coaches.

In public relations, working with the news media comes with similar unwritten rules. As a PR practitioner, if you chose to ignore these rules, you run the risk of the equivalent of a bean ball to the back, a hard slide at your leg or even a punch to the face – being spoken to rudely, being hung up on or in worst-case scenarios being black-balled from consideration for future coverage.

Here’s the short list of the most important unwritten rules to follow if you are pitching your story to the media:

Target your news appropriately. Media members receive hundreds of emails every day, and typically only a few of them are on point and worthy of coverage. A good way to get ignored is to regularly send the wrong news release, media advisory or pitch email to the same media contact over and over again. By the time you have something that is a good fit, you’ve been ruled a “PR spammer” and won’t easily break through.

Know the news cycle. When you get really close to your news story, it’s natural to think that it’s the greatest story ever and must be told to the world as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the media (especially TV) will always cover breaking news over your story, unless you’re calling to offer an expert related to that piece of breaking news.

Before making media calls, check media outlet websites and social network accounts. Not all “breaking news” is worthy of outlets cutting into regular programming, but that type of news is usually urgent enough to divert media resources from covering less urgent stories. If you do chose to call during these situations, be prepared to be rushed off the line. You’ve been warned.

Don’t waste time getting to your point on the phone. We typically recommend sending an email (either a news release, event media advisory or story pitch) prior to making a phone call, so it may seem tempting to mention that email as your opening line when calling media.

The problem with this approach is that you have about 10 seconds to get interest from the media on a story, and by mentioning one of the hundreds of emails your target media has received in the past few days, you’ve eaten up half of that time by saying nothing differentiating. The better approach is to pitch it fresh, with the most compelling line that’s likely to get attention.

For example, when pitching a New York-area media outlet, “I know you’ve been profiling East Coast beach towns this spring, so I’m calling to tell you about Ocean City, Maryland, and how its free beach and free events are causing more people from New Jersey to leave the Jersey Shore and head south for their vacation this summer.” That opening line hits on two things that matter to media – you know what he/she covers and you are pitching something that’s trend-worthy.

Once you get interest on the phone, you can either reference the email you sent, or better yet, resend it with “We Just Spoke” as the first three words of your subject line to make it stand out. Just make sure that what you offer in that email is something you can deliver. Not coming through on what you offer is a good way to get ignored in the future.

If your spokesperson isn’t prepared, you likely won’t get a return invitation. It’s easy to get caught up on the excitement of getting the media’s interest in covering your story. It takes a lot of planning, targeting and strong pitching to earn an opportunity for an interview. Unfortunately, it’s still possible to break an unwritten rule of media relations, and breaking this one is the most likely one to get you black-balled for the future.

Especially in television, where visuals help tell the story, preparation is key to make sure your story comes through well, but also to ensure you don’t lose a good relationship with the producer who gave the idea a green light. Have full details on the segment length, interviewer(s) name(s) and arrival time, but also be sure to thoroughly prepare the spokesperson with three or four main talking points. Failure to prepare can lead to a bad interview, which will lead to frustrated anchors and producers who won’t soon forget what went wrong.

Hopefully you now feel prepared to avoid a media version of a fastball to the shoulder. If you aren’t sure how to navigate the media and its unwritten rules, get in touch with me at [email protected] or 410-902-5036. I promise not to rush you off the line.

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