ON THE AIR How to Obtain Favorable Media Coverage

To obtain favorable treatment from local media outlets, you must establish good working relationships with local reporters, understand how media works, and be well prepared to ‘meet the press.’

If you want your HVAC company to become better known in the community, your outreach to the local media must have drawing power. Your message, or story, must entice newspaper readers, radio listeners, and TV viewers to take interest, and seek you out for your HVAC expertise. Favorable publicity can help you secure more business. Bad publicity, or a weak and uninteresting message can leave you waiting for the phone to ring.

To obtain favorable publicity for your business in local television, radio, and print outlets, you should start by following some simple but important guidelines. These are related to how you frame your message, how you interact with reporters, and a general understanding of how local media operates.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

The first rule to remember whenever you're trying to obtain local media coverage is to be prepared.

When you're prepared for an interview, you'll be much more comfortable and effective in getting your message across. Business professionals will often go into a newspaper or TV interview with the feeling that they can “wing it,” without having thought about what they want to say, how they want to say it, where they're going to do the interview, or the background of the reporter.

Provide a Valuable Message

You won't receive very much attention if your company, product, or message, is no different from that of the hundreds of similar companies in your region. Reporters want to know what's different or unique about you and your company's service or product. So think about how you can craft your story to give it an edge and make it interesting.

There are generally three types of stories that get coverage every day: hard news, editorial news, and feature news. Each type of story is assigned a level of importance in the news hierarchy.

  • A story about very busy HVAC contractors during a heat wave might fall into the hard news category, as they scramble to replace or repair air conditioning systems. Along with this story could be added advice on choosing the right system or contractor.

  • Feature stories, or human-interest stories are usually lighter, less time-sensitive, and more informative, and could appear two weeks or a month from the date of the interview.

  • Editorials contain the opinion or viewpoint of the editor-in-chief, managing editor, or other news staffer. These appear in a newspaper's opinion/editorial (op-ed) pages.

The Power of the Reporter

The reporter stands between you and the community at-large. He or she has the power to give you a great amount of coverage, or none at all. But, it's important that you understand where they're coming from. For the most part, reporters are generalists. They attend journalism school to become news reporters, not “HVAC” reporters. They're very good at learning about a subject in brief amount of time, and then presenting a report on the subject during the evening news or in a published article.

Reporters are usually competitive and often idealistic, and are looking for stories that make a difference to the community, and draw viewers and readers.

Put yourself behind a reporter's desk for a moment. Their objective is to produce stories that readers, viewers, or listeners will find interesting. If I were reading a paper, what would I want to read? What's going to make me stop to read that story?

Understanding the News Cycle

There are key differences that exist between the different types of media, and different ways to work with each media outlet.

Lead-time is the length of time between the interview and when the story gets on the air. For a radio station that broadcasts news every 20 minutes, lead-time could be minutes or hours. For television, the broadcast might air later that same day. For magazines, the story may not appear for one or two weeks, or one or two months later.

Be aware that every media outlet operates on some kind of deadline, and respond accordingly. If you don't return their calls soon, they'll move on to the next best story. It's not always the best story that gets on the air, but many times it's the first completed story. If you want to reach a reporter with a hot story, the best time to try to reach a newspaper reporter is after 10 a.m. By the afternoon, most reporters have decided on what will be their main story for the day.

Television reporters can be reached at a variety of times, depending on their schedule. Some are at work by 6 a.m. Others, who are preparing for the evening broadcast, arrive by noon. The latest you should try to reach a television reporter is 6:30 or 7 p.m Don't call within 30 minutes of a broadcast.

Call Early in News Cycle

If you have a story idea, it's better to call too early rather than too late. A good person to call at TV station with a story idea is the assignment editor. Assignment editors are often charged with assigning stories to reporters. Planning editors or features editors plan farther in advance. For example, if the region is expecting severe cold or hot weather in about 10 days, that's a good time to call the news to let them know you're available to provide commentary on how to prepare an air conditioner or furnace for coming hot or cold weather.

A similar story idea could be a list of the “Top 10 Home Comfort Tips” for homeowners to think about, why they should have a service agreement, or how to set the thermostat.

Look for reporters for whom you can be a resource, and get to know them. Send them information about your company, or bring some doughnuts to the studio on your first meeting. You want to have a relationship established well in advance, not the day the temperature hits 95F. If you approach it right, your request for a 10-minute meeting could result in a good, one-hour discussion.

A reporter at a major station or newspaper might receive 300 emails per day. So don't just send out one email to a reporter and leave it at that. It's likely they'll not even read it.

Stay ‘On the Record’

Most reporters don't appreciate statements that are meant to be “off the record,” because those are often where the juiciest news lies waiting to be plucked up. So, in my opinion, there should be no “off the record” statements. Don't say something provocative and then ask the reporter to keep it under wraps. Doing so puts you and the reporter in a difficult situation.

Reporters have differing styles. Some are aggressive, others more passive. Some will ask three questions at the same time. If that happens, remember your key message, and answer the multiple questions in a style that gets back to your main message.

Developing Your Message

Determine what your key message will be for your time in the spotlight. Your key message should contain two or three bullet points that explain what your company is about. I liken it to a conversation in an elevator. You've got about 30 seconds between floors to tell a coworker what you're doing for the weekend.

Your company message must be consistent in conversation, on the Internet, in print, and on the air. Your employees must understand it. You don't want three people in your company giving out three different messages, whether it's about the quality of your service or pricing.

Interviews Matter

Take interviews seriously. Flubbing an interview could have serious consequences, and a stellar performance could bring in more business, or help to solidify your favorable reputation in the community.

If your goal is to draw customers to your business, take a second and third look at everything you intend to say.

When handled properly, your local media relations efforts should help to establish you and your company as reliable experts.

It's a relationship that can bring favorable publicity for years to come.

Mitch Leff is president of Leff & Associates, Decatur, GA. He has 19 years of public relations experience, and is one of Atlanta's most effective media relations specialists. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article is based on the presentation, “Make Nice with Your Local Media,” which Mitch Leff presented during HVAC Comfortech 2008 in Atlanta, GA.

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