An Insiders Guide to Working with the Media Part Two

June 2010 by Christie Keith

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers

If you're completely new to working with the media, you might actually have an advantage over those with years or even decades of experience.

That's because the media landscape has changed so drastically in the last few years that much of what public relations and communications professionals used to do to promote their organizations and causes isn't effective anymore. As a newcomer, you may have less to un-learn.

For example, it's a good bet that half the publications and more than half the reporters, editors and news directors in a shelter communications director's Rolodex are no longer in business or employed. And the Rolodex has gone the way of the eight-track tape, too, replaced by email, RSS feeds, blog readers, Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

But don't throw all the "old ways" out just yet. The things I covered in part one of this series - writing a good media release, building relationships with members of the media, knowing what makes an event or cause a good story - are just as important today as they ever were. In fact, given the combination of reduced print space and the insatiable hunger of web media, those things are probably even more important than they used to be.

If you're aiming for print, the stronger your pitch and the better your relationship, the more likely they'll save some of their precious column-inches for you. And web media outlets - blogs, news sites, general interest and community sites - are all eager for content that's fresh and credible in a sea of tired commercial pitches disguised as content. Do a good job with your pitch to those outlets and they'll not only write about what you give them, but they'll come back for more.

However, it's a mistake to pitch new media the way you pitch old. I work in both but my main focus for many years now has been online, and few things are as frustrating as getting a media release from someone that was crafted for the media of a decade ago - and which, consequently, I can't use.

Working with new media

There are two things you need to understand about new media: It's fast and it likes links.

I sometimes call shelters to talk to their media representatives about issues or events, and I almost always get asked, "When is your deadline?" Now, if it's one of the rare times I'm writing for a print publication, I can answer that, but usually I'm calling about something I want to blog about, and the answer is, "Now." It's not always convenient to take a media call from a blogger or a journalist who needs the information pretty much instantly, but it can be worth it.

Bringing your local community of pet bloggers on board with your organization's mission, and developing relationships with them, may well turn into something valuable in the future. That's true because they're part of the media landscape in your area, but it's also true because the immediacy of web publishing can help you when you have a timely message.

Stuck with an influx of animals from a hoarding or puppy mill bust? Did some kind of disaster or accident create a sudden need for foster homes or crate donations? Is there a public relations crisis that requires some immediate counter-messaging? Those are the times you'll be grateful for blogging's rapid response capability. So whenever possible, try to give bloggers the information they need when they contact you the first time; it can pay big dividends.

Then there's the issue of links. As I mentioned in a tip in part one, you simply can't send a media release to a blogger (or online columnist, or any writer who publishes online) without including a link to that release. Because no matter how much we want to give you some coverage, the established format of blogging and publishing online is that we publish excerpts, a bit (or a lot) of our own commentary, and then link to the full release elsewhere.

When you send releases without a link, only a blogger who is already very attracted to your story or a big fan of your mission will take the time to Google its subject line in search of a link. Even if they find it, there will always be that little bit of annoyance at the waste of time.

Worse, however, is when the link is nowhere to be found. At that point, most bloggers will just shut the email and move on. The most persistent will hit reply and say, "Is this online anywhere?"

When I do that, usually I get no response, which doesn't make the best of impressions. Sometimes I get a response like, "It will be up on our site (soon, tomorrow, in our next month's newsletter, sometime when an intern gets to it)." This is what we call a communications "fail." It chews up time, it makes it clear that you're pitching a story to a media form with which you're unfamiliar, and it creates the impression, right or wrong, that your organization isn't really keeping up with the times.

So take me seriously when I say this: Don't hit "send" on that media release until the same release is on the web somewhere, and there's a link to it somewhere in the release itself.

In other respects, working with new media is the same as working with old. Use Google to find out who in your area is blogging or publishing online about your organization's issues, contact the blogger or writer via email or the contact information on their blog or site, and try to cultivate a relationship. And since some online media writers have a bit of a chip on their shoulders, realizing they're the target of a wooing campaign by the local animal shelter or rescue group is going to make them very, very happy and inclined to show you some love.

What about the old media?

The ease and reach of online and social media may try to seduce you entirely to their side, but don't throw out that Rolodex of "old media" contacts. As outlined in part one of this series, print, television and radio are still extremely powerful ways to get your message across. They'll reach a segment of your community that rarely goes online, particularly busy families and retired folks who are often the very people you're asking to adopt and volunteer. And of course, both forms of media reinforce each other.

In part three of this series, I'll take a look at some innovative and effective shelter campaigns that made the most of all forms of media to spread the word about their events, mission, needs and of course, their available pets.

Christie Keith

Christie Keith is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.com, contributing editor and social media director for Dr. Marty Becker's Pet Connection, and has been a freelance writer and editor, mostly about animals, for 19 years.

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