One day, while working for the San Francisco Examiner, I waited in the Editor-in-Chief’s office while he listened to his phone messages. “Mr. Bergin, this is my fourth message –” Delete. “Hi David, I called last week – “ Delete. “Mr. Bergin, I’d appreciate you calling me back –” Delete. Message after message – delete, delete, delete. Finally, he lifted his massive head up from his phone and his desk and saw me – He loved to drop old-school wisdom down to the young'uns like me from The Great Mountain of Experience that he had climbed years ago – “I don’t pay attention until they call at least six times,” he croaked. “They got to show me they want it.” Then, he went back to making me wait.
For better or worse, I’ve remembered this lesson this way: When dealing with the press, patience and diligence pay off. Plus, journalists get cranky sometimes. Don’t take it personally.
Press releases aren't good enough
In other words, your press release alone isn’t the end of your press relations; it is only the beginning. You need to follow-up with the media with emails and phone calls. All forms of contact need to be respectful and informative – and sometimes repetitively so. While I’ve talked to numerous journalists who insist that they wish artists didn’t call them – wished that artists assumed they received the press release, assumed that they’ll call if they’re interested – I’ve also have had enough conversations with journalists who never saw the press release, lost it in their inbox, meant to get to it but got busy, otherwise forgot your story, or just want to make you work for it. At the risk of alienating the shy journalists I know, I have to advise that patient, diligent, dogged follow-up is an irreplaeable part of your press relations.
For the most part, all journalists have a hard time covering all that they’re expected to cover. The beat is large, while the resources to cover it grow smaller and smaller. If you can help them with timely information, easy reminders and interesting ideas, they’ll eventually come to trust and respect you and begin to call you back more quickly.
First, try a two to four sentence email a few days after you send the press release. “We just wanted to make sure you received our press release. We think you might be especially interested in the way we’re putting Facebook live on stage. Would you like to watch a rehearsal or set up an interview with our special ‘technology’ designer? Call me at 612-886-2868 so I can answer your questions.”
If you still don’t hear back, give a call the next week. “Hi. I didn’t hear from you, and I just want to make sure you know why our show will be of interest to you. I really think the controversial nature of the script is fascinating. Where else will you hear someone say, 'Stalin is fun!'?"
Know how different media are different
It is essential that you aren’t lying. You must know why you’re calling the journalist that you’re calling. Know their work. Know what kind of work they generally publish or present to their audience. Know why they might be interested. Don’t be stalking media that was never going to cover your show in the first place.
Minnesota Public Radio, for example, only reports on stories that can fascinate a audience across the state (regardless of whether or not any of their audience makes it to the show). Don’t ask them to come review your show. Television stations barely ever cover theater. (When you do see theater on television news, note who the journalist was and what about the show they emphasized in their story.) Never forget niche and neighborhood publications. The Hasting Gazette may cover a show if a member of the cast or crew is from Hastings while Good Age is interested in angles that connect to an older audience. (A senior discount is not news.)
When you contact them, know why. In your personal interaction with the press you should repeat the ideas in the press release that relate best to the media outlet you called. Provide even more intriguing detail if you can. Try not to think about whether you liked their coverage of your last show, whether you hate their reviews, or whether you think they should have better information in their newspaper, magazine, on their radio station, or wherever. Simply reiterate why you think this production is “news” of interest to their audience. Also, assume you’re talking with intelligent people who are doing the best they can in a job whose responsibilities you do not know. (Again, you’d be surprised to discover how many small theater companies talk to journalists with disdain, impatience, and a sense of entitlement in their voices and emails.)
Also, of course, do learn how to take no for an answer. When a reporter tells you explicitly that they aren’t interested in the story you’re pitching, thank them for their time. Ask them what type of stories would interest them down the road. If you have them on the phone, get to know what they need in their own words, and you’ll have more luck getting them to come to your next show. Good press relations pay off over time. If not this show, maybe the next one. Consider your relationship to an individual member of the press – radio producer, critic, feature writer, dj – more important than any individual coverage.
Display competence and attention to detail
Here are a few additional suggestions that can decrease the crankiness and increase the kindness and respect of the press. In general, attention to detail and a sense of competence helps:
- The “For more information” phone number you provide at the top of your press release, should lead to a number someone always picks up – or at least calls back exceptionally quickly. Deadlines are a bitch, and journalists won’t wait by the phone for your call.
- Be ready at all times to send good press photographs to whoever asks as soon as they ask. Ideally, they can simply go to a page on your website and download the photos they need.
- Make sure downloadable, hi-resolution, print-quality photos are clearly distinct from the low-resolution versions you display online. Also, whenever sending images or posting them online, make sure you provide photo credit to the photographer and a caption that names who is pictured.
- Remember too that you do not need your image to explain the show. In most instances, your image will always be accompanied by some kind of additional descriptive text. You simply want your image to capture the feeling of the show, i.e., comedy, drama, crazy, sexy, spooky, fun, tragic, and/or physical.
- Should you get the attention of a television reporter, they will need video of your work to use as “b-roll” during their on-air piece.
To be fair to Minnesota, I’ve met many journalists who aren’t cranky and do call me back when I call. And, to be honest, I’ve never had the guts to stalk a journalist with a full six or more phone calls. Regardless, resist the temptation to take contrariness or kindness, or silence for that matter, personally; everyone simply has a job to do.
If you do your job of press relations diligently, patiently, and intelligently, everybody wins. The media get access to excellent articles that excite their audiences, and you get the free press coverage you need.❦