Reporters to PR Pros: ‘Give me Real People, Not Guys in Ties’

by Robert V. Krueger, senior director, public relations & social media at ULI – Urban Land Institute

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Left to Right: Bob Cusack, Aaron Cohen, Sultana Ali, Paul Page, Kellie Mejdrich, Alison Kodjak, Derek McGinty.

Public relations professionals deal with journalists on a daily basis, but no matter the years of practice, you can still have a hard time getting your organization’s spokespeople placed in a news story. To compound the complexity of the public relations profession, the past election has challenged notions of how the media works with sources.

A recent media workshop panel, hosted by the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA-NCC), addressed questions of relationship building with reporters and how to take advantage of news cycles. The consensus of the panel for securing placement: Bring your story into the real world by showing “real people.”

Derek McGinty, host of The Diane Rehm Show and former anchor for WUSA9-TV, said that the past election showed us that people vote with their hearts, not their heads. McGinty and other panelists emphasized that audiences respond to individual stories from real people, versus an official statement from an organization.

Public relations professionals naturally include a statement from a CEO or leader in their issued press release and pitch to reporters. But reporters want their stories. In order to justify researching a story, they first need to talk to someone who is impacted by the claims that your organization is saying. They need to have a position brought to life through a personal story.

“It can be difficult for public relations professionals to understand that we don’t want to do a story about you,” said Alison Kodjak, health policy correspondent at NPR. “But if you can bring us an angle and make our story richer, we will likely mention you. So with your pitch, always say we can get you real people who can speak to this topic.”

Paul Page, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal Logistics Report, The Wall Street Journal, said that he gets many pitches reiterating an organization’s already well-established position on an issue. However, his readers prefer specifics over a cliché commentary.

“If you are pitching a new stance on a policy, for example, get the real people who are involved,” he said. “Find the Iowa farmer who is impacted by certain farm policies or the Kentucky barge operator. Audiences need to see the policy in play.”

prsaphoto2But public relations professionals also must be careful when assembling their media kits for a pitch. Kellie Mejdrich, appropriations and budget reporter at CQ Roll Call, warned that when quotes from real people are included in a pitch, they are hard to verify and could prove useless to a story.

“I don’t want to be sent a quote from a real person since there is now way to determine whether it is truly from that person,” said Mejdrich. “We prefer to get an actual person on the phone or in front of a camera.”

McGinty added, “Before you pitch a story, make sure you have somebody ready who is willing to talk. In television, we use to have a saying that we don’t want ‘guys in ties’ as part of our coverage. A story is not a story unless you connect it to the real world.”

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