What’s Next at the Washington Post: Speaker Dishes to PR Indies

Change and experimentation are coming to the Washington Post, according to Chris Jenkins, who spoke the Independent Public Relations Alliance (IPRA) in January 2014. The October 2013 announcement of the Post’s sale to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, sent shock waves through the DC PR community – and now that our initial surprise has worn off – many want to know what the sale means for the future of the Washington Post.Post-Photo

For those fearing that the sale means heads will roll – that’s not the case. “You will not see a bunch of 22 year olds come in and throw us out,” said Jenkins, who is an assistant local editor at the Post. The first year after the sale is a grace period and news editorial will not be changing.

At the same time, the Post is not a charity case, and Bezos definitely wants to make the DC area’s flagship newspaper successful financially, said Jenkins. As we all know, newspapers have struggled financially in the information age and  been under increasing monetary pressures as readers have flocked online and cancelled paper subscriptions.

According to Jenkins, Bezos wants to take a changing institution and make it successful. He is trying to take the long view and create what the 21st century newspaper look like. “There will be change and disruption. This is not all milk and cookies,” said Jenkins, in one of his more memorable quotes.

One of the ways the newspaper is changing is through creation of “nodes” that facilitate conversations between journalists and readers. In place for the last five to six years, these individualized verticals, such as Wonkblog,  focus on special topics and offer specialized content that allows the reader to get informed and discuss a topic. Jenkins said there are going to be more of these individual nodes, and if you have a client that is relevant and has something interesting to say, these verticals present new opportunities for public relations pros eager to score digital ink.

A vertical is structured more like a blog, with some analysis of a defined subject matter. So it offers opinion and is observational. The curator of the vertical may write  3-4 times a day. The tone may be a little less formal than traditional print reporting. And the curator may pose questions, ask for comments, make lists or share content. It is designed to foster conversation.

These verticals and social media  have opened up new ways to have conversations with readers. Jenkins discussed the education blog (The Answer Sheet) produced by Valerie Strauss and how a particular post about a teacher wanting to quit teaching went viral. While Strauss wrote only a few sentences to introduce the teacher’s original words – the story netted 8 million views.

Giving others opportunities to write something that can be shared is a key part of these verticals and builds their participatory nature. “We want to be the curators. They want more stuff, more content. It has to be useful, conversational, that people want to read and want to share,” said Jenkins.

Jenkins offered advice to help PR pros too. “Have a cheat sheet for yourself and update it. Know who runs each section. I can’t stress too much how dynamic things are going to be in the future for the Post. There will be surprises. Make sure you stay in touch with the changes we are making.”

In this new more entrepreneurial/experimental version of the Washington Post, things may be tried and then abandoned if they don’t take off or succeed. “We are experimenting. When one thing doesn’t work, they will change it. We should expect change. The spirit is that as we move forward as a news organization, we are trying to create a new thing that has never been invented before. There is going to be a lot of disruption in all of our lives,” said Jenkins.

It’s more important than ever, for PR pros to know who they are pitching when they are trying to suggest a story about a client. Is it a traditional reporter or a blogger? What does he or she write about the most? When dealing with bloggers, you may have to change your approach, advises Jenkins. They are often writing opinions, and not reporting, in the traditional sense. Bloggers are quick and speedy, but everyone at the Washington Post is operating under increasing deadlines to create copy for online dissemination. All reporters are being asked to post at least one story online every day, even if it is just a short piece.

Cultivating relationships with reporters will be even more important as changes disrupt work flows and content creation and dissemination become king. “Try to find the right reporter and strategically engage. Those personal relationships are invaluable even more now,” said Jenkins.

It’s also important for PR pros to realize that photos may carry more currency than a story.  “A photo gallery of an event you are promoting is more shareable than an article. It may not be a story but photos would be shareable,” said Jenkins.

When asked if reporters are getting story pitches from Twitter, Jenkins said yes, they do take pitches via Twitter, and he pointed out that reporters troll Twitter for story ideas at times. However, he added that not all reporters are Twitter-oriented (so if you are trying to pitch a story to a reporter who isn’t into Twitter, you need to try something else).

The audience also asked if reporters read all of the comments posted online for a particular story. Jenkins said that writers managing verticals do read their comments and that sometimes new stories result from comments. But some reporters don’t read them, even though they are encouraged to do so. Comments today are monitored more closely now than they were five years ago, and comments are removed if they are hurtful to the reporter or the subject.

IPRA is part of the Public Relations Society of America – National Capital Chapter. Our next IPRA lunch will be held May 1 and discuss the secrets to writing a winning proposal. Thanks to Rob Udowitz for sharing his photo.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites. Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

Pitching Media in the Digital Age: Journalists from Huffington Post & USA Today Weigh In


Arin Greenwood of Huffington Post talks for a packed lunch crowd while Gwen Flanders of USA Today looks on.

The Independent Public Relations Alliance held a packed house lunchtime program in April called, “Secrets to Getting Ink in Traditional and Digital Media” with journalists from the Huffington Post and USA Today. There was plenty of practical advice on pitching that will ring true for PR pros.Gwen Flanders from USA Today covers breaking news. She said pitches should be succinct and to the point (include the 5Ws and the H – who, what, where, when, why, how) and that pitching multiple people in the newsroom is frowned upon. Arin Greenwood  from Huffington Post’s DC page said that pitching multiple people is fine for them, so there is some wiggle room on this point, based on the outlets  being targeted.

Both Flanders and Greenwood prefer pitches arrive via email. Faxes don’t make it onto news desks, so don’t fax anything unless requested. Both recommend including the topic in the subject line (no teasing or coy headlines, no beating around the bush).

It’s essential that PR pros check their work and avoid type-os if they want for a pitch to be taken seriously by journalists. Flanders noted one public relations firm in particular, is notorious for sending out terrible press releases loaded with errors – she ignores anything the firm sends out.

Researching who covers a topic on the outlet’s website, is critical to making a successful pitch. Thankfully, because of the internet, doing this footwork is easier now than its ever been. “It’s your credibility and you should check your work,” said Flanders. “Do your homework and find out who the right person is.”

It’s important to note the perspective of the outlet when putting together your pitch. USA Today is a national newspaper that wants unreported national trends and does not want stories that have already appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post or other competitors. They love exclusives. USA Today especially likes trends that are popping up here, there and everywhere, but have not quite bubbled to critical mass yet. The Huffington Post DC page where Greenwood works is focused on DC based stories, not national ones (although they are routinely pitched national ones).

Deadlines for editors and reporters are constant now in this space. “If I’m at work, I’m on deadline,” said Flanders. She observed that she has double the duties she used to have and edits twice the number of stories she did a few years ago.

The digital world also means story enhancements – graphs, videos, photos, slide shows and interactive elements are more important – so mention these elemental possibilities when pitching a story. Greenwood noted that trying to call journalists at the end of the day is almost always a bad idea – as they are tired, grumpy, and generally trying to get things wrapped up so they can get out of the office.

The digital and print worlds have been on a collision course for a long time. In addition to ratcheting up the deadline pressure to a feverish and never-ending hum, the online world is also opening up new avenues for readership. Flanders noted that USA Today has 1.3 million print readers each day, but has double that number of readers online for its website.

For Huffington Post, readership is a key factor in decision making about a story. “The ‘clicky-er’ it is, the more likely we will write it up,” says Greenwood. Having a DC angle with a story line that stands out is critical for Huffington Post’s D.C. page. Greenwood said, “If it’s saucy enough, we will go for it. The less work you can make me do to figure out if we want to do a story,  the better.”

When it comes to follow-ups, both journalists expressed frustration with public relations staffers who do multiple follow-ups that intrude on their limited time. “Follow up once, not four times,” said Greenwood. And don’t be pushy, advised Flanders.

“Twitter is one more place to look for good stories,” noted Greenwood, when asked by audience members about how they use social media for news gathering. Stories featuring real and living people still reign supreme, said Greenwood.  Flanders noted that her reporters watch Twitter for story ideas, and that attempting to drum up artificial hype in social media is also noticed  (but not in a positive way).

Greenwood said she appreciates the work public relations professionals do and that she wants to hear from them with relevant story pitches. She also reminded the audience that Huffington Post allows blog posts that focus on issues (don’t be overly self-promotional) and op-ed submissions.

PRSA-NCC member and IPRA founding member Ami Neiberger-Miller owns Steppingstone LLC, an independent public relations consultancy working with nonprofit and association clients, with a special focus on supporting organizations assisting trauma survivors. This post originally appeared on her blog.

Seven Social Media Tips for Small Nonprofits & Associations

It’s important for nonprofits and associations to be strategic when it comes to social media, especially when they are smaller organizations, because they don’t have a lot of resources and staff are often multi-tasked. During the discussion at my table for PRSA/NCC’s Second Annual Public Relations Issues of the Day for Nonprofits and Associations, we discussed how to think smart and be strategic about social media engagement in the nonprofit setting so we could save time and be effective. Here are a few tips and insights distilled from our roundtable discussions.

Tip #1: Think smart and be strategic. Think of social media as an amplifier, and not as “one more thing to do.” Be strategic. In the rush to “go social,” many nonprofits are failing to think through their strategy, define their target audience, match online tactics to real world goals, or consider how they might measure success (or learn from mistakes). Take the time to map out real goals that are not just “build a presence on twitter” or “create a Facebook page for our nonprofit.” Craft goals that will serve your organization in the long run and support your overall communications planning and goals.

Tip #2
: Use social media to further link networks you already have. If you also have a media relations responsibility, follow reporters you know or want to know (or should know) thru Twitter. Connect with donors/key supporters/volunteers/member organizations on social media and use Twitter to build conversations and promote events. If your organization has donors or works in collaboration with other groups – schedule some time (perhaps once a week or every other week) to do a post on Facebook that tags key partner organizations or donors. Certain times of year may be more appropriate for this type of recognition than others.

Tip #3: Use a schedule or calendar to reach for goals. Evergreen content that does not stale date, or content that is linked to a calendar or ongoing events can help you save time. Use your nonprofit or association events calendar or publishing calendar to plan out tweets or posts. I use software (Hootsuite) that allows me to schedule tweets so I can sit down and program a lot of things at once based from calendars that are used by my clients for their events and programs. If you have a limited staff supporting an event, these auto-tweets mean that staff are not having to break away from the event to update social media. If you use an auto-scheduler, it is important to stay abreast of current events – so if something changes or breaking news hits that makes your tweets seem irrelevant or out of context, then you can turn off the auto-tweets. I also recommend scheduling time at least once a month to review where you are at with reaching your goals for your organization.

Tip #4: Use monitoring tools. There are many social media monitoring tools available – do a google and you will find dozens. It can be a bit overwhelming to sort out which ones might be most effective for your organization. I recommend starting not with “what tools are out there” but making a list of the questions you want answered about your social media engagement – e.g. how many people are following our nonprofit, who are these people and where are they from, what information do our audiences seem to interact with the most that we are sharing, how much time am I really spending on social media, etc. Hootsuite allows you to manage multiple accounts and see who mentions you on Twitter so you can respond quickly. Social Mention does a search across multiple platforms and will email results to you – I have found they are good at catching videos and photos others might upload. Facebook Insights – let’s you see how you are stimulating interaction on Facebook with your followers and offers a lot of good information. Take regular snapshots of your nonprofit’s social media presence so you can get a sense of what people are responding to and how you are doing at building a following. If people always react most favorably to inspiring photos showing your organization’s work, try to post photos more frequently.

Tip #5: Integrate social media with other projects so it becomes a seamless part of your overall strategy. Your social media should be an integrated part of your organization’s communications strategy – not an afterthought. Issue press releases and share links to news articles mentioning your organization on social media. Post events for your nonprofit on Facebook, to your website, and run information on Twitter. If you publish a magazine or e-newsletter on a regular schedule, program articles, subscription promos, free resource downloads, etc. into your social media. Share photos for events through Facebook, FlickR and on your website.

Tip #6: Think with a benefits mentality, and don’t project a bull horn or megaphonic social media personality. Always approach evergreen or promotional tweets with the mindset of writing from a benefits perspective. Consider how the information you are sharing through social media will help or engage the person reading it or seeing it. Don’t just write something that is promotional about the organization every time. People need to see a benefit to their lives in what you post and share – whether that means you are offering tips or advice or education, sharing information that makes their day easier, or inspiring them that an incredibly complex problem they care about can be addressed. The content you share needs to be real, not fluff. I recommend organizations distribute a blend of information through a social media setting – so some information is practical and about the day-to-day operations of the organization, while some information is pithy but inspiring, and some of it is meaty and offers some heft (e.g. an essay you posted on your website or a long news article, magazine story or how-to piece). After a while, you will understand what mix of information works for your organization and nurtures engagement – but maintaining a benefits mentality is key. The information has to help people and resonate, if you want for them to engage with your organization or association in social media.

Tip #7: Don’t be afraid to experiment a little bit and engage in two-way communication. Try a Twitter or Facebook chat to engage your members, volunteers or supporters. Feature photos submitted by followers. Do a contest. Share trivia, as well as thought-provoking information about your nonprofit organization or association. Invite dialogue with social media followers and listeners – ask them to contribute photos, share stories about how your organization has touched their lives, etc. Encourage authentic interaction by writing replies to others, re-tweeting to build goodwill, and participating in tweet chats or Tweetups for special events.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is an independent public relations consultant to nonprofits and associations. Get more tips and information through her blog or follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.