With a small or nonexistent budget, many libraries rely on the news media for publicity. For my library, news stories are still one of the most effective ways to raise awareness about a new product, service, or exhibit. But the process can be tedious, inefficient, and disappointing.
It’s not entirely the fault of the library or of the reporters. Newsrooms have cut staff to the bare bones and many station owners decree the stories produced in their newsrooms need to be targeted to a certain customer persona-usually women aged 25-44 with children. Some newsrooms are very diligent about their target audience and won’t cover stories that fall outside their target audience range, no matter how good the subject matter.
Having spent almost 20 years in a newsroom, I’ve got some insider tips that we’ve used at my organization to get more press coverage. The most important tip is the one we always tend to forget–a newsroom full of journalists is an audience too.
The first person to read your release is usually an editor of some kind and not necessarily a reporter. This editor plays a central role in a newsroom-coordinating reporters, photographers, videographers, and vehicles. There is formal process for receiving story ideas and disseminating them to reporters, producers, or columnists but here’s what really happens… if the release is catchy, the editor will follow his or her natural, Paul Revere-style instinct and yell out, “Hey, you guys, listen to this!” and then read the release. Conversely, if the release is poorly written or contains too much self-important language, the editor will mock you. Beware.
Don’t use formal language in your press release. Write it like a story so that the media outlet can copy and paste it into a script or column if they need to. Use AP style and journalistic principles-a catchy lead sentence, the who-what-where-when-why sequence interspersed with a quote or two, and a concise ending. The most successful release my library ever sent was to announce our new Writer-in-Residence. It’s my all-time favorite release (is it weird that I have a favorite news release?). I loved this story-telling style and we’ve started to use it with all of our releases. It’s authentic and it clicks with the reporters.
Stop using clichés. A catchy plays on words is great for library display but it can be a real turnoff for a reporter. Say what you want to say and get to the point. Be clear. Avoid using library speak and technical terms. Explain yourself in the clearest way possible.
Make your quotes sound like they come from a real person. Talk like a human, please. Do not write: “Our dynamic approach to customer service is central to our strategic initiatives. We are scheduled to implement more of these forward-thinking tactics.” ARGH. This is so much better: “We decided to change our circulation desk because we wanted to do a better job of answering our customers questions and help them find the books they want. We think there is more room for improvement and we’re hoping to really shake up the way we do business to make our library the best experience possible.”
Don’t send your press release in a mass email. I know it’s time-consuming to send individual emails to a long list of media contacts but it has the advantage of making each journalist feel like you’re contacting with them personally. A reporter is much less likely to engage you for a story if he’s part of a large group of journalists who’ve all received the same story. They want the “exclusive” even on small things, because it differentiates them in the eyes of their audience.
Be selective about your press release subjects. In my library, we’ve changed our approach to press releases. We’ve started sending them only for the really important events like the creation of a new, dynamic service, the opening of a new branch, paid exhibits with a wide interest potential, big programs like summer reading, or paid author visits. This means we send out about one press release a month. For the smaller exhibits and programs we’ve started sending a media alert-essentially a casually written email sent to specific members of a news team with whom we’ve formed a relationship.It’s less formal and we still end up getting stories out of them because of that personal touch.
Provide photos and videos if possible. Many newsrooms don’t have enough photographers or videographers to go around. If you can shoot clear photos and videos and make them available to the press, they’re more likely to cover your story.
Respect the reporters’ deadline. When I was a journalist, it was frustrating to call an organization hoping for an interview or answers to questions only to be told that the person wasn’t available until late in the day, if at all. If a reporter is calling you, chances are that they’re working on the story for today’s edition or newscast, which means they’d really like to have all the elements by early afternoon at the latest, to give themselves time to craft the story. Tomorrow is too late. You should move heaven and earth to accommodate the reporter as much as possible. Otherwise, they may never call you again.
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