The Value of Proactive Public Affairs Outreach

By Pamela Wilson

We all know too well about having to respond to a media queries. They are sometimes curious, sometimes hostile, and sometimes require multiple levels approval. Then we manage impatient reporters who just want to give relevant information to their audiences. It’s the story of our professional lives.

What’s done less often (partly because of time constraints) is getting out ahead of reporter queries and taking your agency’s message directly to them – your message, your key points, presented your way. Sounds too good to be true? Actually it’s not as far fetched as it may seem.

Proactive pitching is about what I call the 3 R’s – Relationships, Reach, and Relevance. You can do it well if you tap into all three.  

Relationships
As my agency’s spokesperson for the southeastern states and a former journalist, I began my job seeking ways to get more than a sound bite into an evening news story. That’s through the first “R” – developing relationships with media decision makers. I already knew many local journalists in my home state of Georgia, but not as many in my other states of responsibility: Alabama, North and South Carolina (and later the Florida Panhandle). So I decided to go on a goodwill tour of news stations over several years.

What I found were folks who were generally delighted to meet me.  One assignment editor said to me, “I’ve been here for three years and you are the first federal (PAO) who has come here to visit us.” I gave her my elevator speech about our agency and kinds of stories we could pitch. She then gave me a tour of the station and introduced me to all the reporters, many of whom I later contacted.  That visit alone landed us various coverage, including 9-minute special on our July 4 naturalization ceremonies. It also got me name recognition on a news desk that gets thousands of emailed press releases weekly.

When I went to any state for agency business, I made it a mandatory agenda item to drop in on news stations to introduce myself and say hello. Some of these visits were pre-arranged, and some unannounced. I was always welcomed in. I pre-pitched ideas on the spot and then followed up the next day or next week with an email.

I also networked by joining the Atlanta press club, which has as members several regional and national reporters. Their monthly luncheon topics and evening round tables vary in value to me, but the real value is sitting next to people like reporters from AP, Atlanta Journal Constitution, reporters from all the local networks, and regional reporters from Wall Street Journal and CNN (though our HQ primarily deals with national outlets). Just last month at press club I met the new immigration beat reporter for a network affiliate. That connection has gained me three evening news coverages in just a few weeks.

Reach
The next “R”is reach.  Who is our news going to reach and why should they care? I primarily focus on local news because, as I said, our headquarters deals with the prominent national outlets. The thing I like about local news is that people watch it, like it, and, most importantly, they believe it. According to an August 2018 Pew Research Poll, most Americans still get their news from television, though the internet is gaining fast. When it comes to television, viewers trust local news more.

According to various studies done by Pew Research, Statista, and others, news consumer have a greater trust in local news. A study by Arizona State’s News Collaboration Research states, “Local news carries with it more credibility among consumers than its national counterpart.“   Another study by Poynter Institute says “Sixty-two percent (of respondents) trust local news media more.” A television research group called Videa says, “Of the majority who trust local news over national news, they cited lack of bias in local news as a critical factor for that sentiment (adding) there is less bias and no political agenda.”

Relevance
Since we know we can reach their viewers, let’s give them some news that is relevant (the third “R”). Many agencies rely on taxpayer funding. You could tell them how your agency is giving them value. You can tell how your agency impacts their lives. You can give a list of how-to’s or facts vs. myths. You could connect a news angle to a national holiday, a week, or an issue. People also like to watch human interest stories. In my job for example, I recently pitched news that a local agency got a grant from our agency to help abused women in a certain community. The editor liked the human interest angle and is running an extended story on Oct 17. You can also identify a person in the community for them to interview (with advance permission). This makes ta much better story than a federal agency touting its own worth. Through the highlighted person, you show instead of tell.  I pitched a story about a family’s heart-warming interaction with our agency. It ran on the news more than four times in one week.

 

How to Pitch

  • Write a Pitch Email – Use a three-sentence intro followed by bulleted list (not a thesis) asking for a specific date about 4-6 weeks out.
  • Suggest a Teaser – In the pitch email suggest one sentence on how the promo would sound. Use the word “suggested” teaser in your email.
  • Immediately call to see if they received your email and ask when you can discuss.

 

Don’t just call the news desk. Ask for the day show producer or talk show producer!

  • Give them Q&A’s – I generally give a list of questions we are prepared to answer and also tell them what we cannot discuss (confirm with your leadership).
  • Follow-Up – Thank the outlet on email and Twitter. Ask for a link or get an MP4, then share with your leadership.

We have a great job as public information professionals and we have some great opportunities to add value to our respective agencies. Happy pitching!

 

Pamela Wilson is a Public Affairs Officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security. She is based in Atlanta, GA

Pamela.g.wilson@uscis.dhs.gov