Minnesota Cities Magazine

Message Matters: How to Get the Media to Cover Your (Good) City News

By Helen LaFave

reporter microphones held by handsYou’re doing great work at your city. You’ve kept your levy stable. You’re updating the Zoning Ordinance. Your mayor has been busy cutting ribbons at new businesses. The city’s bond rating was just upgraded. And your police department launched a new community outreach initiative. Yes, the press should be eating it up—but they aren’t.

Reporters and editors are bombarded with information. In this changing media landscape, journalists are often trying to produce content for multiple platforms—print, video, and social media—with fewer resources. So how does a city manager, communicator, or program coordinator break through to get important city news and events covered?

Here are some time-tested tactics and tips that can help you work more effectively with the press.

Assess the tools in your toolbox
As a first step, make sure you know all of the tools you have in your toolbox. These include news releases, social media posts, media events (press conferences), milestone celebrations (groundbreakings, project previews, grand openings, ribbon cuttings), photo opportunities, and pitches to specific reporters or editors. Take time to observe what other cities are doing and review best practices.

Build good relationships every day
Getting reporters to pay attention to your news starts with relationship-building. Establish a culture in your Hands holding up microphonesorganization that recognizes the important role media plays in telling your city’s story.

When media inquiries come in, respond quickly. Don’t overlook or dismiss routine media requests, even if it’s not a story you particularly want to discuss. The reporter is your conduit to residents. Use the inquiry as an opportunity to share the city’s side of the story and position yourself as a resource. While you may disagree as to whether something is newsworthy, the editor gets the final say.

Once a story runs, don’t sweat the small stuff. Arguing over nuances in headlines, word choice, or placement is not a smart battle. Save your capital for the issues that matter.

By being responsive and transparent with reporters, you build credibility for yourself and your organization. That, along with your ongoing relationship, can help you cut through the clutter when you’re trying to get an event, issue, or program covered.

Think like a reporter
Inside City Hall, it’s easy to get wrapped up in numbers, logistics, and process. Those things matter because budgets need to balance, and programs and services need to work, but they may not matter to the reporter. When pitching a story, don’t think like a bureaucrat—think like a reporter. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Recognize what’s news. You may think something is newsworthy, but an editor may not agree. The elements of news are typically considered to be timeliness, proximity, prominence, consequence, oddity, human interest, and conflict. Before pitching a story idea, consider how it fits into those areas. Identify how your story is relevant to readers or viewers.

Though the process of updating the city’s long-range planning document may be interesting to a wonk, it probably won’t make the headlines. In a world that’s constantly inundated with information, remember that reporters are competing for their audience’s attention, too. Rethink your idea by looking for a newsworthy angle and emphasize it in your pitch.

  • Be judicious in what you pitch. Don’t bombard your local editor with story ideas and news releases. They may begin to feel like spam—and get the same treatment.
  • Focus on the right things. Show how programs, budgets, and policies affect people and quality of life. For example, when speaking about budget, show how it translates to services and programs. Break numbers down to show their effect on taxpayers.
  • Keep it simple. Present your story ideas in concise, plain language. Avoid acronyms and jargon that may be understood in local government circles, but meaningless to others. Using jargon confuses the message and makes you seem out of touch.
  • Be accurate. By providing reliable information, you become a valuable resource to the reporter. Conversely, sending out news releases with incorrect information will quickly ruin your hard-won credibility.
  • Respect deadlines. Reporters work under tight deadlines. Consider deadlines when responding to media inquiries and planning events, particularly media-oriented events like news conferences, groundbreakings, and ribbon cuttings. For instance, avoid planning your ribbon cutting on the same day the weekly newspaper editor lays out the paper. With television reporters, be sure to allow enough time for shooting, editing, and broadcasting.
  • Be a matchmaker. When pitching stories, get your message to the right person. Editors usually have a broad view and are more receptive to an array of story ideas. Reporters, though, can be more niche-oriented. Pitch business stories to business reporters and public safety stories to the police reporter.

Make it easy for everyone
Reporters are busy and often overworked. Newsrooms have shrunk, but a reporter’s responsibilities have grown. Your weekly newspaper editor may also be handling website duties, posting news on social media, and even producing videos. So, make it easy to cover your story by:

  • Doing some legwork. When you release news, ensure that appropriate staff are prepared to speak to the press. Do the legwork by making phone calls, setting up interviews with city staff, and tracking down the details.

Provide materials that are plug and play. Giving the reporter a well-crafted news release allows the option of running it as is or using it as a springboard for a longer story.

  • Offering visuals. A picture is worth a thousand words. Think visually in all things—sending news releases, pitching story ideas, planning events. For instance, to garner coverage for a story on something that’s not necessarily breaking news, like snowplow safety, avoid sending out a list of do’s and don’ts. Offer the reporter or photographer a ride-along with a plow operator, or invite them to visit the maintenance shop as city mechanics are outfitting trucks with plows. Providing a photo or graph with your news release may increase the chance the editor selects your story.

Post it, and they will come
Don’t overlook social media. Social media is a great way to share information with residents, and it can also serve as a treasure trove of story ideas for reporters. You may not have time to write a news release about a civic group’s contribution to the police department, but you have time to snap a picture and post it.

Reporters often grab content from social media and serve it up for their readers with little or no changes. Other times, a reporter may pursue a post as a more in-depth feature story—a win-win for the reporter and the city. A low-effort post may result in a high-profile good-news story.

Hands holding recorder, notepad, and microphoneMake the old new again
Often cities publicize recurring events, such as annual festivals or ongoing programs like home rehabilitation grants. It can be difficult to sustain media’s interest in what may be seen as routine information. In those cases, look for a new angle to pitch. Personalize the story by finding a family who attends the event every year or a resident who has benefited from the grant and is willing to share his or her experience.

Find a new story idea by taking a step back. Is something happening in your community that is part of or counter to a larger trend? For example, if your community is seeing a lot of business growth, thanks to economic development outreach, show the value of that.

A reporter may not be motivated to cover a series of smaller businesses moving to your city. But if this growth is occurring in the context of a soft regional economy, help the reporter make that connection.

Discuss your city’s aggregate data related to business growth in context of the overall trend. Most likely, a curious reporter will be motivated to cover that good news.

A work in progress
Attracting attention from the press is an ongoing task. What works with one editor or reporter may not work with the next. Keep changing your tactics, as needed, to meet the needs and styles of individual reporters and editors.

Finally, don’t lose sight of the importance of building a responsive, respectful relationship with the press. That relationship will foster your credibility, create an environment where city officials are viewed as valuable resources, and help your pitches stand out.

Helen LaFave is communications manager with the City of Plymouth. Contact: hlafave@plymouthmn.gov or (763) 509-5090.

Read the Jan-Feb issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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