Digital-Age Media Relations: Pitching Stories in a Challenging News Environment

Guest article! Christina Zola wrote the piece below based on her notes from what must have been a fantastic public brainstorming session this past July 29th. Sponsored by the Progressive Communicators of DC and facilitated by Massey Media’s Sarah Massey, the discussion included dozens of DC-area media-relations experts and focused on the reality of promoting ideas and causes in a press environment upended by technological and social change.

Christina’s article provides a comprehensive overview of the event and a great source of ideas for the broader communications community, but it’s also a snapshot, freezing a moment in a evolving communications landscape. Thanks to all involved for allowing the rest of us to enjoy it.

Pitching Stories in a Challenging News Environment

By Christina Zola

The big question: what does the slow death of free media mean to communicators?

Relationships with the Media

  • Close relationships with reporters are valuable, but less so than before the shakeup — layoffs, downsizing, reorganizing means many of the writers we counted on to get our stories out are no longer working our beat — or working in journalism at all.
  • Reaching out to reporters we know is still valuable. Even if they don’t get back to us, their colleagues often do.
  • It’s just as hard to pitch to broadcasting as it is to print media. Now, we have to be more aggressive to get a hit, and have to go after more targets to get a hit. Anticipate the work taking more time than it used to.
  • Cultivate your list. Know how your reporters like to be contacted, and keep in touch.
  • Personal is still important, but with the shakeups, it’s not crucial.

Traditional Media?

  • Don’t underestimate the power of local news. Stories percolate up.
  • The big media brands are moving more online. Think of their online presence as a digital amplifier. Use it.
  • Placement in ‘traditional’ media is still relevant. Online world still refers to traditional media sources and will often refer to a piece in the paper, an op-ed.

Redefining Success

  • Help your clients understand that ‘big names’ are great for prestige, but placement in ‘lesser’ media is a definite win. Smaller publications, blogs, online forums have targeted audiences more in line with your goals than mass media.
  • I.e., don’t discount the power of a placement on CNN or the New York Times, but also don’t dismiss a good thread on Huffington Post or another ‘new media’ source that will broadcast your message to a targeted audience.
  • Bloggers are a strong point in the media food chain. “Traditional” media are picking up stories from bloggers, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Don’t overlook the power of viral/virtual media.
  • Remember, maybe reaching 200 people who will take action is better than reaching 20,000 who will just read the story and pitch it with the rest of the paper (target target target).
  • Even op-eds are getting harder to print. Still a valuable tool, but difficult to get placed.

Defining your Audience

  • Who are you really trying to reach.
  • What is your actual goal? Is a blanket appeal or a widely broadcast press release the right way to go?
  • If you’re only trying to influence four senators, consider the best way to target them.

Target, target, target!

  • The ‘general public’ is a myth. It’s an 80’s New Wave band, not a true, targetable audience.
  • A press release is not a thank-you letter.
  • Blanket press releases, media advisories, etc. are not necessarily the best way of communicating.
  • Always ask yourself, ‘SO WHAT?” What are you communicating and why? Is an announcement a way of showing your funders you’re doing your jobs, are you putting a feather in your cap, are you creating an institutional archive of actions and their results? Consider putting the information on the Web so Google/search engines can find it, and communicating the not-big-news stories in some other way besides press releases.
  • Follow up with key reporters when you send out a press release. Call them. Send an email with the words FOLLOW UP in the subject line. Don’t ever assume that a single blast will get the results you need.

Stand Out from the Crowd/Make It Easy for Your Reporters

  • Get creative. Defenders of Wildlife uses unique experiences in the field (literally) to educate reporters on the issues.
  • Do the legwork: hand a story to a reporter with a list of people to interview, angles to cover, resources to investigate. Or,
  • Package the story: use high-quality video, soundbites, well-written pieces to get your story out there.
  • Online media kits: wrap the three bullets above into a single package your reporters and online websites can take and run with it.
  • Big media is moving on line. Appearing on is great. Appearing on is great. Online real estate is limitless. You can get more inches online than you might in print or on broadcast. And you can link to the online content, push it to other platforms, and get a lot of mileage out of a single piece. Susan Turner reminded us that there’s three times more content online than in a paper. Use that to your advantage.
  • Break down complex issues. Find the stories. Get out in the field and find the people behind the news. Make it personal. Relate the big stuff to the little guy.
  • Another note on press releases: make sure the headline and first sentences really stand out, explain why your angle is unique, newsworthy and must be opened. Put the quote up top — it’s been inching up there anyway, usually in the second paragraph nowadays. Facts can go last. Get the compelling part out there first.
  • Get creative! Briefings, education, teaching your targets how to think about the news.


  • Still evolving, but right now, Twitter itself IS news! [Ed. note: You betcha]
  • Most reporters don’t follow others. They look for buzz on Twitter; if people are tweeting about it, it’s news.
  • Take the time to build up a good list on Twitter, of your audience, your media contacts, social networking communicators who can push your message farther.
  • Consider using Tweetdeck or another system to manage your Twitter ADD.
  • Vanguard Communications had a great success with Twitter. They used it as a platform to tease the upcoming Farm Aid concert, and put together a contest to guess the location. Enough buzz was generated that NPR did a story about the twitter buzz, which meant they also had to do a story about Farm Aid. National coverage from a campaign in 140 characters or less!


  • Shift to fan pages and away from groups.
  • Invest in your online relationships.
  • Listen.
  • Facebook is a useful tool for communicating with your members and the media — two stories from the group, a PCDC’er reached out to a reporter she couldn’t find anywhere BUT Facebook, and a reporter who couldn’t find her contact list while on vacation reached out to a PCDC’er on Facebook.


  • RSS feeds and other ways to compile and broadcast your everyday news are good things. Ditto digests, and any other way you can get interesting information in front of your audience without spamming them every day.


  • Think of bloggers as the equivalent of the trade media of 10 years ago. Get them talking and tweeting.
  • Use your own blogroll. Most bloggers will ‘add you back’ — and that drives traffic back to your site
  • Identify the top bloggers in your area. Keep in mind that there are out of work investigative reporters out there who are starting up their own online initiatives. Find them. Cultivate them.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of guest bloggers [Ed note: testify!]. They on your site, and you on theirs.

Pitfalls and Concerns

  • Spoon-feeding stories to outlets means we have incredible control over the message, but there is concern about a lack of balance, rebuttal, or basic digging for the story behind the story.
  • Targeted audiences, especially in new media/social outlets, might mean you’re only reaching the audiences who agree with your point of view 100%.
  • When you are broadcasting to, listening to, and reacting to mostly those who agree with you, you can fall into a trap of only subscribing to ‘Channel Me’, and surrounding yourself with only those who agree with you.
  • Challenge: reaching the fence sitters.
Written by
Christina Zola
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