For good media relations, treat reporters like customers

Know their needs, advertise your products, give good service, offer specials, educate and keep in touch.

Working for AT&T during the Quality movement, Wilma K. Mathews decided to apply the concept of focusing on customers to media relations. Both the staff and reporters liked the results, and she's become an advocate for the approach.

To treat reporters like customers, you have to know their needs. A simple way to find out is to ask. Send your customers a form requesting such information as what they cover, whether they write a column or cover a beat, when deadlines fall, how they prefer to be contacted (phone, fax, email, mail). Write the questions to fit the reporters.

Many people forget a crucial question: What efforts to contact you shall we make when we have breaking news? A radio station and a magazine will provide quite different answers.

Call to introduce yourself and to verify information, particularly phone numbers and addresses. As you develop a relationship, find out personal information-such as birthdays and favorite sports-to include in conversations.

Customers want products. Your product line consists of news and information, Mathews says. It can go out in different packages: news releases, press kits, taped announcements, interviews on breaking stories, etc.

Your research on customers and your understanding of your product help you decide what you should and shouldn't send out to the media and in what size package. The information you gather from reporters should tell you how to narrow your product for each. "You can't treat them all alike."

Apply customer service techniques to your work with reporters. You have to respect their product needs and their deadlines. They want quick answers to their questions, or at least a reason you can't provide these.

Let them know where to reach you or another media relations staff member 24 hours a day seven days a week. Your cards should include your 800 number, your office number, your cell phone number, your home number and your e-mail address.

Give your customers special offers-say a one-on-one interview with the CEO or a preview of new products.

If you offer a special to one, offer specials to others, too. Mathews notes that you can offer few exclusives now, but you can think of angles for reporters you work with regularly.

Be careful in giving personal perks, such as lunch or tickets to a football game. Know the restrictions they work under. Keep it clear that you are selling rather than buying your product.

"Join a professional group, perhaps the Society for Professional Journalists, and visit with the journalists on an informal basis there," Mathews suggests.

Educate your customers. For example, give seminars for all or groups of reporters. Invite reporters to meet experts and your staff at trade shows.

Mathews emphasizes that much ongoing education uses readily available materials. Put reporters on your employee publication's mailing list. It carries great stories that you wouldn't put into a press release but may trigger an idea for a reporter. If nothing else, it keeps your organization in the reporter's mind.

Send such other materials as specialty publications and the CEO's speeches.

If you educate your customers, they will choose good products.

Keep in touch with your customers even when they change beats or publications. If you've had a good relationship, they will come back to you for your products wherever they go, and usually they move to more and more influential publications.

That's the last step in the customer-focused approach. It's easy and effective, Mathews says. "Try it."

WRITING THAT WORKS interviewed Wilma K. Mathews, director, public relations, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. She covered this topic and others in a chapter in Inside Organizational Communication, edited by Al Wann, International Association of Business Communicators.

Voice mail: "I'm not here" isn't enough

"You have to have voice mail, but your voice mail can at least give information, not just say you're not here," says Wilma Mathews.

Reporters expect quick access and instant answers, so your voice mail mustn't put them off. Mathews suggests the message include when you'll be in and what callers should do if they need help right away.



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