The business of small business news
by Mitch Leff
Every night the major news programs run through their daily business report, citing the ups and downs of the Dow Jones, the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ. It’s portrayed as a definitive picture of how the economy is doing and has great influence on economic and investing behavior for representing so few companies.
But the Dow Jones only measures the value of 30 stocks, and those 30 are the biggest companies in the U.S., including Coca-Cola, Home Depot and IBM.
While the impact of the Dow is largely psychological, what is quite real is the amount of media coverage each of these 30 companies gets for every new product, service, earnings report or personnel announcement. Each is covered in detail by CNBC, the AP, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, etc. Their releases go out on PR Newswire or BusinessWire and are picked up by hundreds of web sites in the U.S. and around the world.
Some companies — Coca-Cola, Home Depot, P&G — even have reporters dedicated to covering their news and topics related to their industry.
But what happens when a mid-sized company issues news? They see a fraction of the result, of course. Most likely they see coverage only in their hometown media or in trade publications. It’s frustrating for companies that are employing thousands and tracking hundreds of millions in sales and revenues. It’s even harder for very small companies trying to build their businesses.
So why are smaller companies having so much trouble getting coverage? There are a number of factors at play here, but it really comes down to a lack of resources at both the media and businesses.
Let’s look at the key areas: Lack of communication resources and skills, fewer business reporters in newsrooms, smaller business sections and reporters doing double or triple duty.
Lack of Communication Resources and Skills
Many smaller businesses don’t have the resources they need to operate a truly effective public relations function. The marketing or advertising director will often have that role thrust upon them. In some companies you might even have one person who’s responsible for marketing, special events, advertising, fundraising, internal communications and investor relations.
Adding on the role of generating media coverage might seem a logical extension of the job the marketing person is doing, but it’s actually a very different skill set. It requires a different type of writing ability, one that’s more persuasive and more concise than annual reports or internal communications.
It also requires a deep understanding how the media works. What makes that piece of news from your company a story? What needs to be in your press release to encourage coverage?
Many companies are deeply invested in their own products or services. Politely said, that gives them a sometimes unrealistic perspective of the news value of many stories coming out of their headquarters. There needs to be a professional on board who can take a step back and ask “is this really newsworthy?”
For the most part (never say never), media don’t do feature stories on small businesses. Of course, there are specific magazines, such as Inc. and Entrepreneur, that cover those areas, so businesses can look for that type of outlet.
Reporters won’t write about something that’s been done 10 times before and they’re less likely to be interested in something that affects a very small, limited group.
Fewer Business Reporters in Newsrooms, Smaller Business Sections
Ten or 15 years ago the media world was flush. Some cities still had two daily newspapers, and they were full of special sections, including food, travel, technology, style, books, jobs, real estate and even cars. Most of those sections, supported by heavy ad sales, are gone. In many cities the once-separate business section has been folded into other sections. Syndicated services are taking the place of once-local writing.
The recession decimated media companies. Staffs were slashed, with cuts to copy desks, editors, designers and reporters. So today there are fewer pages available for news, combined with fewer reporting staff to cover news from smaller companies.
Reporters Doing Double or Triple Duty
But it’s not just fewer reporters. Ten years ago all a reporter needed to do was write one story a day for their daily paper. Today, with online and social media channels, that same reporter will update her story every hour, plus maintain a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. They may also be turning their print stories into audio podcasts, shooting video for the paper’s web site and maybe even taking their own photos.
Television reporters are now called “multimedia journalists,” meaning they’re not just reporters anymore, but photographers and editors. Technology advances mean reporters can edit in the field a lot easier and it’s not uncommon to see photos and even stand-ups sent in by iPhone from a story site.
On the magazine side, many publications are outsourcing some or all of their writing to contract writers. Often the only editorial person a magazine masthead will note is the editor, who will assign stories to writers scattered across the country. That makes the dynamic challenging. It’s hard for a company to build those all-important relationships with the writers a business needs to know, and the writers are often nowhere near potential sources.
Across every media channel, reporters tell me how hard it has become for them to find time to cultivate sources. It’s very hard to do the kind of background research that allows them to write deep, meaningful stories. The result is often much longer hours for reporters dedicated to providing quality work.
Businesses looking for news coverage should consider the following. Heck, business journalists need to be aware of these strategies as well so that they can understand how they’re being pitched
● Better Research: Take more time researching not just the publications you’re pitching but the specific reporter as well. It’s vital for you to know the kinds of stories they write, how often, when their stories appear, and where in the publication they’re placed. Watch and understand which reporters cover earnings releases.
Which reporters come up with their own stories and which have stories assigned to them? Who are the breaking news writers (they rarely get to choose their own stories) and which are “enterprise” writers who might spend a week or more on a story?
● Relationship Building: Building relationships with media is a process, one that may take months or years to reach the results you want. Look for every way to meet and engage with the reporters you want know. That includes going to workshops, seminars or local press club meetings.
● Better Press Materials and Pitches: In general, keep the information brief and concise. Think like a reporter and give them the key points of your story in 50 words or less. Everything beyond that is detail.
Email is an important tool for getting information out to reporters. Make your subject line short and persuasive. Imagine the report is reading your pitch on his iPhone and write with that in mind. Don’t include pages and pages of detail and don’t include attachments. Links to video, photos and additional details are excellent to add.
● Longer time frames: Don’t assume that you can give a reporter your release the day before the announcement and still get coverage. You may need to start talking with them days or weeks in advance.
A business should look at its media relations program as a year-long effort. Limited coverage of one event or announcement isn’t a failure if it builds a relationship with a reporter for a larger, deeper story down the road.
● Realistic Expectations: It’s probably not realistic to expect every bit of news from your company to result in a feature story. During the course of a year you’ll see an assortment of short news briefs, an executive quoted in a trend story, a photo with a caption the mentions your company or product and maybe one story that focuses just on you.
Mitch Leff is the president of Atlanta-based Leff & Associates Public Relations