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Cracking the Media Code: A Deep Dive into Effective Media Relations with Erynn Kerrigan

Heurisay relies on a robust team of experts to keep our clients in the news. Erynn Kerrigan is one of our media relations gurus, with an eye on all things press-related. In this Q&A, she gives us the inside scoop on the ever-evolving state of reporting, news media and how brands can position themselves to take advantage of trending stories and get in front of new audiences.

Q: What are you hearing from reporters today in terms of their workload?

The majority of my contacts, whether they are at a top-tier national publication, trade magazine or local news, tell me that they are writing four to five articles every single day. They are keeping up with content farms, fighting algorithms and integrating SEO, so they have to constantly churn out content. For a reporter, this includes sifting through thousands of topics, doing extensive research, preparing questions, conducting interviews and getting editor approval. All on a tight deadline. This easily translates into a 10+-hour work day.

Additionally, reporters are people with regular lives, trying to squeeze in time with family and friends, wellness and a social life. When reporters also get hundreds of email pitches from PR professionals every day, is it any wonder they don’t read them all?

This is why PR is really more about relationships than it is about cleverly worded story ideas. To stand out, I try to keep the needs of the reporter at the forefront of every single pitch. How can I be a good source, so the reporter turns to me when they need information? Even if it doesn’t benefit a client, I try to connect reporters with the right sources as often as I can. And I work hard to find ways to benefit both reporters and clients. If I can find a trend that my client has primary data for, or a creative angle to fit national topics into local news, I am making the reporter’s job easier, which will lead to news coverage more often than not.

Given how much reporters have on their plates, I make it a point to respond to reporters as quickly as I can – within five minutes if at all possible. Sometimes that quick turn-around is hard for clients, but it can make a big difference whether the story gets done or not.

Q: In your experience, what is the difference between pitching local and national media?

Local news outlets are not just smaller versions of national news organizations. Think about it––if local news covers the exact same stories as the national media, but on a smaller scale with fewer resources, who would watch or read? Local news has to be about things that are directly impacting the citizens in a given region.

I recently had an interaction with a local reporter in Utah (where I live). He was pleased to hear from a local PR agent, and gave me this advice: “I always love getting Utah-based story ideas. So many of the pitches I receive…do not directly impact us here. I am always looking for great community-based story ideas. Right now, I am trying to find a restaurant in Salt Lake that serves alligator meat, a fun preview before the Utah/Florida game this week.”

I don’t know about you, but my first instinct would not necessarily be to tie alligator meat to football. This experience made me consider how I can be even more creative in finding the media windows that my clients fit into. Sometimes we have to put our laptops and phones away, sit in a quiet space and just think.

Newsrooms are shrinking, particularly on the local level, so they really do rely on PR professionals and their clients to help fill in some of those gaps. For local media, the key is to consistently send them good, uplifting stories that are happening in their own backyard.

Q: Can you talk about the process and timeline for getting media coverage? What do brands need to know?

Let me give a real-life example of working with a well-known national newspaper. Here is what it looked like:

  1. I cold-pitched the reporter in March, but never heard back.

  2. In May, I sent a related, but different pitch through email.

  3. A few days later, I followed up on the second pitch to see if there was any interest still no response.

  4. That weekend, a national story broke that was related to my client’s technology. The reporter remembered having seen my subject line, went looking for my email, and responded, wanting to chat.

  5. The next morning, he received approval from his editor to move forward, and we set up a formal interview with my client.

  6. The paper also wanted to speak with an end user of the technology, so we scrambled to find someone willing to talk. At first, customers were unwilling to talk on the record, but after some finessing and reassuring about the political ramifications, that appointment was scheduled.

  7. It took about two weeks for the article to be written and go through the approval process, and then another week for the article to fit in between breaking news.

  8. All told, from first contact to publication was about three months, although once the reporter showed interest it was more like three weeks.

I have had stories hit faster and some take much longer. Sometimes articles happen within a day or two. On the other hand, I have been working with a top-tier morning show, and the process is approaching its one-year mark.

The name of the media game is hurry up and wait. You absolutely have to be quick to respond, but then you must be patient and let the media do their jobs.

Another part of the process I want to point out is that companies have to be a little bit flexible about how they fit into the story. Most brands have a complicated process to develop very specific messaging, and they want to stick to those talking points, which is understandable. However, the news media doesn’t usually work that way, so you have to be willing to expand the net you cast, and then fit some of those talking points in once your foot is in the door.

For example, I once worked with a landscaping client attempting to get their name into the local news. They provided corporate design and maintenance services, and also snow removal. We weren’t having much luck talking about run-of-the-mill landscaping tips. That’s why, when I learned about an unusual spike in Christmas tree prices, I asked what experts they had on staff that could talk about that trend. I then offered one of my local media contacts an arborist of 30 years who could speak intelligently about Christmas trees and why they might be more expensive that year. The story ran a few days later. My client didn’t sell Christmas trees, but their expert was able to speak about that trending topic, wearing a branded shirt, and fit in some of the company’s talking points as well, getting them exposure on a popular local TV program. It might be a win in a roundabout way, but it was still a win.

Q: What is the most misunderstood aspect of media relations?

I think that most people assume that all media relations people do is relay messages back and forth between their clients and the reporters who cover them. It seems so simple on its surface––so why is it so expensive?

The truth is that media relations are just that––relationships. And just like any relationship, it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to do it right. I spend most of my time building trust and a good rapport with media professionals, so that when my clients are ready with a big story, my media contacts will pick up the phone.

Companies would not expect vendors in any other industry to give away services for free, but they often believe that media relations professionals should undervalue their most precious resource, their time.

The other misconception I would point out is that the return on investment seen in PR can’t be easily measured. It is true that some aspects of a brand’s reputation and name recognition are difficult to measure, but with a healthy budget and the right team working on a campaign, there is absolutely a straight line to be drawn between media relations and things like web traffic, social media shares, and even sales leads.

Q: How do you find reporters to pitch?

How do you find anyone in the business world? I use a combination of personal and professional networking, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, and media-specific databases to get my foot in the door. But the true win in media relations is when I earn relevant contact information because I have a solid working relationship with a reporter.

Q: What, if any, changes are you noticing when it comes to working with the media?

There’s a decreasing number of journalists, and those still in the industry are moving around a lot, so you have to do constant check-ins to see who is covering what. In the last five years, content has become more important, so brands need to invest time, money, or both into developing expertly-written contributed content. Chat GPT won’t cut it for real media.

The other change I have seen over the course of my career is the positive focus on promoting diverse people and points of view. For media relations, this translates into finding both stories about diversity, equity and inclusion and charismatic spokespeople who look different than who has been in/on the news in the past.

Q: What do you tell clients for them to have a successful media program?

Be patient, and have realistic expectations. Media relations is a long-term strategy for long-term goals, and you have to trust the process.

Additionally, be invested and flexible. Clients who don’t respond in a timely manner will not have a successful media strategy. If you have a three-day approval process for any quote that goes out, reporters will move on to a source that can turn things around much quicker.

Finally, you get what you pay for. Of course, your college intern can send out mass emails with your latest press release, and you could call that media relations, but it is unlikely to lead to any meaningful coverage. PR experts are experts for a reason. Not only do they understand how to interface with the media, they have a carefully constructed contact list built up over years of experience, and relationships backing up their pitches. If you really want to see your brand in the news, back that objective up with a solid budget and give the PR team access to the experts (including those at the top) in your company.

Q: What do you love most about working with the media?

It is so satisfying to see all of my hard work and creativity turn into something that helps the reporters I know and positively impacts the businesses I represent.

Not every PR professional has the dogmatic tenacity to keep asking the same question: “How does my client fit into this publication?” in different ways. When a publication says that my first pitch, a certain press release, or one expert is not a fit, I come back with something new. If it is important to my client and their audience, I know there is a way to get the information across, I just have to be creative. It takes more legwork than most people think, but if you are willing to get outside of that black and white thinking, you will get the quality kind of placements you need.

On a personal note, I love working with reporters because, over time, I have learned that they are mostly very similar to me. They are driven and curious, and they want a successful career. If I bring them quality stories, it can lead to more coverage for both of us. That is really fun. Most journalists are awesome to work with and really grateful for help with cranking out enough good content to meet their quotas. They just don’t want you to waste their time. I think that’s something most everyone can relate to.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with amazing clients and reporters who are all passionate about what they do and ready to put in the work to tell inspiring stories.

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