Editorial boards are a powerful platform for your message. But even if you get a foot in the door, the challenge has only just begun.
In spite of dwindling circulation numbers for daily newspapers and the growing popularity of their online versions, PR pros and their clients still rely heavily on the influence editorial boards can have in helping get their message out.
While the list of likes and dislikes of all editorial-board members may vary, the one thing they all want is for those pitching them to get to the point and skip the song and dance.
Stacy Armijo of Austin, TX-based Pierpont Communications, says a key rule of pitching editorial boards is that the issue must have an impact on a majority of a title's current readers. "People have to remember that every issue doesn't necessarily affect all consumers," she says. "And if it's a national issue, there has to be a local tie-in."
She adds that editorial boards don't want to hear about a company's latest widget. "If a PR rep goes to an editorial board and offers nothing but fluff," she warns, "it will kill both their credibility and that of their client with that editorial board."
When preparing a client, Armijo says it's essential to grill them. "Don't ever let the media ask your client a question you haven't already asked them," she says.
But preparing a client and keeping them focused doesn't mean the meeting can't become a two-way conversation. "The idea of these meetings is to get both sides to engage and discuss an issue or issues," Armijo says.
John Gormley, director of communications for The Texas Association of Realtors, one of Armijo's clients, believes the round of editorial-board meetings his organization had last April with the state's major dailies had an impact on a piece of legislation not getting passed. Gormley says the goal of the meetings was to explain the negative impact the proposed legislation would have on all private real estate owners in Texas.
"State lawmakers wanted to reform the method of public school funding," Gormley says. "One option would have been the Real Estate Transfer Tax."
Gormley and two of his associates, with very little paraphernalia aside from some research and a one-page fact sheet, visited each of the state's major news publications, including the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
"Board members looked at us as nothing but a special interest group," he recalls. "They were skeptical of us. So we didn't expect them to see things our way at first, but we wanted them to look at the impact of this legislation from another angle."
A number of editorials were written in favor of the association's stance. Gormley says he was quoted in some of the articles and was asked to write an Op-Ed piece. There were attempts to bring the proposed legislation up for a vote, "but it never even made it to the floor. Lawmakers read these editorials and I believe they were influenced by them," he says.
The fact that Gormley and his associates were quoted in some pieces and not in others is typical of how these relationships work. Cathy Renna, media relations director at Fenton Communications, says the goal of this process should be to develop a long-term relationship between the client and the editorial board.
"The fact is that your client won't always be named in a piece," she says. "But if you talk on a regular basis and provide good information, editorial boards will start coming to your client for help with articles."
Renna has a client that speaks regularly and serves as a source for The New York Times on editorials and news articles about women in Iraq. Renna, who has also arranged meetings for clients with The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, says it took six months to set up the initial meeting between her client and the Times' editorial board.
When possible, Renna suggests bringing someone directly affected by the issue being discussed. "This makes it compelling and gives the issue a face," she says.
Lastly, a PR pro should know where a paper stands on the issue they plan to pitch. Renna recommends looking back over a year's worth of issues to see if any editorials have been written on the topic and to identify who wrote them.
Arnold Garcia, the editorial page editor of the Austin American-Statesman, says when he's pitched, he asks the PR pro, "What will you tell me that I can put in the paper? Tell me something I may not already know, or show me another way to look at a specific issue."
Garcia says once he agrees to meet, there's a number of things the client should refrain from doing in order to avoid turning him and his colleagues off.
"Don't come in here and read to me," he says. "You're stepping all over your message if you're just going to read and do some song and dance. Just tell me what you need to tell me and let me know how I can help."
Large entourages don't impress Garcia either. "You should show up with no more than three people. Any more than that and you'll spend an hour just introducing everyone," he explains.
Garcia says no one on an editorial board likes to be told they're going to be set straight on an issue by someone.
"I even had George Bush come into my office when he was first running for governor and he was trying to set me straight," Garcia recalls.
He does, however, give Bush credit for doing the one thing that every editorial board member likes to see - being straightforward and candid.
"That first time he ran for governor," Garcia says, "he came in and said to us, 'I don't expect to get this paper's endorsement, but let me tell you what I'm going to do when I'm governor.' I liked that because he was real about the situation and got straight to the point."
When the session is over, Garcia advises that people tell him exactly what they want. "If they want an editorial, they should ask for it," he says. "Don't be shy about it."
Do pick a topic that is timely
Do leave behind basic materials with bullet points editors can reference
Do leave time for Q&A
Don't let clients read entire presentations from a sheet of paper
Don't pitch one topic and let a client go in and discuss another
Don't waste too much time trying to get a meeting with a paper that has always opposed the issue