PR TECHNIQUE: Media relations: The sink-or-swim world of exclusive stories

Floating an exclusive in front of an editor is a great way to score coverage - if you follow the rules.

Floating an exclusive in front of an editor is a great way to score coverage - if you follow the rules.

It's not every day that Hunter Hoffman, PR manager for Government Liquidations, has a story worth calling USA Today about - let alone one juicy enough to warrant dangling an exclusive in front of the lifestyle editor. Secondhand military equipment is not normally a juicy lifestyle topic. But this time, Hoffman had a gift of a pitch: The upcoming auction of not one, but two yellow submarines. "I thought I'd go to USA Today," he says, "and it definitely helped that I wasn't going anywhere else with it." After an anxious couple of days, Hoffman got his reward: surplus military goods - usable by just a handful of Americans and likely to sell for $3.8 million apiece - on the front page of the most mainstream of mainstream newspaper sections. There is no doubt that the promise of an exclusive can propel a story into its optimum space. Phil Morabito, president of Houston's Pierpont Communications, spells out the question when considering offering an exclusive: "Is there a particular publication that a client would consider a home-run placement?" But exclusives aren't just about making sure the right story gets the right coverage in the right space - they can also serve as a relationship tool between the PR pro and the journalist. Some pros use exclusives as a reward for a journalist's ongoing loyalty; this is particularly useful if you're working with the trade media or a beat reporter with a narrow focus. Others use exclusives as a way to get into a publication they are finding hard to break or that would never normally consider running a story about, say, yellow submarines. "At the very least," says Peter Duckler, VP and media strategist at Ketchum Chicago, "the promise of an exclusive gets a journalist to respond to you." More and more journalists are demanding exclusivity, and while it's tempting to have a fairly sure shot at a big story, it's not a win-win situation. For every journalist who gets the scoop, there are countless others who will be annoyed they missed the story. And it takes common sense and good manners to know that the normal practice of trying more than one outlet should only be undertaken when you have a definite "no" from your first choice. The key, of course, is understanding the influence and mercurial relationships that media outlets have with one another. Peter Himler, MD and EVP of media relations at Burson-Marsteller, explains, "An exclusive in BusinessWeek can easily kill a comparable piece that The Wall Street Journal is working on." And it gets more complex: An exclusive to the New York Post's Page Six column one day may lead to news stories in other papers the next day, and even feature articles in the showbiz weeklies. Naomi Cooper, PR manager for Out magazine, placed a story from an exclusive interview with Cher about her newly out daughter Chastity, with the Post's Liz Smith and Extra. A gossip column and a cable show launched subsequent coverage that ran the gamut of media, from Elle to Star. Similarly, an exclusive to The New York Times will likely generate incremental coverage across other media the next day. With research, it's possible to separate each outlets' counterparts into rivals and sources. Research is necessary even if you're an old hand, for the landscape has changed over the past two years. An informal study by New England agency PAN Communications revealed two key reasons why securing exclusives is not as easy in this economic pinch: Firstly, there are fewer pages in fewer publications. And secondly, the increased turnover of journalists means that the contacts you trusted to honor an exclusive are leaving, or are being laid off. Ninety percent of the PR agency respondents said it's more difficult to get a reporter to agree to an exclusive than it was two years ago, and that reporters only honored the agreement 50% of the time. For the 50% who were burned, 80% said the client was "extremely angry." PAN concludes, as do most media relations experts, that to improve the chances of success, allow plenty of time for the process (which also increases the chance of the reporter understanding the issue), and to have your gun loaded with a quotable analyst, customer reaction, or similar pitch. When it comes to the stories worth offering, size matters. A story might be so important that the news establishment will likely report it whether it's exclusive or not. Giving the scoop to just one journalist in this situation will only serve to annoy all the others, who will feel compelled to give the story ink anyhow. But don't get cocky: A spurned outlet could refuse to run even an important story, especially if you pitch on the day it appears with a rival. Some stories, conversely, are too small. Journalists can feel that the system is being abused if they take the time to listen to a pitch, only to discover that the story is too insignificant to cover in any capacity. They may think the PR pro either is not familiar enough with the publication to warrant future attention or, even worse, is using the "exclusive" as a ploy to wiggle through the normal news prioritization. Beware, too, of the lesser-admitted use for exclusives - to bury bad news in a second-tier publication. A rival outlet may deal a tougher blow in the next day's follow-up story to "punish" the underhand treatment. It's shortsighted to think of an exclusive as a one-off tactic to serve one story. Journalists have long memories, and inappropriate treatment will last long after the story has died. A scorned reporter can sink a company's reputation like a yellow submarine. ------------- Techique tips: Do allow plenty of time, from pitch to publication date Do make sure the publication is a perfect fit for the story Do refrain from pestering a journalist once an exclusive has been arranged. It's not the only story they're working on Don't offer the "exclusive" to more than one outlet Don't try to use an exclusive as a tool to wedge an inappropriate story into an uninterested publication Don't guarantee it to your client until it is set in stone

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