MEDIA ROUNDUP: Press builds development coverage

As media outlets up their coverage of planning and development, PR pros must look for fresh ways to retain reporters' interest in these multiyear projects.

As media outlets up their coverage of planning and development, PR pros must look for fresh ways to retain reporters' interest in these multiyear projects.

Ask many journalists about planning and development, and you'll often get a shudder as they recall starting their careers by covering late-night community zoning meetings. Planning and development has never been the most glamorous beat, and it's often very, very local, so reporters tend to flee it as soon as possible. But planning and development is not nearly as dull as it might first seem, especially in places like New York, where all four major daily newspapers have dedicated reporters on the beat. "The whole debate over the redevelopment of lower Manhattan has kind of elevated urban development to a different level," explains Joe DePlasco, SVP with Dan Klores Communications. "It's not just about buildings or transportation. In a way, it's a kind of a throwback to an earlier period when there was much more public discourse about what the urban landscape should look like." Major media in other markets across the country are also stepping up their coverage, primarily because their audiences are being impacted by tremendous growth as open space, even dozens of miles outside the urban center, becomes scarce. "It's one way for the major urban papers to compete with the suburban papers," says Brian Brodrick, partner with PR firm Jackson Spalding, who notes that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a weekly section, Horizon, totally dedicated to new growth and development. "It's an issue that really resonates outside the urban core, and for a lot of the Sunbelt cities, the papers are actively trying to reach those suburban areas." Reaching reporters The challenge facing PR agencies representing major development projects is that these infrastructure improvements are often multiyear if not multi-decade efforts. That means dealing with an ever-changing cast of journalists, many of whom simply aren't looking 10 years down the line. "A lot of reporters tend to focus on a lot of spot news, such as this developer is buying this building or a vacant hotel is getting purchased and restored," says Jennifer West, GM with Spokane, WA-based Rockey Hill & Knowlton. "Part of that are limited resources - lots of these reporters have to cover so many things. ... My challenge is to get them to step back and take a look at the big picture." One reason for this continuing media outreach is that any major development invariably generates opposition, whether it's based on the amount of public funds being used or the inconvenience a lengthy construction effort might pose for residents. This type of conflict makes for good stories, but is often not terribly flattering to the developers involved. "Traditionally developers have been very squeamish when it comes to the media," says Michael Layne, partner with Detroit-based Marx Layne & Co. "So you end up with a situation where they seem to be springing their plan on the media, as opposed to being proactive and walking reporters through the process from early on." "You have to recognize that there will be opposition," adds DePlasco. "If you take the approach that people have a right to voice their concerns and you are obligated to address them, then you're in a much better position. Part of that depends on winning the trust of reporters because, with urban planning, there are many nitty-gritty details, and you're responsible for getting that information to journalists." Honing strategies This courtship of the local community and daily papers becomes especially crucial given that development and planning stories generally don't lend themselves well to local TV or radio because of their complexity. "If an urban-development story ends up on TV, we tell our clients that it's not necessarily good news because that means there's a people angle to it, and someone could be angry," says Brodrick. Michael DeMent of Prairie Village, KS-based DeMent O'Flaherty & Collier Communications also advises that one might need different strategies for media that might be only a few miles apart. "You've got rural areas rubbing up against rapidly growing suburban areas rubbing up against urban areas, and the media in those towns all have different, very local concerns," adds Dement. "Some reporters may brush up against a debate over a new highway for a short while and not think about it again for six months or a year. But the issues are always there, and that's why we counsel our clients that they need to make community outreach, including media outreach, a permanent part of their planning." Pitching... planning and development
  • Urban planning and development is often about perception. If you don't engage the press, you can bet the opposition will. Counsel your developer clients to reach out to the media early and explain the benefits of any new project.
  • Major urban-infrastructure changes can be decade-long projects, which means dealing with new reporters all the time. Make sure you put a premium on having an ongoing reporter-education effort.
  • The general tone for planning and development coverage is often set by editorial columnists and writers. Include those people in your media outreach.

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