PR TECHNIQUE: Pitching your client's expertise to the media

Positioning a client as an expert commentator is a good way to get column inches for someone else's story. Melanie Shortman looks at tools to reach reporters' radars

Positioning a client as an expert commentator is a good way to get column inches for someone else's story. Melanie Shortman looks at tools to reach reporters' radars

In a perfect world, a media relations campaign would yield stories in media outlets widely consumed by your target audience about how your client will change his or her industry forever. But in the real world, where competition for column inches is fierce, sometimes you have to think outside the headline and look for other ways to get coverage, often by piggybacking stories that would not ordinarily feature your clients. Pitching your client (or yourself) as an expert on a particular topic is a widely exercised option, and one that works. Once your client is considered a trusted source in the eyes of journalists, every time he or she is called for comment, they will be more likely to garner desirable coverage. But pitching expertise instead of an actual story can be more difficult than getting the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Fortunately, there are several online tools available that can serve as a gauge or offshoot of a full-blown campaign. "It's not the main [media] strategy, but another leg," says Peter Duckler, VP of Media Strategy at Ketchum. "Organizations are using more and more freelancers. For people with a limited budget, it's a must-do thing." The three most widely used services are PR Newswire's ProfNet, MediaMap's SourceNet, and Yearbook of Experts' ExpertClick. You could call these tools the internet dating service of PR, for all three connect journalists with the experts they need on a short deadline. And while they should not be the only means by which experts are pitched, they are an invaluable way to discover opportunities not offered by a cold call. ProfNet allows reporters to submit a query to PR professionals worldwide at nonprofits, universities, government agencies, hospitals, corporations, and PR agencies. Users can also search a database of experts. Once submitted, queries are sent out in e-mail dispatches to 10,000 information officers throughout the day, averaging between 500 and 600 per week, according to ProfNet president Dan Forbush. "We also have leads and roundups, where we proactively send out a tip sheet to reporters," he says. Because of high traffic among reporters, ProfNet has developed a loyal following, as demonstrated by a recent query sent out by PRWeek that generated 118 responses in just five hours. "ProfNet is similar to reading the newspapers and The New York Times personal finance. It's a daily ritual," says April Lewis-Parks, director of education and media relations for Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, a nonprofit organization that helps people with credit-card debt. Lewis-Parks' media relations campaigns target women ages 25-45, and she estimates that she has about five successful placements via ProfNet every year with personal finance columns in daily newspapers and family magazines. Wanting to take the campaign in a new direction, Lewis-Parks pitched Cosmopolitan, but editors told her that credit-card debt wasn't fun or sexy. However, when a ProfNet query from Cosmo found its way into her in-box, she responded and got her company's president to speak as an expert in a May 2000 article titled, "How to save $500, $1,000 or $2,500 this year." But ProfNet has become so popular with the PR crowd that journalists proceed with caution. "ProfNet gets the most results, but I like the fact that I can be anonymous on SourceNet," says Bobbi Dempsey, a freelance magazine writer who has worked for Redbook, Family Circle, Twist, and Child. "I never include my phone number, but you tend to get swamped with e-mails. Even without the phone number, people track me down." Though the process of cloaking a query or hiding the name of the publication she works for is available with ProfNet, journalists like Dempsey turn to MediaMap's SourceNet to post anonymous queries contained on the website, and viewed for free by journalists. Erin Mitchell, director of media services for MediaMap, says that one USA Today reporter regularly posts anonymously on SourceNet to avoid e-mail overload. "He's always looking for something very specific," she says. "It gives PR people the opportunity to pitch a very specific aspect of their client's expertise." But the cloaking feature has its critics, and some PR people don't use SourceNet because they prefer to know who they are pitching. Nicole Quigley, SAE at Levick Strategic Communications, represents some of the country's most prestigious lawyers, and says, "When I have an expert source on a broad issue such as counterterrorism or the patient's bill of rights, I only want them with a handful of publications," she says. "In that case, the best way to get third-party placement is to form a relationship with that reporter in a more strategic way." One way that reporters can find their ideal expert is by searching the Yearbook of Experts at Edited by Mitchell Davis, the site offers about 4,000 listed participants and allows the journalist to directly contact the source instead of having the source contact them. "One of the biggest things I have felt since day one is the importance of getting out of the way," he says. "Let the journalist have what they want when they want it. Deadlines are right now." Quick and direct, experts are listed by topic, and are easily accessible by search engine. There is a fine art to creating an expert profile. "It's like a Google search," says Duckler. "I think about what keywords a journalist might use. At the end of the day, I want my expert to come up." Duckler recommends using the opportunity to discuss your client's strengths, and other topics that they would be comfortable discussing. "I print out the form and use it as a dialogue with my client, to get an agreement about what they can talk about," he says. "You learn a lot about the client. Whenever we're doing a pitch, we'll take a step back and make a targeted approach, and then we'll reach out, but somewhere along the line, we'll register them online." ----- Technique tips Do provide precise details in your expert's profile Do relate your expert to a trend or current event Do respond to all queries appropriately and in a timely fashion Don't use internet services as your main media relations strategy Don't respond to a pitch by any manner except the one requested Don't post an expert without his or her consent

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