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Make Friends with the Media

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After university, I landed a job at my alma mater's student newspaper as the advertising rep. My degree in psychology with a near minor in fine arts did not make this an obvious career choice, but the commission structure of the job, plus the built-in breaks between semesters was quite appealing. I am a social entrepreneur and had already learned that a traditional job was not going to grease my enterprising and creative wheels.

I roamed the city looking for obvious advertisers, expanded the off-campus reach of the weekly paper, and raked in commissions far above my predecessor. I also learned some valuable tips and tricks about the difference between advertising, publicity, and marketing an event or product.

This article will focus on publicity.

The most powerful contribution you can offer your project or group is to make friends with the media. All forms of media depend on story ideas walking in their door. They do not have the person power to seek out the soft news. Yet they want to cover the soft news in order to bring balance to their daily coverage. You can make it your job to help them with this task.

Start by familiarizing yourself with the media that speaks to your demographic and geographic reach. Include the weeklies, student press, community radio, cable stations, magazines, and e-newsletters, along with the big players. Once you have a list, check out their web pages to find out specific details like deadlines, snail mail addresses, email addresses, phone and fax numbers, contact people, and free community listings policies.

I have been cultivating my media list for 15 years. I started with a local focus, moved to a provincial reach, and have now expanded beyond Ontario. My desk drawer has a folder for media information that I constantly add to. I have a similar email folder. Every few months, I take these scraps of paper and email messages and update my master database.

I make a point of introducing myself to media folks if we cross paths at functions. I always exchange business cards. With my local media, I routinely compliment them on stories that relate to my field of work or that I have found interesting. And, I pass along soft news tips when I hear about them. This positions me as a reliable source of news and a non-criticizing contemporary. Just read the letters to the media to find out how rarely they get complimented.

Next, you will need to learn how to prepare an excellent media release. Essentially, try to write a concise, interesting page that offers the who, what, when, and where of your news. Media writers are all crunching deadlines so when a release arrives in perfect form, more often than not, it will be used verbatim.

I send my media releases in three forms depending on who I'm sending them to. First and always, I send an e-release pasted into the body of an email with no attachment. In the subject line I identify my content as Media Release. In the body of the release I include a link to my web site, plus a link to my ftp site, which houses images ready for downloading at media level dpi. I also include contact names, numbers, and addresses for all parties mentioned in the release.

E-releases are best sent in the afternoon, just after lunch, on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Staff have dealt with the deluge of weekend and overnight emails, so have more time and less last minute scrambling to contend with. Depending on the nature of the news, I send my release two weeks in advance of my event date. This makes it easier for my soft news to get molded around the hard news of the day.

One day later, I follow-up the e-release with a fax copy that contains identical information, only formatted in a more pleasing visual style. For economic reasons, my faxes are sent to about half of the e-release list, usually based on a geographic reach or a targeted area that I want to get more ink in.

Finally, a select number of media receive a package by snail mail or personal delivery. These packages include the release, a letter, and a review copy of what I'm promoting or an offer of media passes for the event that I would like reviewed.

Depending on what timeline I'm working with or the nature of the news that I'm reporting, I often send the e-release a second time, being careful not to resend to anyone who has already responded. I include the phrase 'Gentle Reminder' at the top of the page.

By following this formula, I get media coverage and no one sends me an invoice.

Currently, I am the independent publisher of a fine art photography wall calendar called Breast of Canada. The focus of the calendar is to draw attention to breast health and breast cancer prevention. Net proceeds are directed to the Canadian Breast Cancer Network. To get a sense of the media attention that I have been able to garner, visit www.breastofcanada.com and click on my media link. The listings represent what I have been able to track during the last three years.

Sue Richards is a Guelph-based, social entrepreneur and cultural animator who is busy promoting her creative agenda to anyone who wants to have fun and be involved.

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