Media relations insights from ‘The Fourth Estate’

It’s all about the story

For media relations professionals, knowing what goes on behind the scenes in a newsroom is crucial to success. How do the story decisions get made? What are the reporters like? What role do the editors play? A new documentary series, “The Fourth Estate,” offers a peek into one of the most prestigious newsrooms in the country, The New York Times. Here are some media relations insights on display in the first episode of the series that are appropriate for ventures of any size.

First, a little background about the Showtime documentary, the first episode of which aired at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco during the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Filmmaker Liz Grabus said the idea for the series was conceived after the 2016 presidential election. With the media under attack, she wanted to be a fly on the wall as the Times embarked on covering the Trump Administration. Grabus received the festival’s Freedom of Expression award for her work.

From the opening scene in “The Fourth Estate,” which featured Times staffers huddled around newsroom televisions watching the January 2017 inauguration, the values and habits of journalists are on full display.

Executive Editor Dean Baquet marvels at the exhilarating challenge of writing the “first rough draft of history” as the new administration moved into the White House. “What a f—ing story,” he said. “Great stories trump everything else, right?”

It’s all about the story

Media relations professionals should keep Baquet’s words at the forefront when they are pitching reporters. Always remember that storytelling is key when you’re in media relations. But what makes a great story? All good stories have at least one of these 10 elements of news and newsworthiness:

  1. Proximity
  2. Prominence
  3. Timeliness
  4. Oddity
  5. Consequence
  6. Conflict
  7. Human interest
  8. Extremes
  9. Scandal
  10. Impact

In today’s competitive media environment, having a great story is not always enough to result in a coveted media placement. In 2014, there were roughly 5.7 PR professionals for every one journalist in the United States.

Here are some tips on how to research your story angle and anticipate the reporter’s needs to increase your chances that the reporter will follow through.

Related: How to write a pitch that gets an editor’s attention

The importance of a quotable quote

Fourth Estate Quotable

“The Fourth Estate” also offers a glimpse into the pressure-cooker world of newsrooms, where reporters strive to be the first to tweet out soundbites, break national news stories, and bolster their own personal brands via CNN interviews and an in-house podcast, The Daily. All this while under the watchful gaze of Grabus’ cameras.

This is a reminder that many reporters thrive on getting that good quote to help make their story more interesting. Building that kind of a relationship with the media doesn’t happen overnight.

But if you’re a spokesperson trying to improve your media relations skills, it helps to know what reporters are looking for. Here are five ways to be quotable. The same advice goes for pitches and news releases. Check out these 9 tips for writing and editing effective quotes.

Don’t underestimate the importance of a pithy quote.

Related: 6 media interview tips for lawyers

Reporters are humans, too

The documentary not only showed what it’s like for reporters and editors in the newsroom, but also how the pace of covering the president has impacted their personal lives.

In one poignant scene, reporter Maggie Haberman, who commutes from New York City to Washington, D.C., interrupted an interview to take a call from one of her three children. Another shows an investigative reporter and divorced dad getting his two young children off to school in the morning.

Media relations professionals should never forget that the journalists they are pitching are human beings.

I like to spend time with some of my journalist colleagues over coffee or a drink. I see the role of media relations as helping reporters do their jobs better. We can only do this if we know what their challenges are and what they’re working on. “The Fourth Estate” is a good reminder of the value of a journalist’s time.

I always try to help reporters with their stories. Even if I don’t have a client who can help with the story they’re working on, I try to think of good sources. Doing so helps build trust. Here are more things you can do to build relationships with reporters.

Speaking of trust, as one investigative reporter in “The Fourth Estate” said: “Trust is built over time and can be lost in a second.”

Now, let’s say you have built trust with a reporter. Great. And they have agreed to write about the topic you pitched. Even better. But now you (or your client) don’t like the way the story turned out. This sometimes happens. The reporter’s job is to report things as they see it, and their perspective might be different from yours. At this point, you need to get into recovery mode, and manage both the reporter and your client. It’s part of the job.

Related: 3 tips for brand recovery after getting negative press

Summing up media relations insights from ‘The Fourth Estate’

You don’t have to be a big business (or the leader of the free world) to benefit from the lessons that “The Fourth Estate” offers in terms of dealing with the media. Businesses of all sizes can use these key takeaways:

  • Focus on the story. What makes your story compelling (refer to the 10 elements listed above)?
  • Be quotable. In the age of social media, quotes that are “tweetable” matter.
  • Remember that reporters are people, too. Treat them with respect and understanding. This builds trust.

Keep these tips in mind as you work with members of the media — and good luck getting press for your business!

Related: How to measure the success of a small business PR strategy

Image by: rawpixel on Unsplash

Laura Ernde
Laura Ernde is a communications and media relations consultant based in San Francisco. Previously, she was communications director at the State Bar of California and covered the California Supreme Court for the state’s largest legal newspaper. Connect with her on LinkedIn.