Understanding media relations better: Felicity Cowie shares how it can help you gain exposure and get noticed
By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur.
In the new episode of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, we talked about media relations with Felicity Cowie, a former Panorama and BBC journalist who also has a new book called “Exposure.” She also discussed the difference between media and public relations (PR) and how can it work to help entrepreneurs get noticed.
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Media vs Public Relations
Felicity stopped being a journalist around 10 years ago. She then went on to work with clients to help them get media coverage — to help entrepreneurs and other big businesses get work with journalists.
And she knows from that side of things that there's a lot of confusion around media relations. What is it? What’s public relations? What’s marketing? What’s communications? All these things overlap but the fundamental difference between media relations and all of these other activities is that when you do media relations (which is really a process for working with journalists to get on-page news coverage), your key audience is the journalists themselves.
When people go into working with journalists, it's because they want exposure. They want media coverage. They want great headlines about their business because they want those headlines to interest and attract the public that they want to reach — whether that's customers, talent, investors, or just the general public. When you're doing media relations, you're not speaking directly to the public unlike when you put content on your own social media channels or event. You're speaking to journalists and you're hoping that they are going to relay what you say to the public that you want them to talk to.
Journalists, however, are under absolutely no obligation to do what you ask. You don't have any right to look at their material before they publish it. They don't really have any obligations to correct any mistakes that they make. And even if they have intentions to do it, it can often get lost in the mix as they’re also working on their next story.
It's important to understand the whole benefit of media relations, which is about having an independent third-party endorsement. It’s a sort of turbocharged testimonial that your business, out of all of the other businesses in your space, is the one that the Financial Times, for instance, has chosen to feature. But the risk is that you have no control over what they do. Or, at least, you have bits of control at the beginning of the process about what you put out there. But how the journalist uses it and how they feel the public will want to know about it can be very different from your business.
On Doing a Reality Check and Being Concise
With so many pitches coming in every day, it’s quite a competition to get a journalist interested in your company. It’s difficult to get things placed. And even if you want something and you've got a great story and it's of interest to your immediate world, it’s not the same for journalists.
According to Felicity, the first thing that you need to do is to have a reality check with yourself.
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There are no agencies out there that can deliver things that are undeliverable. So putting that pressure on them and asking them to do stuff that they can't get for you is not going to work. You need to do the legwork yourself at first before you get other people to help you. Be realistic about which media outlets are likely to be interested in you and what you have to say in the first place.
There's no harm in taking a punt and trying it. She mentioned that she herself is promoting her own book at the moment. And she has tried various things to see which works because she has never been the subject of her own PR or media relations before.
Media relations is about interesting the journalist and saying, “It’s not for us.” Though saying, “We like this” is going to happen a bit, you have to respect the fact that they know their own audiences. They know their own public and who is it that they’re writing for.
You can prepare yourself in that way. But the other thing you need to do is to be very clear about who you are as a business.
When she worked for the BBC, she worked on their planning desk and it was her job to find stories. She also worked at Panorama and there, it was her job to find an investigation. She was actively looking for material but she would tend to scroll down the press release or the email. She would look at the information that the person had sent about what their business is, who they are, and how they describe themselves as a source of information. These things are called “boilerplates” in journalist land or marketing land. These are a sort of an “About Us,” a description of your business.
While it’s important to get these boilerplates right, they’re very overlooked. Especially if you’re in a large organisation, the politics of deciding what you are in a few words is quite complicated. You can end up having boilerplates that are hundreds of words long.
In writing a boilerplate, you have to think about how journalists want to see a source that knows itself and knows exactly what it does and how to talk about it. And 50 words are enough to really communicate a lot about your business.
You have to put some effort into that and think about the outlets that you want to approach before you think about which story is it that you want to tell.
Although stories get a lot of publicity and they’re really important, it’s easy to think of great stories and get carried away with them. What’s hard is to do the legwork and get agreement from key people in your business about, “This is who we want to be portrayed in the media. If we get massive coverage if they describe us in these 50 words, is that okay?” Because it would be terrible to get media coverage for something that you don't do — especially if you're an entrepreneur and you're starting out, and you want to get your differentiator out there.
When thinking about media outlets, these could be print, online, or broadcast. But it boils down to what will impress the people who you’re trying to communicate with via a certain medium. For instance, if you’re looking to get some top talent for your business, then think about what kind of outlets that top talent will be really impressed by. Try and aim for those because it's likely that they will be relevant to what you're trying to do as well.
The Speakers’ Corner Analogy
How do you get the journalist to buy into your story for you to be the trusted source over other people who are approaching them?
For Felicity, having 50 words that are very clear about yourself is a big help. When they see those, journalists calm down because they’d think, “Okay, I can trust this source.”
Also, it’s important to know that journalists don't work on their own. They have to re-pitch all the time. When you pitch to a journalist, think of it like you’re handing them a baton. You need to make it as easy for them as possible to pass that baton around.
When she worked at the BBC, which is a massive organisation, she’d have to go to at least two news meetings in a shift. She would need to justify why she thought a story was a good story and why she thought the source of the story should be included in this story. It's a shame that people pitch a great story and the journalists go, “Yeah, we know exactly who is a great commentator on that.” They use somebody else who they already know works well for them.
Pitching is not about wowing one person with an amazing headline and a story. It's about what's going to travel well. And this is why you should focus on the key thing that you want to get across.
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In her book, she talked about an analogy that she uses with clients.
If you’re from the UK or you’ve visited London, you might be familiar with something called Speakers’ Corner. It's a piece of land in Hyde Park and on a Sunday, you can take a soapbox, stand on it, and just shout out your version of things. There would be lots of people doing this and there would be a crowd in the middle gravitating towards the speakers who they're most interested in.
Felicity uses this analogy quite a lot when she helps people understand pitching to journalists. You need to think that the journalist is the person on the box who has to stand in a news meeting and get attention for your story.
If she were to stand on a box in Speakers’ Corner and speak about your business, what would you say to her before she gets on that box? You shouldn’t give her some really convoluted and complicated thing because she won't remember it. You need to be quite snappy about what you want her to say.
And, also, think about that kind of melee of people. Out there, there are noises and voices and everything. But what’s going to cut it? What is it that you want to actually say more than anything else?
It's also that noisy even inside news organisations. News meetings are not like meetings in the corporate world. They are extremely short and are extremely to the point. Journalists are challenged on a story idea — they’ve got to bring it to that meeting and they’ve got to be quite succinct. So you have to arm up the journalist so that they could be your champion who will go and make things happen for you.
In public relations, the entrepreneur would be the one standing on the box and shouting about their stuff to the crowd. They’d be doing it all themselves and they’d probably do it amazingly because it's their business and they know what they want to say about it.
You can do that, too, and not bother with media relations at all. You can do everything on your own box and on your own channels if you really want to. But, obviously, there are huge benefits to getting media coverage. Because no matter how brilliant your content is and no matter how passionate you are, it's all self-promotional. It's all viewed as self-promotional.
However, if you get a journalist and get them to stand up on the soapbox and speak on your behalf in a loud, noisy crowd, drawing the public around — it will be different. They’ve chosen you and they’ve chosen to put your message up there.
Journalists are not conduits. They're also not a member of your staff. They won't just stand up on a box and say what you want. They will look at the crowd, listen to everybody else speaking, and start to do their own thing with the information that you give them.
Keep in mind that journalists also have their own communities and audiences. And when you tap into journalists, you also get access to their audience that you may not have reached yet.
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What about Working with Agencies?
Felicity has worked as a journalist. She’s also worked with both PR agencies and in-house communications teams. Because she’s done a mix of these things, she can say that there’s a real value in using people who are experts and are focused on one part of your business — for instance, media relations or some other activities that have to do with communications.
But the huge warning to all of this (it’s also why she wrote her book) is that there’s no point in going to an agency if you yourself don't grasp the fundamentals of what you want to do.
What tends to happen and what she has witnessed quite a lot is that agencies are very keen on getting and keeping contracts. Whatever the client says, the agency will say, “Yeah, great. We can work with this. Let's work through a strategic level.” They'll do whatever they can to offer value. This is completely fair enough because they want to serve you. However, the difficulty with this is that a lot of businesses don't create really a brief for PR agencies.
Similar to when you’re handing over the reins of your business to an accountant, you have to have an understanding of the basics of what an accountant’s going to do for you. What times of the year they're going to deliver stuff for you? Who's the right accountant for you or your finance team?
This logic doesn't always get applied to media relations. And Felicity finds it astonishing because, in a way, it’s your reputation that you’re handing over. It's not your budget but it's your reputation. You’re asking an outsider to kind of figure out your business for you and then tell the world's media about it. Hence, you need to be very clear about what you want to say in the first place.
With the book that she created, she offers a low-cost option for entrepreneurs who just want to explore this without committing themselves to anything. You can also use the book to learn how to create a brief, how to find the right skills, and how to be aware of what you want so that when you get somebody to help you, you have some idea of what you want to get from them. And if you can do that, it will be a delight for people like Felicity who work in media relations.
In her case, she works with clients that she absolutely loves because their briefs are clear. She knows exactly who they are, what they want, and why they want it. And this means she can bring her own creativity and thinking to what she does, helping her get the results that her clients want.
Media relations is a very specific skill. And it does require an understanding of how journalists work — and that is not always inside PR companies or in-house communications teams.
A Caveat About Journalists and The Media
Journalists are competing with each other internally. There are more journalists and content than there is space to get published.
When she worked for the BBC, Felicity shared that she would set up guests all the time to come in and talk about specific things. Some of these guests would be a big deal and it’s complicated to manage their diaries. Any entrepreneur or CEO is very busy. And although they’ve cleared their diary for a media interview, expect that there will always be delays and things like that.
She recalled getting Tony Benn, a former labour statesman, to come and comment on a story. And she was really pleased with herself for that because it was a real coup to get him. But as the BBC News Channel is a rolling news channel, when some other news story broke, she had to turn around to Tony Benn and send him home. She couldn’t get him to comment because the new story was at odds with what he knew. But he was nice about it — he was very seasoned and he was very used to that kind of rollercoaster when you’re trying to get media coverage.
You can find this anecdote reassuring because it does happen. It does show the time-wasting aspect of media relations, especially for a CEO who clears their diary to do an interview and then it doesn’t happen. It can be incredibly frustrating, but you have to be in to win it. It's simply the nature of news and other stories and things happening. And journalists aren’t really in control of a lot of things.
Key Takeaways from Her Book, ‘Exposure’
This is one tip from her book that Felicity can share with entrepreneurs: Only go for media coverage if you can’t get what you want through any other way.
Image from The Media Relations Coach
Media relations is really hard work. It’s bumpy, it’s risky, it’s unpredictable — but the benefits are huge. If you get just one piece of coverage from a decent outlet that the people you're trying to reach value (whether it’s The Economist, Financial Times, or Forbes), you can recycle that for years. And there's no cost, financially speaking, to getting that because it's not advertising. However, there is a time cost and a risk cost.
Her book gives at least eight reasons why it's worth putting yourself through this. But if you can't justify what you're doing with any of those eight reasons, don't bother. It’s better if you put your effort into other things.
However, if you do decide that it's worth it, then her other tip is to not go near a journalist until you've created a press release about your story.
It might sound obvious but all this stuff about chats, pictures, emails, phone calls, and messenger will not be meaningful if you don’t have an actual press release that clearly sets out your story and has your boilerplate about who you are as a source embedded at the bottom.
There's a lot of pitching and re-pitching that goes on. For instance, you could be pitching a story and then there will be changes. It's almost like you have to pitch about seven times just to get your story to move.
This is why you’d want to have a press release, a map of what your story is. The only part of the process where you really have control at all is when you’re deciding what to put out to journalists.
If you write this thing well enough, many busy journalists and small publications will quite often cut and paste it, or at least cut and paste the section where you describe your own business. In effect, you've now got your exact own words out there. Out of that, you also get an amplified endorsement from journalists.
If you’re going to do media relations, think about it as an investment — whether it’s worthy to do or not. And if you do, then make sure you write a press release that sets out your story, complete with a headline and has a boilerplate. In her book, you can get a template of how to do all of that. Journalists are taught what to look for in press releases, so yours should incorporate what journalists are actually looking for.
As a final word, Felicity reiterated that you shouldn’t attempt to do media relations without a press release because it helps you test the whole story itself.
You can find her book, “Exposure: Insider secrets to make your business a go-to authority for journalists,” on Amazon and book shops globally. You can also go to her website, www.themediarelationscoach.com to find out more about the book, read blogs, and see some more free information. It also contains details about her talks and workshops.
This article is based on a transcript from my podcast The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, you can listen here.