Pandemic life has lots of drawbacks. For media relations professionals who represent lesser known brands and experts, the pandemic has delivered an expected boon: the field-leveling virtual interview.
In the era of social distancing, restricted travel and remote work, producers of print, online and television news can’t rely as much on in-person interviews. Media relations specialists Tori Simmons and Mackenie Woods say, “After shutdown orders went into effect nationwide, there was a seismic shift in newsrooms forgoing in-person interviews for interviews via Zoom or Skype. And, this trend isn’t going away anytime soon.”
Zoom calls as interviews put someone not from New York, Chicago or Los Angeles seeking national coverage for under-the-radar brands or individual experts on the same virtual footing as big-city agencies pitching stories for a major brand or well-known celebrity. Your spokesperson can be interviewed in their living room.
An interview – in-studio or virtual – on a major news outlet would be valuable any time, but especially now as former commuters are tuning in to TV, pushing viewership up by as much as 20 percent.
In a blog appearing on ragan.com, Simmons and Woods offer advice to media relations professionals seeking to capitalize on what they refer to as a pandemic communications “silver lining”. Much of the advice involves familiar tactics to pitch stories, adjusted to sway news producers who feed content to bigger audiences.
First and foremost, make sure what you are pitching is quality content, not spam, so you are offering something of relevance, not just making a sales call.
It is hard, if not impossible to pitch a brand or expert without a portfolio, which can include blog posts, news articles, op-eds, YouTube clips, a book, a clever ad campaign or impressive third-party commendations. Simmons and Woods advise pumping up your thought leadership efforts before pitching a story.
“It’s important to prove your client is a credible resource, so securing interviews or op-eds in digital publications and creating blog posts on a particular topic will help prove why your spokesperson is the go-to expert,” they write. “Even placements in noteworthy trade publications can further validate your spokespeople as a credible source.”
It is hard, if not impossible to pitch a brand or expert without a portfolio, which can include blog posts, news articles, op-eds, YouTube clips, a book, a clever ad campaign or impressive third-party commendation
Thought leadership involves more than a word splatter. Think what your brand or expertise can offer that is unique, fresh or topical. This is the same kind of thinking required for newsjacking. It also can be the kind of thinking that leads to creating your own content, your own virtual interview that can be posted on YouTube.
Cold calls to newsrooms often receive chilly responses. Simmons and Woods counsel building relationships as you normally would, but with an expanded orbit of producers. Before making contact, research your target media to detect story preferences and the most advantageous and appropriate news hole for your story. A good place to start, they suggest, are with field producers and reporters, who may be more willing and available to listen to your pitch.
The example Simmons and Woods cite are television network morning news shows – “the holy grail of media relations”. Consider a pitch for non-primetime, which may be more fertile ground for a new angle or a fresh face. “If it’s your first go at pitching a national morning show like NBC’s TODAY, start with a weekend or third-hour producer, who likely has more airtime for softer stories and features,” they advise.
Don’t forget the rest of the online world. “PR pros should look beyond network TV and identify digital streaming programs such as Cheddar and Viceland. Their digital-only format allows for more content, more often,” Simmons and Woods add.
Like any media pitch, be prepared when making your outreach. Have useful, professional-looking B-roll lined up, third-party contacts queued up, website newsroom links at hand and time availabilities identified. The better your preparation, the more likely you will be to impress producers who are constantly under pressure to find interesting, fresh content.
Preparation should include media training or a media training refresher for seasoned spokespersons that is geared specifically to a virtual interview on television. The training should include the basics, such as sharpening your key message, marshaling supportive points and refraining from turning into a waterfall of words. The more you know about a subject argues for practicing on how to focus on limiting what you say to stay on point.
Media training for a virtual interview should extend to your “set” – placement of your laptop, proper lighting and an interesting, but not distracting background. Despite the jokes about “pants optional”, suit up your spokesperson to look his or her part in the virtual interview.
Another benefit of virtual interviews over in-studio appearances is that you can do actual dress rehearsals to test your technology, on-camera appearance and talking points.
Once you’ve scored a virtual interview for a client spokesperson, build on that success. Let producers and reporters know what other potential sources you represent and story lines you could generate. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t instantly bite, just make sure you’ve left an impression – and contact information – so they know what you can deliver and how to reach you.