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20 May


Making the Network News: A Q&A with a CNN reporter every PR professional & business executive should read.

May 20, 2014 | By |

I recently had the honor to sit down with Stacey Cohan, CNN reporter, who worked for various Washington, D.C. television affiliates and now covers Washington for CNN Newsource.

Stacey and I discussed changes in the network news business, how those changes are affecting the public relations industry, and how we PR professionals should adapt to those changes.  What I learned was both informative and familiar. 

First a little history: 

The four major cable news networks have all been notably jockeying for position since their inception.  Each has evolved to serve a distinct audience as they elbowed their way into our living rooms and, more recently, onto our computers and smart phones.  Recent changes at CNN, however, have been quite swift and dramatic.  The once mainstream news network has evolved (or devolved, depending on your political and cultural leanings,) to its original brand and mission:  a breaking news network.  The transformation of CNN to what one columnist called the “Crisis News Network” has been notable.  As PR people and business executives, this sudden change has made earned media placement on the network extremely difficult, but not impossible.  As Ms. Cohan explains, the old media-pitching rule of “make it relevant” holds true now more than ever.  Here’s a bit of our conversation:

MT:  What’s important to news people now in this rapidly changing media world?

SC:  Timeliness is important.  Relevance is important, and effect on the community is important.  And real people.

MT:  What if I represent a company and am charged with getting coverage of a new product or service?  How do I get you excited about my company’s development?

SC:  Presumably, as a company you aim to generate revenue through serving the public through a product or service.  So it’s going to impact somebody.  So I would suggest pitching the story and in that pitch say:  “This is going to be huge for working women and I think it would be great to talk to us about this product”.  Then get us in contact with some working women and let us know and get us in-touch with some groups who we can interview for the story, beyond your company pitch.  Lead us in the direction, let us know, give us some ideas of what groups we may want to reach out to broaden the story beyond your pitch.”

MT:  Can you give me an example of a recent story that was well pitched [to you]?

SC:  There have been so many, but even something as silly as Black Friday.  The malls all compete to have us come out and it’s the malls that accommodate us and have something perhaps new or something special like something that children can be a part of.  The agency that makes it more relevant to my community and lets me know there’s an opportunity for real people to be involved will benefit, as opposed to the agency who’s just talking about how great they are [their client].

MT:  What is something interesting in news lately that you like?

SC:  There’s a local rap artist who’s had some success who only uses positive lyrics, and he takes this positive message and works with children in low-income schools and tries to get them interested.  It’s a good story.  It’s a visual story.  I have to wait for a slower news day, or perhaps there’s a big national story going on where the story fits. His PR people have been pitching me for a long time and I have to find the right moment where the story fits into the right puzzle.

MT:  What are some things PR people do that you like and things you don’t like?

SC:  I cannot stand things that sound like a sales pitch.  We get a lot of press releases that look like a marketing tool. 

MT:  What about it makes it look like a marketing tool?

SC:  Banner:  XYZ company develops breakthrough cushions that are stain resistant.  And then a very long quote from an executive that I don’t know and care little about and then a bunch of numbers and statistics about how much they cost and how many they produced and money saved and a phone number at the bottom.  It sounds like a sales pitch or something you might send someone to invest in your company or you might want to carry your product.

MT:  What’s interesting about that is that’s where we [PR] believe we should be going:  keep it relevant.

SC:  You want to keep it relevant and short but keep it interesting to me.  I worked with a start-up company recently and they had a pitch they were sending out.  They went up against Google as a search engine.  They had very technical jargon at the top and a long explanation of what they do and how they have defeated Google in their test trial.  It was interesting but I never made it to the bottom.  You have to get me interested right from the top.  I have maybe 10 seconds to look at what you wrote and then I have to move on.  Unless, I know you.  If you’re sending out something blind you have to say something interesting and have something relevant at the tippy top.

[As an example] “We can show you and demonstrate how XYZ works.”  The quote:  I don’t know why PR people include a quote.  In TV I can’t use it.  Bullet points work.  Short.  Front-load your relevance and how it will affect humans and what is relevant or timely about it, then follow-up with a phone call. 

The best ones establish relationships with journalists, who I know and can count on.  If I’m having a slow news day I can call them.  Have a couple [stories] in your back pocket.

MT:  Let’s talk about building a relationship.  PR people become very valuable to a company or agency when they can boast of relationships with top tier journalists.  But that’s hard to do.  What do you respond to?  I’m sure PR people come at you all day long trying to build a relationship. 

SC:  First, you have to know who the journalists are who are going to work with you and your company.  Nowadays, we are so fractured.  You have journalists who are specializing in technical issues, health, business.  You need to know the audience you’re targeting.  Send a press release and follow-up with a phone call and if you don’t hear back that’s ok.  The first time you meet a journalist, that’s an important opportunity to establish a relationship.  Like you would build a relationship with a friend.  Call to see what we’re working on.  Don’t just call because you want something.

MT:  What direction is the news industry going in?

SC:  It’s a direction that has a lot of potential.  I think the Internet and social media is still a great unknown to a lot of journalists.  I will say if someone has a story that will play well on social media, Twitter, trending, news agencies love that even if they don’t fully understand it. 

MT:  The interplay of social media and digital is where you want to be, even if you don’t understand it?

SC:  That story [local rapper] I told you about earlier got my editors excited because it involved Kickstarter.  They don’t really know what that is but they know young people are doing it and they want to be part of what’s next.

MT:  Tell me the greatest story you’ve ever done.

SC:  I do a lot of animal stories and have done them [animal charities] a lot of favors and they repaid me with this small, intimate meeting with the Dalai Lama and some homeless women who had worked with homeless pets.  It was just me and another journalist and we walked into the room and the feeling was overwhelming.  What surprised me the most was how funny he [DL] was and self-deprecating.  He walked into the room and up to these women.  A lot of them have no idea who he was and he introduced himself by saying “in case you haven’t heard of me, I’m homeless too.”  And it immediately broke the ice.  He walked around the room and this woman asked if she could kiss him and he said “I don’t kiss on the lips, I’m a monk, but you can kiss me here [pointing to his cheek].”  I thought I want to utilize the Internet, so I put the entire speech on the Internet and it got forwarded, and linked, and forwarded, because it was interesting.  I couldn’t put the entire piece on the air, but I used our Web site.  And you often hear people say if you want to see more, go to our Web site.  Things that don’t make the actual story can make our Web site.  Things can go national and international when things go digital.  They take on a life of their own.  It grew legs.  It wasn’t just me covering the press conference.  We had these real human beings who were homeless and this real man of great international import and his connection with them resonated.  It was fantastic.

MT:  Is there any other point you want to make?

SC:  It’s very hard for us to step outside of ourselves.  Step outside yourself and ask why would anyone care.  Why is this important to them? 

MT:  It gets back to the Who, What, Where, When, and Why.  But the Why is the most important, isn’t it?

SC:  Remember journalists are human beings.  We tend to be intuitive.  Be genuine in your pitch.  Anticipate the questions journalists want to know and find the answers to them. 

MT:  That points to messaging.  Tell me about the importance of messaging.

SC:  We tell stories.  There’s a story behind everything.  Whether you’ve created the latest cybersecurity technology, or you’re making homemade quilts for a homeless shelter, there’s a story behind why you did that.  Winnow it down to the very heart.  Pick words and phrases about why you do what you do.  If you can find that heart, you’ve got your story.  Everyone listens when you say, “Let me tell you a story.” 

MT:  What’s happening with national news?  It’s changing.  Where is it going and where do we fit?

SC:  I think it’s changing and we don’t know where it’s going to go.  There’s an effort to keep up with the times and we don’t know where.  In some sense there’s an effort to put news out there that people will watch, not that people should know, and that pains me to say.  That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t get that news on the air.  PR execs need to be smarter about how they do their job to get things on the air.  Technology is that big buzzword.  Make it important on social media.  A trending topic.  It will get attention.

SC:  There are more people watching local news than are ever tuning into national stations.  People care about what’s happening in their own backyard.  There are more eyes on local news.  Period.  Start there and sometimes if you do a good local story, it gets picked up by the networks.

MT:  I’m hearing some themes:  relevance, the “Why”, storytelling, social media. 

SC:  Those are good themes for people to keep in their heads. 
Interview Recap:  the top ten messages CNN’s Stacey Cohan wants you to know about pitching your story…

  1. Keep your pitch timely.
  2. Show the effect on real people.
  3. Keep it relevant.
  4. Go beyond the company pitch and connect it to real people.
  5. Make your story fit into a larger story to show trending.
  6. DON’T make your pitch sound like a sales pitch or marketing piece.
  7. Keep it short and front-load the interesting part – you’ve got 10 seconds to win them over.
  8. Establish a relationship with journalists.  Treat them like you care.  Don’t just hang-up if they say no.  Appeal to their interests.
  9. Make it social!  A digital story can run on the news organization’s Web site, filling two requirements at once.  It can also become a trending story and get legs, becoming a national or international story.  Make your story one that plays on social media.
  10. Ask Why?  Step outside yourself and answer the “why,” and you’ll find the heart of your story.  Then you’re telling a story – and everyone loves a story.