This was written for my fellow participants on the American Radio Relay League's Public Relations "reflector" (Internet mailing list). While it is written specifically for Amateur ("ham") Radio, the concepts are applicable to any organization trying to local television news coverage of their activities. And note that this was written during the 1990s, so be kind when you see the reference to archaic technology. Today a PIO without a mobile phone (in place of last-century's pager) is unlikely ot be very effective.
Getting Stories on Local TV News
How Newsrooms Choose Stories
There seem to be only two "speeds" in local television newsrooms—too slow and too fast.
On slow news days we're looking for stories which won't drive viewers to push the button on their remotes. But when there's breaking news everything speeds up and almost everyone drops anything else they're working on and concentrates on the big story at hand. Keep this in mind if you call. Ask if they're busy with breaking news or on deadline, and if the answer is yes simply say you'll call back at a better time and hang-up. Believe me, this will be appreciated!
It helps to have an idea of how newsrooms operate so you can get your information to the right people. The most visible people are the reporters you see on the air each day. You might think that speaking to a reporter is the best way to get your story covered, but that's rarely the case. Story decisions are usually made by managers, producers and assignment editors, beginning with an early morning conference call and, after everyone arrives in the newsroom, the morning meeting.
These story decisions don't come off the top of the meeting participants heads. And no, they don't all come from the pages of the local newspaper. Some originate with "wire" stories from the Associated Press, others from ideas generated by members of the news department staff, and others come from press releases received by the news department over the preceding days and weeks.
A typical big-city newsroom will receive literally hundreds of press releases each day. Some come by mail, some by fax, and others by email. But watch out for email--just because they have an email address doesn't mean anyone will actually look at the messages in a timely fashion! So, for now, stick with regular postal mail and fax.
Yes, I did write that they receive hundreds each day. How are they handled? Well, often an intern or entry-level newsroom employee is assigned to go through the stack and file them. Some are placed in daily planning folders, based upon the date of the event being promoted. Others are simply tossed into the so-called "circular file" (trash).
So, if you send out a press release there are two essentials: making sure it makes it into the daily folder instead of the trash, and having it stand-out among its "competitors" in the daily folder so it will actually be read by someone in authority.
But there is another way to ensure your release is read by an appropriate person: develop a relationship with a planning editor or assignment editor so they will be predisposed to read anything you send.
How? Well, the best way I know is to find something the planning or assignment editor needs, and meet that need. And, believe it or not, this can be real easy for people involved with Amateur Radio.
Meet The Assignment Editor's Needs
Remember when I mentioned breaking news? Often this is a story about an emergency somewhere, like a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake. Who are usually involved in providing communications during these emergencies? Ham radio operators. Who are the assignment editors looking for? Ham radio operators who can speak intelligently about what is going on.
And one of the buzzwords for television news these days is "local." Assignment editors are always looking for local angles on big stories which are mainly taking place elsewhere. There's a coup in Pakistan? Find a local DXer who has just spoken with someone there. Something happened to a satellite? Find a local who's active with Amateur Satellites. But assignment editors can't do this unless they either know these people themselves or have a good contact in the Amateur Radio community.
Be That Good Contact!
Put together a list of hams you know who are experts in various facets of Amateur Radio. Find people who are available at different times of the day. Ask around. Talk to radio club committee chair people. Write a recruitment article searching for experts and ask area clubs to print it in their newsletter. (Also ask for hams who work in the local media. Those you find may provide direct introductions to the appropriate people at radio and television stations and newspapers!) Then take the time to meet them, view their shacks, and talk for a little while. You might find that some of the people you've found are perfect for television, while others might be better suited for radio or newspaper interviews. (Remember that you're trying to get good publicity for Amateur Radio. While it's not "fair," how people look and speak has tremendous impact upon how their message is received.)
Once you have you list(s), put together a press kit on Amateur Radio. Begin with material from the ARRL, and add information on local clubs, your expert list, and 24-hour contact information for you and any other PIOs you are working with.
And if you don't have a pager, seriously consider getting and carrying one. Put yourself in the position of a harried assignment editor. The news director is yelling, "Find me a local angle on this story!" If you had someone you knew who would return a page quickly and probably be able to provide that local angle, what number would you dial first?
Now that your press kit is ready, call the newsroom at a time when they're least likely to be busy. First ask if they're busy with breaking news or on deadline, and if not ask to speak with the assignment editor. Introduce yourself, and explain what you have to offer. Ask if you can take the assignment editor lunch in the coming week. If not, try to make an appointment to stop by for a short visit. If you can't make an appointment, stop by anyway to drop off your press kit. (And bring some food--candy, pastry, or similar. News people love free food!)
Keep abreast of what's in the news, always looking for Amateur Radio angles. When you find one, first line up a good interview subject from your expert list. Don't proceed until you're sure the person is available and prepared! Then call the newsroom to pitch the story. The first words out of your mouth when you reach someone in the newsroom shooed be something like, "I have a local angle on the Taiwan earthquake." Make sure they know that talking to you will be to their advantage.
They may not immediately jump at your story. Don't despair! They're probably extremely busy working on the primary story, arranging to get custom live shots from the network or a sister station, juggling satellite feeds, or otherwise frantic. The story isn't going away. Right then they have more material than they can use, but later that day, or the next day, when things calm down, remember the News Director will be yelling, "Find me a local angle on this story!"
At WAGA ENG Receive, 1998
Newsrooms Are Each Unique
This is based mainly upon my experience with FOX5 Atlanta, WAGA-TV. Atlanta is a large city, the 10th largest (at the time this was first written) television market in the United States. While I believe what I've written here should be effective throughout North America, each city is different and each newsroom has its own unique culture. Consider what I've written here as a basic, beginning guideline.