By Carl Carter, APR, AMM
Here, with a few details changed, is a conversation I’ve had a few hundred times in recent years:
Client: We need to get the media in New Orleans to cover this story.
Me: Remind me, where’s the event?
Me: It’s not going to happen. It’s not a New Orleans story.
The reasons vary from one case to the next. Maybe the story is about somebody whose mother lives in New Orleans. Or maybe it’s just his favorite town. But the media don’t care. They have defined coverage areas, and those areas are far smaller than you think. If you try to stretch those, you’re just going to frustrate yourself and annoy any reporters unlucky enough to be talking with you.
Local media have always focused on their own backyard, but that yard has shrunken to the size of a postage stamp in many cases. I’m sometimes asked just how big an area a newspaper or local TV station will cover, but the answer always comes down to some version of this: It depends on at least three factors.
Density of the population. Let’s say you’re promoting an event in Dodge City, Kansas, and you’d really like to get it covered in Wichita, about 150 miles away. That’s like a trip to the end of the world for media these days, but if a reporter doesn’t have to show up to cover something, you might actually have a chance. Why? Because the population is very scarce, and there are no media between the two except a 2,000-circulation “mom & pop” paper in Pratt. Media in rural areas have to cover more ground in order to reach a respectable audience of subscribers. But media in more heavily populated areas have far smaller coverage areas.
Obstacles. I’ve never heard another public relations professional speak in terms of obstacles, but they’re very real and often insurmountable. An obstacle is anything between the location of the story and the newspaper or TV station you’d like to have cover it. The most insurmountable obstacles are borders (e.g. county or state lines), rivers, and cities. Especially cities. Let’s say you’re publicizing something in Daytona Beach and you’d love to get a hit in Tampa. Short answer: Forget it. Sure, the distance of 140 miles or so might be manageable in a rural state like Nebraska, but not in a heavily populated state like Florida. Daytona and Tampa are on opposite shores, and that means they live in different media worlds. Midway in between, you have the granddaddy of all obstacles — Orlando. Do yourself (and some reporter) a favor and keep your press release local.
Media staffing and policies. As I’ve noted elsewhere, newspapers have cut about half their reporters in recent years. And yet, they still have more than all other media combined. With those jobs, they’ve cut out coverage of outlying areas. All over the country, we have city councils, water works boards, utility co-ops and school boards operating with no media coverage at all. Voters have nothing but yard signs and gossip on which to base their voting decisions. The remaining editors are frustrated, knowing that they’re failing to serve these communities, but they can’t send reporters who are no longer on the payroll. And most of them worry that they’ll lose their jobs in the next round of cuts. So imagine you’re one of those editors and you get a call from some clueless person wanting a reporter to show up at a Chamber of Commerce meeting 30 miles outside the city. That’s going to be a very short conversation, and it should.
As frustrated as I am by today’s skeletal news coverage, I have great respect for the journalists still out there trying to do their job. So do them a favor. Don’t beg, carp or try to pull rank by having your buddy in advertising “walk the release over to the newsroom.” Let them do their jobs, with the resources they have, and respect the limitations under which they’re working. You’ll get better media treatment in the long run by showing them a little respect.
Carl Carter is president of NewMediaRules and a specialist in media relations. You can reach him at 205-823-3273 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.