How To Research Journalists Before They Research You (And Your CEO)
When I was rock music editor for the Minneapolis weekly Twin Cities Reader, the bane of my existence was . . . public relations people. Mind you, not ALL public relations people. Just the PR staffers who would flood my desk with absurdly off-target news releases who thought I must be obsessed with their clients' breakthroughs in industrial sandpaper, Fresnel lenses, and composite, high-performance aircraft materials.
Given that my actual news beat was covering The Clash, The Rolling Stones and Joan Jett (check out my press pass at right!), I was amused at how agencies were sending me press releases that were of no interest to me. I imagined these firms reporting back to their clients, “Yes, it’s only a matter of time before that reporter in Minneapolis covers your launch of a new steel-belted, water-cooled hydraulic lathe. We’ll keep after Maccabee relentlessly. As God is our witness, a day won’t go by that this poor soul doesn’t receive another press release from us.”
Now that I’ve morphed from journalist to public relations guy, I’m aware of how vital it is to target precisely the right reporter – so you avoid becoming the PR pro who pitches the launch of a new Caramel Coconut Cherry ice cream flavor to a reporter who is dedicated to covering Islamic fundamentalism in Qatar.
What follows is a guide to how our PR agency (and your PR staff) can go Sherlock on the media: to better understand their beats, make it more likely the writer will be interested in your story, alert you to any conflicts they might have and identify traits that could forge a bond between the reporter and your executive (wait – both your company’s CEO and the editor in question share an obsessive love for Jimi Hendrix bootlegs? Shazam!). First, we start with. . .
CisionCision, the King Kong of media relations directories, swells with 1.6 million media contacts (including 300,000 digital influencers) in its searchable database. It’s important to note that much of Cision’s data is provided by the media themselves, and is by its nature both broad and shallow. You receive the basics, such as the journalist’s name, email address, phone number, beat, pitching tips, and contact methods. But, if a given reporter is said to cover healthcare or business, your PR staff must augment Cision’s intelligence with other resources, such as...
Muck RackWhile many PR pros use Google Alerts to receive updates on articles filed by journalists on a topic, I’m partial to the real-time updates from Muck Rack. For your reference, here’s a sample Muck Rack profile page on the Wall Street Journal, with clickable links to bios and recent articles published by WSJ staff. We sought out Greg Galant (pictured right), CEO of Muck Rack and a former associate producer on CNN, to explain how the platform works:
“When the big Bacon’s PR Directory (now Cision) came out in 1952, it was innovative then,” muses Galant, “But the media landscape today is so different: journalists can’t be grouped in general beats anymore, and what they write about changes from day to day. A media directory may identify a journalist as covering technology – but is he or she covering Apple’s iPhone apps, or wearable technology, or enterprise level software? So Muck Rack indexes every article that the reporter writes and uses big data to make it quickly searchable.”
Adds Galant: “If you’re pitching a new brand of craft coffee – you can’t just pitch the story to a reporter who covers ‘beverages’ – you want the specificity of whether they have written about other craft coffee in the past. Tens of thousands of journalists have profile pages on Muck Rack, and we populate it automatically with every article they publish.”
Muck Rack also provides links to every social media channel a journalist is active on. “Muck Rack surveyed journalists, and 93 percent said they want to be followed on social media by PR pros,” says Galant. “So if you aren’t following a reporter on social, you’ve already hurt your changes of pitching them.”
What’s most intriguing for PR agencies might be the insights that Muck Rack can provide that are, shall we say, contrary to what you might expect. Consider that one of Muck Rack’s most popular posts is a list of the journalists who were NOT going to the legendary South by Southwest Conference & Festivals (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. Why in the world would that list of no-shows be helpful to a PR pros? “Because journalists who were not attending South By have their inboxes flooded by PR people with invitations to parties that they can’t attend, because they weren’t going to Austin. You can imagine their resentment.”
Galant’s last piece of advice for PR pitching to the right journalist? “It’s never been easier to do your homework on a journalist – the goal is not to focus on how many pitches you can send, but rather spending more time customizing your list so you can get more PR results with fewer pitches. Knowing who the media are improves your reputation, so that journalists view you as a resource – rather than a pest.”
Another research tool as valuable as Cision and Muck Rack is LinkedIn. More than 80 percent of the media that we approach for clients boast a LinkedIn profile. You expect that a journalist’s LinkedIn profile to reveal background on the reporter’s career, educational background, and awards. But even better, many journalists post a URL to their personal websites on their LinkedIn profiles – which either promote their freelance writing or a book they’ve published.
Media BistroDesigned as a resource for writers rather than PR professionals, this New York-based web community offers portfolios for freelancer journalists, along with in-depth interviews such as this Q & A with the editor of Martha Stewart Living. If you’re a PR pro, do not miss MediaBistro’s free “Mastheads and Editorial Calendar” pages, which give one-click access to editorial calendars and lists of in-house reporters at magazines from Allure to Wired.
Response Source Freelance Journalist ProfilesDownsizing of newsrooms across America has led editors at national media outlets to increasingly assign stories to freelancers (hello Huffington Post!), rather than in-house staff. So PR pros will find London-based Response Source helpful, with its profiles of 8,800 freelance writers.
Newsroom Staff DirectoriesMajor media outlets, especially daily newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, post easy-to-navigate directories of staff, with surprisingly revealing bios. Another great example is Boston Globe’s healthcare writer Robert Weisman’s staff page, which includes a video interview with Weisman, his direct phone number, and his most recent articles so you can assess his health interests and tone.
Media Portfolio SitesMany journalists, especially freelancers, post biographical profiles and portfolios of their writing on directory sites like clippings.me. Here’s the clippings.me directory of business journalists. Or as I mentioned earlier, they maintain their own websites which can be useful when trying to understand a reporter’s point of view. As examples, here are the personal website for Time’s executive deputy editor for health, Jeannie Kim and this enchanting personal website for Time’s senior food and drink editor Kat Kinsman.
Spy vs. Spy with NewsBiosAnd then – there’s NewsBios. This Denver-based service has compiled 15,000 dossiers on journalists from “more than 60 sources of public information” and proprietary databases. NewsBios promises to reveal “personal and professional background information on each journalist that might influence the prism through which they view the world.” That data about journalists includes their family relationships, personal life experiences, hobbies, taste in music and food, what their spouses do for a living, and “job-related events that are seldom, if ever, reflected in their authorized biographies.” Yes, it sounds a bit Edward Snowden-ish – so we contacted NewsBios founder and executive editor Dean Rotbart (pictured right) to learn more.
“The raison d’etre of NewsBios is that there’s a distinction between what journalists want and what they do not want PR people to know about them,” says Rotbart. “In other words, what you know about a reporter – what he or she doesn’t know that you know – is an asset that a PR person should have.”
“Cision just takes the information that media outlets feed them, without the context that a savvy PR executive should be aware of – something that might affect the prism through which the reporter views your executive and the story,” adds Rotbart.
Would you want to know that the journalist who was going to interview your CEO had taken part in a political protest that was opposed to your CEO’s statements about an issue? As an example of what his detective work uncovered, Rotbart says a reporter for a national business magazine was preparing an article on corporate governance, while at the same time that journalist was taking part as a private shareholder in a lawsuit against a publicly-held company on the issue of . . . governance. Rotbart says that another reporter for a legal trade magazine – whose beat required him to cover legal cases where CEOs were being charged with embezzlement – had a father in prison for . . . embezzlement. Would a PR pro want to know that morsel?
If this intelligence gathering sounds National Security Agency-like, Rotbart insists that most of the background he gathers on journalists is valuable in a benign way. “If your CEO is taking a journalist to lunch, NewsBios may let you know that the reporter is a vegetarian, so that you would not make the mistake of booking that lunch at a steakhouse. It’s shocking to me that when a company’s reputation is on the line, a PR person wouldn’t want to know everything they can about the journalist who is meeting your CEO. Sophisticated PR strategists can use a reporter’s history to their advantage. If someone on your client’s executive team is from Cleveland, and you know the reporter is also from Cleveland, that could be an ice breaker and you might want to bring that particular client executive to the interview.”
“Yes, NewsBios looks for landmines – we look at a reporter’s spouse, parents, siblings and children; it’s not uncommon for journalists who cover the law to have a family member who is a legal counsel, or a sitting judge or in some other way involved in the legal system that might color the prism through which a journalist approaches your story.”
Rotbart shared with MaccaPR a sample NewsBio on a prominent Minneapolis journalist (cost is approximately $200). The nine-page report begins with links to the reporter’s recent stories, his age, and an outline of his journalistic career. But then, the dossier plunges deeper, sharing the journalist’s date of birth, personal email address, purchase price of his home in St. Paul, Twitter history and followers, what Facebook groups he belongs to and which journalists he’s friends with on Facebook, names of his children, mention of his pets, details on his siblings and other relatives, sporting events he’s participated in, the date of his marriage, his hobbies . . . right down to the age when he contracted chicken pox.
As someone who has spent time in Washington reviewing raw FBI files kept on organized crime figures (more on that here), I must confess – the NewsBio dossier was nearly as thorough as the FBI’s files on some of their targets. But it certainly felt intrusive as I read personal details about the Minneapolis reporter – as if I was reading his diary, even though most of the NewsBios material was not secret per se. It’s just that NewsBios’ team knows where to look . . .
Rotbart admits that journalists aren’t thrilled with being investigated by NewsBio. “We look at how reporters view the world. Nine out of 10 of our dossiers don’t flag conflicts that a reporter has, more often – we come up with what music they like, or if their wife is a photographer and your CEO is a photographer – that can be useful. But one out of 10 times you discover that a reporter was fired from a media job they no longer list, because they were sued for libel – and that’s something that a PR person might want to know.”
Rotbart insists that each PR person decides what is relevant in the reporter’s dossier – NewsBios doesn’t pass judgment if it reveals that a journalist has been divorced three times or is a member of the National Rifle Association, it just expects that a PR person will decide if that information is germane to their interaction with the reporter. For more, you can visit them at their website. Then again, they might already be investigating you as you read this . . . if you’re a journalist.
Way More Than Cat Videos: YouTube Insights on MediaWe saved for last the most-unjustly ignored research tool, which, given that YouTube has 1.3 billion users in 88 countries watching 3.2 billion hours of monthly video content, is really saying something. YouTube is a powerhouse journalist research tool. For example: Are you preparing to pitch your technology company CEO to Kara Swisher, the influential Recode blogger and former Wall Street Journal technology titan? Then head to YouTube, where you (and your CEO) can get to know Kara via:
- Her TEDx talk
- A CNBC-TV interview with Swisher about Silicon Valley’s reaction to President Trump’s immigration ban
- Plus, an electrifying 36-minute video profile from her Lesbians Who Tech/Queer Women in Tech
Why wait until Ms. Swisher walks into your CEO’s office to get to know her that intimately?
Let us know your favorite tools for understanding the journalists you’re pitching – and which of these media resources might seem too J. Edgar Hoover for you.
Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.