Media relations: Is your news outreach making the grade?

We are at a unique point in the evolution of transportation agency media relations. The evidence is mounting that journalists and journalism are changing in ways we hardly could have expected just a few years ago.

For instance, the New York Times and the Financial Times both are close to generating more revenue from subscribers than advertising dollars.  Just reaching that point suggests an amazing shift in power that we will have to watch closely. Gigaom takes a hard look at why and how the basic economics of news operations might affect the size and scope of the news industry. And, I’ve written before (“Three insights for transportation communicators from today’s newsroom editors”) about how reporters are increasingly using social media to help cover their topic areas.

Such a change in tactics by reporters would certainly suggest we should be shifting our tools of engagement, right?

Perhaps, we should. But as we adjust to the new realities of the media, we must maintain a solid media relations program – one that would look very similar to the kind of media relations program that would have made sense 20 years ago. I’m talking about relationships that take time to develop. And, I’m talking about the ongoing education of reporters, schooling them in the nuances of transportation financing, project development, environmental policy and public engagement.

Since school-age children around the country are heading back to school soon, here are three tips to make sure your media relations program is A-plus.

Know who your reporters are. The faces and names seem to change more often today than just a few years ago. There are not as many newspapers as there used to be. And, worse, reporters rarely have the luxury of only covering transportation. That means we have to work harder to keep track of the general assignment reporter who likes transportation, sometimes writes about it, and is open to learning more about the subject. Keep a log of who writes about your agency. Reach out to that reporter with story suggestion or two – not a formal pitch, but just an idea of a possible story. Tell the reporter that you’re open to arranging a ride-a-long with a maintenance crew or even a sit down with your boss sometime. Remember, you want to be a resource, not an adversary. Working ahead of deadlines with useful information will make media relations better for everyone involved.

Meet the editorial board. There are still editorial boards. And, the people who vote on your budget read what those editorial boards write.

You should have at least two or three important stories you want to get in front of an editorial board. Whether it is a controversial project, or a new approach to left turn lanes – the topic of the editorial board session is almost secondary to the opportunity to have a conversation with some of the most influential people in your community.

A nice 30-minute session with your boss and a well-designed leave behind on the topic at hand can clear the way for a controversial issue, or at least make it a much more fair attempt. Even more important is the exchange of business cards and the opportunity to share information on a regular basis.

The field trip – and its visuals – matter.  Transportation is a very visual topic. Too often a reporter arrives at a public meeting or a commission hearing only to find faces of frustrated, concerned citizens. Think ahead and manage the story before the meeting. Somewhere there is a creek that is being saved, or a traffic jam that is slowing down the economy. Your project is being proposed for a reason, right? That’s where you want the reporter and her photographer.

Get your engineer and the camera person out on the project and you’ll immediately have a better story to tell. Or better yet, invite the reporters along when your team is doing something unique – like banding endangered birds, or painting the side of a bridge, or shooting a canon at an avalanche shoot. Giving reporters access to what happens behind the scenes can help the public better understand all that goes into the challenging practice of building and maintaining the transportation system.

The news media is not going away. It is shifting and changing, but its core purpose that has evolved throughout the hundreds of years since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press will remain. The news media observe. The news media evaluate the details. The news media ultimately are in the business of telling stories.

To do it well requires your help. As a transportation communicator, you have the ability to educate, provide access and support the story. Never forget, no matter what the technology you use the most important part of media relations is relationships.

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About Lloyd Brown

I am the director of communications for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. I enjoy running marathons and triathlons, playing guitar and spending time with family. My professional interest is in how social media and new technology shapes the communication relationship between government and the general public. I have a Master’s degree in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Washington State University.
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