Engaging with Newsrooms in a Crisis: Media Guidelines from Mission North

Newsrooms across the country are still grappling with the unprecedented challenge of covering the COVID-19 pandemic while also reporting on other timely news events — all while trying to stay safe and adapt to working remotely.

After speaking with journalists across the country and across verticals, it is clear that news priorities and procedures are continuing to change rapidly as journalists race to keep up with the unpredictability of the pandemic.    

Below, you will find Mission North’s guidance for engaging with journalists as the media climate changes day by day and hour by hour.

LEAD WITH EMPATHY

Newsrooms are adjusting to new ways of working, gathering sources and prioritizing what to cover. Many are facing layoffs and pay cuts. Gannett, which owns many large newspapers including USA Today recently announced pay cuts and furloughs across the company. Vice Media also announced pay cuts for top earners, a halt on retirement fund matching and a freeze on promotions. 

Reporters are human too: In addition to the work changes they’re experiencing, journalists are also dealing with the anxiety and stress COVID-19 is causing all of us, including juggling homeschooling, isolation and grocery shortages. It’s best to assume that everyone is in a different headspace and coping with their own challenges. It is not the time for frivolous pitches, tone-deaf requests or aggressive follow-up. 

Think twice before picking up the phone: Reporters are swamped trying to figure out what’s going to happen next and how they are going to react to it. If you chose to call a reporter, you might be interrupting them as they also juggle personal stressors at home. 

Check your assumptions: Under normal circumstances, it is best to get a general sense for what a journalist covers before pitching them; right now, it’s imperative. If you believe a select group of journalists might be interested in covering your news or story, take the time to first ask how they are doing and how their coverage has changed in recent days and weeks.  

KNOW THE LANDSCAPE

Understanding how COVID-19 has impacted a reporter’s beat will help you understand how the broader media landscape has changed. We checked in with journalists we work with often and found:

  • Security publications: Many reporters are still interested in non-COVID-19 news, so long as it is timely. Hacks, vulnerabilities and breaches don’t stop due to the virus, and security- and tech-focused publications are balancing normal industry coverage with stories about how COVID-19 impacts security.
  • Business press: Most business publications are primarily interested in learning how COVID-19 is impacting companies of all sizes, and how business leaders are trying to help. 
  • Trade press: Vertical publications are operating as usual to the extent that it’s possible, with some COVID-19 coverage about stories and trends that directly impact their audience.

Help to meet shorter deadlines: Because the news is changing so quickly, journalists need sources and quotes faster than ever before. Time is of the essence, so help writers do their job faster. If you have direct quotes or commentary that you can share with a reporter whom you have worked with before, don’t be afraid to share it right away. The fewer emails and interviews, the better. 

Don’t wait to release your announcement: Just because you may not have the ear of a journalist right now, or even of readers and viewers, your employees are still paying attention and they want to hear from you. For example, announcing funding would be a good way to signal to your employees that the company is doing well and will have the cash to make it through the storm. 

ANTICIPATE TRENDS

Ensure that you have a pulse on the latest news developments and reactions so you can anticipate what reporters might want to cover next and adjust your outreach accordingly. 

Optimism is powerful: We are being inundated with tragic news about COVID-19. During this time, optimism may be hard to find—which is exactly why reporters (and audiences!) are interested in hearing stories of hope. Can you offer a reporter a story about how people are uniquely responding to the call of duty, how companies and individuals are helping others, or credibly point to the silver lining or positive change this pandemic might bring about? 

Lead with data and diagnostic proof: Think about how you can help reporters demonstrate the new realities for businesses and communities. Can you offer data that paints a picture of the current situation or of what the future may look like? Can you detail customer stories to demonstrate broad impact on an industry or business type? This may be a time to avoid the normal hard pitch and rather to share information with reporters. 

Get hyper-specific: Given the demand for COVID-19 content, reporters are often looking to tell the same story from multiple angles (consider how many times you’ve read about new ways to work from home). Get as specific as you can with your pitch and look for a unique take on trends. Push yourself to go beyond explaining how a piece of news may impact an industry but how it would impact a specific sector within that industry.

Now more than ever, communications pros need to understand the media landscape and engage with agility, empathy and a critical lens.