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Think Like a Reporter

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To get good press –- or any press at all –- you need to think like a reporter. That's my conclusion as a citizen planner who came to that calling from the other side of the reporter's note-book.

I've watched with frustration as boards have missed golden opportunities for favorable coverage, needlessly antagonized reporters, or forgotten to publicize public decisions. I've been misquoted, and once wrote a letter to the editor correcting an article that misled voters before a Town Meeting. I've also learned to admit, reluctantly, that a committee's interests don't always coincide with those of the press.

Having seen media-relations issues from both sides, I have some insight into why press coverage can go wrong. Most problems stem from a failure to understand what motivates reporters and how they do their jobs. The following advice can help you think like a reporter so you can tailor communications to appeal to your first audience: media reporters and the editors and producers they must satisfy before any story reaches your community.

Know What's News and What Isn't

More importantly, know what's really big news. The first instinct of many board members is to try harder to withhold information the bigger the news. You should suppress that urge and do the opposite. If you’ve just made significant news in your community -– say, you've approved the Master Plan, or received an application for a major new development -– shout it from the rooftops. Call local beat reporters within a day or two so they can get the story into an upcoming edition. Better yet, give advance warning if possible, explaining clearly why the story is newsworthy. Consider writing a press release for release on the hour of the event, and fax or e-mail it along with a heads-up call. See Sidebar. Writing An Effective Press Release, p. 20.

To do this well, you must understand how reporters and editors define news. It's an event, situation, or decision that's new, different, and important, and likely to impact many people in your community. For land-use boards, press-release-worthy news is usually some major turning point: a long-awaited ruling, the culmination of an administrative process, or the introduction of a new initiative. It's the half-dozen things you do each year that generate a buzz in the coffee shops, grocery stores, and post offices in your community.

Some boards lack such news sense, or try to promulgate "good" news after a spate of not-so-good publicity. The result can be bland press releases and useless tips that all but the most desperate, under-staffed news organizations will throw in the trash. A change in the membership of your board is minor news that might merit a press release if you have the time. But a we're-still-alive release that drones on about ongoing work that isn't news-worthy anytime, or that breathlessly relates events that were news weeks ago, won’t get published and will hurt your credibility as a news source.

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