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Seeking the reward of national publicity? Then be willing to face rejection too

Ultra-endurance athlete George Hood, seen here before a two-hour exhibition of the abdominal plank at Five Seasons Family Sports Club in Burr Ridge, has been the focus of persistent media outreach since 2007.
Ultra-endurance athlete George Hood, seen here before a two-hour exhibition of the abdominal plank at Five Seasons Family Sports Club in Burr Ridge, has been the focus of persistent media outreach since 2007. Inside Edge PR

Because most of my media relations work is focused on Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, I often know the reporters, editors and producers that I contact with news releases, story suggeestions, and on-air guest pitches.

Short of making that personal connection, at the least I make it my mission to know that based on the work I have seen them perform, that the recipient of a pitch or release is very likely to be interested in whatever information I am conveying.

Anything short of that is PR malpractice. It not only undermines the publicist's credibility, but that of the organization he or she is representing--often well beyond the timeframe when the sloppy publicist was retained by the organization.

Having this high level of targeted media outreach translates in a much higher percentage of media placements than a scattershot, throwing mud-against-the-wall approach.

Sometimes, though, there is cause for adding a wrinkle to this standard by contacting some in the media on a hunch and without a prior connection. This is particularly true when the story has potential national appeal, where the stakes (and potential media play) are higher. In those instances, there is a place for a focused quality outreach on the local level and a broader, quantity-based outreach nationally or even internationally.

Doing so comes with risks. Perhaps foremost among them is the prospect of being rejected, sometimes acerbically, by a journalist who takes umbrage at having been included in such broad-brush fashion.

At the same time, there is a heightened potential for reward, such as when a journalist from a high-profile, large-circulation publication like USA Today or Sports Illustrated or some other major outlet picks up on the story.

Seven years ago, both scenarios played out with the outreach that I waged on behalf of Five Seasons Family Sports Club in Burr Ridge. The story of the hour--well, of the more than 90 hours that became a central element in the story--was George Hood and his pursuit of the Guinness World Record in endurance spin cycling. Before he began, I assembled a list of more than 50 media outlets, a mix of local and national reporters, columnists and producers, to contact as he made his bid for endurance glory.

Media relations is not unlike any sales proposition, with the same emotions (fear of rejection, perhaps foremost) as well as risk-versus-reward tension. As Amway Executive Diamond Theresa Danzik put it so succinctly at a World Wide Group conference in Chicago several years ago, "Open mouth, open for business." She was talking about creating retail sales of products, but the mindset has equal value in media outreach.

So as Hood kept up his pursuit of the Guinness World Record, I kept them my media list apprised two or three times a day, including statistics such as virtual distance traveled, calories burned and his average heart rate. Some local reporters had already begun writing about the attempt beforehand, and the longer Hood stayed on the bike, the more the story began to gain traction with other media. Eventually, it went global, thanks in large part to the Associated Press picking up the story.

That welcome development came after some persistence, as I kept peppering the AP, along with other media contacts, with updates on Hood's effort. Interestingly, the breakthrough came only a few hours after that same persistence was perceived to be peskiness by a prominent Sports Illustrated columnist.

After a Day 4 update, he shot me an email asking to be taken off my contact list--though his brief, all-caps note, punctuated by a few exclamation points, wasn't quite so delicately phrased as "please remove me from your contact list."

I swiftly honored the request, though not without expressing my admiration for his writing (if not his testy email) and explaining my rationale for including him on the list. At the time, was my professional skin, though thickened by about 20 years of contending with the criticism that comes with the territory of being a journalist, a bit bruised?

Absolutely. Nobody enjoys being rejected. But it was only a bump in a road paved with the extensive media coverage that had already flowed from my outreach. Then, further vindication came a few days later, in the next issue of Sports Illustrated. It was in the front of the magazine, embedded in a column by another top writer, Steve Rushin. He had not acknowledged any of the emails that I had sent him, so I had harbored serious doubt whether he had opened any of them.

But right there, in his Air & Space column, was an excerpt that he wrote about Hood's Guinness World Record attempt--as well as my frequent updates. It was the perfect, full-circle lesson in persistent media relations: if you want to be rewarded with the big media splash, then you need to be willing to endure a little criticism along the way.