Adapted from a presentation at the 2005 ICFA Annual Convention
We all know the importance of media relations in our profession, but we don't all know how to handle it. No matter what the size of your business, some simple tools and techniques can allow you to effectively tell your story and deal proactively with the media.
Those of us in the deathcare profession can no longer afford to have the marketplace tell our story for us. It is our responsibility to become evangelists for funeral homes and cemeteries by working on a program of press releases and greater media contact.
Media relations, a subset of public relations, is what is involved in your efforts to build and maintain a relationship with the media in your community. Building the relationship is the first step, but maintaining it is just as important if you want your efforts to have a lasting effect.
"Media" is usually associated with television and newspapers but also extends to other areas, including the Internet, magazines and radio. There are 30 million Web sites out there today, 17,000 specialized magazines, 10,000 radio stations and 35,000 interviews being conducted daily in America.
What does this mean for the funeral and cemetery profession? It gives us endless opportunities to connect with the public and get our stories known.
Over half of Americans get their news from television, which has increased its news time slots to give viewers more options. Hard news (usually negative) is the story: who, what, when and where. Feature news (usually positive) is the how or why.
Feature news is now growing rapidly as reporters are faced with more time to fill. Both newspapers and television stations often try to localize stories, focusing on a person or business in their readership or viewing area. Make yourself known to your local reporters by suggesting ideas for feature stories and alerting them to hard news stories of which they may not be aware.
Developing a press kit and press release
The first step in dealing proactively with the media is to create an effective media relations program. The basic media materials that should go in your press kit are a company background sheet, fax sheet, business cards, a company brochure and a letter of introduction.
When preparing a press release:
• Keep it brief (no more than a page long) and factual. If the media think there is a story, they will give you a call and come out with their photographer and reporter.
• Be objective. Your press release should be about something important to the media and the public.
• Avoid speaking in lingo. When talking about opening and closing fees, explain what those fees cover. Instead of saying GPL, talk about the general price list. Keep your release in consumer language.
• Create a compelling headline. Think of a catchy and unique headline that will grab the reporter's attention right from the start.
• Use an inverted pyramid. Cram as much as you can at the top of your press release, especially the important information. Often as a reporter or editor is putting a story or segment together, time is short and the last paragraphs are cut. Have a point, and get to it quickly.
• Keep information local. Cater the release and cover letter to your particular community and the publication or station to which you're sending it.
• Send in the press release early. If you wait until the last minute, they may not have enough time to put a segment together or to meet deadlines.
Topics for a press release
Be creative; this list is just a beginning:
• New programs or services at your business
• Expansions or additions that have been added to your facility
• People you have hired or promoted recently
• Open houses
• Grief counseling or pre-planning
If you are trying to pitch a story beyond a simple press release, you may be pitching a feature story. Be sure to present the content of the story in the cover letter, explaining why it is important and should be given consideration. Also list materials that you have available such as charts, graphs and photos. Try to make it as easy for the news staff as possible by offering an interview or a tour.
Our profession deals with human and personal lives, so make it a human interest story. Do not give a PR line; rather, let the story do that for you by talking in the media's terms.
Dealing with negative stories
When faced with a negative situation, think creatively to find the positive. One example of this is a funeral director who called up a local radio station after the story about caskets being sold at Costco first surfaced. He took what could have been a negative story about people buying caskets at Costco and put a more positive slant on it by talking about personalization, which is still a buzz word for consumers.
In a radio interview he said that people are generally happy with the current casket selection process. "Directly marketing caskets does not seem to be successful," he said. ''Those places go out of business quickly. People don't go to Costco to buy caskets. How much personalization is available in a catalogue for Costco? A salesperson cannot offer the time or the resources needed to personalize the experience."
As you move forward in building your relationship with the media, remember to be accessible so that reporters know they can reach you. Once you establish a relationship, it can develop into an ongoing stream of publicity opportunities.
When making the first call, offer to stop by to say hello, and drop off the media kit at that time. Once you make a promise to give a reporter access to someone or something, deliver on that promise. If you tell them you will give them an interview or a tour of your grounds, do it.
Preparing for an interview
Finally, here are some tools and techniques for effective news interviews:
• Be prepared. Do your homework. Know what kinds of questions this reporter typically asks and prepare responses ahead of time.
• Be honest. In the age of the Internet, reporters quickly find out if you are lying.
• Be helpful. Go out of your way to provide information that will help reporters do a story. They are always looking for other sources and other angles, so always have another funeral director in your area ready to be interviewed. You may also suggest they contact a trade association such as the ICFA.
• Avoid saying "no comment," because it is perceived as an admission of guilt.
• Avoid yes or no answers to awkward questions. If you are asked a tough question, especially one that is phrased awkwardly, rephrase the question back to the reporter instead of saying just "yes" or "no."
• Remember the videographer. The person with the camera in his or her hand is just as important as the person holding the microphone or pen. The person who really is going to make you look good is the one behind the camera, so if you offer the reporter a soft drink or coffee, do the same for the videographer.
Dealing proactively with the media is beneficial to you, your business and the profession as a whole. The more we strive to get our message out there, the better the public perception will be of our profession.
Never forget, it's a small world, getting smaller every day, so take nothing for granted. Take every opportunity to tell your own story, so that the marketplace doesn't tell it for you.