By Nancy Marshall, The PR Maven® 

How To Get a Reporter’s Attention: Graphic with blog title, Marshall Communications logo and Deirdre's headshot

How do you capture a reporter’s attention?

It’s the fundamental challenge facing PR professionals as we try to break through the noise and earn coverage for our clients.

To Deirdre Stires, a veteran journalist turned content writer, it’s all about the story.

“It’s human nature to be drawn to very well-told stories about other people,” she says.

Over three decades as a reporter, Deirdre worked to tell unusual and interesting stories, and she came to value the PR professionals who brought those stories to her. Now, as a senior writer at Bates College, Deirdre is exercising her storytelling skills in a different way — on behalf of an organization.

On episode 265 of The PR Maven® podcast, I spoke with Deirdre about how PR professionals can find great stories and develop effective pitches to reach reporters and build awareness for their brands.

How To Get a Reporter’s Attention: infographic

From aspiring writer to career storyteller

An aspiring writer, Deirdre pursued a master’s degree at the University of Missouri’s legendary journalism school, where she spent three semesters as a reporter for the daily paper in Columbia, Missouri.

“I was completely hooked,” she says. For the next 30 years, she worked as a journalist, eventually winding up as an outdoors reporter in Maine — where I had the good fortune to get to know her well.

As a reporter, Deirdre researched, interviewed and wrote stories all in the same day, sometimes in just four or five hours.

“You’re not really writing and rewriting the way great writers do,” she explains. It’s more about finding unique stories and figuring out how to share them with the world in a way that makes people care. 

Writing still matters, though: Deirdre points out that if you don’t take the time to write something “legibly and well and clearly,” people won’t trust that it’s factually accurate.

After retiring from journalism last year, Deirdre took on a new role at Bates College. “I’m finding and writing stories about young people who could be tomorrow’s leaders,” she says, adding that she views her career as “a journey dedicated to storytelling.”

Deirdre’s top tips for getting a journalist to tell your story:

After decades in newspapers, Deirdre knows exactly what PR professionals need to do to get reporters to pay attention to them.

1. Find a good story to tell (hint: it’s a story that will sell)

“I always wanted the story that was new or different, unusual, even quirky or weird,” Deirdre says. But too often, she got pitched mundane stories that wouldn’t appeal to anyone but the subject’s friends or family.

Deirdre advises PR pros to look at stories from the point of view of the journalist, who is an employee of a business that needs to make money. “They’ve got to sell ads, they’ve got to sell subscriptions,” she says.

She likens it to how restaurants succeed — by offering something unique that you can’t get anywhere else. “Newspapers have to do the same thing,” she explains. “The storytelling has to be interesting and incredible.”

Deirdre got to know the PR pros who always had a good story for her. “I would pick up the phone whenever they called,” she says. 

That meant they were more likely to get coverage for their clients, especially since she often reached out to them even when they hadn’t pitched her to answer her questions or share insights on upcoming trends.

2. Tailor your pitch

Good PR people keep track of what journalists cover, what they’re interested in writing about and how to communicate with them.

Deirdre received countless pitches during her career covering the Maine outdoors for stories about other states, which she had to turn down. If those PR pros had looked at her stories before they pitched her, they would have known that she only wrote about Maine, saving everyone time and hassle.

It’s important to think of journalists as individuals. In order to be successful, you have to keep track of their different personalities and interests.

3. Be adaptable

Even if you do a great job tailoring your pitch to a reporter’s interests, they may not be able to cover it if another reporter beats them to a trend or the news cycle shifts.

But if you’re willing to adapt to help the reporter tell a different story, you might still get coverage. 

Deirdre recalls a time when I pitched a story to her about my client Sugarloaf expanding. She loved the angle and planned to come back to it in a few weeks when she had time to cover it. Unfortunately, another outlet wrote about the same angle in the meantime, so she decided not to write the story she had planned.

Then another opportunity came up to write a story — not about Sugarloaf’s expansion, but about ski resorts opening employee housing. Deirdre reached back out to me for help finding sources, and she ended up including Sugarloaf in the new story.

“I expanded on a story that was growing, that not a lot of news agencies had written about, and you got a little bit of publicity for Sugarloaf,” she explains. It was a win for both of us.

4. Stay up to date on trends

Everyone in the PR and marketing world should stay up to date on trends, whether you’re a journalist, a PR pro or a content writer. 

When Deirdre was a journalist, she read a lot of media and spent a lot of time on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter), looking at posts from national parks and outdoor organizations in Maine.

Now, at Bates, she looks at college websites and newspapers from across the country. She’s trying to see what other people are doing — not to copy them, but to look for opportunities to take a different approach to stories and trends people are interested in.

“You don’t really want to spend your life on social media,” Deirdre jokes. But it’s a great way to learn about what your community is talking about and connect with potential sources.

Applying journalism best practices to content writing

In her new role as a content writer, Deirdre has learned plenty of new skills. She’s enjoyed learning to write social media posts and tailoring content to different platforms.

But she relies on the same skills that served her so well during her long career in journalism to drive clicks and engagements.

“I still go back to my strong belief that it’s got to be something unusual or quirky or weird or different,” she says. She still loves searching for the most interesting stories — like covering the Bates Trashion Show, where students model clothes made from trash.

For more on creating content that helps grow your brand, check out Nancy’s book Grow Your Audience, Grow Your Brand.

Deirdre’s career path shows that there’s not such a huge difference between what journalists, PR pros and content writers do. We’re all trying to find and tell stories, and if we remember that, we can help each other do our best work.

This is based on episode 265 of The PR Maven® Podcast, a podcast hosted by Nancy Marshall. Weekly interviews feature industry leaders, top executives, media personalities and online influencers to give listeners a peek into the world of public relations, marketing and personal branding. Subscribe through Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.