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Taking the ‘News’ Out of Cable News


February 27, 2014

By Mark Bernheimer

If you are a fan of TV news, then you are undoubtedly bearing witness to a disturbing trend: Cable news channels are everywhere, but cable news is disappearing.

It may be premature to say that reporters are extinct on the big three cable news channels, but it is fair to say that they are gradually going the way of the elevator operator.

Instead of sending trained journalists across the globe to uncover and retrieve important stories of the day, today’s cable news channels are more interested in talk-radio style slugfests, speculative in-studio analysis and reruns of whale documentaries.

This isn’t some shadowy conspiracy. CNN president Jeff Zucker has repeatedly stated his interest in emphasizing shows over newscasts, and expanding the definition of news. Fox and MSNBC, meanwhile, have found success with personality-driven programming that stresses political opinion over objective newsgathering — or at least blurs the line between the two.

It’s a sad state of affairs for news junkies, and it poses a real dilemma for PR professionals. When news holes shrink, PR opportunities tend to do the same.

But this paradigm shift in cable news doesn’t mean that all is lost for the PR business, it just demands a change of approach, says Michael Smart of Michael Smart PR.

“The dearth of original reporting means more experts helping the networks make sense of the day’s events,” says Smart, who leads workshops teaching effective pitching techniques for PR pros.

Smart believes that it’s just as important for PR pros to build relationships with show bookers as with assignment editors. And instead of simply pitching clients, PR pros must now also pitch themselves as go-to resources for providing compelling, articulate guests — who, ideally, have had at least some basic media training.

Smart suggestions

Here are some tips from Smart:

  • Click on Google Trends to predict the topics that national bookers will be interested in pursuing. Do you have a client who’s an expert on one of them? Start reaching out.
     
  • Realize that bios and credentials may be less important than opinions and on-camera skills. Bookers tend to prefer guests with strong — even polarizing — beliefs, as opposed to those who thoughtfully walk the center of the road.

    Contrarian perspectives are particularly sought after. “The networks want a person with a point of view, and a strong mode of delivering it,” says Smart.
     
  • If your client is an unknown commodity, then include a YouTube link in your pitch. Show the booker that your client’s camera skills are up to par for a national TV interview.

Realistic expectations

Let’s be honest: It may no longer be realistic to expect network reporters parachuting in when you pitch them a feature story. And unless your client is a master sushi chef, then you’re probably not going to place them on a prepackaged reality show featuring a globetrotting foodie.

But PR opportunities still exist in the rapidly changing world of cable news.

Social media and Skype have made it much easier for ordinary folks in distant places to engage directly with major news outlets, which have an ongoing need for compelling guests. But PR professionals unquestionably must adjust their strategies, just as their clients must adjust their expectations.


Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN national correspondent, and the founder of
MediaWorks Resource Group, an international media training and consulting firm.

 



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