By Dave Poston
Legal marketers are working hard to encourage their attorneys to advance their roles as true business advisors to their clients, as well as speak to both those clients and other business leaders through media coverage. When expanding your efforts to achieve national business coverage, there are certain best practices that can help produce impressive results.
Much like the media interview with Raychel Lean, ALM’s Florida bureau chief overseeing the Daily Business Review, in a recent Strategies LIVE! podcast, this article is intended to provide actionable advice from Ty West, editor in chief of The Playbook, which produces national business content for American City Business Journals.
Understanding Journalists’ Needs and How They Work
Tell me about your publication, The Playbook of American City Business Journals, and the structure of your newsroom.
American City Business Journals (ACBJ) is headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is the largest publisher of metropolitan business newsweeklies in the United States, with a presence in more than 40 metros around the nation.
ACBJ launched The Playbook in 2021 after noticing a need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anchored by our history of providing hyper-local business intelligence, we saw the collective experiences and related impacts of the pandemic nationwide — specifically the need for information on COVID-19 relief programs, like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), insights about the return to office/hybrid workplaces and other changes. It opened our eyes to the value of non-geographically tethered business intelligence and a need we could meet due to our unique audience of decisionmakers, small business owners, entrepreneurs, executives and managers.
Our goal at The Playbook is to answer the burning questions on the minds of owners, executives and employees. We want to help them grow and defend their businesses, advance their careers and simplify their professional lives.
At The Playbook, we are one part of the national content team at ACBJ. The national team also includes The National Observer, which delivers local coverage and overarching trends to a national audience and also includes verticals on higher education and real estate. Additionally, we recently hired a national editor for American Inno, which focuses on startups and the innovation ecosystem.
What is unique about The Playbook, in terms of its national business focus, versus the rest of the American City Business Journals? Do business journals in each market localize your stories?
The answer varies from story to story. Sometimes we will do a story that is meant to be localized in every market, but the bulk of coverage by The Playbook provides a national look running across all markets and will appear on every ACBJ site. We also do national, special print projects with a frequency of about one per quarter.
How do you distribute your content nationally and regionally?
Every day, we send an email to all local editors about what is coming for the day from the national content team. The stories The Playbook and TNO teams produce run in all of our markets.
What are your deadlines?
While our deadlines are flexible at The Playbook, they might be best described as somewhat like our web operations at the local level. We generally try to have our content ready by 2 pm Eastern time for the first round of 3 pm afternoon edition sends at the local level. That said, a lot of our national content is evergreen. We often write about breaking news, but our national content is usually more focused on providing insights and analysis of what the news means for our readers.
For typical print deadlines for our local weekly business journals, the standard deadline is Wednesday, as that is the day most go to press, but a lot of pages/sections are completed in advance and the dates vary from editor to editor and market to market , so those conversations are best addressed at the local level.
If you’re pitching an idea for print, such as for a business of law section, I would have liked to get that pitch six to 12 weeks before a run date in my former market, but this is a question that is best discussed with your local business journal editor.
What is your publication focused on covering for 2022? What about more broadly at the American City Business Journals across the country?
We’re currently focused on big, national topics that relate to fallout from the pandemic. For example, small-business lending changes, the future of commercial and downtown real estate and office impacts, lease negotiations and contracts, the housing market, emerging employment issues and legal considerations, such as employee vaccinations and inflation. In sum, the new things people need to pay attention to. What is on the mind of business owners, executives and entrepreneurs? When we’re at our best, we’re helping readers look toward tomorrow and what is coming up. We want to share actionable business intelligence.
Creating Pitch and Outreach Strategies With Journalists
How do you like pitch information to be presented? Do you like additional sources outside of the pitching law firm to be included?
I am looking for people who can provide context and share their expertise. I love talking to attorneys because they are talking to a lot of people. They know the lay of the land and unique insights, along with pitfalls to be aware of. They’re good sources for actionable business intelligence.
It’s great when attorneys will say, “We’ve worked with company X and they have a story and are willing to talk about it.” We are looking for an attorney and client with an opportunity or problem. Of course, I like when people understand what we are trying to do and can provide in-depth expert analysis or insights.
What do you think when people ask you to provide questions in advance of an interview?
It depends on the type of story and interview. If I’m working on a story about best practices for a challenge businesses are facing, sometimes I proactively let them know specific challenges I’d like to get answers about because I want to get that specific answer for our readers. If I’m talking to a managing partner about their firm’s strategy or pursuing a more hard news story, I wouldn’t send specific questions in advance. Instead, I’d probably just send some general topics I’d like to discuss when confirming the interview. We want authentic and candid answers, rather than canned or rehearsed responses. Good candid quotes are the most likely to make it into a story. When attorneys know they’ll be talking to us at The Playbook, it’s also great to think about anecdotes that will help the story because those are likely to be included.
Of course, we’re aware that PR professionals face pressure from firm leaders who expect details. And attorneys often do like to control things, but in general, we will only go into specific detail with questions when it will be beneficial to the story to have that preparation.
Growing Relationships With Journalists
How and when do you like to be contacted?
This certainly varies by person. I prefer email, less phone and no voicemail. On the social side, I prefer LinkedIn over Twitter.
Pitches impress me when I can tell that they understand what we’re looking for. Right now, we like ones on the dominant topics of return to office, hiring and labor markets, inflation, etc. New angles regarding the latest news/trends are great and I appreciate unique research and surveys, too.
Can you give us examples of how a PR professional has built a great relationship with you? Or any advice based on missteps?
The biggest mistake is overpromising and underdelivering. One issue I often face is when an attorney or their representative contacts me about a good angle, such as a return to work topic, and when I tell them I’m interested in an interview, they ask for a list of every company I might include in the article so they can check for conflicts.
I certainly understand where they are coming from, but we cannot guarantee which companies will ultimately be in a story. We can’t control the news cycle, and sometimes news breaks about a topic that is impossible to ignore. A good example happened last year with a story about companies penalizing employees who were unvaccinated. The day our story was scheduled to run, Delta Air Lines announced its plan for a surcharge for unvaccinated workers. We couldn’t run that story without mentioning Delta’s news. That’s just not how newsrooms work. Perhaps firms can handle message development internally in a way that would make everyone comfortable on the front end while avoiding a request that makes a reporter less likely to interview your attorneys.
In terms of good approaches, ones that stand out to me are those who understand what we’re trying to accomplish with The Playbook. I appreciate those who check in from time to time, even when they don’t have anything to pitch. They ask what I’m working on at the moment and see if any of their attorneys might be a fit.
I also like those who address upcoming news topics such as Supreme Court rulings in advance. The vaccine mandate rulings come to mind in that regard. I had a list of sources who had reached out ahead of time volunteering their expertise. I had the questions prepared in advance for the ruling, for either way it ended up, and had an email set up and ready to go — and I sent to anyone and everyone who had reached out ahead of time. I went with written responses for our initial breaking news story. I was able to come back and do a longer “third day” follow-up story, seeking sources from my list of those who had reached out and alerted me to their willingness to chat and share their perspective.
Dave Poston is a licensed attorney who has held numerous international in-house and agency positions for law and other professional services. Poston has earned recognition in a variety of prestigious organizations over the course of his career, most notably being named the Public Relations Professional of the Year by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in 2020. He also leads Poston Communications’ crisis communications and litigation PR division, which has been recognized by Chambers and Partners as one of the top 20 crisis firms in the US, achieving rankings in its litigation support and crisis and risk management guides.