27 years in public relations turned into a 30-minute early morning walk & talk

If you’ve reached the end of Netflix, you can watch me talk about public relations while wandering through the woods for 30 minutes.

Prof Wayne Aubert asked if I’d offer up some wisdom for Advertising students in an upcoming class. So I turned 27 years of working in PR into a half-hour stream of consciousness (with just 15 minutes worth of filler & origin story).

Rather than record a lecture from the basement bunker / home office / spare bedroom, I went for an early morning walk & talk.

I made the case for why introverts can excel at PR, what I enjoy most & least about PR, the core foundational skill for PR pros plus some thoughts on crisis comms, media relations, social media, how to land a job, a couple shout-outs for Professor Aubert but no war stories.

Media relations 101 for entrepreneurs

My colleague Jane Allison and I got to spend a morning with entrepreneurs participating in the 2018 Lion’s Lair competition organized by the Innovation Factory in Hamilton, Ontario.

We offered up media relations advice to an amazing group of job creators, prosperity builders, problem solvers and change makers.

Jane and I have been running free media relations workshops since 2007 as a way to thank non-profits, community groups and entrepreneurs who have inspiring stories to share.


The 2 questions you must answer with every media pitch

When pitching a story to the media, you need to answer the first two questions that every reporter, editor and producer will ask:

  1. Why should I care? Why should our readers, listeners and viewers care about the story you’re pitching? What problem are you solving? What opportunity are  you creating? How you are making our lives easier and our community a better place to call home?
  2. Why now? Why are you pitching this story now? And why should we cover it now? Do you have an upcoming event, announcement, product launch? Are you responding to something that’s already in the news and top of mind with our audience?

The better your answers to WSIC and why now, the less likely the reporter will ask WTF.  Serve up answers that are clear, compelling and concise. Don’t make reporters dig, wait or wonder. If that happens, odds are good they’ll take a pass on your pitch and move on to the next story idea.

Four non-stories that nonprofits love to continually pitch to the media


The always popular ribbon cutting ceremony, even with some guy in a Darth Vader costume with a light sabre, just isn’t news. 

There’s no question your organization does amazing, worthy work.

But don’t confuse worthy with newsworthy.

Yes, it’s great that you’re moving into a new home or a bigger place. Or that you got a major donation and  you’re looking to raise a pile of cash for a big community project.

But groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings, giant fake cheque presentations and your latest fund-a-thon aren’t news.  If you’re really lucky, you might get coverage on a very, very slow news day. But don’t bank on it. Some media outlets have policies against running grip-and-grin cheque presentation photos or covering a dozen people in suits and hardhats pretending to dig a hole in the ground.

By all means, do these events to warm the hearts of your donors, Board members and senior management team. But just don’t count on much, if any, media coverage. And if you do manage to get coverage, will anyone but you actually care?

Media Relations Summer Camp Roundup

Jane Allison, the pretty remarkable Manager of Community Partnerships with The Hamilton Spectator, and I are more than happy to share our media relations summer camp gameplan with other communities that are looking to bring nonprofits & local media together.


Nearly two dozen campers from 13 community building organizations in Greater Hamilton got the chance to share their stories during  during Media Relations Summer Camp 2012 on July 10 and 12 at The Hamilton Spectator. The camp was offered free-of-charge by The Hamilton Spectator to thank local groups and organizations that are making Hamilton an even better place to call home.


The idea for Media Relations Summer Camp came out of a Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction community event a few years ago. During the event, more than 60 nonprofits and community groups prepared posters outlining how they were making Hamilton the best place to raise a child. Those posters showcased a ton of great stories that were just waiting to be told.

Further inspiration came courtesy of the Community Media Workshop. Since 1989, the Chicago-based Community Media Workshop has worked to diversify the voices in news and public debates by providing a unique mix of communications coaching for grassroots, arts and other nonprofit organizations and sourcing grassroots and community news for journalists. In connecting the community with media, the Workshop promotes news that matters.

Here in Hamilton, the Media Relations Summer Camp gives community builders a unique, hands-on opportunity to polish, practice and pitch stories to reporters, columnists and editors with The Hamilton Spectator. 


A call for applications to the 2012 Media Relations Summer Camp went out on Twitter in early June. Nearly 30 organizations registered online. To make sure every organization got a chance to make their pitch, 13 organizations were selected. Groups were picked based on the stories they wanted to tell and the media coverage they'd received in the past. The 2012 campers were:

  • The Hamilton Academy of Medicine
  • Hamilton / Burlington SPCA
  • Hammer City Roller Girls
  • Centre Francais Hamilton
  • Community Living Hamilton
  • Living Rock Ministries
  • Stolen Sisters / Sisters in Spirit Action Committee
  • Hamilton Safe Communities Coalition
  • Hamilton Arts Council
  • I Heart Hamilton Tour
  • Habitat for Humanity
  • Bob Kemp Hospice
  • YMCA of Hamilton-Burlington-Brantford

Seven PR pros generously volunteered their time and expertise to serve as camp counselors. A special thanks to our all-star line-up of counselors: 

  • Consultant Robert Plant
  • Media relations trainer Joy Shikaze  
  • Grace Diffey (Hamilton Community Foundation)
  • Brent Kinnaird (Inspire Marketing)
  • Wade Hemsworth (McMaster University)
  • Chris Farias (kitestring creative branding studio) and
  • Debbie Silva (St. Joseph's).

So here's how the camp played out…


Media Relations 101: Campers got a primer in what stories not to pitch (avoid groundbreakings, ribbon-cuttings and giant cheque presentations) and better stories to tell (focus on how their organizations create solutions, provide opportunities and build hope, resilience and prosperity). Campers also learned how to pitch (build around a person, send a clear, concise email and make it as easy as possible for the media to tell your story). 

Campers also got the details on The Hamilton Spectator's ongoing Young Professionals profiles of business and community leaders who are under 40 years of age.

The media relations primer was posted on SlideShare and also to Dropbox, along with the Young Professionals overview, tips on how to write an op-ed, media contacts in Greater Hamilton and 100 tips for effective media relations.


Campers spent the afternoon polishing their pitches with our camp counselors. Two counselors worked with 2-3 campers reviewing and strengthening their story ideas.


Conversations and key points from the day were captured on the #mediacamp Twitter hashtag.

Campers first practiced their pitches to our panel of counselors who offered constructive feedback. Each camper stood before the panel and talked about their story ideas. Campers pitched the one story they'd most like to see on the front page of The Hamilton Spectator.

Editorial Writer and Letters Editor Lee Prokaska-Curtis dropped in and gave campers an overview of how to submit both letters to the editor and opinion pieces and how to book meetings with The Hamilton Spectator's editorial board.


For 90 minutes, campers delivered their pitches to staff from The Hamilton Spectator's newsroom (Jane did the recruiting). Each camper went before the media panel for approximately five minutes to tell their story and answer questions. The panel provided both specific feedback to each pitch and general feedback to all the campers on how best to connect with The Hamilton Spectator.  A special thanks to:

  • Editor-in-Chief Paul Berton
  • Managing Editor Howard Elliott
  • Sports and Business Editor Rick Hughes
  • Columnist Susan Clairmont, and
  • Municipal Affairs Reporter Emma Reilly 


Campers got a 2-hour primer on social media courtesy of Chris Farias with kitestring. Chris demystified social media by walking the campers through Facebook, FourSquare, Twitter, Pinterest and blogs.


On Friday, a survey went out to the campers courtesy of Survey Monkey. One camper suggested that pitches be submitted by email, with the media panel then asking follow-up questions and offering feedback.

"I cannot say enough good things about the Media Relations Summer Camp. First let me say thank you for picking our organization to be part of this year's camp. This experience so exceeded  my expectations. The information you shared was right on the money. This was exactly what we needed to dramatically improve our dealings with the media and, ultimately, the amoung of ink and airtime we might be able to generate in the future. I hope you smile in the future when you hear and see more about our organization in the weeks and months ahead." — A happy camper.



100 media relations rules

Download 100 Media Relations Rules

Lessons learned & words of wisdom from PR pros and journalists       


  1. Always start your pitch with a clear & compelling answer to the question WSIC – why should I care?
  2. Anchor and build your pitch around a person with a compelling story that we can relate to
  3. Accept that the media have no obligation to promote or cover your latest fundraiser or gala
  4. Make it as easy as possible for the media to tell your story
  5. Reporters want two things – they want a great quote and they want to go home on time (don’t keep them waiting)
  6. Never lie to cover up bad news. Your lie becomes the bigger story while trust and respect take a hit with reporters
  7. When serving up a quote, be bold, be brief and then be quiet.
  8. Reporters aren’t out to get you. But they generally don’t suffer fools gladly.
  9. If a reporter gets it wrong odds are you didn’t get it right in being clear, concise and easily understood.
  10. If you pitch a story to the press, make sure you’re around to pick up the phone if they call.
  11. When pitching a story, a three-sentence email is always better than a three-page fax.
  12. Pitching a reporter who’s on deadline is not a good way to build a good working relationship.
  13. Know that good editors and news directors will always side with their reporters when they’re in the right.
  14. Never ask to approve a reporter’s story before it’s filed. That’s the editor’s job.
  15. Showing up unannounced at a newsroom to pitch a story doesn’t work. And it sets off alarm bells.
  16. Never ask the reporter to send you a copy of the story once it’s run. Make the effort to get it yourself.
  17. Threatening to pull advertising if a story runs guarantees it will and your relations with the reporter are shot.
  18. After talking with a reporter for 30 minutes, never a good idea to say “but don’t quote me on that or use my name”.
  19. A giant fake cheque presentation is never news.
  20. Know that the reporter at your daily paper didn’t write the headline that went with your story.
  21. If you can’t comment, say why (HR matter, investigation underway).
  22. Don’t be a fair weather friend – be accessible whether the reporter’s working on a good news or bad news story.
  23. Read, watch and listen to the media you’re pitching stories to.
  24. Know that your snarky, ALL CAPS rant to a reporter will be forwarded to the entire newsroom (same for late night phone calls)
  25. Include the agenda and times with event invites so reporters don’t waste 60 minutes watching you eat a rubber chicken dinner.
  26. The ideal op-ed (opposite editorial) is 750 words with one big idea, three supporting facts and a close that has a call to action.
  27. Unless you have really big news to announce, don’t waste your time holding a news conference.
  28. The best interviews with reporters are like two-way conversations and not Q&A sessions or cross-examinations.
  29. When a crisis hits and media call, acknowledge the problem and highlight your solution to fix and avoid a repeat.
  30. First three questions to ask a reporter – when’s your deadline, what’s your story angle and who else are you talking to?
  31. Cutting ribbons with giant scissors is not news.
  32. When pitching a good news story, put a real client / patient / student front and centre to tell your story.
  33. Boardrooms are boring. So too are office cubicles. Get out to the frontlines for photos and video. Makes for a far better backdrop.
  34. Who in your organization has the most compelling story? That’s the poster child to build your pitch around.
  35. Charity golf tournaments are not news, even with big name celebrities teeing off.
  36. Before talking with a reporter, nail down a clear, concise and compelling key message.
  37. Reporters are not obligated to publicize your fundraiser, no matter how slow ticket sales may be.
  38. Never bait and switch. The story you pitch to the media is the story you talk with reporters about if they follow up.
  39. It’s never about you. Your pitch is about the people you serve and how you’re making their lives easier and our community better.
  40. Don’t pitch a story until you can pitch your big idea in one sentence (and not a run-on sentence).
  41. If you don’t like the media, do yourself and your organization a favour. Change jobs.
  42. Pitching a story to everyone in a newsroom all but guarantees that no one will run with it.
  43. Pitch the right story to the right reporter. The court reporter is not likely to do a story on your new community garden.
  44. Anticipate the tough questions reporters could ask. These questions shouldn’t be a mystery.
  45. Your job is to pitch what your story is about. The reporter’s job is to decide the best way to tell the story.
  46. Every good news story is a deposit in your organization’s trust and forgiveness account. You never want a negative balance.
  47. When a reporter asks a negative question, don’t repeat the question in your answer.
  48. Before demanding a correction, ask yourself if anyone else cares that you’re a director and not a manger as reported.
  49. Read Ryerson Review of Journalism cover to cover. Best magazine on media trends and personalities.
  50. Never corner and pitch stories to reporters who are off the clock and spending time with their families.
  51. Earn a reputation as a resident expert on a specific topic. Be accessible, knowledgeable and quotable.
  52. Package your pitch with one to two folks from your organization, a 3rd party expert plus some key facts and stats.
  53. Always fire off an email thanking reporters for their coverage and highlighting how their stories made a difference.
  54. Be as forthright with bad news as you are when news is good.
  55. You’re not a reporter’s friend. You’re a resource for the reporter. Don’t confuse the two.
  56. Tell the story about how your organization has a proven solution to a big challenge facing your organization.
  57. Meeting a reporter’s deadline is good. Beating a reporter’s deadline? Even better.
  58. 20-second answers work best for TV and radio. Any shorter or longer and you’ve served up an unworkable soundbite.
  59. Steer clear of anyone who asks you to pay for advertising that’s dressed up and disguised as news.
  60. It might work for your kids but badgering a reporter over and over again to run your story doesn’t work.
  61. Run away from any PR consultant who offers to blast your story idea to 1,000+ reporters. It’s called spam and no one reads it. Although you’ll pay for it.
  62. Beware the pregnant pause. Don’t ramble to fill the silence after your answer and the reporter’s next question. This is where many folks stray off message.
  63. Taking shots at reporters in speeches might get you cheap laughs but it will definitely make you seem thin-skinned.
  64. Use this pre-interview briefing template from Heather Whaling with Geben Communications.
  65. Don’t know the answer to a reporter’s question? Say so. Never guess. Get back to the reporter when you have the answer.
  66. For good or bad, how you respond to a crisis will become the story.
  67. Get in front of bad news as fast as you can. And focus on what your organization is doing to avoid a repeat performance.
  68. What if no one shows up? First question to ask if someone helpfully suggests “let’s hold a press conference!”.
  69. Make your story pitches hyperbole free. Strip out all adjectives and adverbs. And never use the word “gamechanging”.
  70. Read and then reread Damage Control by Eric Dezenhall and John Weber. Best book on crisis management.
  71. Avoid doing any interview cold. If a reporter calls out of the blue, buy yourself 30-60 minutes to prepare.
  72. Get right to the point with your pitch. Say the most with the least amount of words possible.
  73. Do not call reporters three minutes after emailing your story pitch to see if they got your email.
  74. For an event or announcement at 10 a.m., don’t send out your media invites at 9:45 a.m.
  75. Don’t speculate on the motives, intentions or thoughts of others. Have a reporter talk to that person themselves.
  76. When sending out a media release, include contact information for follow-up (you’d be surprised how often this doesn’t happen).
  77. Don’t email attachments with your pitches. Include links to web-posted information instead.
  78. If you have big news to announce, try an editorial board meeting instead of a news conference.
  79. Never promise a reporter what you can’t deliver (interview with a client / patient / senior exec / employee).
  80. Know when to shut up.
  81. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. is the sweet spot for events and announcement when you’re hoping for media coverage.
  82. If your organization only gets bad news, don’t blame the media. Do a better job of pitching good news story ideas.
  83. Just because your cause is worthy doesn’t mean it’s automatically newsworthy.
  84. Make it easy for the reporter to pitch your story to their editor / producer.
  85. TV needs great visuals. Radio needs great sound.
  86. Skip the swag. Reporters don’t need trinkets and trash. They want compelling stories.
  87. Don’t call the newsroom and ask to talk with a reporter. Do your homework. Know who to talk with.
  88. When making your pitch, reference related stories the reporter has filed.
  89. Quality trumps quantity. Be known for pitching good story ideas. Reporters will look for what you send. Less likely to automatically hit delete.
  90. Be a gracious host when a reporter pays a visit. If you charge for parking, comp it.
  91. Is it new, the first ever or unusual? Lots of people affected? Compelling human interest story? That’s news.
  92. Best litmus test for clear messaging – will your mom understand what you’re saying? And will she care?
  93. Assume everything is on the record. Don’t talk for 20 minutes and then say but don’t quote me on that.
  94. A website refresh or launch of a Twitter feed and Facebook page for your organization is not news.
  95. A picky point but it’s called a media release and not a press release. Radio and TV don’t use printing presses.
  96. Have check against delivery copies of speeches and remarks on hand for reporters (a bonus if you can email the speeches in advance).
  97. Don’t put exclamation marks in your email tips and pitches to reporters! Doesn’t make it more newsworthy!
  98. Don’t take it personally when a reporter postpones or cancels your interview to cover breaking news.
  99. Refusing to talk with a reporter won’t kill a story. Good reporters always find someone else to interview.
  100. When you come across a great story that's not about your organization, pass the tip along to a reporter.

Book review: When the Headline is You

This review was orginally published in the March 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

When the Headline is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media

By Jeff Ansell

I happen to really like reporters. I like their slightly warped sense of humour, the bemused way they look at our mixed up world and their fearlessness in asking tough questions.

I trained to be a journalist. I did a brief and unspectacular stint as a cub reporter before crossing over to the dark side of public relations.

And I got very lucky and married a really good journalist. I get to be her arm candy at reporter retirement parties and journalism award shows.

Pitching good news stories to the press is pretty cool and it’s one of the best parts of my job.

Yet despite all of that, I still get nervous when reporters call to ask a few questions and get some clarification about a story they’re working on.

I get anxious because, just like author and former journalist Jeff Ansell, I know the media coverage will only be as good as my worst quote.

“Though someone answering a reporter’s questions may strike all the right notes for the majority of the interview, it takes only a single miscue to trigger disaster,” says Ansell. “The cut and thrust of a media interview is not subject to the rules of everyday chit-chat.”

Ansell says that when you and I have a conversation, we’re able to appreciate the context of everything we say to each other. But a reporter won’t include everything you say. “A journalist’s job is to separate the wheat from the chaff and sometimes it is only the chaff they seek to report. It all comes down to the edit.

“Reporters, along with editors and producers, decide who plays the hero or villain in a story,” says Ansell. “Supporting roles are available for the victim, witness, survivor, expert and goat – or as I like to call that character, the village idiot.”

So here’s what Ansell recommends you do to avoid being cast as the villain or village idiot.

Be friendly with the reporter right from the start. “If the reporter hears stress, irritation or anxiety in your voice, it could be an immediate tip-off that you may be less than co-operative and may, in fact, have something to hide.” Instead, convey a desire to be helpful and forthcoming. The reporter has a job to do and you have a story to tell.

Create a buffer zone for yourself. While the reporter will want you to drop everything and do the interview immediately, you’re entitled to a stoppage in play. Tell the reporter you’ll call back in a few minutes. Clear your head, focus your thoughts, take a few deep breaths and return the call.

You’re also entitled to ask the reporter questions. “The answers you get to these initial questions will provide insight into the content and context of the proposed interview and the resulting news story,” says Ansell. What’s the purpose of the interview, the overall objective of the story, and who else are you interviewing are all fair questions to ask a reporter.

Asking to see the questions in advance and demanding to review the story before it’s published or goes to air is way out of bounds and all but guarantees you a rough ride.

Ansell recommends heading into media interviews with something called a value compass. It’s a guide that will help you stay onside with messages that match up with your organization’s values. The compass takes into account the spokesperson’s nature and standards and the stakeholders’ emotion and well-being.

When it comes to dealing with bad news, always fess up if you’ve messed up. Aim to tell it first and fast. Be accessible and forthcoming with reporters. Lying low and avoiding the press is never a smart strategy.

Be among the most upset at what’s happened. Know that the facts will never trump the emotion that people are feeling, whether it’s anger or fear. Always show humility, give people a reason to trust you again and couple your obvious concern with a genuine commitment to action. Tell the reporter that you’re sorry about what happened and here’s what we’re doing to fix the problem.

Whatever messages you give, always use simple words. Keep your sentences short and avoid qualifiers. “Scratch your ‘but’,” advises Ansell. “Spokespeople say but far too much and often with harmful consequences.” Sticking a but in the middle of your sentence cancels out whatever goodwill preceded it and signals that an excuse is forthcoming.

Along with a value compass, Ansell offers a one-page template for crafting quotable messages that meet the needs of reporters and assure you’ll get the opportunity to tell your story without stepping on a landmine. Ansell also walks you through 20 what-if scenarios.

“Answering questions from reporters is risky business. Knowing how to talk to reporters is like learning a new language, a language that bears little if any resemblance to everyday conversation. Exposing oneself to media scrutiny requires more than simple candour. It requires knowledge, training and a keen understanding of how reporters write the news.”