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The Secret Art of Media Research

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by Jodee Blanco, Founder & CEO, Jodee Blanco Group

Jodee Blanco

You’re armed and ready with a fabulous press kit jam-packed with provocative angles, newsworthy hooks, and great story ideas. You’re chomping at the bit to begin pitching media, to get as much exposure for your book as possible. Where do you go from here?

One of the most vital elements of any publicity campaign is sound media research. You need to know whom to pitch and what they want. No matter how talented you are at selling story ideas to producers and editors, if you don’t understand how to generate print and broadcast leads, you’ve entered the media marathon with two weak ankles. Media research is so much more than pulling databases or looking up names and numbers in Bacon’s media guides. It’s a methodical, highly creative process that demands persistence, pitbull-like aggression, attention to detail, and a relentless investigative instinct.

Everyone automatically assumes that the most important characteristic of a good publicist is courage. While an ability to take risks is crucial, it pales in comparison to curiosity. It’s like the old fable of the tortoise and the hare. The publicist who rushes through the media research phase of the campaign is like the hare, who’s so focused on the finish line that it underestimates the challenge. The publicist who takes the time to research which media are the most appropriate to pitch may be slower out of the gate, but in the end will win far more coverage.

With these thoughts in mind, let’s explore nuts and bolts.

The Best Tools

I’ve always loved doing media research. A lot of PR people find it tedious, but I get such a kick out of discovering new media outlets. The key is knowing where to look. I’ve worked with the whole boatload of media guides that provide detailed information about every print and broadcast outlet in the world, and I’ve found Bacon’s Directories to be the best. Available in several volumes and also on CD-ROM, they’re divided into Radio/TV/Cable and Newspaper/Magazine. The television, radio, and newspaper sections are organized by state and region, with separate sections on national outlets. Magazines are listed alphabetically and cross-referenced by subject category.

PR newsletters are also terrific. Bulldog, Partyline, Contact, and Lifestyle are just a few of the countless newsletters that provide up-to-date information about the media, including breaking news about staff changes, beat reporters seeking experts for stories, and specials currently in production. Keep in mind, however, that a good publicist should use media guides and newsletters as a starting point only.

Media research begins at home. Watch TV, read the newspapers, listen to the radio. Expose yourself to the media as much as you possibly can. There’s nothing more effective than pitching a reporter you’ve read, a television show you’ve watched, or a radio show you’ve heard. Exposure gives you the power of the audience’s perspective. Though you can’t listen to every radio or TV show in America, or read every newspaper or magazine, once you become familiar with different formats and different sensibilities of shows, as well as with sections of newspapers and magazines, you’ll experience a whole new level of confidence and professionalism when you pitch.

Analysis and Planning

Step two of media research is honestly analyzing the book and author you’re pitching. You need to establish realistic guidelines for yourself. For example, if you have an author with a severe speech impediment, you won’t do extensive research on radio shows, but you might focus on viable print outlets. Conversely, if you’re publicizing a book on a lighthearted topic and the author is wonderful with a microphone, you may want to concentrate on radio and television instead of print, which usually requires a harder news angle.

Let’s look at another example. You’re publicizing a novel with a strong New Age spin. The author is articulate and electric on camera. If I were doing this project, I would research magazines, television and radio shows, cable networks, and writers specializing in New Age audiences. I wouldn’t eliminate mainstream media, but I would do a lot of extra research, trying to unearth every possible New Age outlet that I could.

In other words, once you’ve established your campaign strategy, research media which support that strategy. Don’t go off on tangents. If you’re publicizing a book on hair and makeup tips, it wouldn’t make sense to spend a lot of time researching the assignment reporters at network news shows, because they wouldn’t perceive this topic as a breaking story. However, if you had a feasible pitch in mind that might work for the health reporters on the network news desk, you’d be smart to take a leap of faith.

How to Handle TV

When you’ve determined the categories of media you wish to research, you’re ready for step three. It’s time to hit the resource manuals and the phones.

Media research is, in large part, a communication process, because once you look up all the necessary information in Bacon’s directories, you have to explore your options further. I’m going to illustrate what I mean by walking you through a typical example.

We’re publicizing The Road to Riches, a how-to business book for entrepreneurs, written by a well-known corporate renegade who started his own company and has since made millions. We’ve narrowed our research to national print and broadcast business media.

I always like to search broadcast first because that usually takes the most time. I whip out Bacon’s Radio/TV/Cable Directory and start by reviewing network, syndicated, and cable network shows. I photocopy all the relevant pages, highlight what seem to be the most appropriate outlets for my author, then begin telephoning the contacts listed.

If you’re a seasoned publicist, you probably already have many contacts of your own, but that doesn’t exempt you from the research phase. It gives you an advantage, but you still have to roll up your sleeves like everyone else.

What should you ask when you get a contact on the phone? I’ll be very specific here. Let’s say I’m contacting network cable shows and have just telephoned the producer listed for a weekly show called Business First. After several messages back and forth, I finally get the producer on the line.

“Hello, my name is Jodee Blanco, from Blanco & Peace, and I’m updating my media lists, as I have someone who’ll soon be available for interview. Do you have a few seconds? Thanks so much. Are you still the contact for Business First? What types of stories do you like, and what’s the format of your show? What stories are you working on now? This is the list of other business shows I have for your network . . . Do you know if I’ve missed anything? Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.”

Prime pitching time is always from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and as long as they’re not on deadline, producers will respond with courtesy to those questions because they understand exactly what you’re doing. Sometimes you may be stymied because a producer is impatient or unwilling to help you. When that happens, simply call the programming department and ask what shows are currently in production and who the contacts are.

I’ve got another great trick. Broadcast and cable networks often air shows that are produced by independent production companies. When you contact the programming departments, it’s always a good idea to ask them both what specials are in development or production and what series are being independently produced. Programming directors are usually cooperative, and this kind of information is invaluable.

If you’re diligent about media research and tenacious when you call, one contact name on a page in Bacon’s should create at least five to ten new leads.

The rules for researching radio are the same as for researching television. Speak with producers first, and if you feel you’re not getting enough specifics, have them transfer you to programming.

Preparing to Pitch Print Media

Researching print media is similar. Most media guides will give you the names of the beat writers at each newspaper. With The Road to Riches, the natural contact to call first would be the business editor.

Here are some of the questions you would want to ask:

Are you still the business editor for this paper? Who are your section’s beat reporters? Are there any freelance writers you work with frequently to whom you’d recommend I pitch stories occasionally? Are you currently working on any feature stories about self-made millionaires or entrepreneurs?–as I may have someone who would be a great expert. Are any of your business columnists syndicated? Are you competitive with any other publication in your market, and if so, what’s your position on first print and exclusivity?

You may not be able to ask all these questions, since editors and reporters have tight timetables, but you should have an idea now of how media research works.

On the magazine side, the same applies. Once you have your lists of targeted magazines, call reporters and editors, inquiring about beat writers, stories currently in the hopper, and policies on competitive publications, among other data that will empower your pitch.

Creating a Database

Let’s back up a minute and review where we are. You know exactly what categories of print and broadcast media you want to pitch. You’ve gone through the television, radio, newspaper, and magazine guides, photocopying all the pertinent pages, and you’ve highlighted appropriate targets. You’ve telephoned each and every contact and followed up on new leads. You feel confident and energized, knowing that you have a strong media hit list that’s updated to the minute. Now what?

Having an organized database is a powerful weapon in public relations. Everyone has individual preferences about structuring and formatting, but creating a database has more to do with logic and simplicity than with anything else.

I’m going to share the Blanco & Peace databases media guidelines for creating databases. Keep in mind, though, that part of the fun is developing your own system and style.

Each campaign should have its own media database. For The Road to Riches, I’d suggest dividing the database into three sections: national television, radio, and print. If the author were touring, I would do a separate subsection for each city. The wonderful thing about media databases is that they give you media lists with information you can pitch from as well as labels for mailings.

When we enter media into databases, we include the following information:

  • Media outlet (network, syndicator, newspaper or magazine, etc.)
  • Name of show or section of newspaper
  • Contact name
  • Phone number
  • Fax number
  • Email
  • Address

Sometimes we annotate entries with other specifics, such as deadlines and story preferences, among other details.

Change as a Constant

Assume that the database you assemble at the beginning of a campaign will expand and evolve once pitching is under way. As you pitch, you’ll uncover new leads, which you’ll need to note and act upon. Additionally, a smart publicist piggybacks breaking news whenever possible. That means that at a moment’s notice, you may have to generate a whole new category of media lists to accommodate a piggyback opportunity or capitalize on a newsworthy development.

For example, recently one of the novelists my firm represents signed several precedent-setting deals with prominent Internet companies to promote her books online. We immediately began researching the Internet writers at the top daily national papers, syndicated cyberspace columns, Internet magazines, and television and radio shows that cover Internet news. We crunched on the research because we wanted to issue a press release while the story was still hot. Within two days, we had a target hit list from which we were able generate significant coverage.

One last piece of advice: Look beyond the obvious. When you’re researching media, think creatively. Seek the unanticipated opportunity. For example, let’s say the author of The Road to Riches is a gourmet cook in his spare time. Research culinary magazines. You could pitch them on doing a story about the millionaire entrepreneur who dons a chef’s hat after 5:00. Imagine the angle that no one else would consider, figure out which media would be most appropriate to pitch, research the outlets, then go for it big!

Jodee Blanco has publicized dozens of books that became regional and national bestsellers. The author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Please Stop Laughing at Me, she was a founding partner and former president of the PR firm Blanco & Peace. This article is excerpted from the new edition of her book The Complete Guide to Book Publicity.

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