President Obama, The Changing Media Landscape & Twitter Pitches: Q&A With Smitha Rao, Director of Media Strategy at Inkhouse
Apr 29, 2021 Laura Garofalo
Media relations is still the best way for companies to build awareness and credibility. At Inkhouse, we treat our reporter relationships like client relationships. Recently, I sat down (virtually) with our new director of media strategy, Smitha Rao, based in our NYC office. Here’s what she had to say:
LG: How does being a former journalist influence you as a communications professional?
SR: Being a former journalist influences me as a communications professional in just about every way! The skills I developed by working in five newsrooms, including CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN affiliates, are so valuable -- writing, pitching news stories, telling stories concisely, researching, fact checking, and even appearing on-camera, since all of my meetings have been on Zoom since last March. It’s remarkable that so many skills are transferable to this industry. I guess that’s why so many former journalists work in PR!
LG: As a reporter, you had the chance to interview President Obama. Tell us about that experience.
SR: One word: incredible. Three more words: lots of security. It was 2009, and the former President was visiting North Carolina. I was a journalist at a local station, and was selected to cover the story. To say it was an amazing opportunity is an understatement, and it was pretty early on in my career which made it even more remarkable. I had to go through an extensive round of background checks (naturally), and I remember how my news vehicle was combed through by officers and a highly-trained K-9 unit. One really interesting thing is that I was sent on this assignment as a “one-man band,” meaning that I had to do everything on my own when I was on-site. There was a small pool of journalists, and we had brief access to the President, where we captured video and were able to ask questions about his visit, and any relevant topics. To be in the presence of someone like that is unlike anything I had experienced before. While he was addressing the military during a local base visit, his commanding nature made every word he said resonate with the crowd, and us journalists who had the opportunity to interact with him. He answered our questions about supporting the military with grace and poise, and it’s still the proudest moment of my broadcast career.
LG: What’s changed the most in recent years in terms of news reporting/media landscape?
SR: The interesting thing is that while a lot has changed, a lot has stayed the exact same. I still have many friends who are journalists, and the structure of the newsrooms, the daily workflow, the pressure to come up with original story ideas - it’s all the same. At the end of the day, news is still news and that hasn’t changed a bit. What is different is the way that journalists get stories (hello, social media); and the easy access we all have to them (which is good, and bad because that just means more competition for our pitches). Newsrooms are shrinking -- there’s 50% less staff since 2008 -- and the pandemic made things worse. The most important thing to keep in mind is that at the heart of news reporting is storytelling, and that’s the exact same as it was in 2005, when I started working in the broadcast industry.
LG: You’re now the director of media strategy at Inkhouse. What earned media opportunities are most important/exciting to you?
SR: Earned media is more exciting than ever before. There are so many more opportunities today, compared to when I first started working as a journalist in 2005. I think the most exciting opportunities are the ones that we regularly secure here at Inkhouse - Forbes, Wall Street Journal, and the countless tech publications. I will say that earned media is earned media, no matter the medium, and the same strategies are used to pitch broadcast, digital and print. While there’s more competition than before ever when it comes to securing coverage, there are also more opportunities. At the same time, spokespeople are able to do interviews remotely now more than ever before, and that makes it a great time to work in this industry!
LG: What are your best practices for working with the media?
SR: Great question. I love doing things in threes, so here are my top tips. 1) Research, research, research. Before sending a pitch or reaching out to a journalist, make sure you know what beat that reporter or producer covers, and what types of stories are relevant to the publication or station. Not only will you get ignored if you don’t do your research, but you may find yourself pretty quick on the receiving end of a do not reply ever list. Do your homework! 2) Know the fine line between persistence and being a pain. Journalists work under deadlines and they get it - when you send a pitch, you would love to hear back right away. Sometimes, you will. Many times, you won’t. It’s perfectly fine to follow-up, but make sure you’re adding new information, and it’s relevant to what the journalist covers. 3) Focus on what you can do for the media, not what they can do for you. I think it’s important to remember that you’re pitching this person, and should highlight what you can bring to the table that will help. While it’s great that you rep a brand, why does this person care? Start pitches with the most relevant information and why it can help the person it’s addressed to.
LG: You live in NYC. Can you tell us about how your environment shapes your relationships with the media? For example, do you have more access to them vs living elsewhere (suppose this answer may change pre-post covid).
SR: Yes, living in the heart of the media world certainly has benefits. I’ve been a member of groups such as the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) and have met countless journalists. Fun fact, someone I know who is a doctor joined this group and is now a medical correspondent on MSNBC because of the connections she made. So, even though she wasn't a journalist, she was able to use this group to achieve her goal of being on TV. The same could be said for people who want to meet journalists to form relationships that ultimately can help with pitching efforts. I’m also practically neighbors with the New York Times, CBS, and other major outlets. Pre-pandemic, I met journalists at industry events, and through mutual friends. I’m a big fan of networking, networking and networking!
LG: How did Covid impact your pitching strategies? What works/what doesn’t?
SR: When the pandemic first started, every story I pitched had to have a COVID-focused angle. I remember coming up with some creative ideas that were covered, and were innovative at that time. It’s harder now to pitch a “COVID story” because a lot of it has been done and luckily, people are continuing to get vaccinated and there are some signs of very slow normalcy. What works is what has always worked - find a relevant news angle, and use that for your story. Watch, read, and digest the news. Every. Single. Day. Being the first to find stories that are applicable to the news cycle is at the heart of what we do. As much as we would love a “big” news story to happen for our clients every day, it’s a rarity. We have to be proactive and find the story.
LG: How is social media integrated into your media strategies for clients?
SR: I recently recorded a Media Relations 101 panel and stressed the importance of Twitter pitching. Instead of talking about email first, I talked about Twitter, something I wouldn’t have done a few years ago. But, it works. For people you know, emails still work well because you know it’ll likely get read. But if you don’t know someone, you need to stand out. While it means putting yourself out there a little bit more, it also adds a personal element that makes you seem more human. Twitter works. Just remember that it’s important to keep your Twitter pitches even shorter than email - that character limit is there for a reason, and translates well for a pitch.
LG: What's your best advice for landing a successful pitch with a reporter?
SR: I feel like there are a lot of right ways to answer this question, because it really depends on the Reporter or Producer. It goes back to research, research, and research. Everyone is different. One piece of advice I can share is to find out how this particular person wants to be reached. Surprisingly, many journalists do share their personal information online, whether it’s on their company page, LinkedIn profile, or Twitter bio. Many use the app Signal, and will post those numbers online. So my advice is find out what works for the targeted journalist, and go for it!
LG: What’s your perspective on people not trusting the media? What can PR people do to support/build trust?
SR: This is a great question. I was once on a shoot in the city and someone yelled “fake news” at me and my crew. We were covering a hard news story in NYC, very much the opposite of fake news. However, this growing sentiment is a reality we must face in this industry. I think PR people should just keep doing what they’re doing. Do your research (I use that word a lot, but it’s such a fundamental part of our job), fact check, fact check some more, and then write the best pitch you can write. Always make sure someone else reviews your work - no matter what level you are, or how many years of experience you have. At the end of the day, we’re storytellers who are sharing our client’s stories with the world. It’s our job to do it right, and if we do, the work will speak for itself.