June 10, 2015 / by Katie Gaab

In 2015, traditional media companies are expected to continue shifting towards rebranding, new media entrepreneurism, native advertising and the adoption of digital newsrooms. Gannett’s flagship brand, USA Today, has reinvented itself over the past five years to stay relevant to its increasingly mobile-focused readers. Today, USA Today ranks first in combined print and digital circulation, underlying the importance of this digital transformation for newsrooms around the world.

Last night, Help A Reporter Out (HARO) brought four major USA Today leaders – Jeff Dionise, Beryl Love, Patty Michalski and Susan Page – together at an invite-only event in downtown Washington, D.C. Moderated by social media strategist Nichole Kelly, the panelists discussed ongoing transformations in the journalism world, the innovation process that sets USA Today apart from other digital newsrooms and pitching tips for PR pros to better work with outlets like USA Today.

Q: What’s the biggest thing you need from PR pros?

Do not hang up when the news is bad. Be helpful when the news is bad, because then you’ll have a relationship to go off of when the news is good. — Susan Page, USA Today Washington bureau chief

Beryl Love, executive editor of the USA Today Network National News Desk, highlights the importance of anticipating stories before the next day’s headlines. “If you can do that, we can be your best friend,” he says.

Ask yourself: What is the unique version that we can put in the story that would help it rise to the top, above everyone else doing the same storyline? Once you’ve established that, then pitch a reporter, he continues.

Q: One mistake PR professionals make is bombarding reporters with press releases. But how can PR pros take more mundane company news and get it into a local or national news story?

According to Beryl Love, the most successful PR professionals are always professional in the way they manage their clients.

“If you want your earned media to work, figure out the passion points for the community that the newspaper is going to be covering and figure out how your client fits into that larger area,” he says.

Think about what an editor or reporter would do. The question they always come back to when writing a story is, what is going to resonate with my readers?

That’s really what the challenge is… it’s less about winning over the editor or reporter, it’s more about what the readers want. If you start from that spot, you have a completely different strategy. — Beryl Love

Patty Michalski, managing editor of USA Today’s mobile and social efforts, continues the conversation from a digital perspective by referencing the infamous Oreo Super Bowl blackout commercial.

“They found a way to bring what was happening at the time into their brand,” she says. “Find the context and bring that out for people.”

Simplifying the subject further, Jeff Dionise, vice president of design for USA Today, chimed in on what his team needs to turn stories into graphics more easily.

“We need a deeper understanding of something to even have the right to simplify it for someone,” he says. “Visual storytelling isn’t built on pretty pictures, but on information and information gathering.”

The types of graphics that will cover and simplify complex stories are those that pass the first glance test. It’s all about immediacy and velocity.

Q: Knowing what not to pitch is just as important as knowing what gets coverage. So what’s the one thing PR professionals need to stop doing?

For Susan, stop emailing or calling about an event she’s never covered in her life. “It makes it harder to take calls you might have in fact been interested in.”

The worst pitches are those that are pushy or ignorant. Steer clear of confusing a reporter’s last name with their outlet name, starting a phone call by asking about their current title or offering free haircuts or spa days in return for coverage. A word to the wise PR professional: USA Today reporters are extremely strict with their ethics policy and won’t be bought even if you try.


Q: What’s the best way to get into USA Today?

You’re more likely to get reporters’ attention and build relationships if you’re not constantly contacting or adding them to email lists. In fact, the PR professionals who get their clients into USA Today pitch less frequently than you may expect!

On average, you should only be pitching a reporter once or twice a year. In Susan’s most recent experience, a successful PR professional reached out three times over the course of a year and a half. Every six months, the individual thought about what information would be suitable for the story as well as what would work for both USA Today and his client before pitching Susan. Now, anytime he calls, Susan guarantees she’ll answer.

Q: So how exactly should you get in touch with USA Today?

As outdated as it may seem, the majority of last night’s panelists still prefer email. Voicemail, however, is another story.

“We should ban voicemail for now. When I come into the office and see that red light blinking, I just think, ‘If I wait 14 days, it’ll go away,'” says Beryl.

Are you looking for more advice on how to successfully pitch reporters? Check out our tip sheet!

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About Katie Gaab

Katie Gaab is a content marketing specialist for Cision. Previously the senior editor for Help A Reporter Out (HARO), she enjoys connecting audiences to exciting, new content. She's a dancer, avid concert-goer, foreign language nerd and book worm. Find her on Twitter @kathryngaab.