Getting publicity for your swim team
by Rick Beebe
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Swimming doesn't get much attention in the media. That's a fact -- at least for most swim clubs. But it doesn't need to be that way. If you understand what the media is looking for, and how to work with it, and if you plan your work and work your plan, your club has an excellent chance of getting media attention. What follows is a brief explanation of how the publicity game is played - and what you need to do to get media coverage.
SOME BASIC POINTS TO REMEMBER
Effective publicity doesn't happen by accident (at least over the long term). Someone from your club -- whether a committed volunteer or a coach -- has to be responsible for it, and has to work at it.
It takes a plan -- and hard work over time. It takes cold calls, lots of writing, and lots of continued effort.
Education is a big part of your job. Keep in mind that most editors and reporters don't know the first thing about our sport. You understand the jargon, you understand the significance of your swimmers' achievements, you know which meets in your calendar are routine and which are special. All of this you have to communicate in your contacts with the media and in the written material you prepare for them.
Be persistent. Even if you do everything right, your efforts may not always pay off at first. But be patient, and keep working your plan.
Understand that the news media is not in business to give publicity to your club, they're in business to bring the news to their audience. If they report your news, what results is publicity for your club -- but remember that that's not their job, just the result from your point of view. When you write them a thank-you note for using your news, thank them for doing more to bring the news of our sport to their audience, not for the wonderful publicity they've given your club (although it's quite true that their coverage may have done just that).
There are two things that fill a newspaper or the news segment on TV or radio: news and advertising. What you are providing is news, NOT advertising. Nothing you can do will convince an editor more quickly of your ignorance of the news business than to call your news advertising. It's not advertising (unless you pay for the space), it's news. And remember, it is always the media's right to decide what news runs and in what form it runs. A big part of your job is to make your news attractive to an editor and to deliver it in a format and a fashion so that it's easy for an editor to use.
WHAT THE MEDIA NEEDS AND EXPECTS FROM YOU
Information that is comprehensible to and genuinely interesting to their audience.
Information that is timely. Do you think that the results of a professional basketball or football game would be delivered to the media three or four days after the event -- and that they would still be interesting to readers if delivered that late? Of course not! What the media wants and expects is news delivered in a timely fashion.
Professionalism. In addition to the above, that means an understanding of the environment that the media works in. Find out what their deadlines are, and respect them. Find out how they prefer to receive information -- by hard copy, fax, email, or over the phone. Learn and use the formats in which they prefer to receive the news.
THE KEY TYPES OF NEWS
There are two. First is hard news. Hard news reports an event, and loses its value as that event recedes in time. The headline stories of the day are hard news. Most of what you see in a newspaper or on TV or hear on the radio is hard news. Your meet results, your swimmers' qualifying for a national meet, the announcement of a new coach or the honorees at your team's annual awards banquet -- these are all examples of hard news.
Features are the second type of news. Although a feature will usually have a news hook -- something which ties it to an event, which makes it relevant from a news point of view -- the emphasis is more on background and personalities. News hook aside, a feature doesn't date -- if it sits for a few days, no big deal.
On the sports side, a feature may be a profile of an athlete: his or her background, what makes him or her tick, what sets him or her apart. A good feature works with a quirk -- maybe your athlete is headed for Juniors (that's the news hook), starred for your local high school team last year (that's background that local sports editors usually appreciate), works out four hours a day (that's what sets your athlete apart, makes your athlete tick), but maybe she also plays lead trumpet in the school jazz band or writes poetry or has a pet saluki -- something a bit unusual. Don't hesitate to sell those quirks as part of your pitch -- the media loves them!
HOW DO YOU START GETTING PUBLICITY FOR YOUR CLUB?
Gather background information on your club and on your swimmers. Develop a fact sheet with a couple of paragraphs of key information: your club's name, your affiliation (mention your LSC and USS affiliations), where you work out, how many swimmers you have, ages of your swimmers, how many kids you've sent to regional/LSC championship/national championship meets, how well you've done in local championship meets, name(s) of coach(es), etc. etc. Once you've done that you can put together one-page biographies of your top-notch swimmers -- the ones who are going to regional/national meets and winning consistently in local meets. Get black and white head shots of these swimmers made and have them on file (color slides too if you're getting TV publicity).
Get to know the media you're targeting. Make a list of the media outlets (print and broadcast) that cover your serving area. Be realistic, especially if you're in a major metropolitan area. Start local and expand your horizon. Don't ignore anything -- even the throwaway weeklies that land in your driveway. Read the sports sections of the local newspapers, watch the sport segments of the TV news. Review carefully for potential outlets for your news. In addition to sports, do they have a youth/high school section? Do they take announcements? If there are several teams in a given newspaper's serving area, it may be worth approaching the media as a group, and working together to get publicity for the sport.
Identify potential stories. In addition to meet results, your news can include swimmers qualifying for and attending camps, major regional and national meets; recruitment-oriented activities; learn-to-swim programs; honorees at team award nights; and new coaches. And don't forget announcements of tryouts and other events of general interest to the community.
Get acquainted. Once you've done some groundwork, it's time to start making calls. You'll usually find the phone numbers of the editors on the editorial page or in the section you're targeting. Call the sports editor of your local daily or the news editor of your local weekly. Morning or early afternoon is best for morning newspapers; afternoon for afternoon newspapers; mid-week or late in the week is typically best for weekly newspapers (most publish mid-week and are on deadline Monday and Tuesday). Introduce yourself and tell them you want to start getting your team's news to them. Is there a specific reporter you should be working with? What are their deadlines? How should you send them your news -- by fax, email, or through the mail? Keep good notes, and build a list of contacts at all the media outlets in your area this way.
When you have news, always call first. Once you've made those contacts, keep working them. A well-written news release is your most substantial tool for getting your news to the media, but personal contact with an editor or writer, in advance, is critical. If you have an idea for a feature, the telephone is how you present it.
Be persistent. Keep sending your news, and keep suggesting feature ideas. And be realistic. Don't complain when your news doesn't get picked up, and when the editors you talk to seem disinterested in your story ideas. Just don't give up the next time you have a story. One of the reasons for calling routinely when you have news is to help give the media an idea of the relative importance of your news.
Tell a continuing story. Link your current news to previous releases you've sent out and to past stories that have run (or aired). Build threads to previous coverage.
Remember that it's about people. Don't just think hard news -- think features. United States Swimming's excellent Club Publicity Guide makes the point that the real story is about the people involved in the sport, and suggests focusing on selling swimmers, not swimming.
Once you've made those contacts, it's just a matter of following through. You'll need to make arrangements with your coaches to get the results of a meet, and to get your coach to interpret the results for you. Put together a news release and get it off to your contacts in time to meet their deadlines. If an editor seems interested in a feature idea you've suggested, you do everything possible to make it happen.
COVERING YOUR MEET IN PERSON
How do you get the media to cover your meet in person? First of all, think visual . Your local paper may not want to send a reporter to cover your swim meet, but suggest that they send a photographer. Second, work to build the relationship. They have to know you and understand the value of your news and the importance of your story. Third, be realistic. Media outlets are like any other business these days. They have scarce resources and have to allocate them in a realistic matter.
If you have a major meet and your local media outlet is going to cover it, you'll need to take care of the following:
Be sure the media knows when and where to be. If it's a trials and finals meet, make sure they know what time finals start and when the action is.
Be sure there's a quiet place, a phone line, and access to hospitality.
Work with coaches -- in advance -- to help facilitate the media's access to athletes.
Stay with them to serve as a resource -- stand by, answer questions, give them background, help explain what's going on.
THE HIGH SCHOOL CONNECTION
One issue which comes up frequently among swim clubs who have worked hard on publicity is what they see as a bias on the part of local media toward high school sports. Maybe the perception, say, is that your local paper covers high school swim meets and ignores USS meets, which are year-round instead of seasonal and frequently feature higher-level competition. Part of that may be habit on the media's part -- the audience for high school sports news is well-established, no sports editor is ever going to be shot for publishing a high school sports story, and the high schools are used to feeding their news to the media. Maybe it's just the latter -- that the high schools are getting their results out and you're not.
The best long-run solution is to use the media's focus on high school sports to your advantage. In your news, stress your swimmers' high school connections. If your senior swimmers are swimming for, and starring on, local high school teams, mention that in the news releases you issue that feature these swimmers. Tell a continuing story, so that the editors, and ultimately the readers, will begin to associate these athletes just as strongly with your club as with their high school. Also, encourage your local high school swim coaches (who may be USS coaches too) to mention the USS affiliation of their key swimmers in their news releases -- so that the "continuing story" is reinforced both ways.
Three ideas for improving your effectiveness at publicity. The first is pretty obvious -- if you have a parent on your team who is in the media business, get him or her involved in your publicity effort. Although this is a bit cynical for my taste, I have even heard of teams that have gone out of their way to recruit the local news editor's kids for their team.
Another idea: if you have a college or university nearby, check and see if they offer any communications, public relations, or journalism programs. If they do, there may be some students (maybe even a former swimmer!) who might be looking for an opportunity for some practical experience and might be willing to work for your team as a volunteer. Sports publicity is a big speciality these days, and there may be several students looking for practical experience. Check out the web site of the Public Relations Student Society of America to see if a school near you has an affiliated program, or check out the school's web site.
© Pacific Swimming, Inc., 1997, used with permission (mail Rick Beebe at firstname.lastname@example.org)