Newspaper coverage of your laboratory is credible, unpaid and blankets a vast audience with your message. LMT highlights laboratory owners who got their name in the news and detail strategies for doing it yourself.
Mark Jackson knew he had a good story. Jackson's 34-employee laboratory, Precision Ceramics in Montclair, California, was making three gold crowns for a dog that had been shot in the mouth and beaten by teenage vandals during a break-in at its owners' home. Jackson called the L.A. Times to pitch his story and the paper responded immediately—a reporter and photographer arrived at the lab the next day. "I was hoping for three things," says Jackson. "I wanted dentists to read it, patients to read it and bring it to their dentists, and potential technicians to read it and want to come work here."
The piece was also picked up by other publications and, though it appeared a decade ago, Jackson and Precision Ceramics are still reaping the benefits of the publicity. Jackson estimates that his laboratory is one of the largest veterinary dental labs in the world today, with several patents for vet dentistry products.
Newspaper coverage can be a powerful tool in any public awareness initiative. Newspapers take your message to a wider audience than you could contact on your own. Since the coverage is unpaid, it can be more credible to readers than paid publicity or advertising. And, finally, since readers are less likely to skip over a news story, more people read your message. However, for all of its benefits, the drawback to newspaper coverage is obvious: it can be challenging to get. The following tips are designed to make your quest for coverage an easier one.
Get an angle
Though "feel good," human-interest stories like Jackson's are rare, yours doesn't have to be an earth-shattering one in order to be covered. It does, however, have to have a news "hook." It must be a new or unique event or aspect of the way your business operates that is interesting to both the editor who first hears your story idea and to his readers. And since editors often look for new ideas and topics to bring to their readers, the fact that the public knows little about our industry actually works to your advantage.
Start by taking a fresh look at your business through an outsider's eyes. Brainstorm about your laboratory and the dental technology field in general:
In what ways is your laboratory unique?
Do you have an interesting or exceptional technician?
Why would a person outside the dental laboratory industry take the time to read the story?
Start reading your state and local newspapers with a careful eye. What are the reporters in your area covering? What angle do they take? These strategies will help you identify potential news "hooks" that you may be overlooking.
"My news hook was the opening of my new facility along with a benefit for a charitable group," says Terry Fohey of 36-employee Nu Craft Dental Arts, Athens, Georgia, who had dentists fly in from across the country for a golf tournament to raise funds for the American Liver Foundation as part of his new facility's kickoff. "But my hidden agenda was to get the general public aware of what dental technology is and what our laboratory does." Fohey's hook convinced a local business editor to do a full-page article with color photos in the Athens Banner Herald in 1996.
Another possible angle is to capitalize on a national consumer trend that is getting attention in the media and relate it to our industry. For example, tap into the public's desire for "feel-good, look-good" products by explaining the various cosmetic dentistry options, using statistics to show the growing demand and then highlighting the dental technology field and its career opportunities. Or, since you'll be scanning newspapers on a regular basis, when you come across an article on dentistry, try offering your paper a local "spin" on the subject.
Make the pitch
Once you've identified your angle, one way to pitch your idea to a publication is to package it in the form of a news or press release. "As much as we'd like to think that reporters spend their time independently discovering all the terrific things happening in a community, the unfortunate reality is that they usually can't," says Betsy Kauffman in Getting Coverage: A guide to working with the news media. "Reporters are often pressed for time, overworked and unable to seek out all the stories that merit coverage." By bringing your story directly to a busy editor in an informed, organized manner, you may have a better shot at coverage. Your release should follow several standard guidelines (click here to see a sample news release):
Put the key information in the first few paragraphs so that if the editor is tight on time, he will get to the point of the release quickly. Also, if your press release is simply making an announcement to be published as is, having the key information at the top allows an editor who is tight on space to simply cut out the last few paragraphs without having to rewrite or reorganize the release. Chances are, if the release needs to be rewritten, it'll end up in the wastebasket.
Keep it brief and concise. Remember that your objective here is to pique the editor's interest and convince him to do a story. Save all the details for later.
Keep sentences and paragraphs short. Cut out as many adjectives and unnecessary words as possible. Pack a written punch with nouns and verbs.
Always proof for spelling and grammar mistakes.
If your story idea is so unique that it requires two pages, type "more" centered at the bottom of the first page to let the editor know it continues onto a second page.
Keep in mind that if you're aiming for coverage of a specific event, reporters need as much advance notice as possible. Also, consider sending a separate invitation to the reporter along with the release. Ask for an "rsvp."
Your objective when sending a press release will not always be to convince an editor to write an article on your news or event. In fact, most releases will be general announcements that you want printed as is, including new employees or new services. For example, when a dentist-client attends a "Lunch and Learn" at Fohey's laboratory, he sends a press release to that dentist's hometown paper. This press release doesn't warrant further coverage by an editor or reporter but, when printed, is another way to get the lab's name in the news to let the public know it's role. Sending these types of releases on a regular basis is important because it adds credibility and recognition to your lab name when it does come time for a "pitch" press release or phone call.
If you have contacts at local newspapers—or a unique human interest story like Jackson's—sometimes you can skip the "pitch" press release process entirely. Several laboratory owners have gotten coverage by making media connections through acquaintances, clients or fellow members of local clubs or business associations. For example, when Fohey was getting ready to take his story idea to the press, he asked his dentist-clients if they had any newspaper employees as patients. Sure enough, one dentist had a business editor who had been a patient for 15 years. "It was a very powerful way to get an introduction rather than cold calling," says Fohey.
Likewise, Dental Craft Corporation's Bob Wakitsch's involvement in community groups along with the publisher of his local paper resulted in a "CEO profile" of him and his brother Rick and their 18-employee laboratory in Ringwood, Illinois in the County Business Journal in 1997. And for Doug Baker of 40-employee D.H. Baker Laboratory in Traverse City, Michigan, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. His laboratory was profiled in his local business journal after his wife casually spoke to the publisher's husband at their local marina. He was so interested in the business, he brought the idea back to his wife, who contacted the laboratory directly.
Get a media list
Whether or not you decide to use a press release, it's important to gather a hit list of media contacts. Here are some sources:
A good place to start is simply the Yellow Pages of your area phone book, under "newspapers".
Media reference books at the library.
Your local chamber of commerce.
On-line sources: try the American Journalism Review at ajr.newslink.org or www.gebbieinc.com. (Note: on-line sources may only include larger newspapers, not smaller, local ones.)
Once you have a list of newspaper names, addresses and phone numbers, call each publication to determine to whom your release should be addressed. Though it depends on your specific story, most dental laboratory-related stories will probably go to the health/beauty, business or general assignment editor. In addition, find out if the publication prefers to receive releases via mail, fax or e-mail. It's also valuable to ask about each publication's internal deadlines, so when you make your follow up call, you don't catch the editor in the middle of one. Finally, since media people can change jobs or beats often, try to update your media list every six months or so.
Once you've mailed the press release, don't sit and wait for your phone to ring. Chances are, it won't. If the editor who received your release doesn't respond within one week, follow up with a phone call. The first question you ask should be, "am I catching you on a deadline?" If you're not—and you shouldn't be since you gathered deadline information earlier—simply introduce yourself and ask if he's received the release, referencing its headline and release date. Be brief and concise, reiterating the key points of your story and why you feel it's of interest to his readers. Be sure to ask the editor if he has any questions on the information you provided.
When approaching newspapers with story ideas, be realistic. For every article that gets written, several others don't. But if one editor isn't interested, don't give up—what doesn't appeal to one editor, may interest another.
After all of your hard work, you've landed an interview. Here are some tips to prepare.
Before the interview:
Let your technicians and other employees know that a reporter—and possibly a photographer—is coming to do a story.
Get your laboratory in tiptop shape. "The reporter's first impression of the laboratory is key, so make sure your lab is looking clean and professional," says Baker.
Practice. Try to anticipate the reporter's questions and practice your answers out loud.
During the interview:
Be fairly brief and speak in simple terms.
Be prepared to answer negative or skeptical questions. "To some reporters, anything you say is fair game to print," says Fohey, who attended a seminar on how to speak with the media. Telling the reporter you'd like to speak "off the record" will let him know you don't wish to be quoted on a particular answer.
Give a tour of the laboratory. "If you just sit down for an interview without providing a little background information, the reporter may have trouble understanding exactly what your laboratory does," advises Wakitsch. The tour—along with observing your technicians' work—will help him better understand your business and write a better article.
If you don't know, find out. If the reporter asks you a question that you don't have an answer to, don't try to wing it. Offer to call him back with the information later that day.
After the article prints
The article printed, now what?
Send the reporter a thank you letter. Let him know you are available as a source if he needs any dental or laboratory-related information or quotes for future stories.
Get mileage out of the coverage. Include a reprint in the next edition of your company's newsletter, post it on your web site or send copies to dentist-clients with a brief note.
Stay visible. As mentioned earlier, continue to get your laboratory's name in front of editors and into the paper by sending news releases on general laboratory announcements.
After his canine article and two other smaller pieces made the papers, Mark Jackson became a resource for his local paper. In addition to providing quotes on dental-related news, he was even asked to write a piece on cosmetic dentistry.
Maintaining these media contacts is an excellent way to promote public awareness of dental technology. "I hope the coverage creates more interest in dental technology as a career in our area," says Baker, "and educates patients about what technology is available so they ask their doctors for those services."