Eight weeks into the COVID19 pandemic, news media continued to be dominated by COVID, but at the same time stories were starting to get redundant. Public relations and communications professionals wondered: Can I pitch non-COVID stories?
Crystal DeStefano, APR set up a panel discussion with print, online, TV and radio news media in New York State’s mid-size market of Syracuse, hosted by the Central New York Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). In addition to leading Strategic Communications, LLC as president and director of public relations, Crystal has stayed at the forefront of the public relations industry as former PRSA Central New York chapter president, former PRSA Northeast District chair, and current regional representative for the Northeast, Tri-State and East Central districts of PRSA.
Panelists included Spectrum News TV morning anchor and reporter Brad Vivacqua, 93Q radio morning show co-host Amy Robbins, and Syracuse Post-Standard/Syracuse.com public affairs reporter (and now COVID19 “Back in Business” reporter) Julie McMahon. The virtual event was attended by more than 30 local PR and communications practitioners.
The following is a summary of the insights gleaned from this program. To watch the full 60-minute virtual media panel event, visit https://bit.ly/prsamediapanel.
Crystal DeStefano: Has your schedule changed during COVID19?
Brad Vivacqua: My hours haven’t changed, but my routine has greatly changed. For our live morning show we’re usually meeting people on scene, but now I’m still waking up at 3 am but it’s to spend more time writing and editing for something we already shot the day before.
Amy Robbins: I’m in my sixth week of broadcasting from home. We put up soundproofing a couple years ago when I started doing a lot of voice work from home, and it’s come in quite handy. I get up at exactly the same time, take a shower and get dressed. I’m on the air at 5:30 (am) until 10 (am), working a regular shift, and I’m getting done at exactly the same time here at home. But I’m doing all of the interviews by phone now. I thought I was going to have so much time, but I’m working an 8-9 hour day. And there are so many more news things to see like the press briefings every day. So, I feel like I’m working even more.
Julie McMahon: My hours haven’t really changed, but what I’m doing and how my day is structured has changed. I feel like I’m working more, in terms of productivity. It’s been a constant firehose of news. And because I’m not commuting, there isn’t a difference in setting, so it can be hard to detach. We have a large staff who are watching the daily press briefings, so I don’t need to do that. But it feels like I’m working more, and my job has changed significantly in terms of what I’m doing.
CD: Are you focusing exclusively on COVID (or COVID-adjacent) stories?
JM: I was one of the first people to write COVID stories about what was happening locally because I’m a public affairs reporter, I cover federal courts and Syracuse University. Syracuse University was one of the first places to make significant changes to what they were doing. Within a week of that, my life changed dramatically. I went from covering Syracuse University and federal courts to covering the economy. One of my editors said ‘This essential business thing is becoming really confusing. Would you focus on that?’ And it spiraled from there. Within another week after that, our editor sent a note asking everybody what they’re interested in doing. We knew the economy and healthcare were the two major breaking news areas, so we devised all new teams and restructured our entire staff around those two topics and then covering everything else to keep up with breaking news. I’m now leading an initiative called ‘Back in Business’ and now I’m a business reporter!
BV: I’ve always done the ‘feel good’ stories. My goal was to look at some of the agencies I’ve worked with over the years and ask myself: ‘how is it (COVID) affecting them?’ I now have a separate email folder that’s labeled Coronavirus, but I also think outside the box because there are a lot of small businesses and nonprofits that are affected by this. With that said, I’m always looking for different ideas and how to cover something that I’ve never covered before. We actually have 10 dayside reporters covering the timed events and press conferences, so that leaves me to focus on the same topics I always have, but now incorporating how coronavirus is impacting those guys.
AR: I’m kind of a different role. We really are trying to do the most normal show we can, because we felt like that’s what our audience wanted. You need to be informed, you need to know what’s going on, but you can’t NOT smile. One of the reasons people like us is because they can have a laugh as they’re listening at home or heading into work. So, we’ve tried to balance that. That being said, my newscasts that we do every half hour definitely have been all COVID-related. When it comes to news, no matter what the subject is, it always goes back to COVID. But we’ve really tried to do more good news – things that are funny and things that are relatable so that people aren’t so dragged down with negative news.
CD: Have you changed HOW you are doing interviews – logistically?
AR: Live interviews are tough. We’re still doing them because Ted (co-host) is still in the studio, but it’s tough because I’m remote. I knew right when I got assigned to be home, I still wanted to continue to do news interviews. So, I put something on my phone so I can record conversations. Just like I would have people in the studio, I just call them.
BV: It’s about 50/50. Fifty percent of the time I prefer to do interviews online – Zoom, FaceTime, Skype. But there are times when I feel comfortable going out and meeting an interview, maybe outside a venue. If I’m doing a story on a local business, I still want to get video of the inside, for example. Our chief photographer actually took a pole that’s about 8-10 feet long and with duct tape put a microphone on one end, and I just used my XLR wire to hook it into my camera so I’m able to still do in-person interviews as long as the setting is safe. And I can get all the video I need while I’m on location. I’ve also been able to rely on some file video, and even video and pictures that are sent to me by email.
JM: We have a staff of photographers and videographers who are getting creative. We want to get those in-person opportunities. We want to show people the front lines of what’s happening right now. There’s a lot of balancing that and conversations about what’s the ethical thing to do, what equipment do we need. Submitted photos and video are super helpful. I’m asking everybody I talk to for photos and video. We also have a couple people who became drone certified, and some of the things we’ve been able to do with that are incredible. But we need help from people more than ever. I’m doing interviews over the phone a lot, but I’m trying to get face-to-face with people via Zoom. As much as we can meet with people in-person, we’d like to – even if it’s a pre-interview or post-interview to develop sources and get to know people. I try to do the Zoom call, even if I’m not going to record it or use the video. But for efficiency, phone is sometimes the best option.
CD: How do you want to hear from PR people right now: phone, email, social media? And are you actively looking for stories, or are you overwhelmed with too many right now?
JM: I’m absolutely inundated, but I also really want to hear from people. Email is preferred, to be able to see something spelled out and to be able to go back to it. I have it in the message on my voicemail asking people not to leave a voicemail. I can’t underestimate the hundreds and thousands of calls that I continue to get. But leaving me a voicemail right now is a really tough way to go because it’s been overwhelming. The most helpful thing I can say to anyone trying to pitch me is to be detailed but flexible in your pitch, and that’s where email is so helpful because you can provide all those details and I can read as much depth as I need. But where some people fall down is if people are so set on their pitch. The best pitches that I get are ‘Hey, here’s any idea, but also just so you know, here’s what I can help you do right now.’ And email allows for that back-and-forth and that flexibility. And we’re all working together, so email I can forward to colleagues easier than trying to transfer a call.
AR: Definitely email. I don’t check my voicemails as much as I should. And people reach out to me on Facebook, but there are like five different ways to reach out on Facebook through messages, and I just can’t put it in my file. So, if I get an email, I send it back to whoever has emailed me and then I can file it. One thing that Julie said too, is be succinct. And if it’s something that has to happen right away, I just can’t – I already have too many things lined up for this week. It’s really good to hear this is a story that will work for a couple of months from now and we’d love to fit in when this fits in for you. Tell me: you will be talking to so-and-so, who is the CEO of so-and-so. So that when I’m looking back at my files, I’m not trying to Google this business because I know I talked to a woman but the email doesn’t say what her last name is. Being succinct and being flexible in terms of when a story can be covered, that really gives you much more reason to be emailed back.
BV: Things have really changed since the pandemic started. We’re inundated with emails, but we have 10 reporters during the week and a separate weekend staff of five reporters a day. So, if it’s a good story that’s really going to be interesting, then I think there’s no problem having it covered. But if you want me to cover the story, or a specific reporter, then I don’t think a phone call hurts. Sometimes I’ll see a story that’s a week or two away, and I’m not going to reach out right away, but I’ll keep it in my files. When we’re about a day away, and I’ll reach out for that story. It’s funny because on one day you’ll say ‘Wow, I’ve got four or five options today (for stories)’ but the next day, everything is completely dry. So, usually an email is the best way.
CD: Have you changed how you share news – such as live streaming, more use of social media, etc.?
JM: Yes, we are trying to reach people more through different types of social media. We’re lucky to have a staff of people who are exclusively dedicated to this and they have really ramped up their efforts. People are coming to us like never before to get information. Traffic on our social media sites has doubled, if not tripled. (Regarding live streaming) we are reporting live and letting people see there are questions that are unanswered and see that we’re trying to get those answers. Everything is developing and news is breaking as we talk to people. It’s been a big change as far as how we as a news organization try to get information to people and try to make people feel like they’re a part of the process, too.
BV: Specifically, the live shows have changed. I was going to the studio, going out with my photographer, and doing live interviews hands-on, show and tell something. Now, I’m getting the interviews the day before and things are more spread out throughout the day.
AR: We continue to cover on Twitter and Facebook the things that we do on our show, but we are just trying to get much more information out. You watch the press briefing and I’m thinking there are nurses who are driving in going ‘I can’t find toilet paper; I need help grocery shopping.’ So, you put out that number right on your page and say: ‘If you need help, you call this number.’ I was trying to figure out what our listeners most wanted to hear, and we would just put it up there. You could tell because it was shared 300 times within 10 hours, people really needed that information. We’ve always used social media for fun, but the information – what our listeners need to know – that has changed a lot.
CD: Is it ok to pitch non-COVID stories? What stories will you be looking for after COVID19?
AR: Definitely. We’re always into feel good stories. Especially now, people want other stuff. Yeah, now would be the time because we’re looking for stuff that is not just COVID19.
JM: Ditto to what Amy described. Social media is a place where there’s always a lot of room for feel good stories, and that’s something we’ve tried to make sure we leave some time and space for that. For me personally, everything is somehow COVID-related. We definitely want to hear what else – people need some stimulation, entertainment, something to distract. However, the bar is probably higher than normal to see those stories through because we have restructured our staff, we don’t have people covering the beats they normally would. But we really rely on you to understand what’s going on in our community.
BV: Yes, absolutely. We cover so many COVID stories, that we’re trying to add variety. Although 90% of our stories now are related to the pandemic, we also like covering non-COVID stories to mix things up. Especially stories that don’t have to be done on a specific day.
CD: What elements of this new temporary way of covering news do you like, and will the way you cover news change permanently after COVID19?
BV: What I like the best is that I am working a more convenient schedule. Less stress of doing live hits everyday within a tight window. Working at home, I can accomplish things in between interviews, and you spend less time just talking to other people. I think what will stick is doing more interviews via Zoom. I think many people are finding it’s much more convenient to do a Zoom interview rather than meet in person. People are more comfortable agreeing to do a Zoom interview, and an interview can take less than five minutes now. However, I think meeting in person allows news teams to get better quality video which looks much better on air.
JM: Having Zoom as a tool is a nice in-between for phone calls and seeing people face-to-face. But you do miss out on that human factor. So, I have mixed feelings about that. Regarding the office, I really miss my coworkers and that’s what makes our jobs fun. We’re all wondering: will offices change forever? And the material that I’m now covering is fascinating. I feel like I’ve had an opportunity for a little bit of a leadership role, and I suspect that my job will not just be back to covering courts and education. I suspect many of us at The Post-Standard will have new jobs for many years to come.
AR: I’m extremely grateful that our show has been able to remain as normal as possible. We’ve been using Facebook chat to keep an eye on each other, and we still have the chemistry to have a conversation for four-and-a-half hours a day. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to figure out technology to record interviews and edit them here (at home). That being said, I’m really looking forward to going back and being in the studio.
CD: How important is the quality of video and audio when interviews subjects are working from home?
BV: A virtual background isn’t a bad idea – it shows the viewer who we’re interviewing right off the bat. It isn’t necessary, but little things will help improve the overall interview. For example, a computer will keep a more steady shot than a cell phone. Don’t stand in front of a window or in front of a light. Try to get more lighting on your face. Wherever you feel comfortable with good lighting is the best way to do an interview. Again, cell phone video and audio are acceptable for us at Spectrum News, but it’s better to be on a computer for less shaking.
CD: Has your approach to storytelling, not just news reporting, changed or adjusted to break away from redundancy?
BV: Not really. Our stories are always about people. Now (with COVID), you ask yourself how you can be creative and how you can be different. It’s a matter of thinking outside the box.
AR: Redundancy is a really good way to put it because everything comes back to COVID. We’re just trying to be as relatable as possible. Relating on a personal level with a personal experience you’ve had. You’ve got to try to find different angles all the time.
JM: Sharing other people’s stories, human interest, that’s still the focus. While my beat has changed, one of the stories I’m most proud of, it was about the people. When we think about photo and video, we need to show the people in our community. Something we’re a little more willing to do as news reporters is sharing how this has affected us, be more personable. I’ve been sharing a lot about my own experiences, trying to relate to people on social media and in our stories.
CD: How do you feel about the blame and accusations of media regarding the coverage of COVID-19?
BV: It’s amazing that I can run into someone at the convenience store, and they will say thank you for all you do! Five minutes later, as a reporter, you can have someone screaming at you, blaming you for telling lies about Donald Trump. The best thing I can say is that whether I like it or not, the media bashing will continue. I just tell myself to block out the negative comments.
JM: As a local reporter, I think we have it a bit easier. A lot of the bluster I think we hear about the media is more directed at national media. That being said, it is very painful to read some of the comments on social media suggesting that people who do my job, that my news organization, has an agenda to cause harm. The disdain for our profession has been building for a long time before the coronavirus. So, I have to set boundaries for myself. No Facebook after 8 p.m., deep breaths, meditation, yoga. I have also tried to make a more concerted effort to let people see me, a member of the media, as a neighbor, friendly face, someone who grew up in the same town, someone who can be trusted. I try to challenge people’s assumptions about who the “media” is. And I try to do what reporters are good at: Ask questions. Why do you feel that way? Why do you hold that view? A lot of these anti-media sentiments are based on generalizations, assumptions, and just plain inaccuracies. As journalists, it’s our job to combat that ignorance. I have found that taking a deep breath, stepping back, and asking questions often yields a sense of understanding, some mutual agreement.
BONUS follow-up question (not included in the live virtual event): What is the #1 thing you wish local organizations and PR people knew or understood during COVID19?
BV: The local media is here to help them. In many cases, we have a bad reputation because of issues we can’t control. However, our goal locally is to provide accurate, helpful, and timely information to help them through this time.
JM: Everyone has a story, so that cuts both ways: It means we are busier than ever trying to tell those stories and that presents challenges. But it also means we need your help and we want to hear from you more than ever. Especially if you’re willing to help set up Zoom calls, connect us with experts, alert us to data, resources and information, and share anecdotes that put a face on the topics we are covering.
AR: We are all working differently since this all began. So, you may just need to be patient when it comes to scheduling guests or interviews because we’re just approaching things a little differently these days. It may take a bit longer to set something up or get back to you. But we will do our best to cover what we think Central New York needs to hear about.
In the days that followed, the media panelists reported they received several pitches for new stories ideas from public relations and communications professionals who attended this virtual event.
To watch the full 60-minute discussion, visit https://bit.ly/prsamediapanel.