‘Retail-level outreach’: Media relations lessons from C-SPAN

Creating an ecosystem for coverage.

How C-SPAN gets media coverage

C-SPAN director of communications Howard Mortman occupies a unique role in the world of media relations.

He works for a cable network that broadcasts political happenings. He targets journalists from other outlets who seemingly do the same things.

But to Mortman, they aren’t competitors at all.

“We don’t have ratings because we are a nonprofit,” Mortman told PR Daily.  “We don’t have advertising. There’s no government money in C-SPAN, this is all privately funded. But we still, like everybody else, want people to be watching us.”



And to achieve that, Mortman works to encourage journalists to use C-SPAN’s content, including coverage of Congress and the presidency. That means he and his team spend a great deal of time doing what he calls “retail-level” media relations: telling them what C-SPAN will cover tomorrow, sending them video of eventsand letting them know when C-SPAN will televise debates in state-level races.

“It’s like one big ecosystem of our coverage and turning it around and getting attention for it all,” he explained.

But all that point-to-point work all builds up to the end goal of staying on top of mind for reporters.

“There’s a lot wrapped up in day-to-day promoting of our video and our coverage, but also big picture strategy of how we position ourselves in the new media landscape,” Mortman said.

While he keeps his eye on that bigger picture, Mortman still believes that it’s the simple, constant interactions with reporters via email and direct message that make him most effective at his work.

“The value that that brings to me is … it helps get a real good landscape of what the media is interested in,” Mortman said. “For instance, what hearings are big — we cover Congressional hearings, that’s our bread and butter. So, it gives us a sense for what is resonating in the media world and, ultimately, with the public.”

But that’s a two-way street. In order to get the benefit of that insight, Mortman himself must understand journalists’ needs and pain points.

“Don’t waste reporters’ time,” he advised. “Do your homework. You’ve go to see what they’ve been reporting on lately.”

Like many media relations pros, Mortman is a big fan of building relationships with journalists. But unlike many, he’s not an advocate of the traditional “let’s grab a coffee and catch up” relationship model.

“For me, that’s a waste of time,” he said. “Because reporters don’t want to spend half an hour, 45 minutes having coffee, talking about things.”

Instead, he suggests simple, regular communications with reporters with no expectations or strings attached. A simple note saying “great article” can go a long way.

“It’s not being greedy,” Mortman added “It’s not expecting something of everybody all the time. And I think that’s the value.”

Bringing C-SPAN into the digital age

Getting C-SPAN media coverage is only part of Mortman’s charge. The other half of his responsibilities include getting their content in front of the public – and not expecting that they’ll go looking for the network on cable TV.

“Part of the social media strategy is recognizing (the audience is) not all necessarily coming to our website and to us on television,” Mortman said. “We need to meet them where the conversation is occurring in this much bigger online world.”

C-SPAN put this strategy into action in a big way during the recent White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, an annual Washington, D.C. tradition where 2,800 journalists and guests pile into the basement of the Washington Hilton to hear speeches from the president and an array of Hollywood celebrities.

C-SPAN broadcasts the dinner in its entirety.

In the past, C-SPAN acted as an observer, using their social media platforms to showcase other people interviewing the arriving celebrities. But this year, they did their own red carpet interviews.

“We were frantically Googling names and pictures because I don’t know Hollywood celebrities. I know senators and congressmen,” Mortman said.

@cspanofficial Fran Drescher, the actress and comedian currently serving as national president of SAG-AFTRA, talked to C-SPAN on the red carpet of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night. #whcd #frandrescher #sagaftra #cspan ♬ original sound – C-SPAN

“It was a unique, fun, different way to get our brand out there and to get new content for our social media,” Mortman said.

Whether it’s on social media or traditional media, Mortman is always cognizant of how C-SPAN is viewed and the unique trust his organization has.

“Reporters, trust our brand because they know we are not left or right,” Mortman said “We’re out there just to share information to the public. So, we’re kind of a safe zone to work with.”

Howard Mortman will take the stage during PR Daily’s Media Relations Conference, June 5-6 in Washington, D.C. Learn more.

Allison Carter is editor-in-chief of PR Daily. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.


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