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CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ABC Nightly News. Pick any one of them, and if you look at a long-term ratings chart, you will see enormous spikes every so often that you can correlate to important stories. The OJ Simpson chase, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Japan tsunami, and similar coverage yields spikes that represent enormous multiples over typical viewership.

These spikes are tremendous opportunities to use media relations to build awareness with large audiences. But leveraging them requires precise finesse because when news is breaking, no journalist cares about a PR pitch — they are all busting their humps trying to get the story. The wrong pitch at the wrong time will not only go unheard, it can also be counterpmedia relationsroductive and sully reputations if it is distasteful. In other words, a pitch about your company’s security system in the middle of a school shooting crisis guarantees you will never get any coverage from any outlet you solicit with that idea.  

How, then, can you make sure that your CEO is one of the experts discussing a major story as it is unfolding in the ratings spike zone?

Before even discussing those strategies, remember this rule above all else: the news cycle is a time for thought leadership. Anything that can even remotely be seen as promotional will land with a huge thud. To be part of important stories, you have to offer information and perspective, and you are very much offering up a human being with expertise in a topic of relevance and interest. What you are most certainly not offering is a representative of a company. This bears repeating: Pitch an expert, not an executive.

4 tips for effective media relations when big news hits.

Understand the news cycle.

It’s impossible to predict when or where news is going to break, but coverage typically follows the same path. When a story breaks, initial coverage is chaotic and confusing as the media tries to figure out the truth and report on it. As details emerge, experts are often brought in to explain complex topics in layman’s terms. Then comes the analysis where the facts are thoroughly examined and a variety of opinions considered. Where your expert fits in depends heavily on the specific expertise he/she brings to the table.

Get in with guest bookings.

The second a big story breaks, journalists turn to their rolodexes. They want to get as few details as possible wrong, so during unsure times, they are extremely risk averse; that means they are unlikely to speak to an expert they don’t already know. The ideal scenario is to get your expert vetted through the guest bookings process before a story breaks. This isn’t always possible, but it will speed up the process whenever it occurs if you have all your expert’s credentials ready to go and availability for a preliminary interview at a moment’s notice.

Know when to pitch.

The importance of timing can not be stressed enough. Imagine your client manufactures jet engines. If an airplane crashes, pitch your expert immediately to explain what might have happened — as soon as it is determined that something other than a jet engine caused the crash, your expert is irrelevant. If your expert manufacturers safety devices that help passengers survive crashes, do not pitch until the chaos is over and analysis into how to prevent similar future disasters begins.

Plan for uncertainty.

Similar to crisis management, imagine what could go wrong and develop a plan for it. Using the jet engine manufacturer example, develop a strategy for discussing an airplane crash before it happens. You may not know when or where it will occur, but you know that sometime in the near future there will be a major airplane crash. After it happens is no time to run around figuring out how to land media. Certain news events are also planned if they occur around things like presidential debates, Supreme Court decisions, or holidays.

Finally, understand that when you pitch a story around the news cycle, you are ON. If it lands, you literally become the news. That means if an expert flakes out or the information is not good, you’ve irreparably damaged your reputation. It’s also a good idea to manage expectations accordingly. News organizations are unlikely to link back to company websites during major coverage and the company name will only be briefly mentioned in a guest introduction — if at all.

No matter what, remember that news happens fast and your expert needs to be instantly reachable and ready to talk on very short notice. If the media is ready and you aren’t, the chance is gone. Be prepared, standby, and then pounce.