Working With The Press

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
written for Specialty Food Magazine

Any business would like to get more good press. A nice mention in the local newspaper, an enjoyable interview on a radio talk show, a quote in The New York Times or USA Today, a spot on a TV news piece about food—all generate positive exposure.

Positive press is easier hoped for than actually accomplished. Because I write and am also frequently interviewed, I have experience on both sides of the press. So here’s what I do to make the most out of Zingerman’s work with the press.

Step 1: Build Strong Relationships

Like any good relationship, this one must be mutually beneficial or it will not work. It needs to be balanced so that both parties benefit. And, like any good relationship, it starts with giving. That giving is most meaningful when it’s done without expectation of anything in return; you give because you want to give. In the long run, your generosity will probably be paid back with positive things. With that in mind, I always think first of what I can do to be of value to the writer or reporter, not what they can do for me.

I will be better able to give if I know more about the person and their publication or program. So I try to do as much research as I can to learn about the journalist. If you take the concept of treating the press like a customer, then it makes sense that the more you know about them, the better you’ll be able to meet their needs.

a) Know the press
Know who the local media vehicles are; which stations have food shows, which newspapers have food sections. On a national level, which magazines, radio or TV shows might be interested in what you do. I visit bookstores regularly to see what new magazines and books have come out, read through out-of-town newspapers that might be interested in something we’re doing and check local and national food sections each week. I also flip through the business section regularly.

b) Know the people
Read their columns; listen to the shows. Get to know them, what they like and don’t like, what they talk about, when they’re on the air, etc. Get accurate information so that when you send a letter or an email it goes to the right place; you can usually get the contact info by simply going online.

c) Know the market they serve
Develop an angle so you can offer helpful information. For instance, if a publication’s readership is in their 20s, they will be more interested in trends amongst young cooks than in upscale vacation packages. Our local monthly magazine only reports on activities within Ann Arbor. So when we opened the Creamery in the town of Manchester 20 miles away, they would not report on it. Now, three years later, we’ve moved into town and they should quickly mention that—it fits their commitment to report local news.

d) Know their deadlines
Learn the schedules on which the press work. Some is fairly obvious. If it’s a current news story (like a new research study has proven that chocolate improves sex), they will be on a tight timeline. The weekly food section usually has articles roughed up a week or more ahead of time and finalized several days before publication. At national food magazines, the issue is done months in advance.

The better you know how the press works, the more effective you can be. Calling a writer for a monthly publication in late June to tell them about 4th of July food is like calling a 35-year-old about a senior discount.

Step 2: Create Solid Substance
People often ask how Zingerman’s gets so much publicity. They seem to think that there’s some mystical power or secret trick. But we get covered because we do creative and substantive things that interest good reporters and their audiences. Although there’s lots of stuff said about “selling the sizzle, not the steak, too many people forget that to have a meaningful sizzle you have to start with a great steak. Otherwise, it’s all about flash and that gets you mostly flash-in-the-pan press. Lots of interest today; almost none two weeks later. I’d rather work with substance. If you do interesting, creative things,someone will write about it.

Know your product. Establish credibility, be-come the expert that a food writer or business reporter can count on to get accurate, timely and helpful information. I need to know the facts, not just the superficial stuff. How does what we’re selling compare to other products? How is it made? Why is it special? How should it be stored? What’s the price?

Step 3: Give Good Service
Ultimately, I try to treat the press as my customer. I keep in the front of my mind that the press is not here to serve us; they don’t owe us anything other than a commitment to report things truthfully and to get a solid story. They aren’t obligated to feature what we do at Zingerman’s—there are a lot of other things that they can report on.

Meet and greet the press. If you heard that a prospective new customer had just moved to town, what might you do? Maybe invite them in for lunch or send a card with a packet of information about your shop? So, if a new food writer comes to town, do the same thing. All with no expectation of return. When you give without expecting immediate payback, everyone wins.

Be courteous. Politeness is imperative in any service situation. Please and thank you can go a long way. Never act as though you “deserve a story; nothing will turn a reporter off more quickly. Share information about products and services that you believe in, but never make claims of achievement.

Follow up. Don’t promise something to a reporter (or anyone for that matter) and then not do it. Afterwards, send them relevant current information that can help in their work, even when they haven’t asked for it. And send thank you notes.

Step 4: Define Your Message
Any communication will be more effective if you are clear on what you want to say. The goal is to be complete yet concise. That helps the reporter get clearer and more consistent information.

I try to think through what I have to offer the press. Writers want to provide interesting, timely and insightful material to their readers, viewers or listeners. They’re not interested in what we might think they should be reporting on. Hard-selling a story to the press almost never works. I simply share information and say why I think it might be of interest. Then, I leave it alone. (This is the same way that I’d work with any customer. The decision to “buy always rests with the customer and the last thing I want is for them to feel pushed).

Yet if I’ve done my homework as per the above, then I have a good idea of what different press people will be interested in. When I think I have seen a new trend, I contact the writer who likes to be on top of every new thing in the food world. If I have organic products from a small grower dedicated to sustainable agriculture, I contact a press person with a strong interest in the environment. Here at Zingerman’s, the visual impact of the Bakehouse might be great for television. Mail order is likely best for national print; a bunch of boxes and an assembly line is not visually exciting.

Step 5: Actively Reach Out
If you’ve done everything above, you are ready to reach out proactively to the press. Here are the tools we use most often.

a) Press Releases

This is a familiar tool and we do them regularly. That said, my sense is that with the ever-greater emphasis on email, combined with good relationships, press releases are less and less critical. They can work well but I wouldn’t overemphasize their importance—you might accomplish more with a personal note or a personalized email.
Our approach with press releases is:

• be newsworthy and tell a story
• write as if you are writing the story you hope to read
• develop a good headline
• always have contact information for follow up
• send them on letterhead
• keep them short; press people are busy

b) Press Kits

A press kit is nothing more than a lot of interesting information about your business put together in one package. If you’re small and just getting started, you could make a “press kit merely by putting together any past press you’ve received with background material. The web has reduced the importance of press kits. Any reporter in a hurry will look at your website.

c) Samples

Sending samples can be great. We do it judiciously and only to people who will be interested. More often, we offer to send samples and then send them only to those who ask. One caveat about sending unsolicited samples is that you’ll want to check to make sure that the person will actually be there. Many reporters work from home or they may be on assignment abroad. I’ll never forget the story that a pâté maker told me about a beautiful box of samples they sent a writer who happened to be out-of-town. The box sat on his desk for two weeks before the stench got so bad that one of his peers finally pitched it.

d) Personal Contact

The most meaningful interactions are person-to-person emails, notes or friendly phone calls. Give each reporter you reach out to the same sort of personalized attention that you would bestow a good customer. Dropping a note or an email to share something interesting is a nice way to go the extra mile—as long as you’re not bombarding them. If you make contact by telephone, remember that reporters are inevitably on deadline and busy. Always ask if this is a good time to talk.

The tools above should help you improve your relationships with the press. Remember, though, there are not any guarantees. Years of relationship-building seems wasted when a reporter moves to another city. Stories get cut. Editors edit. Breaking news will always trump a story about cooking. And because reporters rarely write headlines or photo captions, neither they nor you can “control the spin of what appears. Still, by working to create strong relationships, doing a good bit of background work, treating reporters like customers, and using a few of these tips, you can enhance the quality of the work you do with the press. That can help us all to receive the exposure and coverage we want.