Even for a company owner, the construction business is complicated. The differences between commercial development, infrastructure projects and road construction alone can be complex, so it’s no surprise that the average journalist doesn’t understand the dynamics of the business. With the number of newsroom staff in the U.S. having been slashed by 57% over the last two decades, how can an owner make sure their company stands out in the local media?
The good news is breaking into the local or regional market is easier than getting attention in national outlets. Appearances in your area’s newspapers and on TV also serve as a sort of proof for national reporters down the road — that you’ve done what you say and it’s worth spending time talking with you.
Always be courteous and responsive, even if you can’t help a reporter directly or just don’t want to talk about the topic they’re working on. Reporters talk, and journalists often share potential sources with colleagues at the same newspaper or station. If you have a reputation as a genuine and helpful person, your name will get floated around for future stories.
Many business owners and executives have earned positive publicity by following these five simple steps.
1. Tell a Simple Story
Many people think that getting media attention means making friends with reporters or having a giant list of contacts. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Persuading a journalist to write about your story is first and foremost about your story. If it’s not strong, no one will bite — not even if they’re a close relative. Figure out your story and angle first. Saying, “Please write about our company,” isn’t going to get you anywhere. Strong story angles might include being the first to do something, such as being the first woman-owned commercial construction firm in your area, or community involvement like making a donation to support a vocational-technical high school’s trade programs. Look at other stories in your local media and try to identify the particular angles.
You also need to be able to clearly explain why that story is relevant to readers, viewers or listeners of a particular media outlet. Outside of the construction world, signing a new project contract isn’t particularly interesting, but you could pitch a story about the impact for the community. Think about the jobs that will be created, the shopping or office complex that will revitalize an area or the new road that will smooth the commute.
2. Drop the Jargon
Every industry uses its own terminology that’s incomprehensible to people on the outside. It’s a great communication tool on the job and when talking with others in adjacent sectors, but jargon is a huge barrier to communication with the outside world. Avoid it as much as possible when working with the general-interest media.
Words and phrases that are second nature to you will confuse the media and their audience — and possibly lead to errors in their report. Terms like “change order” and “punch list” can be easily rephrased as “project changes” or “modifications” and “items not yet finished.” Take time to explain labels like “general contractor” — you may be surprised by how many people don’t understand what that means.
The exception to the anti-jargon rule is when you’re proposing a story to a trade magazine or industry website. The editorial staff and its readers will know exactly what you mean.
3. Stage an Event
One way to attract the media’s attention to your work is to hold an event or celebration. A media event should be driven by a great story and even better visuals.
Construction is a great industry for media events because there are often highly visual things that attract attention — heavy equipment ready to dig at the start of a project, or an impressive building at the end. Those give the media what it needs for photos and video.
If you have any control over your event planning, try not to hold a traditional groundbreaking or a ribbon-cutting. Those are a dime a dozen and offer nothing new or interesting in the way of visuals, and reporters hate them. Instead of lining VIPs up with golden shovels, pick one person to run a piece of heavy equipment that gets the first giant scoop of dirt. Don’t cut a ribbon to open a renovated school building — get a stack of homework and let the scissors cut through that.
The worst type of event is what many people think of as a press conference — a few people in suits standing behind a lectern droning on and on. Don’t be boring.
4. Ace the Interview
The idea of talking to a reporter, especially on camera, terrifies many people. The important thing to remember is that you’re in control more than the reporter. Without your interview, they don’t necessarily have much of a story.
Pick your spokesperson well. This is usually a company principal but depending on the story it could also be a project manager or foreman. Make sure they’re comfortable talking about their topic and know what not to say.
If you are the spokesperson, write down the main points that you want to make and memorize them as best you can, while still sounding natural. In the PR business, these are called talking points. If you’re being interviewed over the phone, you can bring these up on your computer or on a notepad for reference, just to make sure you hit all your items.
Practice, practice, practice, and then practice again. Record yourself and play it back. Listen for pauses and verbal crutches such as “uh” and “um.”
It’s OK to say, “I don’t know,” if it is followed by, “but I’ll find out and get back to you.” Avoid saying, “No comment.” — that makes you sound guilty of something or like you’re hiding, even on a noncontroversial topic.
5. Prepare for Crises
From litigation to accidents, financial challenges to injuries, the construction business has many points of vulnerability. You can help mitigate the fallout and the harm to your reputation by actively planning for a crisis or emergency. How you communicate in a crisis is equally as important as how you manage the crisis itself.
Anticipate the most common issues and threats to your business and consider how you’ll talk about them if the time comes. Outline some talking points for which you can fill in the blanks for a specific situation and have those on file in your crisis management kit.
Depending on the details, you may want to disclose negative news yourself rather than have it leak out as a rumor or be announced by someone else. The advantage is that you can frame the story first and present the problem your way, rather than someone else present it their way.
Develop good relationships with first responders such as police, firefighters or paramedic crews. In the event of accidents, they will often be the first official authority to deal with the media. Connect with their public information officers in advance and ask about their protocols and procedures. They may have additional training or resources that can help you prepare.
Working with the media can be intimidating — the prospect of on-camera interviews alone has made many business professionals’ knees turn to jelly — but it doesn’t have to be. Following these five steps will put you on the path to good stories, in print, on TV and radio and online. Landing that positive front-page feature may take some time but using these techniques will help.