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Chamber Executive Article Archive

Priming the News Pump

Kelly McCann

The Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce promotes membership and its brand by helping members get media coverage while helping reporters develop stories.

This article contains sidebar content: How to Organize a Media Panel for Chamber Members)

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Small business owners are eager for publicity, and they often join your chamber of commerce to raise their company's profile. Chambers also seek and benefit from publicity. How do you satisfy both parties' need for exposure?

At the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, we leverage relationships with local media to simultaneously tell our members' stories and promote the chamber's brand.

I served as a newspaper reporter prior to entering the chamber industry, so I'm well aware that reporters have an endless need for story ideas and sources, and that they face firm deadlines. I also know that having access to the wide variety of companies and industries served by a chamber is a reporter's dream.

Many business owners don't understand why one story idea is newsworthy and another is not. Showing them how news judgments are made and what captures a reporter's attention is a valuable membership benefit, especially when you can connect these small businesses with interested journalists.

As chamber staff, we uncover business trends and challenges, and we learn the distinctive attributes of our members during member visits, which is part of my chamber's retention program. We share this information during staff meetings, allowing us to build a repository of unique member stories.

One conversation with an Iowa City pet store owner revealed that after four years the store was thriving despite stiff competition from large commercial pet supply chains. With permission from the member, we pitched a story about the store's customized customer service and inventory to a local newspaper. The reporter appreciated the lead, and a full-page article with photos ran a few weeks later.

"Everyone wants people to know more about their business," says Julie Phye, owner of Iowa City-based Leash on Life. "By working with the chamber, it added legitimacy to my message in the eyes of the journalist. The chamber provided a connection that I couldn't have made myself."

Media referrals create member loyalty

"One critical aspect of being successful is the opportunity to have exposure in the media," says Dan Schwartz, owner of Cookies by Design, which opened in Coralville, Iowa, in 2010. "The chamber, on my behalf, made contact with a key business writer, and an article on Cookies by Design soon appeared in the Corridor Business Journal. This kind of visibility has opened several doors for our business and helped us establish key relationships with others."

Media stories about chamber members are compelling examples of the value of continuing membership even for those who are less engaged members. "We're not extremely active members of the chamber, and for them to remember us for an article was outstanding member service and also demonstrates the value of belonging to the chamber," says Paul Garlinghouse, president of Heartland Recovery, Inc., an asset liquidation firm in North Liberty, Iowa. "The article was excellent, and resulted in numerous calls and emails to our company from potential buyers and sellers. This type of exposure is invaluable and a boost to our business."

By fostering these connections, the chamber has become a go-to resource for local media. Reporters call if they're short on stories or on a tight deadline and struggling to reach a business executive to comment on a community issue. Each time we accommodate a reporter, we build rapport, trust and credibility. Reporters see the chamber as an ally, and when it comes time to pitch a chamber-focused story, they're willing to listen and accommodate us.

"As a business reporter, my relationship with the local chamber of commerce is vital," says Gigi Wood, reporter with Eastern Iowa's weekly business publication, the Corridor Business Journal. "I'm certain that if the chamber didn't do as good a job as they do, the stories of countless local companies would go untold."

While my journalism background gives me an advantage with reporters, any chamber can make successful connections simply by studying and understanding various media outlets. Once you know some of the basics about your members (thanks to those in-person visits) you'll be an information resource reporters turn to for background information, potential sources and story ideas.

"Whenever I need a story, the chamber is always quick to respond with several ideas, which are each interesting and doable," says Wood. "My chamber contact is an invaluable part of my newspaper beat."

It's important to refer reporters only to responsive members. Preparation is critical. Verify the information provided by members to eliminate the risk of giving inaccurate or misleading facts to your media contacts.

Your members may need help framing their story or formulating talking points. For example, a bike shop owner may think his upcoming sale is newsworthy, but reporters will not. But if the bike shop owner noticed a recent spike in sales of women's cycling merchandise, a reporter might correlate that factoid to a national trend of an expanding cycling market for women. Trends make stories.

Of course, limited resources and other work prevent us from offering this service to a thousand chamber members. Instead, we empower members to develop and implement their own media relations programs. Our chamber offers media relations seminars to teach members how to pitch a story and get valuable exposure. Local print, radio, television and web reporters join us to share insider tips and case studies, and they explain the most effective techniques for interacting with the media.

Topics covered include establishing relationships with local reporters, differentiating your business in the news clutter, successfully pitching story ideas, drafting effective press releases, conducting proper follow-up and utilizing and connecting with media online and through social networking.

Attendees receive a packet containing tips, case studies, reporters' contact information, a sample news release, local media demographics and a media contact list.

Reporters want to participate because educating potential sources opens the doors to future stories and positive interaction with the public. Members become media savvy while jumpstarting their public relations efforts via an introduction to four local reporters.

If you tap into your resource rich membership base and learn about their businesses, you're likely to find some interesting stories that reporters would like to tell. When those stories are published, the member, the chamber and the reporter are all winners.

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