How to get media coverage: An insider’s view of getting CNN to cover the National Council for Behavioral Health

Clients often ask “how do I get coverage for my organization with the news media?” Or “what does it take to get a good media placement?” There are a lot of factors. Good timing and human drama are chief among them.

Timing a big story placement is not a matter of luck. It takes planning ahead, like knowing when a committee will vote on legislation, or keeping apprised of an important date on the calendar, like September 11th.

But any good story needs a human element to add color to dry data. The more dramatic, counterintuitive and compelling the characters, the better are your chances of seeing the story in print, or on the air.

To illustrate the point, meet my friend Bryan Gibb. He’s something of a teacher.

As the director of public education at the National Council for Behavioral Health, Bryan goes around the country training police, firemen, jailers and others how to spot a brewing mental health crisis and get that person some help before something terrible happens.

At our first meeting when I was looking for great stories to pitch media, Bryan told me that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC) got into hot water with the Justice Department over poor treatment of seriously mentally ill inmates (those with schizophrenia, severe depression and bipolar disorder) and was ordered to fix the problem.

Pennsylvania turned to Bryan to bring the National Council’s Mental Health First Aid course into its prisons. It’s a daylong adult education course unlike any other.  First-aiders learn a five-step strategy towards recognizing when someone is considering suicide, or experiencing what may be symptoms of depression. Then, through straight up teaching and role-playing exercises, they learn how to either get them help, or give them direction on how to help themselves.

The (former) reporter in me quickly saw the possibilities and contacted the Pennsylvania corrections department’s PR lead to lay out why we thought CNN would bite on the story pitch. It had all the elements good pitches need:

  • Strategic necessity- nationwide TV exposure for one of the National Council’s signature programs that was in big time expansion mode.

  • 3rd Party credibility - the prison, not the National Council, would show with dramatic footage how Mental Health First Aid works in practice. Having an end user/customer saying how well your product or service works conveys instant credibility that no CEO can match.

  • Timeliness - the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections was currently training inmates to recognize mental health crises in one another, as it complied with federal edicts. Classes that CNN could cover were upcoming and the PDOC was still under Justice Department decree.

  • Human drama- The department of corrections would open the prison to CNN to shoot video of real inmates with real stakes breathing life into compliance with a dry Justice Department order.

The National Council and PDOC’s PR lead liked the odds that CNN would bite. So, they got with the state’s cabinet level Secretary of Corrections, who immediately bought in to the pitch idea because the potential story was great PR for a department that had been battered in the press and the state capitol because inmates were badly mistreated. He even agreed to go on camera.

With client and customer buy-in, good timing and great visual appeal, we made the pitch.

CNN was sold!

The result was a stunning and compelling story that demonstrated how the National Council’s Mental Health First Aid course works in a harsh environment.

Inmate James Weitzel, who is now a peer specialist at the prison told CNN, "a lot of the [corrections officers] here, they really are buying into this...some are being drug in kicking and screaming, but they're really giving it the effort. When I see someone trying to help somebody, I can appreciate it."

For my client Bryan, the clip gave him a powerful tool no graphics department could contrive into an infographic. The CNN clip was a powerful, authoritative piece of earned media that has instant credibility, like a New York Times or Washington Post story.

Practically speaking, Bryan was able to flash the CNN clip anytime he would walk into another prison system, or a police or fire department that was considering adoption of the Mental Health First Aid course. It turned into a sales tool he couldn’t manufacture for any price.

The CNN story is also a great example of what happens when you empower experienced media relations consultants to construct a nuanced pitch that is both strategic for the organization, and compelling for the viewer or reader.

Do you have a story like this that will get people talking? Do you need to tell a story to move the ball forward on an important program? Please get in touch and let’s figure out how to get it done.