Media 101 for communities


In developer relations, we’re used to working directly with developers. Sometimes, working with the media can give us a useful boost.

In his talk from DevXCon San Francisco 2018, Brian Proffitt, former journalist turned Red Hat community analyst, explains how to develop good relationships with reporters and understand how you can give them something they find useful at the same time as serving your needs.


So, important reminders. I am a former journalist. I still do well at parties, so it’s good. And I also work right now for Red Hat as a community analyst, and my job there is to assist all the open source communities that we work with and get them healthy and strong in terms of, you know, do they need infrastructure? Do they need, you know, technical support? Do they need marketing? So, a big part of my job, given my background, works around public relations and marketing. So, that’s who I am and that’s what I do. Another important reminder and this is very key to what I’m about to talk about is that April, for those of you who don’t live in the United States, April is the busiest time of the year for accountants. This will makes sense in a little bit.

Let me tell you a story

Because you seem like a nice bunch of people, so I’m gonna tell you a story. This is the kind of story you tell around, you know, a bar or table in a restaurant, but we’ll do it here.  So, in 1995, I was working as a volunteer in the emergency room of a hospital in a midlevel city, Indianapolis, Indiana. And my job there was basically, I wore this cool, beige jacket and I sat at the desk at the emergency room and when people came in, you know, and under their own power, I would help get them to where they needed to go. And usually, that just involved me getting up and taking them over to a room called the triage room where an actual health professional would check this person out and see how urgent their situation was.

So, one night I’m working there and a couple comes in and they are dressed to the nines. He’s got a suit. She’s got a nice dress and she is very much in distress. She’s kind of doubled over, really looking green, complaining, you know, being ill. So, I do what I do. I get her a wheelchair because she’s having trouble walking. Put her in the wheelchair, get her a pan, a spit pan, if you will, because it looks like she’s gonna go at any moment. I wheel her over to the triage. Gentleman behind me that’s with her comes with us. There’s no line. It’s a little slow that night, so it all worked out. Got her into triage. Nurse started seeing her right away. I go back to my desk.

About 15, 10 minutes later, give or take, another woman comes in and she’s clearly having trouble walking. And she’s kind of dressed in a business outfit. Nothing really stood out, except she was clearly limping very hard, and so, again, I get her a wheelchair and put her in the wheelchair because, you know, it’s a hospital and that’s what you’re supposed to do. And I take her over to the triage room where the couple is still inside. They’re wrapping up. It’s been about 15 minutes. That’s about how long it takes for a triage session to go.

The plot thickens

And so, just as I’m pulling up and trying to wheel the second woman into position where, you know, she can wait for the other couple to come out, they come out. And as they come out, the first woman, the one who was ill and really dressed up, looked at the second woman and then looked at the man and said, “What is she doing here?” So, this is not usually the first thing that comes up in a conversation in the hospital. So, I’m like, “Okay, this is weird,” until the woman that I had basically screamed at the man, jumped up out of her wheelchair, immediately tried to attack the other woman and the other man, and of course, she had a bum ankle, so she fell on the floor. So, now I’m really freaking out because a patient falling is like the very worst thing you could possibly have. Hospitals are terrified of that. Right? That’s why they wheel you out when you leave, so you don’t fall and sue them on the way. Okay.

But anyway, so this happened. She’s on the ground. Woman number one is trying to kick her at this point. Man is just standing there like a lump. I tell this story to my daughters all the time because men are dumb. But anyway. But for you, I’m telling this story for another reason. I get in there, I’m separating ’em, I’m yelling for security. Security comes. We break this up. We get ’em back into the ER. We get’em their own separate rooms. The man, turns out, was married to one of the woman, not the woman he came with. Oh yeah. So, we could see how this went.

Because woman number two was at work that evening…it was April, by the way. I probably left that part out of the story. But since it was April and since she was a tax accountant, she was working late pretty much every night that month. Okay. So, the husband decided that he would be totally safe to go out with a woman who turned out to be his mistress for a lovely dinner in the middle of the week where she got food poisoning.

The end of the story, by the way, is they both got treated. They were fine. She didn’t break her ankle. It was a sprain. She had light food light poisoning. They treated her and released her out the back, and I got to sit with the guy who was miserable in the waiting room for the rest of my shift, you know, and they never came out to talk to him.

Context is all

That is a story. It’s a true story. It happened. And I’m telling to this because we’re getting to know each other and it’s an amusing, if not sad anecdote. But if I were a journalist and doing that with my journalist hat on, the story might read something like this. A married couple of six years receive more than physical injuries Wednesday night when ill-timed visits to the emergency room brought together the wife, the husband, and his mistress. And so on.

How I told the same story in two different contexts is the example that I’m trying to make here. Because as we, as developer communities and open source communities, or whatever kind of community that you have, your product, your project, whatever, we all tell stories in a different way to different people at different times. I never tell this story, usually in a public setting because it’s kind of funny, but then it also makes people sometimes uncomfortable, so I usually hold it back for friends. One of those, “Hey, you thought that was bad, wait ’til you hear this one.” You know.

So, we do this all the time. And the point that is key here is, for all of us, is that you, as people who are interested in telling your own stories about your company, your product, your project, whatever, you need to know how to tell those stories in a way that appeals to the audience to which you are speaking or communicating. And when you’re working with the media, they’re gonna be your conduit and they’re the ones that are gonna help tell your story and spread it as far and wide as you can. A lot of us will rely on social media. And if you’re, you know, lucky and you have a lot of followers, that’s a pretty good way of spreading the story. You get on Twitter. You, you know, toss something out. It gets shared and spread around, and retweeted and hopefully, your message stays intact and it goes and it hits a lot of interested people. Problems with that include sometimes the story gets mangled along the way. Words get dropped, words get misinterpreted. The story isn’t always told the way you want it. Social media is a game of telephone basically. And so, you can’t rely on your message, you know, staying intact and reaching a broad audience at the same time.  

Traditional media, which is what I call people, you know, who write for publication sites, newspapers, even television in some cases. Traditional media, you also run that risk, but the risk is more minimalized because it’s still, you’re talking to one conduit. It’s not getting shared over multiple layers. It’s still being talked to one person and then they disseminate it in one massive blast.

What reporters want

But talking to media is not as easy as you think. I’m sure a lot of us here in this room and why you’re here is you talked to media and you haven’t maybe quite got the formula. And there isn’t really one universal way of getting media to get them to tell your story the way you want. But here’s some insights into how it could maybe work best for you. So, media will always find whatever story they’re looking for. Everybody says and unfortunately we hear this a little bit more often than we need to right now, that media has their own agenda and that’s been used a lot lately as a disparaging way of describing that institution, but that really, I’ll be honest with you, that’s always true. Okay.

When I’m a reporter and I’m listening to a story that you’re telling me, I’m immediately trying to relate that to something that I want to get across. I’m taking your story, relating it to my background and my knowledge and my experiences, and I’m trying to translate that into something that I think everybody else will want to hear. And because of that and because I have, you know, myself and my colleagues have also themselves and limited time and resources, we can’t tell every story that everybody wants to share. So, we’re always gonna be looking for news that is new. I mean, it’s cliché but it’s true. The first three letters of the word. That’s your hint right there. It’s gotta be new.

So, we’re always gonna be, especially in technology where we’re only gonna be looking for things that involve major changes or something that’s new and impactful, a feature that’s never been seen before. Those are the things that a media person is going key on, or something that has larger ecosystem effects. Perhaps, the change that you made isn’t really big for your product, but the impact of that change may have a broader effect on the sector of technology that you’re working on. So, this is what media’s looking for. That is their agenda. They’re not trying to mess you up. They’re not trying to, you know, trick you. But because they always have that framework in mind, you need to understand that because they’re probably not ever gonna tell the story of you the way you want it to be told, but that’s okay.

Three tips for talking to the media

So, how do you connect to the media? And I have about three points here that I wanna kind of talk about real quick and share with you on best ways that I’ve seen, as a reporter and also as somebody who’s had to push out from the other side, get personal. Now, I don’t mean go up to every reporter and buy them a beer and be their best friend. That’s weird. I’ve had people try to do that with me. And PR firms keep…if you’ve ever worked with a PR firm, they will keep sheets on people that they work with in the media. And I happened to see one of my bios once, and it was really kind of funny because it said “likes to argue.” They’re not wrong. It’s always good to do that with somebody I know in the room, because they’re not wrong, but, you know, you try to be all cool and professional and it’s like, “Wait a minute, really? That’s coming out?” It’s like, “Okay?”

But that level of personal connection is stalkerish and kind of weird, but it’s there, but maybe you can’t afford a big PR firm to do that.  So, what I mean about getting personal is something that you can do all the time, is make sure, for the love of deity, that you’re connecting with the right reporters. No reporter wants to see it…if I’m covering like open source technology, I don’t really care what Microsoft is doing in their Azure department. Okay? I wanna get news that’s pertinent to me. You need to connect with the reporters that are writing about the technology that you are working on. That’s very key.

Also, stay on target. By that, I mean when you’re telling your story, try to tell the story in a legitimate, authentic way. Please don’t mention blockchain or cloud every five seconds in your written paragraph or your verbal statement. Okay? Blockchain is cool. I’m throwing it in here so maybe, you know, the video feed on YouTube will pick it up. But for you, maybe not so much. You know, we used to call that…when cloud became a big thing, when I was still reporting, we used to call it cloudwashing, right? Everybody was about the cloud. “I’ve made a ballpoint pen that talks to the cloud.” Really? Wow. Okay. That’s weird. But I swear to God, that’s an honest to God press release. Okay. Stay on target. You can’t genuinely be a part of something that you think is hot or buzzwordy, you know, then you’re not. It’s okay. Be you and be authentic.

Also, be reachable. Okay. If you’re telling a story, you need to be able to be available for people to contact you at times that you may not think are normal, because something might be breaking in your technology sector, and again, it may not be about you, it might be about one of your competitors, okay? But something’s happening with them. What are your thoughts about that? And they’re gonna call you at 8:00 on a Sunday night because they’ve got an early-morning Monday deadline. They wanna get this story out there. How do you feel about company x doing such and such? And by the way, so be reachable, be available. Build that trust with a reporter. Understand that they’re gonna need to talk about things that you may not really care about. But if you build that rapport, they’re more likely to tell your story better.

Don’t be a jerk

By the way, big hint. If you do ever talk about your competitors, please don’t badmouth them. That is not my Midwestern egalitarianism coming out. That is just common sense. If you go around…like, if I work at Red Hat and if I go around and badmouth SUSE or Ubuntu, and I’m not gonna, you know, because I kind of like those people over there, okay, but if I did that, yeah, it’s gonna get hits and there’s gonna be headlines… and we saw this recently at a recent OpenStack even, you know, where people were coming after us. But they’re also gonna think, “Boy, that guy’s a real jerk.” And I am a real jerk, but at least I’m not trying to do it that way. Okay.

So, stay on target. Be reasonable. And also…thank you. One more thing real quick. When you’re talking to your reporter, don’t be surprised if they tell the story that you just told them in a different way. Okay. You are talking about your product, which is the coolest product in the world. But, you know, they may be taking part of what you said and putting it in a larger story about a broader ecosystem. Okay. That’s okay. Just make sure that you understand that anytime you can get your message out in a positive way, whether or not it’s your whole story or just part of your story, this is all good. People will listen. And if you build that rapport with the media, then they’ll keep coming back and listen to you more. And with that, now, thank you, since I pushed the button too early. And I appreciate your questions after the talk.

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