When it comes to securing coverage and building a top-notch media list, a lot has changed since I first started in the business more than 20 years ago. We’re no longer mailing and faxing press releases, using hardcopy journalist directories, or waiting for actual press clips to be sent from newspapers across the country.

The past two decades have brought a tremendous amount of innovation and efficiency to PR, making it easier than ever for us to do our jobs effectively. Media list development is one area where technology and innovation have made a job that once involved combing through Bacon’s Books (and countless print copies of newspapers and magazines to find the right target reporter) significantly easier. While online media databases have existed for much of the past two decades, based on my experience they often feel equally outdated.

Public relations is about reputation, and the media lists we build are just as important to enhancing the reputation of our clients as it is our own. Misguided pitches run the risk of drawing the ire of busy reporters, while poorly vetted media lists with outdated contacts run the risk of damaging your standing in the eyes of your client. With this in mind, here’s how I approach the fine art of building high-quality media lists.

  1. Start from scratch. I know, I know. You’re likely to hear someone somewhere tell you not to reinvent the wheel. But hear me out: Do you really know how old that list is and for what purpose it was created? I’ve come across lists that have mutated from client team to client team over several years. In today’s constantly changing media landscape, a list that’s just 6-12 months old can be woefully outdated if it hasn’t been properly vetted and maintained. By starting from scratch you’re significantly reducing the risk of targeting incorrect or outdated journalist contacts.

  2. Identify your audience. The most daunting aspect of starting from scratch is figuring out where to start building your list. If the list is for a new client, you’ll likely need to conduct some due diligence research to determine who is – or should be – talking about their priorities. Don’t be afraid to ask your client what they read or where they’d like to be featured. Find out who they consider to be their competitors and research where they’re getting covered. Beyond national consumer, business and technology publications, does the client specialize in any specific vertical markets like renewable energy, banking or manufacturing? If so, there may be any number of trade publications you could target to reach their customers.

  3. Pick your targets. Once you have landed on your key audiences and outlets, you need to find the most appropriate contacts at each publication. For many vertical trade pubs, this may be easier to determine if they have a smaller staff that likely includes an editorial director or editor-in-chief, a few editors and reporters. But for publications with larger newsrooms, you’ll need to do a bit more research to ensure you find the right fit. Google is certainly helpful in this regard, but it’s often not the first place I start. If your client is focused on “big data” or “artificial intelligence,” for example, try searching the site for coverage from the past year or so. You may find that multiple journalists have covered the topic. Make note but be prepared to do some additional due research to make sure they’re not specifically focused on only startups, only consumer applications of the Internet of Things, or only specific companies like Apple, Microsoft or Google.

  4. Verify their beat. Just because someone wrote about AI last December doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the right target for your outreach next week. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, newsrooms have faced unprecedented pressures resulting in layoffs and furloughs or the reassigning reporters to cover new or additional beats (like breaking news topics such as coronavirus, the presidential election, etc.). I like to review each potential target’s Twitter profile to see what they’re tweeting and sharing as well as any clues to areas of interest from their bio. In addition, search their most recent coverage to ensure your client and their area of focus align with their most recent articles. And if they haven’t published any articles in the past few months, then you’ll probably want to explore alternate contacts.

  5. Collecting contact information. Now that you’ve identified the media outlets and journalists you wish to target, finding current contact information can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Because so many poorly trained PR pros take the “spray and prey” approach to pitching, many journalists prefer that their email addresses are not widely available. While some publications like the Wall Street Journal and Business Insider will often include email addresses on the reporter’s biography page, many others do not. Instead of simply searching the reporter’s name and “email,” if you know the domain name the outlet uses for email try searching instead for “first last” and “@chooseyourpub.com.” That may well turn up a narrow list of blog posts, tweets or other articles where they’ve shared their email address. If that doesn’t work, you could try email finders like RocketReach or Hunter, which will also show you the most common email address pattern even if it doesn’t find your contact.

These are just a few tips to get you started on building the best media list possible. I know many will also rely on reporter databases from vendors like Cision, Meltwater, TechNews and others to support their list building. I recommend these tools be used to supplement your media list development. I’ve found that there’s no substitute for building media lists from scratch and relying on our professional expertise to guide the process. Now go build a better media list!