The War On Obesity: Get Success With The Press

Promoting your weight-management program through the local media doesn't have to be a burden.

Topping the scale on your weight-management program's agenda should be its promotion. New members may be signing up to lose pounds, but don't bet the farm that the trend will continue without hyping the program's virtues.

Advertising, marketing and sales efforts can, and often do, register results with membership drives, but soft-selling to sensitive and deconditioned prospects calls for a gentler, more creative approach to publicity. Contacting the media moguls in your area is the key to staying on budget and getting that extra mile for your weight-management program's exposure.

But how do you contact a newspaper editor, and when? Here's a suggestion on what NOT to do:

"Your deadline is when? And you're calling me now? Oh, brother! [Sigh, pause.] OK. Tell you what. Call me tomorrow between 10 and 11 a.m. Maybe I'll have time then."

Stacy Briggs is the feature editor of the Intelligencer Record daily newspaper in Doylestown, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. He's been a journalist for 34 years. He's done a lot and knows the news business. The last thing he needed on a tight news deadline was to talk to some magazine writer about what he wants to see in a press release on a club's weight-management program promotions.

Briggs could have said "no" to me. One of his colleagues did-as was his prerogative-as he may well do to anyone else who calls him at the last minute. But Briggs kept his word.

I asked him what he wants to see in a press release from a for-profit fitness club that offers a weight-management program. "It has to be newsworthy," Briggs emphasized, referring to the news industry's staple diet of current, out-of-the-ordinary events.

He then pointed me to journalism's core mantra for the press release's content-the "five w's and the h," or who, what, where, when, why and how. Answering these key elements is mandatory for any news item on any editor's desk. Without providing this information, no one gets to go to bat, let alone makes it to first base with an editor.

Then Briggs said, "Don't wait until [the last minute] to call me when you've known that you're going to be running a monthly article on weight management and you need to interview me for your July story on deadline!"

Listings can be a great start with the media. Many newspapers have a regular section of a calendar of events and/or a "list" of business staff promotions or accomplishments falling under one headline. These listings are gleaned from press releases submitted to the appropriate editor. By getting your weight-management programs into these listings, editors learn who you are and what you do. Then, when an editor needs a source for weight management, your club's name is already in the newspaper's files.

I asked Briggs about what kind of news coverage a for-profit club can expect from a newspaper. He said the business coverage at his newspaper is limited to newsworthy events under three listings categories: a business notes section that lists special achievements; a people section noting personnel accomplishments, such as promotions or new hires; and, of course, a special events section listing events scheduled well in advance of their scheduled date. That means if you plan to hold a weight-management seminar on Friday, July 28, you shouldn't send a press release announcing the event to the editor on Thursday, July 27.

Don't send a long press release, either. The copy gets gutted by the editor to just the nuts and bolts. Remember, they are doing you and the community a service. And editors have the right to decline publishing press releases. If there's space for the information, if the release has all the necessary facts, if there aren't any other press releases with more information competing for the same space, maybe your listing will run.

One club that has effectively used newspaper listings to promote its weight-management program is the Wolff Health and Fitness Center in Elgin, Ill. Richard J. Wolff, the club's owner, targets local newspapers for his program's publicity.

"We have no one person on staff who handles the press," Wolff said, adding that the business partners along with the general managers, "all take a hand in it." Wolff's staff has an advantage with its press relations: "We have a number of [members] who write for newspapers," Wolff said.

Along with his member contacts with newspapers, Wolff has placed newspaper editors on his mailing list for upcoming programs. Wolff's club sends its internal quarterly newsletter, which includes its weight-management program's schedule and accomplishments, to local newspapers. As a result, information from the newsletter frequently appears in the health and fitness sections of the local papers. "It is really very useful," Wolff said.

By sharing his newsletters with the press, Wolff has established the club's credibility and expertise in weight management. That credibility in turn has established Wolff's weight-management staff as contacts for the media. "Columnists call us for advice," he boasted.

Whether sending out newsletters or press releases, Wolff emphasizes consistency. You can't send out information sporadically and expect to get the media's attention. "Consistency is the key to getting the word out on a club's events," Wolff said.

Consistency in press relations is Robin Kove's bread and butter. As the director of marketing and public relations at Highland Park Hospital's Health and Wellness Center in Buffalo Grove, Ill., Kove regularly sends the local media press releases on all the club's programs, including weight management. When targeting media contacts, she considers the theme of the press release and matches it to reporters and editors who have published similar information previously. For example, a food editor would receive a press release about cooking classes that are part of a weight-management program.

The time of year can also give your club a hook when approaching the media. Kove had a great response when she sent out a release about Highland Park's nutritionist partnering with a chef from a local restaurant. Together, the nutritionist and chef cooked healthy, low-fat foods for a holiday meal, and, thanks to the release, a local TV station covered the culinary event.

Michelle Brookins-one of two nutritionists who direct the weight-management program at the Houstonian Club in Houston-has also had luck with television exposure. As part of an on-air feature on health and fitness, she went to the home of a local news anchor and cleaned out his refrigerator of all unhealthy foods and then went grocery shopping with him-and the camera crew-to buy foods for his new diet.

According to Mary Lynn Ferau, the Houstonian's director of public relations, hard work and constant contact with the media prompted Brookins' not just one, but three TV appearances. She added that Brookins' name appears on the club's "expert list," which is sent to members of the media every two weeks to promote Houstonian employees who can be contacted for interviews.

Although most media contact is handled by the Houstonian's department of public relations, Brookins has approached the media with offers to write on health and nutrition topics. This tactic has worked well in getting media coverage for the Houstonian's weight-management program.

Whether targeting a TV station or a newspaper, Kove keeps her relationships with media members on the front burner. She said she follows up her press releases occasionally by touching base with her prime targets in the press, offering them publicity leads and asking if they are interested in any other ideas from the wellness center.

Briggs noted that following up a press release with a phone call to the editor several days after sending it is acceptable to verify that the information has been received. But he warns people not to be too hasty or persistent with phone calls.

"I have too many things to do during the day," he said, pointing out that one call to an editor is sufficient. Too many calls about a press item may turn an editor sour, no matter how relevant the topic may be.

Briggs also suggests that you call the editor before you send a release to the newspaper. Ask the editor what format he seeks in a press release and how he'd like to receive it (e.g., fax). Ask if you can send photographs and what he would like to see in the pictures. Ask if an editor wants two names to contact for more information-one contact on weekdays, one contact in the evenings (in case the night editors want to clarify some information to make the deadline for the morning news). And always ask when an editor wants the information sent to him.

As for feature stories a club may want to appear in the media, Briggs said press releases that contain information on special themes or information relevant to current, newsworthy topics in health and fitness have the best chance of getting published. "The more specific you get, the better chance you have of hooking the editor," he explained. "The trend pieces come to features. It has to have a local slant."

Trends are big with the daily media. And weight management is still a hot issue. Kove said she capitalized on this when Highland Park held an open house for members of the media, serving them a healthy, low-fat lunch, "just to get them in the building."

The bottom line is to work with the editor. Newspapers, TV and radio stations are in business for a profit. And with the ever-evolving trends in media, news outlets are constantly battling for advertising revenue as well as with each other for stories. By meeting the editor's criteria for press releases, clubs stand a better chance of getting published and establishing a long-term relationship. The end result of working with the media can be a significant advantage in promoting your weight-management program.

Meet the Press

Getting an editor's attention at a newspaper takes some skill and some publicity savvy. Always remember to date your press release, put a contact name on it, and place the phone number at the top. Double-space your text. Center the headline above the copy and always include an action verb (e.g., "Arrives") in the headline. Include the dateline (i.e., your city) in the opening paragraph. Place the name of the event, the date, time and location in the first paragraph. The last paragraph also lists the phone number again. The (30) at the end of the press release tells the editor there is no more text or no more pages to your press release.

Here's an example of a press release with which editors are very familiar:

July 17, 2000
Contact: Mary Smith
(800) 555-1234
Eating for Success Seminar Arrives
at Central Fitness and Health Club In August

Anytown, U.S.A. — As part of an overall weight-management package of nutrition guidance, lifestyle strategies and fitness programs, Central Fitness and Health Club has scheduled its first Eating for Success seminar. The event is the first of four in a series of weight-management seminars to be held quarterly this year. The program will take place at Central Fitness, 100 Main Street, Anytown, U.S.A. on Tuesday evening, August 22, 2000 from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m.

The seminars will be given by Central Fitness’ registered nutritionist, Mary Smith, R.D. The topic of the August edition of the Eating for Success seminars will be You Are What You Eat. The differences between nutritional foods and foods that contain empty calories will be discussed. A question and answer session will be held along with the seminar.

The seminar is free and open to the public as well as active members of Central Fitness. Registration for the seminar is limited and anyone interested in participating can call 800-555-1234.

The Eating for Success seminars are an ongoing support service of Central Fitness and its total weight-management program. Participants combine healthy lifestyles with a complete exercise routine.

For more information on Central Fitness Club’s Eating for Success seminars and its complete weight-management program, call (800) 555-1234.

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