When it comes to school fundraisers, big marketing budgets rarely come into play. But you can use media muscle to get more people to your event… if you know how to get reporters interested.

Bruce Hurwitz, President and CEO of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, says the first step in getting coverage is to change mental gears: up until now, you’ve been focusing on those who will attend your event, but to get coverage you need to focus on the needs of the editor or producer from whom you want the publicity. “Newspaper editors are looking for fillers, short stories that will fill a space on a page where they don't have an ad to place. Editors want one clear photo, preferably with a pretty girl, and a well-written caption. Producers want something that is entertaining, is beneficial for the audience, and will make good television or radio.”

Shel Horowitz, owner of Frugalmarketing.com, agrees, but says not to forget the fun. Reporters and editors get pitched all day long, so be sure to use word play, controversy, an element of surprise, or a twist on something familiar to get yourself noticed, he says. “My favorite press release headline of the 1,000-plus I’ve written was ‘It’s 10 O’clock—Do You Know Where Your Credit History Is?’ not the dull-as-dishwater ‘Electric Privacy Expert Releases New Book.’

Looking to create some buzz of your own? Here are six essential tips for making it happen:

  1. Make it Newsworthy. Media rarely covers something simply because it’s a good cause. Cite alarming statistics (“School Faces 50% Budget Shortfall”), describe an important need (“Big Cuts Force Kids to Take Charge”), tie it to someone famous (“Local Sports Hero Believes in Laurel School”), or use a local angle (“Jane Doe of Middletown Spearheads Local Fundraiser”).
  2. Make it Print-Ready. Editors and reporters are under tough deadlines, and oftentimes, rather than rework a press release into an article, they’ll just print it word-for-word. “Always fact and spell check thoroughly so that any press release you send out won't hang the journalist, radio producer or media person covering you out to dry. Never exaggerate; never pontificate; never say anything that you cannot substantiate in a court of law,” says Julia Hidy, President of Energized Living Multimedia, who has given courses on how to write press releases to major organizations.
  3. Don’t Rely Solely on the Press Release. Contact local bloggers and offer to write a guest blog in their style. Ask everyone on the committee to share on his or her Facebook account or tweet on Twitter. Post on Craigslist, in community newspaper “Calendar” listings, and on bulletin boards at local grocery stores and businesses. And don’t forget your local NPR station or other local radio. Most of all, be sure to call the media outlets in addition to sending a press release.
  4. Write The Article Yourself. Most community newspapers are happy to publish well-written, thoroughly researched magazine-style articles of 250 to 800 words in length. Remember, these articles are not blog posts, so be enthusiastic but factual.
  5. Think Long-Term. “If you want to consistently get media you have to build relationships,” advises John Engel, founder of Project Be The Change. “Take a reporter out to lunch, because they’re not paid much. Be a good source for stories. Most of all, thank them."
  6. Use What Works. Successful press releases typically follow a well-worn format. Start with a headline that is no longer than one line. Write the first paragraph so that a newspaper, blogger, or radio station announcer could use it exactly as you've written it. Run through the five W's (Who, What, When, Where, Why) to make sure you have included all the important details. Your second paragraph should be a one paragraph quote of 2-4 lines, such as, "Mrs. Joyce Smith, Chair of the Fundraising Committee at Laurel School says, "Funding for this event helps us make sure that no child is left behind. Last year we raised $10,000, and our principal says if we can beat that number, she’ll parachute onto the school grounds to celebrate!” Wrap up your press release with 1-3 benefits-based statements so that the press can see that there are very good reasons to want to give your group coverage, and don’t forget to include contact information, says Hidy.  

And if all else fails? Never underestimate the power of baked goods, say several experts. Many a newspaper article or radio spot has occurred because a box of cookies came to the office, in the hands of a passionate person who stated her case quickly and politely.