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Making Friends with the Media

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Top tips for getting additional local media exposure 

By Eugene L. Meyer

Note to all publicity-seeking brokers and agents: Feed the beast.

It works for Brett Barry, a Phoenix-area real estate agent whose name and image have been in Fortune and on MSNBC and who is regularly quoted by the local press in his own market. In fact, by working with reporters, feeding them story ideas along with quotes, he has become something of a go-to guy for reporters and a mini-media celebrity, to his credit.

“My FED EX delivery guy had the [Fortune] magazine in his hand,” Barry recalls. “He said, ‘Brett, would you sign my magazine please?’ He had a Sharpie pen in his hand. He said, ‘If I have to sell my house, you’re the guy I’m going to call.’ I’m like, this is funny, you have got to be kidding me.” But he wasn’t kidding. Barry’s media presence was paying off.

Time to Be Seen

Being noticed is important in any market, but perhaps no more so than now, when many indicators are pointing south and there is a surfeit of inventory and flat or falling prices. Perhaps it’s time to stop complaining about press coverage-the good, the bad and the ugly-and get some.

Barry’s own experience offers a roadmap. When he moved from Seattle to Phoenix in 1996, he would routinely call a reporter at the Arizona Republic with a story idea, often just leaving a voicemail message. At first, his calls weren’t returned. But over time, reporters did respond. “More and more over the years I became a regular source for these reporters,” he says.

Increasingly, Barry’s name appeared in news stories as a real estate expert. “It’s to the point where I now hear from them once or twice a month. Sometimes they use my ideas, sometimes they are just looking for a photo op with a certain kind of buyer,” Barry says. “When they call, I literally drop what I’m doing or set aside a time to help them with what they need.”

Barry is also proactive. “There isn’t a week goes by that I don’t e-mail or call a reporter and just say, here’s an idea. Sometimes nothing comes of it. Sometimes I do get quoted.”

One newspaper reporter calls Barry “his canary in the coal mines; he needs people out there who can let him know what’s going on. I think a lot of my fellow Realtors think of an idea but don’t think a reporter necessarily wants to talk with them. But reporters are constantly looking for ideas, for stories. Sometimes we get a call at 9 a.m. on a Saturday because they need to have something on the 5 p.m. news. I try to work around their schedule.”

His media exposure led to Barry receiving a surprise e-mail from a senior editor at Fortune who had found his name and quotes in many stories archived on Lexis-Nexis. They spoke for an hour for a story about Zillow.com. The editor asked if he could spend a day with Barry, who was quoted extensively in the February 2007 article, which also included a photo of him.

The article was seen by, among others, a producer for the cable channel MSNBC. The producer and his crew flew out to Phoenix to do a piece with Barry about real estate agents. On Barry’s web site, there are links to both the Fortune article and the MSNBC piece. “One thing can definitely lead to another and another and another,” he says.

Get Real

Barry offers one other piece of advice to his fellow agents: stop whining about negative coverage, and don’t try to spin bad news into good. “I give stories to the media that might be considered negative,” he says, “but I’m a realist and this is what’s going on. I don’t want clients to see the world with rose-colored glasses. If the market’s declining, the media should report it. If that encourages sellers to reduce prices, that’s a positive result. When inventory comes down and prices come down, the market will stabilize. I don’t think the media is positive or negative.”

Barry’s brokerage is a franchise of Realty Executives International, which has 14,000 agents and 800 offices in 12 countries, most of them in the United States. Marissa Leon, Realty Executives communications director, says, “We try to teach our agents it isn’t all about them; they have to think about what the end reader wants to read about, market trends, what’s selling and what’s not. Often, they’re coming to think of news like, why is my name not in the media?” But Barry, she says, gets it. “You cannot look up real estate news in Phoenix and not see his name.”

Become a Newsmaker

Other ways to be noticed, Leon advises, include competing for high-profile awards given by industry groups, and getting involved with the local chamber of commerce, or with charitable causes, such as Habitat for Humanity, which Realty supports. In a similarly high-profile effort, says Prudential California Realty spokeswoman Wendy Durand, “We had all our agents cleaning the beaches, to show we’re giving back to the community and we really care.” The press release trumpeting the cleanup resulted in radio coverage in Ventura, California.

Kevin Doell, communications director for recently launched Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, a new brand of corporate giant Realogy, says simply: “Content is king, from a PR perspective. Assemble, package, tie in, and distribute the content. Information and data from the local MLS is always a great news hook. Agents have this data at their fingertips. If they are able to cite and report and talk about this data, that establishes their credibility and expertise.”

To Bob Udowitz, a public relations professional in the Washington, D.C. area, “when it comes to residential, everything is local.” He would, therefore, focus more on community and weekly newspapers “as opposed to just the larger daily newspapers. The people scouring the local papers are really, truly your market. You have to get to know the editors. Introduce yourself, make yourself accessible to the reporters, so they quote and use you as a resource.”

Smaller publications may also be interested in running an agent-written column “where readers can submit questions, or you might write your own questions and answers.” Udowitz also suggests holding free, informal meetings in local cafes and libraries. Direct mailings can also be useful, “especially in a down market,” but only if they are market-specific and not generic.

When pitching a story, Udowitz says, “identify the angle.” For instance, if a condo for sale is in a former warehouse, school, or historically significant place, “parley this hook” into a marketable story. Years ago, Udowitz recalls, he represented Dixon Mills, a former pencil factory-turned-condo in Jersey City, New Jersey. The factory’s historical association with the famous Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencil led to many stories from construction though opening.

Above all, he adds, echoing Barry, “Look for trends. If you are noticing a certain type of buyer has been purchasing homes in your market, or perhaps a trend in decorating before putting a house n the market, let a local real estate reporter know. Positioning yourself as an expert can make yourself a valuable resource to the local media.”

Jack Farrar, a regional public relations manager for RE/MAX International, also stresses the importance of credibility. “Develop relationships with editors and reporters,” he urges. Create and update media lists. Send press releases when expanding your office, or when an agent has a particularly interesting property listing. Add a “newsroom” section to your Web site.

In larger markets, he says, agents should look for new statistics or twists the media may have missed and then package them in an on-going market report, “where they’ll keep coming back to you for information, even if they don’t use it every time.” The reports should be sent electronically and by fax, but don’t inundate reporters with items that are not newsworthy.

Most of all, Farrar says, “Be candid with the media. Give them good solid information. The market is what it is, and if your real estate report is about a down market, so be it.” And, whatever the news is, get it to the media first. “We have an agent in Denver,” Farrar says, “who downloads the MLS on a certain date every month, creates a report from it, and we help him send all that information to the media. Before they’ve even gotten up that morning, we’ve got the first report on the previous month’s market out there,” resulting in extensive coverage.

“Someone’s got to do it first,” he says. “You just have to take the time to do it and get to the media first with the information. Then, as time goes on, they’ll get back to you.”

A Reporter’s Best Friend

Reporters are also looking for people stories, and for unusual properties. “You should be proactive if you have an unusual or historic property or a listing that has a story behind it. Don’t be bashful about sending that little item to the media, obviously if the listing client approves.”

There is another obvious caution here. These days, sending hard copy is often wasted paper and postage. “The vast majority want everything by e-mail,” Farrar says. “But don’t spam them. Don’t send them something every other day. They’ll just block your messages.” To make sure the e-mail has gone through and not gotten caught in the company’s spam filter, follow up with a phone call, with a direct phone number if you can get it, “but not badgering them.”

Ask: “Is there any other information I can provide?” But don’t call five or six times, Farrar says. “Don’t abuse the media. This should be self-evident, but people do it anyway.”

RE/MAX has its own public relations guide, which its agents can access through the company intranet. The document contains sample press releases and useful tips, such as, “Most writers, editors and reporters prefer to be contacted early in the day, as deadlines are typically in the afternoon and early evening.” And, “Keep in mind that in any interview, even when the camera or recorder is turned off, your comments may still be used or quoted in the story. It’s good to establish a rapport with a journalist, but refrain from making comments you wouldn’t want repeated or even paraphrased by the reporter.” In other words, sellers, beware.

Of course, you may not like what you read, but, as Phoenix broker Barry will attest, what sticks in people’s minds is your name as much or even more than what is written about you.

“When I meet with clients,” Barry notes with satisfaction, “they say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen you in the paper.’ I think it’s put a branding on my name. It’s free advertising, even better than what I can buy. I don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to hire a PR firm. It’s given me a distribution wider than I could achieve myself. And I love it.”

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