For many executives and their public relations counsel, the farther away from 60 Minutes, the better. But what does it take to get America’s most popular investigative show to do a piece that’s favorable to your organization?
Recently Captain Matthew C. Bates, Acting Director of the Air Force National Media Outreach Office in New York City, was in Washington to discuss his 60 Minute success for a group of Air Force public affairs officers gathered together from around the globe. Here's how Bates created a win for 60 Minutes and a win for the Air Force.
Beginning in February 2006, Bates pitched 60 Minutes a story on the Air Force’s role in saving the lives of American troops injured in Iraq.
If a soldier or Marine is injured in combat, time is of the essence. The Air Force established a hospital at Balad Air Base in the heart of the Sunni Triangle so that the best possible medical care would be available. After the point of injury (by a roadside bomb or sniper), the injured could be rushed within minutes by medevac helicopter to the hospital. At the hospital, medical staff run an impressive ER, OR, triage that rivals any inner city hospital in the States. An amazing 96% of patients
who make it there will survive. From there, patients receive continual medical care as they are transported to major hospitals in Germany or the U.S. by C-17 cargo planes which are configured as airborne ICUs.
Nine months later, in October 2006, 60 Minutes aired a moving, and very positive, segment titled “A Fighting Chance.” How did Bates and his team get 60 Minutes to decide to do the story, and how did they keep the story on track? Here are four elements of success:
Compelling. The story you pitch has to be compelling. 60 Minutes is a national show with a national general audience. It needs stories that will capture the attention and emotion of that audience.
But the story not only has to be compelling for viewers, it also has to be compelling for 60 Minutes to want to do it. Offer them an exclusive to a first-ever story. Provide access to people and situations rarely available to the media.
Characters. Have people involved with the situation who have strong voices to drive the narrative. In this case, Bates ensured the entire hospital staff – mostly Air Force reservists – was available to 60 Minutes wherever and whenever they needed. Bates escorted the producer and his team to the hospital in advance so they could “scout out the talent” before the reporter, Scott Pelley, arrived. After many, many, many interviews the strongest characters emerged and the story moved forward.
Coordination. Not everyone is going to believe that giving 60 Minutes full and open access to your operations is a good thing, but Bates was persistent and coordinated with everyone up and down the chain (over and over again) to keep the story from getting derailed. The military medical community was concerned about violating patient privacy. No problem, Bates got explicit guarantees that no video of a patient would be used without consent. That amazing video from the helicopter crew? He made sure 60 Minutes could get a helmet-mounted camera on the medic. No detail is too small, just be sure to coordinate thoroughly with the media and your staff to meet their needs and concerns from beginning to end.
Change. Be ready for it; be flexible enough to adapt. Originally, Bates pitched the story as a chance to feature the heroic medical staff, but it became evident the only way to do this story right would be to highlight the injured Marines--the ones who depended on the revolutionary battlefield medical care. Often the producer or the reporter would change their minds about what they wanted to see, where they wanted to go, who they wanted to talk to, and then they’d change their minds again. Roll with the punches and keep the end result in mind--a positive story that will reach millions of viewers.