Sometimes working with the media can be like trying to predict all the change orders an owner will have on a project before construction even gets started.
“If only reporters and editors would just tell us what they’re covering next.”
How often does this thought run through your head as an architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) PR professional or marketer? Weekly? Daily? Hourly? Does it haunt your dreams? Your nightmares? Do you wake up in a cold sweat each morning, worried you missed getting your subject matter experts (SMEs) into the next Big Story?
Okay, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but if you’ve thought this before, you are not alone. Most of us spend way too much time obsessed with what’s going to catch the media’s attention. Some days I wish I had some kind of crystal ball that could help me peer into the future and see the stories to be written that need my clients as sources.
And then I remember that, while there isn’t a Magic 8 Ball to read your client’s mind and anticipate every change order request (yet!), there is a similar tool for media outlets, and I can access it anytime I want. It’s the humble editorial calendar (also known as an edcal, if you’re into lingo). What’s that, you ask? Well, it’s only the best way to predict some of what a target media outlet will cover in the next 12 months. If this is news to you — or if it’s a reminder of a tool you once used but have forgotten while pursuing shiny new whizbangs — have I got a blog post for you.
What is an editorial calendar?
Even in this age of social media, obsessions over website traffic and the ever-sought-after “engagement,” media outlets are still in the business of selling ads. They have to run ads to pay for the content they put out. No ads = no content. In an effort to book a year’s worth of ads as soon as possible, media outlets, particularly trade publications, will map out the coming 12 months of topics ahead of time, usually around November and December. That way, advertisers can see if a particular topic will apply to them, so they can run ads that appear with associated content. The result is an editorial calendar.
But wait, we’re not placing paid ads; we’re all about the earned media, right? How does that help us?
Well, it also means that the outlet will be writing content to align with those ads, and that’s where we come in. Those themes and topics are exactly what the outlet will cover in a particular issue and are a guide to their potential source and content needs.
How to find and use an editorial calendar
Finding a publication’s edcal for the coming year can require a bit of sleuthing on your part. The first place to check is the outlet’s website. Most have a link at the bottom marked “Advertising” or “Advertise with Us,” and it will take you to all you ever wanted to know about placing an ad with them.
Here you’ll find information on the outlet’s audience demographics and reach. Don’t just scroll on by, though. This is good data to stash away to use when offering opportunities from that outlet to a client or other SME to demonstrate why it’s worth their time to pursue. For example, if a significant portion of the publication’s audience consists of key decision-makers like facility managers or directors of capital improvement, that may be just who you want to reach.
Within all of that advertising information will hopefully be a link to the outlet’s editorial calendar for the coming year. That’s what you are here for. Looking at it will reveal all the various themes and topics the publication plans to explore for the next 12 months. (Perhaps they’re dedicating an issue to “higher education renovations” or “thermal envelope applications” or “transportation infrastructure.”) There will also be publication dates and advertising material deadlines (more on that later).
Some outlets get sneaky with the editorial calendar. They know it contains information you want, so they “gate” it, and you’ll have to fill out a form to request the editorial calendar. Politely entertaining a few subsequent sales inquiries is a small price to pay for the editorial gold you’ll receive, so it’s worth sacrificing your email address.
Once you have the edcal in your possession, it’s time to go through it and see if any upcoming issues will be a fit for your SMEs. Something to note is that the information in an edcal can be pretty broad, and you won’t see a lot of granular detail regarding what the outlet will cover in a particular issue. You’ll just see general themes and topics.
So, for example, the outlet might list that it will dedicate an issue to alternative building materials. That’s likely all the insight you’ll get. Or, you might see that the publication is timing the issue to coincide with a particular industry conference and will be running content accordingly to reach attendees. There might also be a list of regular columns written by publication staffers that appear in each issue. At this stage, all you really want to do is go through the editorial calendar and pick out the topics that will be fit for your SMEs, make a note of them, and also record the publication date and advertising content deadline. Then, move on to the next outlet on your list and repeat the process.
Mining your edcal gold
Once you have that list of upcoming themes and topics for all of your targeted publications, you can begin the real edcal work. For one thing, you’ll probably notice that the editorial calendar didn’t give a specific editorial contact to reach out to with sources. Your first step then is to consult your trusty media list database — or Google — to figure out the best contact. Usually, you’ll want to start with the managing editor as they will likely assign stories for that particular issue. Starting with specific reporters might be a no-go, as they will receive their assignments from an editor. If you know, however, that a given reporter has a specific beat at the outlet and always covers that particular topic/theme/industry, then start with them.
For now, just make a list of potential contacts for specific edcal topics and don’t start reaching out yet. There are some issues of timing to consider (more on that below), and you will want to get that cadence right.
Keeping track of all of this can be a bit of a bear. What often works is to have a master list of editorial calendars as a spreadsheet, with information tracked, such as the publication, issue date, topic, advertising deadline, the possible contact you’ve found and the SME you’ll be pitching. Organize it according to the publication date (that will be important later). When I’m doing this, I often then schedule a reminder to check the master spreadsheet each month to go through all the upcoming editorial opportunities that are available.
For edcals, timing is everything
Once you’ve got your spreadsheet together with all of those wonderful opportunities for the coming year, it would be tempting to just start pitching your way through the list. Resist that, and consider a more thoughtful plan for timing.
Most edcals do not include a pitching/editorial deadline. Because they are an advertising tool, the information presented is what advertisers will need, and the deadlines listed have them in mind. That doesn’t mean the information is not helpful for AEC PR professionals, though.
Generally, most trade publications work at least three months out from an issue’s publication date — or even longer. And, when they are working on a particular issue, they’re not usually looking for pitches related to future ones — or those they’ve already put to bed. So, your job is to try and get the timing of your pitch right.
I’ll be honest, it’s not always easy, and sometimes you might miss the mark. But, generally, it’s good to pitch for a particular issue about three months out, unless you know an outlet has a specific cadence. Unfortunately, you may only learn that by trial and error, but usually an editor will take mercy on you and advise how far in advance you should be pitching if you get it wrong the first time. (That “mercy” might be a terse “We finished this issue a month ago. Why are you pitching now?” reply, but that’s still helpful information.)
Edcal outreach can happen in a variety of ways. Sometimes you have a pitch that’s tailor-made for a particular issue, and that’s great to send. Other times, you have a good source but are unsure what to pitch. In that situation, consider a quick email to an editor saying you’ve noticed they’re covering [topic] in July and offering [SME], who understands [topic] as a source/author if the editor has content needs. This approach can go a long way. Often you’ll get a reply from a grateful editor who was scratching their head about filling a particular content slot, and presto, you’ve now magically solved all their problems. (Well, at least one of them.)
However it happens, you’ll have made a solid connection and landed a great opportunity for your SME. High fives all around!
Edcals: The secret sauce of predictable media placements
If you want to show SMEs, key stakeholders and your boss that you have uncanny media mind-reading abilities, make edcals a priority in 2023. While they won’t account for every single topic an outlet will cover in the year ahead, they are a good starting place and can be an idea-generating brainstorming tool. Doing a thorough review when edcals start to appear around the end of the year will set the stage for some potential placements you can count on for the next 12 months. It requires just a bit of effort to pay many dividends going forward. And, of course, you can also have your team of AEC PR agency professionals do it for you!