You have a really interesting client story to tell the news media. It’s the biggest… It’s unique… It’s never been done before… And it’s a good news story… So why is no-one interested? Pieter Cronjé takes a look.
Having worked on both sides of the news media and communication/public relations fence*, I’ve observed excellence as well as a lack of understanding from the two worlds. Conversations with editors, journalists, producers on the one hand and spokespersons, agencies and practitioners on the other have informed this article.
It is the task of the communication practitioner to convey client, customer and public information through the journalist and media to their readers, listeners and viewers.
Here are some insights that might help.
- There is supply and demand
News media have limited space and time. Writing, recording, video and editing take time. Journalists, news editors, producers en editors are targeted, no bombarded, by publicists, public relations and communication companies, agencies, corporates, government, celebrities, politicians and their spokesperson. Supply mostly exceeds demand and space.
- News diaries are unpredictable
On a quiet day an ordinary story will receive coverage. On other days, a “more newsworthy” story will receive a measly two paragraphs or never feature. News value is relative and often a judgment call. It depends on other breaking stories. Nelson Mandela’s death totally dominated South African, even some international media. This unpredictable newsflow also explains why a journalist, photographer, studio and camera team is simply not available at certain times.
- Deadlines are crucial
Deadlines are real and unforgiving. Respect them and let people know early enough if and why you cannot meet them. Printing presses and delivery trucks, news bulletins, radio and television schedules wait for no-one. Only major, dramatic breaking news can, sometimes, stretch deadlines. For all other stories a deadline is that crucial difference between being heard or getting that nasty “no response, not available” label.
- It’s about timing and shelf life
There are good and bad times to issue news releases or hold media conferences. Bad timing includes too close to a news bulletin to edit; too close to the weekend with papers already full of in-depth and leisure read stories; or too far away to have news teams out that long. Stories reach a sell by date if the issue is no longer current.
- Do your homework
Do you know who is the news editor, journalist or producer specialising in your subject matter? Do you know the programme line-up, listenership, viewership, readership and editions of the news media you are targeting? If this is a local Durban story, why bug a community paper in Cape Town? The quality of the communication or PR work you do for a client is seldom determined by quantity. A “spray and pray” approach is not popular with a hard-pressed news office.
- Avoid hype and spin
Some writers and agencies use flowery adjectives, adverbs and phrases like “unique”, “best ever”, “biggest ever”. Can you explain or prove your bold claims? Cynicism, suspicion and asking “aggressive” questions are tools of the media trade. Too many public figures try to hide, obfuscate, and duck. Journalists can distinguish between hard information and political statements. They often use the former and discard the latter, especially in the run-up to elections when political party publicity machines work overtime.
- Nothing beats substance
Does your release or news item answer the basic questions of what?, who?, when?, where?, why? and how? Do you explain how this affects the reader, listener or viewer? Do you tell it simply without technical terms? Do you give context – the bigger picture of how and where this fits it? Is it well written, short and to the point? Do you start with the most important news right away? If your release is shortened will the opening paragraphs still tell the story?
- Don’t dodge – give a straight answer
If a journalist asks you a question in an e-mail or personal interview, he or she would like an answer – for the story, also knowing what the editor and audience want. Answer the question first, than elaborate or give context. If you don’t know, say so. If you do not want to answer, say so and why. When you obfuscate and dodge the question journalists get irritated and suspect you are hiding something. If you’re willing to talk, be prepared to tell your story, but also to answer questions.
- Relationships and credibility count
Communication practitioners who earn the respect of news media and journalists know and apply the above. They also know it is not a one-way street – it’s give and take. Journalists remember those who only contact them with “good news stories”, but when they need comment or interviews on a difficult or controversial issue, the agency, spokesperson or principal are not available. Persistent follow-ups, worse still, demands like “when?” and “why not? ” are bound to irritate a busy news desk.
- The do’s and don’ts of media interaction
Guidelines for interaction with journalists and handling interviews are given in my Media Survival Guide ©. Please note that dealing with producers for radio and television is different from print media – more later.
*Pieter Cronjé has worked on both sides of the media/public relations fence.
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