Making the most of media relations
Legendary British publishing magnate Lord Northcliffe famously said: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress – all the rest is advertising.”
Speaking as a journalist who has worked at both regional and national level, this principal still rings true today and the most important part of media relations advice is that journalists are horrible, mean-spirited individuals whose sole purpose in life is to find that one piece of information you don’t want publishing.
Before I get blacklisted by every media outlet in the nation, I will add that, in reality, all journalists are decent, dedicated and among the hardest working people in British industry today. However, news is a product that has to be sold and the competition is ferocious. Journalists are employed to do a job and that means finding the hardest-hitting angle they can on every story they come across.
What this means for media relations is that business owners have to think very carefully about how they engage with journalists, conduct themselves in interviews and, most importantly, deliver their news.
The power of a press release
Today, the media industry is under an unprecedented amount of pressure. The battle to remain profitable in print has already claimed swathes of victims and many more are still to come. Online, and the battle for readers is enormous, with thousands of news sites all delivering articles directly to your phone for free.
These huge pressures mean costs have been cut to the very core and the result is that journalists now have phenomenal workloads to contend with. For media relations, that creates significant opportunities.
If you are able to provide good quality, clear, concise material that has real news value, journalists will love you for it and you will quickly become a trusted provider of articles. The result of that is positive and valuable media coverage for your business.
On the flip side, if you get it wrong and provide inaccurate, poorly written material with little news value, journalists will simply ignore any future press releases and dismiss them as a waste of their time.
Media relations are paramount in nearly all marketing and PR campaigns and good quality advice and top-class writing skills are vital if you want to secure any worthwhile coverage. That takes experience and insight and business leaders need to consider this before enlisting the help of an agency or embarking on their own campaign.
Here I’ve listed some of the key questions you need to ask about any press release or media relations programme.
1. Who is it for?
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to tell PR people that “we don’t do that” or “that’s not relevant to our readers” and, on one infamous occasion, “no, i’m not based in the Bahamas,” (I kid you not).
All too often companies adopt a scattergun approach assuming that if they throw it at enough journalists, the story is bound to get included somewhere. It is absolutely crucial you research journalists and publications and know exactly what they like to write about and what they want to see.
Re-write every press release or proposal to suit each individual publication. If it’s regional, make sure the relevant location is mentioned in the first paragraph, if it’s sector specific, make it relevant. If you deluge journalists with material that doesn’t interest them, you will quickly be consigned to the junk folder.
2. Is it accurate and honest?
Journalists love statistics – 100 per cent of them hate it when they’re wrong or misleading. Accuracy and honesty is vital. If you are making a claim, make sure you can back it up.
If you try to bury the truth or make your story sound much grander than it actually is, you will get found out and you will never be trusted again. Embellishment is a one-way ticket to media obscurity, so be honest and upfront. Even if it’s a painful truth, it’s far easier to manage by being open and honest.
I can think of a number of examples from my own experiences. One company tried to mask redundancies as “an investment in restructuring” and was lambasted in the press, another sent statistics showing they had delivered record growth, but failed to mention they had since lost their biggest contract and were just weeks away from calling in the administrators.
Perhaps the most infamous was a business that told me they were now the world leader in their field. A page was set aside and with just a couple of hours to go to the deadline, I discovered they had misrepresented the statistics and were, in fact, the market leader in their county. The page was scrapped, I got the hairdryer treatment from the editor and it’s clear they were in desperate need of quality advice.
3. Is it exclusive?
In a world where the milkman can deliver live video content to a major news channel through his phone, good exclusive stories are rarer than a straight answer from a politician. If you have a story that has not been used anywhere else – not even on your apprentice’s Twitter account – you can secure far greater coverage by offering it to one outlet as an exclusive.
It’s a great way to cement relationships further with journalists and secure more coverage than you would normally expect. Also, don’t worry about reach, the news industry is an incestuous business and it will soon be picked up by the other outlets if it has value.
4. Does it have everything?
All too often press releases and pitches to journalists fail because of missing information or a lack of the added content they seek like quality pictures.
It’s important you make it as easy as possible for the journalist to run with the story. Make sure you have all the facts and supporting evidence, good quality and interesting photos to accompany the piece and clear and available contacts for any further interviews.
Journalists have very little time to spend on stories and if you make it hard work, they simply will not bother.
5. Is it a story?
The last and most important question. Whatever you send out has to have some news value. I once marvelled at a press officer who had a target of sending out three press releases a week regardless of whether they had a story or not.
Only engage with the media if you have something to say. The minute you start sending out material with no news value, you will just become background noise and be ignored.
I used to get around 300 emails a day and in most cases, if the subject line didn’t grab me, it got ignored. Anyone who went to the trouble of sending me an email that had no value to me was pretty much ignored in future because I simply didn’t have the time to waste.
The acid test I use for news value is can you imagine telling this story to people around a bar? If you don’t think it will grab their attention, the likelihood is it isn’t a story and you need to go back to the drawing board and rethink what you’re doing.
The importance of media relations
The above can appear daunting and a lot of businesses I know simply adopt a policy of refusing to engage with the press. However, I think this is a mistake.
The media is a powerful tool for generating new business and attracting talent. More importantly, traditional PR is becoming increasingly important for getting your business to the top of Google. As the search engine giant hunts for new ways to stop the cave dwellers from duping their system, they are increasingly turning to trusted news outlets to generate their company rankings.
Ultimately, journalists decide what to publish but, with the right approach, you can secure valuable media coverage and win new business.
Media relations is all about relationships. The goal is to become a trusted and reliable source for journalists. If they know they can turn to you for quality articles, insight and interviews, your media coverage will only help to enhance your brand.
Northern Lights can offer expert media insight and guidance and I’d be interested to know what you think of journalists and how you engage with the media?