As journalists on national newspapers, as well as at the BBC, ITN and Sky News, the tutors at HarveyLeach have been “courted” by press officers and PR agencies for years.
Whether those public relations people wanted us to feature their product or interview their client on a major topic, they have faced a huge challenge: catching our attention when possibly hundreds of other PRs have been trying to do the same.
Many have resorted to gimmicks. One particularly bad one was by a tourist board’s press office. They decided to send a weekly “gift” to journalists’ homes, based on a theme of appealing to the senses – something they hoped their country might do to potential visitors.
Alas, for four weeks’ running the postman left me one of those “You have an item to collect from our delivery office” notes. I had no idea what it could be, and so, with rising anticipation, I turned up at the delivery office each time, only to receive a scented candle (smell), stress ball (touch) etc. It actually appealed to just one sense – outrage – and showed they lacked one – common sense.
Result? Wasted time and petrol = no coverage.
Thanks to digital technology, I doubt many PRs use a postman’s services these days. Now it’s their emailed press release/offer of a spokesperson, or more specifically the subject line of that press release, that must grab the journalist’s attention.
No matter how many hours a PR and their client have agonised over the product’s qualities or, if they’re pitching a spokesperson, how long they’ve agonised over the messages he or she might convey in that all-important potential interview, if they cannot create a subject line of perhaps fewer than eight words that scream “UNMISSABLE NEWS STORY”, then everything else has been simply a waste of time.
So that’s a handful of words to win over the most cynical, sceptical, distrustful, contemptuous breed known to man.
That’s quite a challenge, but here’s how to make it easier:
Think like a journalist, act like a journalist and above all, WRITE like a journalist.
Here are just a few examples of news release “subject fields” I saw recently that don’t do that:
“Franc-ly, we understand” (from a tourist board)
“Escape to the forest” (about a national park)
“Autumn has arrived at XYZ Hotel”
I don’t have a clue what the first two are about, and no time-poor national newspaper journalist or broadcaster has the time to find out, let alone call the author to do an interview.
As for the final one, if I had more time, I’d be tempted to phone up the writer and give them the earth-shattering news that guess what, autumn has arrived at every London hotel.
There is absolutely no news in these headlines.
But what’s doubly frustrating is I suspect that, buried in each release, is a great story, but because the writers have not understood what will attract a journalist’s attention, they’ve wasted their own time, the company’s or client’s time and, above all, have squandered a lot of money.
Add to this the fact it could be happening again and again and that’s scandalous at any time, but especially when budgets are tight, fees are tighter and yet there is more demand than ever for strong news stories.
So if you want impressive quality media coverage, make sure what you’re offering is topical, relevant to that journalist’s specific audience and sums up in a handful of words exactly what the story is about.
We journalists are a pretty blunt, direct and unsophisticated bunch, but we do have one highly-tuned receptive sense: news sense.
Spare the candles and stress balls and appeal to this one alone.