Saturday, May 10, 2008

Brass tack #16. Offer incentives

Any relationship counsellor will tell you that one secret to a successful love-match is to offer the occasional surprise in the form of a gift. As a PR person you would certainly want to offer incentives to journalists but the big question is, what’s the difference between an incentive and a bribe? This is taking us into ethical territory.

Some gifts may be symbolic – the gift of friendship, of always being there when needed. So friendly gestures can provide good incentives for the journalist to keep calling you. Always welcome calls and emails from journalists as they follow up your story, reward them with your smile (even when talking to them on the phone) and make them realise that nothing is too much trouble – at least within reason.

Gestures like – ‘I’ve got some more background information for you. Why don’t I drop it round your office on my way home – I’ll buy you a coffee/beer/sandwich (delete as appropriate) if you’ve got a few minutes’ - these can go a long way if handled carefully and don’t appear too pushy.

Is a coffee a bribe? No – not compared with VIP tickets to Wimbledon or an invitation to a reception on your yacht on the Med with a private jet on standby to get him/her there.

On a professional level the best incentive is your availability and reliability as a source of news. If you can answer questions quickly, provide usable quotes and recognise the pressure of their deadline, your name will soon be the most thumbed page of the journalist's contacts book. And if you and the journalist get on and enjoy each other’s company, it makes their job and yours so much more pleasant.

Isn’t that really the essence of good PR?

Filed under:
media relations       press release      journalists    incentives   

Friday, May 09, 2008

Brass tack #15. Make friends with journalists

Brass Tacks 15 and 16 go hand-in-hand as guidelines to win the hearts and minds of journalists.

If there are particular journalists who are likely to be regular recipients of your press releases, it helps if you give them a chance to get to know you. Then at least your name will stand out in their email inbox as a recognisable source and a real, flesh-and-blood human being, giving you the edge on other news sources who simply picked out the journalist’s name from a media directory.

The starting point of a good friendship would be a well-written, usable, newsy press release. Follow the Brass Tacks advice so far and you will be well on the way to winning respect from a fellow professional.

An individualised covering letter or email text is another positive step in this burgeoning relationship, especially if it sets out why you considered this news story to be of particular interest to him or her, based on your knowledge of what they write about (and how well they write it! Remember Dale Carnegie: ‘Flattery is telling the other person precisely what he thinks about himself’).

If they run the story, your next step is to thank them; this is the equivalent of buying them a beer or handing them a single rose. By now, the journalist will be aware of you as a named source of a particular type of story and will pay you that little extra bit of attention.

Keep up the treatment with a steady trickle of good press releases, packaged for the journalist's individualised needs and this could turn into a deep and meaningful relationship with you as the trusted source and the journalist as the privileged recipient of your news.

This is where you tread carefully so that you do not appear to abuse that trust. Copies of your press release may well be sent to several news media, but to avoid any impression of you cheating on your new found partner, you still have to make your news item appear special to them. Of course, deep down, journalists know that you are having other relationships with rival news media. But sending them identical stories with identical angles, identical photographs and identical quotes and interview opportunities – well that would be rubbing the salt into the wound just a little.

It’s useful and important for the journalist to see you as the reliable contact or spokesperson, especially if the organisation you represent is likely to be regularly in the news. Even if it isn’t, your expertise in a particular area could make you a useful supplier of quotes or comments whenever that topic is in the news agenda.

If it is likely from the beginning that you and the journalist are going to be in regular contact, it would be useful to invite yourself to the newsroom just to say hello so that they know who you are – perhaps supply a good quality head-and-shoulders photo of yourself for their files to be used whenever you are quoted.

One benefit of this approach is that you will get a fairer hearing if an adverse news story breaks about your organisation. The journalist might grill you but will still want you to remain a reliable source and it is more likely that your version of the events will be given a fair hearing and strong coverage.

Filed under:
media relations       press release      journalists    professionalism   
Dale Carnegie

Friday, April 18, 2008

Brass Tack #14. Offer them a chance to interview.

You may have sent the same information to every journalist on your distribution list and each of them will be aware that the information is not exclusive. If they run with your story, they may want to turn it into a unique news item with its own angle and geared to the interests of that readership or audience. Offering a chance to interview one of the story’s protagonists is one way if helping them achieve this.

Interviews are popular with editors as they can add colour and human interest to stories. Don’t assume however that all journalists are straining at the leash to fire questions at your interviewee. It really depends on who that person is and whether they actually have anything interesting to say. There’s a big difference between a top Hollywood actor passing through the area and a local shopkeeper complaining about a lack of parking spaces.

Interviews can be time-consuming, especially if the reporter has to travel across town to a hotel room and give up half the day to gain access. The story has to be worth the effort.

For promotional stories, a frequent tactic is to offer an opportunity to interview someone over the phone at a pre-arranged time. This is a handy way to talk to a touring musician, for example, who may well be in a different country at the time the journalist is preparing the story.

Alternatively, if the interviewee is willing, you might set up a series of 10-minute interviews for individual invited journalists at a mutually convenient location. (As a music journalist I was one of three writers selected to interview the American folksinger, Tom Paxton during one of his rare UK tours. He was an experienced and eloquent interviewee and our conversation proved highly productive, giving me enough material for an extended newspaper article and the main feature item for a national music magazine.)

Here are a few points to consider when setting up interviews:

  • Will your interviewee do more harm than good? Being interviewed is a skill, especially if it is on radio or television. He or she should be a good, articulate speaker with something interesting to say. It is a good idea to prepare some exclusive anecdotes or ‘factoids’ to feed to each journalist; these could well determine the angle or headline of the final story.
  • The interviewee may be the voice of your organisation and what they have to say in the heat of the conversation may make a big impact on that organisation's reputation, especially if the topic is likely to be contentious. Preparation is the key. Think of the three most difficult questions that may be asked and have the answers prepared.
  • Make sure the speaker knows in advance who is going to interview them and which publication or broadcast organisation they work for. It always breaks the ice to start the interview on first-name terms and journalists respond well and produce better stories if they feel that the interviewee values the opportunity to speak to them.
  • Provide background information in advance to the journalist, for example, in the form of easy-to-read bullet statements. The chances are that the journalist will not get round to preparing for the interview until the last minute (many journalists work best when they’re up against the deadline!), so accessible background that is simply expressed is always appreciated and can establish the sort of questions you would prefer to be asked.

    There are many more useful tips on giving successful interviews, including here, here and here.

Filed under:
media relations       press release       journalists      interview

Monday, March 31, 2008

Brass Tack #13. Give them contact details that actually work.

This is one of those ‘brass tack’ pieces of advice that should be obvious. But it is surprising how often a potentially good news story falls at this particular hurdle.

If your press pack makes the right impression and your journalist decides to run with the story, they may well wish to contact you. Even if the news release is comprehensive, there may be a number of questions they will want to ask, if only to provide them with a unique angle. The journalist may simply be looking for reassurance that the story is still viable, that there haven’t been any new developments – and that you are who you say you are.

Therefore, it is vital that your news release offers good channels of communication between the journalist and yourself. The first thing an interested journalist is likely to do is pick up the phone. So (obvious point) include a phone number. It should also be obvious to include a phone number of someone who knows about the story.

Here are some more points about the phone number that should also be self-evident:

  • Who will answer when the phone rings? Are they qualified to talk to the media on your behalf? Can they respond to journalists’ requests for interviews, photo-calls or background information? Are they even aware that their name and number has been provided to the media?
  • If it’s a mobile number, can you rely on the phone being switched on, able to pick up a signal or be answered in circumstances in which a clear conversation can take place? If the answer to any of these is no, you can increase the journalist’s chances of successfully following up the story by providing a choice of numbers to call.
  • Will the caller end up with a voicemail message? If so, will you actually pick it up and call back, preferably while the story is still of interest?
  • Is this an office-hours only number? Don’t assume the journalist only works 9 to 5, especially if he or she is freelance.
  • Will the caller know who they’re talking to? Any number should be supplied with a name (preferable a protagonist in the story, such as a person who has been quoted) and position.

The follow-up phone call by the journalist is proof that your story has sparked an interest. It’s also an opportunity to turn one of many news items into the one that gets special treatment. Human contact between a PRO and a journalist is always preferable to a piece of paper, no matter how well-written the press release may be.

Many websites and textbooks on media relations techniques make the point that it should be you, the sender of the press pack, who makes the follow-up phone call. This puts more pressure on the journalist to do something with your story and again adds that human touch to the ‘routine’ news release. Not everyone agrees with this tactic and anyway, the chances are that you won’t reach the person you want to speak to and will end up leaving a message – so all the above advice about good contact details applies.

While we’re on the topic of contact details that actually work – never give email addresses that bounce or web site addresses that don’t actually take you to any website. More obvious points? Hmm - you’d think so.

Filed under:
media relations       press release       journalists      follow-up calls       contact information

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Brass Tack #12 - Offer different angles to different news media

Sending out a standard press release to several news organisations can be an effective way of spreading your story quickly. However, it does put the onus on editors to find a unique way of telling the story so that it does not duplicate text that appears in rival publications.

There is a long-running debate on whether PROs should be ‘spoon-feeding’ stories to hard-pressed and understaffed newsrooms and most journalists do take pride in being able to produce an engaging and original story. Offering an exclusive angle on the story could encourage better coverage and prominence.

This does not mean producing individualised press releases to different news media, but it may be worth including the standard press release in customised press packs. The packs might also include exclusive interview opportunities or specially selected photographs.

Some basic research of targeted news media might suggest different angles appropriate for each. If one newspaper tends to focus on human-interest stories, you could offer some background material on how the story affects an individual family. If a local radio station’s output includes business reports, why not include a brief fact sheet on market profiles and profit forecasts.

Filed under:
media relations       press release       journalists      news angle

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Brass Tack #11 - Target your information to a named journalist

Following on from #10, journalists respond better to people they know and like. Even if you are not on first-name terms with recipients of your news releases, you should at least indicate you know their name. A press release addressed to ‘the Editor’ or, even worse a guessed title (e.g. ‘Entertainments Editor’ of a newspaper that doesn’t employ anyone with that job title) is likely to get binned, shredded or passed on to the least competent person in the newsroom to write about you.

Knowing the name of your journalist doesn’t guarantee sympathetic coverage however. There are numerous media contacts databases that you could subscribe to obtain up-to-date names of journalists for every publication imaginable, such as MediaDisk, FeaturesExec and Gorkana.

The downside of these is that they can encourage PR people to send out multiple copies of press releases to hundreds of ‘named’ journalists in the hope that one or two of them might actually use the story. This approach might work for spammers but take my word for it – journalists do not take kindly to finding their inboxes cluttered up with emailed press releases sent by PR people who haven’t done their research.

If you don’t believe me, read this…

Filed under:
media relations       press release       journalists      media contacts       databases      MediaDisk      FeaturesExec      Gorkana      The Long Tail

Brass Tack #10 - Give them time to work on your story

The late Douglas Adams may have loved the whooshing sound that deadlines make as they fly by, but this is a pleasure you have to forego if you want the news media to run your story.

Journalists are slaves to deadlines and the obvious piece of ‘brass tack’ advice here would be to get your information to journalists on time. But how much time do you give them?

If a story is big enough, you can get it to break on live radio within minutes of emailing or faxing your news release. If you want the story to be included in an entertainments page of a regional weekly newspaper, you may have to send them your news two weeks in advance.

There are two formulae that apply to deadlines. These are:

1. The bigger the story, the less time it will take news organisations to process it. They will want to be first with the news, even if it arrives a short time before their deadline.

2. The less time you give to journalists, the more important it is that the information you give them can be processed quickly.

This latter point could work to your advantage. A well-phrased press release that arrives just before the deadline could appear exactly as you wrote it – but that’s assuming that the editor is expecting the story and is willing to run it at all. That’s the risk you have to consider.

If at all possible – and especially if you are dealing with news organisations on a regular basis – get to know them. Find out about their usual working practices and accommodate them as much as possible. In time, as you build up a reputation as a reliable and regular supplier of good, easy-to-process news items, the editor may feel more confident that your stories can be processed quickly – and indeed give you positive coverage even if your organisation is having a bit of a reputation crisis.

But woe betide any PR person who does not take seriously the fact that journalist have deadlines. Your reward could be extreme vilification and overall damage to the reputation of PR as a reliable source of information.

Filed under:
media relations       press release       deadlines       journalists

Brass Tack #9 - Give them a high resolution photograph.

I won’t bore you with the technical details but simply make the point that a well-composed photo is useless to the media if the quality of the image is poor.

Before you send a photo to a newspaper or magazine, zoom in on a detail of the shot. Does the image still look sharp and clear? If not, the chances are that the publication will not be able to use the image.

A high-resolution image does not have to be a huge file. Indeed, many reputable media organisations still have computers that crash if you try to email them megabytes of imagery. It is possible to send a photo of, say, 500kb that will look great on newsprint.

Click here for a website that offers a good explanation of how this works.

Filed under:
media relations       press release       photograph       picture quality       press photography

Monday, November 26, 2007

Brass Tack #8 – Give them a well-composed photograph.

Andy Warhol was in the same mindset as many tabloid editors when he described his idea of a good picture as ‘one that's in focus and of a famous person’.

You’d be amazed what a difference a photograph can make to getting high visibility in the press. Editors give priority to stories that are accompanied by a strong and engaging photographic image. The trick is to keep it simple without lapsing into visual cliché.

Issue 14 of Behind The Spin included a few useful tips for PR photography. Borkowski PR image compiler, Mike Gilmore listed ‘an arresting image as one of his ‘seven routes into the press’ (the others were sex, celebrity, controversy, humour/the bizarre/human interest, a news link and animals!) and then discussed Tom, the Bacardi Breezer Cat as an example of a product image that has arrested. Indeed, this campaign opened up most of these other routes in to the press as well.

In the same issue, Leeds Met PR student, Joe Sharp discussed pictures of people as well as products and suggested alternatives to the usual handshake photos and smiley headshots that litter the less glamorous pages of the press. He advised portraits of ‘key media-friendly company people’ either ‘doing unexpected things’ with their products or ‘doing normal things’ in the community that emphasise their qualities as human beings.

Joe also offered a useful reminder to provide captions with photographs.

My own advice is to think about the composition of the photo. Should the image look posed or a captured moment in the life of your subject? If the image is of two or more people, how much space is there between them? What’s in the background and does this add to or detract from the message that the image is trying to convey?

Rather than compress a whole textbook of advice on how to take a good photograph, I’ll offer this link to Photo District News’s choice of 30 new and emerging photographers to look out for in 2007. Think about how their images work and let them be an inspiration!

Filed under:
media relations       press release       photograph      press photography       Behind The Spin      Borkowski PR     Mike Gilmore     
Tom the Bacardi Breezer cat      Leeds Metropolitian University      
Joe Sharp       Photo District News

Brass Tack #7 – Make it easy to copy and paste.

Still on the topic of press releases, this piece of advice may raise a few eyebrows. Many journalists would claim to balk at the idea of copying and pasting phrases from press releases into the text of their articles – well perhaps the odd quotation…

Nevertheless, many PR people would judge it a great success if the text of their press release made it virtually unscathed into the column centimetres. It would be an indicator that the item was well in tune with the style and news-sense of the publication.

Press releases are supposed to make life easier for journalists and it is not a sin of plagiarism if journalists use bits of them in their final stories. That's how it works. (And no, that's not why they call it 'writing copy'!)

So here’s my confession. When I’m writing my regular music column in the Coventry Telegraph, I often start by copying and pasting the best bits of a press release onto a blank page, along with any emailed comments and website information that might come in useful. Then I work on the text, shift bits around, rephrase, add words of my own, edit, check for word length and consistency in style and narrative, make further adjustments - et voila! – an article that has made use of these sources but still stands on its own terms as a piece of, dare I say it, music journalism.

Working this way, especially when I’m up against a tight deadline, makes me feel more kindly disposed to sources who have sent material that is easy to copy and paste – and less kindly disposed to sources who have sent me information on old fashioned pdf files, in tables that have to be converted back to text, or in any other format that slows down the creative process of writing copy.

Here's an example of a news item that was put together (not by me!) from two press releases, both of which were very easy to copy and paste.

Filed under:
media relations       press release      PR sources      journalists      music journalism     Coventry Telegraph

Saturday, November 24, 2007

New threads...

...OK, they're off the peg. But it was about time Screaming Headlines had a makeover.

Been busy updating reflections on the recent FolkArts England conference on Folk Forum. Very enjoyable event. Back to Brass Tacks shortly.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Brass Tack #6 - Give them an interesting quote or two.

Quotes are recommended for press releases, if only to humanise them and prevent them from being little more than promotional announcements.

The trouble with many quotes is that they actually enhance that impression. The most popular opening phrase for a quote in a press release seems to be ‘I am delighted…’, as in

Managing Director, Kelly Jones says, ‘I am delighted that we have achieved our target to double our sales of fitted kitchens…’;
Concert organiser, Seth Simpson says, ‘I am delighted that we have persuaded the king of Delta Blues to perform at the Skinners Arms…’

It would appear that delight is a widespread feeling shared by spokespeople of organisations everywhere. The world is a delightful place!

Quotes in press releases offer the opportunity to journalists to give the impression that they have actually researched the story and spoken to someone in your organisation. It’s an illusion that is easily shattered, especially if the same quotation appears like a soundbite in every media outlet.

When including a quotation in your press release, think of these two things.

1. You are putting words in someone else’s mouth. Even if you did ask your MD to give you a quote to include in the press release, they will probably respond with ‘say something along the lines of so-and-so – I’ll leave it up to you’. This is fine but leaves open the possibility that they appear to make a public statement that can harm their reputation or even get them sued. So if someone invites you to come up with the public statement that they would have said if they’d only given it some thought, get their OK before the release goes out.

2. Quotes are meant to be transcripts of spoken words (even if they are actually made up). So do at least try to write them as if they were spontaneous, spoken statements rather than extensions of management-speak wrapped up in quotation marks. Would your spokesperson really scintillate as a conversationalist with phrases like, ‘This new policy is a manifestation of our commitment to remain at the cutting edge…’?

The University of Central Lancashire offers some useful advice to journalists on phrasing and setting out quotes. It’s equally valid for a PR seeking to convince journalists that here’s is a story worth running.

Filed under:
media relations       press quotes      press release      journalists     University of Central Lancashire

Monday, November 05, 2007

Brass Tack #5 - Tell the story simply

‘The news’ may present itself as a reliable and factual account of what is happening out there in the ‘real world’. However, news items tend to be short pieces of information that are easy to consume and understand and it is clearly impossible for such an item to reproduce ‘reality’ with all its complexities, contexts and interpretative nuances.

Therefore, what the news actually does is to tell isolated, fragmented stories of events that have happened / are happening and then leaves it to its readers, viewers and listeners to make sense of it, discuss it or ignore it.

This means that if you want your story to become news, you must find a simple way of telling it. To achieve this, one piece of advice that is most frequently given is to ensure that the story provides answers to the five W questions: What’s happening? Who’s involved? Where? When? and Why? (Other accounts also slip in an H for How?)

In theory, this means it is possible to tell the story in one or two sentences:

What happened?) A toddler was rescued from a well (Who?) by a passing dog walker (Where?) in the grounds of Hockley Hall
(When?) last night (Why?) after a game of hide-and-seek
went drastically wrong.

Clearly, in this example, more details are needed to ‘flesh out’ the story from these ‘bare bones’ – but that’s how news stories work. While a detective story writer might leave it to the last page before revealing ‘whodunnit’, a journalist often starts with the punch line and then fills out the story with detail, context, background, quotes, with each paragraph providing more and more redundant information. If you don’t believe me, ask Walter Cronkite.

This isn’t because journalists are backward-thinking people. It’s to make life easy for sub-editors who may want to reduce a 200-word story to 175 words to fit the space on the page. Rather than re-write the story, all they have to do is lop off the last couple of paragraphs and the story will still make sense.

There’s a further practical benefit for a press release that can get the 5Ws across in the first sentence or two before ‘filling out’ the story: it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to impress the editor that here’s a story worth covering.

A good press release works in much the same way as a good CV. It shouldn’t be more than two sides of A4 and if it fails to impress in the top half of the first side, the rest of it won’t get read.

Filed under:
media relations       news narrative      press release     Walter Cronkite      journalists

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Brass Tack #4 - Leave clever headlines to the experts.

Newspaper sub-editors (at least some of them) are very good at writing eye-catching, cutely phrased headlines. We may think of some headlines as excruciating but they are part of the fabric of popular culture.

Headlines are a little like kitsch. At one level they are all awful but look closer and you can distinguish 'good-awful' from 'god-awful'. Sub-editors aspire to the former and do so with the knowledge of their readership and house style of their publication.

They will apply various rhetorical devices, such as puns (‘Cat burglar commits the purrfect crime’; ‘Ice cream firm earns lots of lolly’), alliteration (‘Birmingham Balti business is booming’, ‘Silver surfers score success’), assonance (‘Ladies lay waste to garden fete’), references to well-known catch-phrases (‘Bish bash bosh – make more dosh’) and other linguistic techniques to ensure the message jumps from the page to engage their readers' interest.

That’s what sub-editors are trained to do. All you need to do is provide then with a blank canvas to work on - a simple headline that makes it abundantly clear what the story is about, e.g. ‘Pupils raise funds for school swimming pool’, and leave it to the subs to come up with ‘Students splash out’.

Filed under:
media relations       headlines      press release     rhetoric      journalists