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