A bit of practical writing advice today gleaned from my years working first as a journalist and then in PR and Marketing.
Perhaps you work for a community organisation and you want your local newspaper to publish stories about your work. Maybe you are a member of your local theatre / kindergarten association / sports club and you want some publicity in order to raise awareness of your activities. Or perhaps you want to do some community fundraising, and you’re unsure of the best way to get the message out to the most people in the most effective way.
You’d like to approach the media, but you have no idea how to go about it. How do you contact a newspaper or radio station or TV channel and get them interested in your story – interested enough to print or broadcast it?
I’m going to tell you.
I used to work at IRN News (which is now called Newstalk ZB) in Auckland. Every day as we feverishly tapped away at our grubby keyboards, racing to churn out stories for the top-of-the-hour news bulletins, the fax machine (and more recently, the computer) would whir and click and spit out media releases at a dizzying rate. They could be anything from the Prime Minister’s latest speech to notice of the local yacht club’s fundraising sausage sizzle. The news editor would periodically shuffle through the overflowing tray and, with the exception of a very few, “file” them (journo talk for chuck them in the bin).
Now, radio journos make judgments very quickly. They have to. There might be a plane crash at 9.30am and the story has to lead the 10 o’clock news, so journos don’t have time to wax lyrical or faff around with clever metaphors and imagery. They have to deliver the facts quickly, clearly and vividly, in a manner instantly comprehensible to the listener. Not surprisingly, they make lightning judgements about other things as well – such as whether a media release is worth a second read or not. Newspaper journalists may have a bit more time on their hands but believe me, they don’t want to waste that time wading through pages of shite masquerading as “news”.
So, how to make your media release stand out from the other five hundred? How to catch the attention of the harried news editor looking for newsworthy material?
What to write about
The first piece of advice my tutor at journalism school gave me was: “If it bleeds, it leads.” That’s a dramatic way of saying that your news has to have the New, Now and Wow factor. It has to be fresh, current and attention grabbing. Here is a list of what a news editor is looking for when they pick up that release from the fax machine:
- It is happening now? Is it nearby? Does it have a significant impact on people in our readership/coverage area? Is it relevant to our listeners/readers?
- new campaign
- new image, new facilities, new services
- new research
- special events
- a “first”
- celebrities or politicians – particularly if they’re rising stars, flavour of the month, or embroiled in some sort of controversy
- good photo opportunity (newspapers)
- lots of action, movement, colour, excitement (TV)
- interesting sounds and voices (radio).
How to write about it
Remember – if it’s not newsworthy, it won’t run. And even if it is newsworthy, it’s unlikely to run if your media release is not 100% accurate, clear and attention-grabbing.
- Keep it to one page if possible.
- Use a consistent layout, font, letterhead etc. for every media release your organisation sends, so your communications become instantly recognisable.
- Grab attention from the first sentence – in fact, from the headline. Consider the following attempt: “Sausage Sizzle competition to raise funds to purchase new booster seats for kindergarten”. No prizes for guessing where that little gem’s going to end up. But what if the author had put a bit more time and thought into it and had come up with this headline instead: “Child safety gets a boost thanks to community cook-off.” OK, it’s not going to contribute to world peace, but now it’s an interesting little article with a good photo opportunity instead of a yawn-inducing bin liner.
- Include the five W’s – Who, What, Where, When, Why (and one H: How) – in the first two paragraphs. Often that’s as far as a news editor will read before deciding to use it or lose it, so you must provide all the vital information upfront. Then explain and expand on these points, giving details in order of importance.
- As a general rule, use short, simple sentences. Read the release out loud when it’s finished to check that it flows naturally.
- Don’t try to be clever. Don’t use long and complicated words when you could use short and simple ones. The man was not fatally injured. He was killed. The woman did not endeavour to write a good blog post. She tried.
- Translate all technical terms and jargon into everyday language. Imagine you are telling a story to a stranger who knows nothing about you, your organisation or your activities.
- Keep paragraphs short, generally two-three lines. Use a new paragraph for each separate point.
- Is all the spelling and grammar correct? If you are unsure, ask someone who is as anal as me about these things (i.e. incredibly) to read it.
- Can you back up your statements? Do your facts add up? Do any statistics stack up, and can you prove their veracity?
- Include contact details – and make sure that whoever is listed as a contact leaves their phone on!
- Where possible, always offer an opportunity for an interview with the person (s) quoted in the media release, and/or a photo. Particularly for a newspaper, a photo will often tip the balance of whether your story runs or not.
- Before sending your release, ring and find out whether it’s best to send it by fax or email.
- Follow up with a phone call. Don’t just send off your release and hope for the best. Always call and “sell” the story to the news editor if you can. Persistence can often pay off. (But don’t keep ringing and ringing to check whether your release is going to run. No-one likes a tosser.)
And one more thing…
Try to establish a relationship with key journalists on the publications you will be targeting regularly. Go and meet them in person. Don’t just call them when you want coverage; if you hear about something that may interest them, even if it has nothing to do with your work, give them a call. Then, when you do need them, they will be more likely to at least fish your release out of the bin and read it. But remember – being buddies with Dave at the local rag doesn’t necessarily increase the likelihood of coverage. You also have to give him news he can use.