Creating News Sense and Becoming Media Savvy: Keys to Improved PR Programs
By Tom Gable, Gable PR
Lacking a degree from a university journalism school, even a brief stint as a working journalist or extension class certification as a news junkie? So what steps can any PR professional take to improve his or her news sense and become media savvy to the benefit of all strategic communications?
As a concept, you have to go far beyond the basic theoretical foundations set in most PR schools where writing courses are an afterthought, if required at all.
Transform yourself into a combination of an investigative reporter, professional cynic, daily columnist and WSJ fact-checker. Use both sides of the brain to figure out the creative aspects of telling a story and then the logic to support the concept. Build your own thought process for generating new sparks of creativity and news judgment that help you become a better PR, media relations and communications pro.
Acquiring some media savvy and news judgment skills isn’t just about writing classic news releases. Think about how fact-filled, rich content can work in social media, pitching, strategic planning, reputation management, speech writing, IR and all other forms of strategic communications. Start with two questions an acerbic editor-mentor pinioned me with as a rookie when pitching my brilliant feature concept: so what and who cares? Whew.
First, begin honing your news sense by becoming a voracious reader of news.
This includes newspaper websites (www.wsj.com; www.latimes.com; www.nytimes.com; http://www.washingtonpost.com) and actual printed copies. This may be considered heresy in the digital age, but scanning real newspapers gives you a feeling for how editors rank the importance of stories by their placement on the front page, then on subsequent pages and in the different sections (business, sports, health, lifestyle, etc.).
As my morning breakfast ritual, I read four newspapers – WSJ, a financial paper and two local dailies – to get a quick overview of the main news of the day, plus delve into the editorials, favorite columnists and features. I almost always discover thought-provoking stories that I probably wouldn’t have found scanning online news sites. One easier approach you might try: block an hour each morning and scan through your favorite daily media and whatever weeklies you have accumulated in the past day or two. You will actually enjoy the quiet intellectual time and find it valuable for creative thoughts to drive the rest of your day, week, month and beyond.
Another reading ritual to pursue 24/7: subscribe to news feeds from your favorite publications and bloggers. For breaking news and trends, set up search terms on Twitter using research tools such as Twilert. These tools compile current Tweets about your subject and deliver via email at times of your choosing. You will find abundant fluff, of course. But Tweets can provide a wealth of links to relevant news stories and other resources you can use as background for your own programs, to include identifying key media and organizations circling your favorite topics (WARNING: this can be addictive for budding news junkies!).
Second, begin developing an appreciation for the news business in general and how stories are structured.
Read and watch the media you are trying to reach – local, regional, trade, national. As a quick exercise, write down the headlines or TV teasers of four or five different stories that catch your attention each day. Then, identify the three most important facts and points made in each story. Repeat daily, keep notes, scan regularly for patterns and insights and you will begin developing an editor’s news sense that can help you tell your clients’ stories and connect with the media better than ever before.
Once you are better prepared to tell good stories, identify the target audience. How to get their attention in a way that supports your strategic communications plan? Then, where do they get their information? Get creative in using the different channels, including through the media, blogs, Tweets, Facebook, white papers, commentaries, speeches, websites, YouTube and the myriad of other tools at your disposal.
Start with writing the perfect headline for this story for the perfect publication, blog or website. The headline, the copy and facts need to appeal to someone other than internal audiences. Then, craft the story in a human voice, without industry jargon if possible. Have a colleague with another firm or friendly journalist who is not familiar with the client read the story and provide a quick litmus test on the quality. In emulating the style of legitimate news media, avoid hype and superlatives. Be fact-filled, including the use of data from outside sources. If you make a claim of leadership or other differentiating attribute, provide the evidence.
Third, test your growing editorial news sense.
Look at something written a year ago or more. Would the headline appeal to the media you are trying to reach today? How would they write the headline? What are the most important facts and impressions you will leave with your target audiences? How would you rewrite the release today? Add more information? Eliminate the fatuous quotes? (“We are most excited to have Fred join us as the new VP of wastewater management!” said Horatio Schwartz, CEO.). So what and who cares?
Fourth, get extra critical.
The following Gable PR seven-point litmus can be one starting point for evaluating potential news stories or other messages:
- Is it really newsworthy or of interest to anyone other than the company, the CEO’s family and a few of their friends?
- How big is the impact: company, community, region, market niche or category, industry, technology or science breakthrough, nation, hemisphere, humanity?
- Has the same or similar story already been told? (Quick research will answer the question.)
- Can the premise be supported by valid data, third party sources, case histories and ongoing proof of principle?
- Does the company have credible “gurus,” who can bring the story to life and become valuable and trusted resources for the media?
- Can the company be further differentiated by its people, technology, culture and personality? Or if you lined up the tag lines, boilerplates, key words and descriptive clauses for the top competitors in the space would they all look and sound alike?
- Can the story be summarized in a compelling headline, Tweet or one or two-sentence sound bite or elevator pitch?
This quick test can help focus your efforts to create a smart, compelling and interesting story or other communication that breaks through the clutter, connects with your targets and supports the long-term image and reputation of your client or organization. Failing the test can also be used as evidence to convince the client or boss to go in a new direction or risk alienating the media and beyond.
With a proper level of media savvy and news sense, PR professionals can become what I dubbed “masters of the communications universe” during a speech to PRSA Counselors Academy.
PR agencies and internal staffs will be taking significantly more important roles in driving strategic messaging for their clients, companies or organizations at all levels, especially as new tools enter the mix and old ones disappear. In this era of media disintermediation, think of “PR as Publisher.” You can use many channels, tactics and tools to: change perceptions, behaviors; position new companies and industries; reposition companies that have become stuck; launch new products, services; build brands; disrupt a market, pre-empt the competition; manage a crisis; counter-attack; frame new issues; drive image, reputation and perceived value; and so much more!
Start thinking like an editor and publisher. Envision an annual communications plan and editorial calendar where PR drives the creation of fact-based, high-quality, compelling content, controls the strategic flow through multiple channels, bypasses the media filters, uses consistent and credible communications to build trust with all your target audiences, advances the education of the different markets you serve and tells stories in new ways that even cynical editors (redundant?) find compelling.
Hone your media savvy and news judgment to achieve better PR and communications results and always remember: so what and who cares?
Tom Gable (firstname.lastname@example.org, APR and PRSA Fellow, is founder and CEO of Gable PR. He has been in the PR profession for more than 35 years. A former financial journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee, he is author of “The PR Client Service Manual” and a frequent speaker at national conferences and teleseminars on jargon-free public relations, creativity, strategic reputation management and crisis communications.