So you want media coverage for your organisation? David Ainsworth, deputy editor of Civil Society News, shares his step-by-step guide to help you get your story in the news pages.
1. Have some news
This seems self-explanatory, but it’s surprisingly often forgotten. To get into the newspapers, you have to do something.
There are three basic questions a journalist asks when deciding whether or not something is a news story. Is it new? Is it interesting? And is it relevant to my readership?
If you fail to tick any of those boxes, you won’t get coverage in the news pages. If you tick all of them, you will.
Charities seeking coverage tend to want to highlight issues, local or national, to publicise their fundraising, or to address policy issues. If you want a paper to write about these things, it’s a good idea to link your approach to a new event.
You can do something yourself: hold a public meeting, write an open letter, publish new data. Or you can tell a story about someone else who’s done something. If one of your supporters or employees or beneficiaries has an interesting story to tell, piggyback on their experience. People like stories about people.
Once you have done something, think hard about which publications might be interested. Obviously, you want to be on the BBC or in the Daily Mail, but if you aren’t having much luck, try to think whether it might appeal particularly to a niche group. Your local paper and radio station may be interested. And there are trade publications and websites for all sorts of special interest groups.
2. Get in touch
You can have the best story in the world, but it’s no use unless you tell someone.
A lot of people ask questions about the best medium to approach journalists, but the truth is, they don’t much care how you get in touch – phone up, send an email, come by in person. Send a carrier pigeon, if you like. So long as you have information they want, they’re happy to hear about it.
But they do care when you get in touch. Your aim should be to catch a reporter just as they’re starting to think about their next deadline, because journalists are busy people with bad memories. Get in touch with a story they can’t use for five days, and they’ll forget all about it. Ring half an hour before deadline and you’ll hear a clacking sound in the background. That’s the journalist continuing to type frantically as they work out how to get rid of you.
3. Know the answers
Whenever you ring, make sure you have the facts. Don’t have half the story.
Ask yourself a few questions: What is happening? Who is doing it? When, where and why are you doing it? Who will be affected?
Don’t get in touch till you know the answers.
And think about pictures. Nowadays, almost every story needs to be accompanied by a picture, so good images are key.
At the very least, have pictures of your spokespeople. But try to go beyond that. A story can go from iffy to spiffy pretty quickly if it’s accompanied by an arresting image.
Do not take a picture of five middle-aged men standing in a row, even if they are holding a large cheque. It will not get used.
Perhaps most important, answer the bloody phone.
Of all the complaints heard on a news desk, the most frequent is this: “Why would you send someone a press release and then go out for the day?”
It’s hard to think of a quicker way to get your otherwise interesting press release off the news pages.
4. Talk like a person
One organisation I write about used to start every press release with “We welcome…”
They all went in the bin. Who cares that you welcome something? People are supposed to welcome things. It isn’t news.
If you’re going to talk to journalists, try to sound like a real person. Express strong views. Be clear and simple. Show you understand your subject. Be sure of your facts. Don’t overcomplicate things. Don’t be afraid to admit if you have no idea what the answer is. The writer won’t mind, so long as you’re happy to go away and find out.
5. Only say what you want people to know
This is a final tip, often forgotten, because sometimes it’s also important to stay out of the newspapers.
More than once I’ve known a journalist to ring someone up for a chat, find a few things out, and put together a news story, only to get a phone call the next day from the same guy, fresh from a telling off from his boss or a government media spokesman for speaking out of turn. “I didn’t realise you were going to publish it,” he complains.
This is baffling to a journalist. What other conceivable use would a reporter have for information? His whole job is to find interesting stuff out and write it down.
If there is something you do not want people to know, do not tell a journalist. They will write it down. They will tell people. And crucially, they do not need your permission to publish it.
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