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6 Ways to Sell in Your Story: a PR cheat sheet

May 3, 2012

The PR vs Journalist debate is so old these days, it’s about as interesting as Season 10 of Australian Idol.

Journalists: ‘PR people are either stalking us with their crap stories, or shielding us from their real, juicy stories. So annoying!’. (‘Plus, they get paid so much more than us!)

PR Peeps: ‘Journalists are cranky and rude and disorganised, and could never do their job without us spoon-feeding them’.

As with most generalisations, there is a kernel of truth in both arguments. But God it’s boring.

Good PR people will make themselves useful and helpful to journalists, and good journalists will realise the important role PR plays in giving them access to information and people. And I’m going to make a call here: journalists like us to give them ideas for stories. And not just ideas, but facts, materials, spokespeople and everything else that goes into building a good news story or feature article.

It comes down to empathy really: if you put yourself in a journalist’s shoes, what is going to make their life easier? In my experience, PR people are most valued and respected when they think about what journalists want and need, not simply what their client wants or needs. The client may want their ‘exciting’ announcement to run in the paper tomorrow, but the journalist wants a strong news story that’s relevant to their readers.

And if you really want to hit the lights out in your PR career, you need those two agendas to align.

So here is my cheat sheet for giving journalists what they want, to encourage them to run your story. Consider providing:

  1. A context: don’t assume the journalist knows why your story is topical – if it’s related to a broader theme or trend, point it out, early in your pitch. Or point them to another story or some recent data.
  2. A case study: you’ve painted the big picture, now show how it’s playing out in the real world. Journalists need to personalise stories, so don’t just say ‘Aussies are being hurt by petrol price rises’; find a family who drives a lot and has seen petrol prices eat into their budget.
  3. Another point of view: journalists need to balance their stories, so if you have another contact who’s not a competitor but knows the topic, pass on their details or point out their work.
  4. A graphic: I’d love to use the buzzword ‘Infographic’ here, but that implies a complex, fancy thing done by an expensive designer. It can be as simple as a graph you made in Excel (ok, that you asked a team member to make because you are completely incapable of that), or simply a nice image. Visualising a story with photos or graphs is another way to get the attention of a busy journo.
  5. A reason/excuse to follow up: journalists hate getting a call that says, ‘I’m just ringing to see if you received my release’. And who wouldn’t? Unfortunately, we poor PR folk still need to call, because we know that journalist hasn’t looked at his inbox properly. So why not say, ‘I’ve sent you a release about the impact of petrol prices on family budgets, and I wanted to let you know we have a spokesperson available from 10am today’. Or you have some graphics you could send, some other commentators who could contribute, a possible case study… You get the picture.
  6. An exclusive: ok, this isn’t right for every story, but recently, I’ve observed the Australian media focusing more on exclusives as they battle it out for falling readerships. If you think one really good article may be better than pushing shit uphill to get a bunch of random clips; or if you think your client would appreciate one nice daily news story followed by some longer-lead trade coverage, then an exclusive may just work.

I know some PR people love sending quirky shmooze gifts to grab journalists’ attention (geez, they seem to get a lot of cupcakes), but I’m a purist.

If you have a good story – no, if you have crafted a good story – then it will run, cupcakes or no. And I’m all for relationship building, but really, journalists would prefer to have a quick cappuccino and a bloody good story, than a three course lunch and a big ol’ bunch of corporate waffle. If you don’t believe me, just ask one!

Hat tip to Clementine for suggesting this topic.

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  1. Thanks Belinda, this is great stuff. And speaking as a journalist, I agree with your points.

    The step that comes before all of this should be obvious, but given my experience today it’s possibly worth mentioning. And that is that you shouldn’t assume your story/idea is great for your targeted journalists. Make sure you’re familiar with what they will and won’t cover, and know why you’re targeting them, before you make that follow-up call!

    • Thanks for the feedback Jo – and the extra tip! Sometimes it must seem like there is a whole bunch of PR people calling you, who missed the very first class of PR 101.

  2. Nice to see a straight shooter in the business who cuts through all the noise and nonsense.

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