Media training

Working out how a story got coverage

You may have looked at the press and wondered where a particular story came from. I’ve used this as an exercise in media training sessions from time to time. People sometimes have very peculiar misconceptions. I was reminded of this when I saw someone recommending the idea on LinkedIn a couple of days ago.

The principle is simple. I have a group of people in front of me, frequently new entrants to the public relations industry. I give them a magazine, show them a website, whatever I have to hand, and I alight on a story somewhere from their industry. I ask them to consider how the story got there and what the publication needed to use it.

Let’s have a look at some wrong answers and some right ones.

“This looks to me as though it was paid for.”

This is a response I’ve had not from PR people, who tend not to be quite so naive, but from their end clients – the people who engage the PR community because they want to be seen in the press. Sometimes they assume that a product announcement or indeed that anything anyone has placed in the press is paid for directly.

That’s all but never the case.

There are exceptions of course. On occasion you’ll find that someone has sponsored an article or a supplement. This should be clearly labelled as “sponsored” or “partner article” or something like that from a reputable publication so that the reader knows exactly what they are getting. No reputable publication, however, will present something as independent if they have taken any money for it (and I doubt that, for example, Boris Johnson paid for all of the coverage of Partygate – if someone wrote something like that about me I’d sack them immediately).

It’s paid for indirectly of course. Companies that engage a PR company or someone internal to draw attention to the business all the time naturally have an advantage. Is this fair? Probably not. Is there a way around it? That’s doubtful.

Then of course there’s advertising.

“They’re probably included because they paid for an ad.”

As a younger reporter – it did happen – I worked on a trade magazine called MicroScope. It served the computer dealer population. We were rigidly independent and occasionally took great pleasure in winding up the advertising department (I once personally threw out the ad manager when he sneaked in and asked the production department who we were covering in a product round-up so that he could sell them advertising – where “threw out” means “asked him not to do that and mentioned to the production department that this could compromise our editorial independence”. He thought it was ludicrous but I had the backing of the editor.

I’ve highlighted this in media training sessions before now and occasionally I get a laugh out of a public relations person or an end client. They agree journalists should in principle be completely unswayed by advertising spend but they could all point to small local (or niche) publications that had told them they only covered organisations that advertised with them.

So there can be some flexibility but Clapperton Media Training will always advise people that there is no substitute for a good story, well told and substantiated. More on that in a little while.

You could try telling the FT you’ll buy an ad if they cover your start-up. You won’t get far.

“The editor has an agenda.”

Up to a point this can be right. There are some publications that appear to be anti-Google, anti-Amazon or anti-whichever-company-has-just-grown-massively. The British press in particular likes to remind people when they’re overreaching themselves. Mostly, though, independence still rules, at least outside politics and current affairs. I’ve contributed to the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the New Statesman and nobody has told me what to say – just reminded me to stick to their house style which is more a matter of syntax and punctuation.

More positively you can check what a website or magazine is going to want not just in terms of tone but in terms of content. This isn’t so much a matter of tone as a matter of angle or specialism. I mentioned above that I worked for MicroScope. We went out to computer dealers so instead of asking how many bits and bytes a computer had, or how much faster it would go than the competition, we’d be asking  questions about joint promotional budgets on offer from manufacturers and producers, on per centages available for the dealer channel. That was simply what the magazine was about. Likewise if you want to reach Apple users it doesn’t take a genius to work out that MacWorld is going to be a reasonable target to aim for.

So yes, the editor can have an agenda but this can be respectable and a strategy.

“An opinion piece writer is mates with the editor.”

Quite possibly but how do you become mates with an editor? When I’ve put magazines and websites together in the past, the “contributed” piece by an expert in the field has been a nightmare to administer for a number of reasons.

First, punctuality. So many expert contributors have expertise in their fields, whether that’s tech security, the natural world, contract law – but they don’t have expertise in editorial schedules. The result can be lateness. Badly. So no we can’t hold the presses up for you if it’s hard copy and if it’s a publication’s website we still need that copy. If it’s late that isn’t great but we’ll probably still take it; try not to be like the world class conductor who was writing for a magazine where I was freelancing, missed the deadline so assumed he probably didn’t have to write anything at all.

Second, length. I once had an expert contributor agreeing to write something for a handbook of e-commerce I was editing when ordering stuff online was complicated and niche. They and their PR people agreed to contribute a chapter and we agreed 4000 words was a reasonable length. It arrived late and close to my own deadline and when I opened it  was staggered to find it was 450 words long. I asked whether there had been a mistake and the answer was “No, that’s all we could think of, maybe you could edit?” (Note to contributors: editors tend to cut rather than add stuff and everyone kicks up a stink when you add stuff anyway).

So yes, be mates with an editor. Start by being on time, on topic and the length on the nose.

Something they miss: “They provided the right pics.”

Almost every time I do the “how did this article get there” exercise people miss the visuals. Of course the idea needs to be strong and the pitch needs to be right, and by all means it’s increasingly difficult to get journalists engaged. There’s another issue, though. How many times have you seen an opinion piece by a named columnist without their picture on the top?

Very rarely is the answer, I imagine. And yet I’ve had media training clients go all shruggy on me when I ask about pics. They’ll get around to it, they say. It’s not that important, they reckon. They’re not a big enough company to pay out for a photographer.

I run a tiny business but I always make sure I have up to date photography available (the current batch is two years old and when I’ve finished this weight loss thing I’m doing, I’ll refresh it again). It’s a core part of the visual business in which editors operate. You might perceive a website as text only but it’s really not, there will be images, there are layout tricks, these skilled designers know what they’re doing. Whether it’s images of yourself, your key spokespeople, your premises or your product, you need high resolution images available so the editors and designers have the right tools available to make you look good.

(Big secret: when I was at MicroScope and we were restricted to hard copy photos we’d sometimes deliberately phone someone for a quote just because we knew we had a decent photo of them and needed one for the page. The online world means it’s really easy to get a pic to someone in seconds, or to have a repository of images on your website for the press to access. No excuses!)

A strong idea and a good pitch are indispensable when it comes to seeking coverage in the press. This might mean a press release, it might mean a good relationship with a journalist, it might mean having a massive fan out there who will enthuse to the press on your behalf. The “how did this story get there” exercise can be a good one and working backwards towards how the PR person achieved their result is valuable; just make sure you have someone in the room who knows how it works rather than a batch of preconceptions.

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