A simple strategy you're probably not using in your PR campaigns...go on, steal it!

What have you read, watched or listened to that’s caught your attention over the past few days?

Ok, I’ll go first…

Well I couldn’t resist this Daily Mail article about the woman who claims her husband has made her fat. I also enjoyed this Guardian Music blog about pop singers who can’t do jazz and - having just had a hectic week running a five-day training event, without the help of my events manager - this BBC Online piece about a new app that could tackle stress and anxiety also caught my eye.

So what do they all have common? Well aside from the three factors I believe are needed to something newsworthy (fear, curiosity and ‘what’s in it for me?’ - read more about it here), they also all have a villain. In the Daily Mail piece, it’s feeder husbands who make their wives fat, in the Guardian blog, the silly pop stars who try to do jazz but just ain’t got that swing. In the BBC piece it’s more of a metaphorical ‘villain’ - stress and anxiety.

So why are villains important?

If you think about what makes something newsworthy (and if you want a reminder on that, read my blog on the BBC Homepage test), it’s often about the unusual or unexpected. Stories that get press coverage - particularly  when it comes to the nationals - are generally counterintuitive, surprising or bring together opposing ideas - the beautiful actress who is almost unrecognisable after plastic surgery or the report that reveals women are still earning far less than men, for example.  This creates drama, tension and intrigue, which is what media audiences are generally after.

If I look back at the stories I’ve written for the Guardian over the last year or so, most have a ‘villain’ of some sort. In this one about a new BBC TV programme hosted by classical pianist James Rhodes, it’s the lack of funding for music in schools (read: ‘the government). This article looks at the problems families are having accessing mental health services for children and adolescents and the villain is, once again, the government. In this one, it’s colleges for training too many hairdressers.

The bottom line is, journalists and editors are only interested in running stories about issues that people care  about. And because villains usually represent injustice or unfairness of some sort, people generally give two hoots about stories that have them.

‘Hang on a minute…’

I know what you’re thinking: ‘My job is to get positive coverage for my client/organisation. I can’t pitch stories with villains because that’s negative.’

Not necessarily. Pointing out a flaw in government policy or a funding loophole isn’t a negative reflection on your organisation - in fact, it can show that your knowledge and expertise on an issue - particularly if you can also offer a solution. Remember that where there’s a villain, there’s usually a hero; the trick is positioning your story so your client/organisation becomes the hero.

Take this story about Sheffield University running a clearing campaign (a first for a top ranking UK university) in response to government changes to admission requirements (which had left them with empty places the previous year). Highlighting a problem - and showing how you're responding - isn’t a negative. In this case, it showed the university was ahead of the game.

Or this one about changes to funding rules for children with special needs; again this doesn’t reflect badly on the schools quoted - they come across as positive organisations where staff genuinely care about the families they work with.

‘That’s all very well, but not all villains are created equal...’

If you’ve read this far, you may be thinking that it’s all very well talking about heroes and villains...but what happens if you’re not in a position to criticise the ‘villains’ in your story (if you get funding from the government, for example). But there are plenty of other ‘villains’ you can highlight that doesn’t mean biting the hand that feeds you - like this story about student debt, this one about helping autistic students settle into university or this one about Richard Branson giving his staff unlimited holidays.

It’s a simple strategy: highlight a problem that will resonate with enough people (e.g. student debt, getting more autistic young people to go to university or staff taking too many sick days), show how you’re tackling it in an innovative way...and you’ve got yourself a story.

‘Ok I’m convinced...what do I do next?’

If you’re still reading, I hope I’ve convinced you of the need for villains in your PR campaigns. But before you draft that press release or email pitch….BEWARE!

How not to shoot yourself in the foot when pitching a ‘villain’ story...

Never lose sight of the fact that journalists and editors aren’t interested in your organisation - they’re interested in stories. So if you’re pitching a story like this, don’t make the mistake of saying ‘Would you be interested in a story on how brilliant we are ‘cos we’re solving this really terrible problem?’ Outline the problem and its potential impact, THEN show how you’re solving it. And be prepared to share column inches/airtime with others who are tackling the problem too (many journalists rarely write stories on one organisation) - or even suggest them yourself. Give journalists what they want and your pitches are far more likely to hit the spot.

p.s. Thanks to a very talented PR pro (she knows who she is!) for helping put a name to this strategy. I'm a big fan of being a copycat - find out why you should be too in why it's good to be a copycat (plus five ideas you can steal from me).