journalist

Seven fifteen-minutes-or-less PR training ideas that will boost your press coverage...

Keen to up-skill your team but short on time or budget? Try these quick and easy-to-implement training ideas - all of which can be completed in 15 minutes or less…

1. Objective: to improve your phone pitches

Activity: Newspaper review

Provide a selection of daily newspapers, Give participants 10 minutes to skim read them and pick out one or two stories (smaller, quirkier articles rather than headline news). Ask them to summarise in eight seconds or less (the average length of an 'intro' on TV/radio)….and time them doing it!

Examples:

Why using snail slime on your face can make you look younger

Dads injured up to 22 times a year when looking after their children 

Schools ditching nativity for more modern Christmas celebrations

Why it works:  

Busy journalists don't have time to listen to long, rambling phone pitches. Training your team to nail their top line - and get it in within the first few seconds of a pitch - will vastly boost their chances of success

Tip: Not everybody can crack this first time round, so you may need to repeat this exercise a few times - and revisit it every now and then as a refresher.

2. Objective: improve email pitches

Activity: Twitter Challenge

Ask colleagues to think about a story they are currently working on. Get them to summarise the story in 140 characters or less. Then get them to cut it to 120, then 100 (the optimum length of a tweet)

Why it works:  

Most journalists get hundreds of emails each week. Nailing your 'top line' in as few words as possible - and putting it in the first line of your pitch - will improve your chances of success.

Bonus: This exercise forces you to focus on what's important - and what's not. Knowing what to cut and what to keep is one of the fundamentals of good writing.

 3. Objective: improve the open rate of your email pitches

Activity: Subject Lines

Provide a screenshot of a busy inbox (for best results, persuade a friendly journalist to send you one - I'm always happy to oblige). Get colleagues to discuss which kind of words and phrases are the most compelling…and what's a complete turn off. Use this to create a good practice checklist for email subject headers for your department.

Why it works:

Most journalists get hundreds of email pitches each week - many of which go unopened. Create compelling email subject headers and they'll be far less likely to hit 'delete.'

4. Objective: write more compelling copy

Activity: Start With A Story

Ask colleagues to bring along a press release, email pitch, report  - or any other piece of copy they're currently working on. Get them to rewrite the opening paragraph, so it starts with a story.

Why it works:

Starting with a story (or what is sometimes known as a 'drop intro') can be an effective way to grab readers' attention.

Examples:

Children suffering as mental health services fail to cope 

The key to our successful marriage: separate houses 

Variations:

Get colleagues to start with a compelling quote, write in a particular tenses, in the first, second or third person…the possibilities are endless and all encourage writers adapt their writing to create particular effects.

Read more about how to write exciting copy about boring things. 

 5. Objective: generate story ideas

 Activity: Stalk and Steal

Pick a rival organisation that regularly gets more press coverage than yours. Analyse their press coverage over the last three months (or whatever time period you like) to see where their stories are coming from. Are they generating research? Are they launching campaigns? Are they getting their top people to say interesting things. Find out what's working for them and see what you can steal and adapt for your own organisation.

Why it works:

Why reinvent the wheel? If it's working for other organisations, there's a good chance it will work for yours too. And looking at what others are doing can often spark ideas for how you might do things differently.

Inspiration: Read more about being a copycat and how to boost your press coverage when you don't have any news. 

 6. Objective: generate new opportunities for press coverage

Activity: Deep Reading

Pick a publication you haven't had coverage in before (or have tried without success) and get colleagues to analyse the content of every page. Then write a list of the titles of sections you're looking to target.

Why it works:

Flicking through a publication to see if it covers a particular topic can only tell you so much. It's only by analysing a publication (or programme), and taking it apart - section by section - that you can really understand its content and audience. This will make all the difference to your pitching success.

 7. Objective: improve your pitching success

Activity: Creating An Audience Avatar

Pick a publication you haven't had coverage in before (or have tried without success) and write an ideal reader (or listener/viewer) avatar. Include: their job, hobbies, ideal holiday destination, car, shopping habits…anything you can think of that will help you understand their needs, desires and priorities.

Why it works:

It's easy to make assumptions about the audience of a particular publication/programme. Looking closely at the content and analysing what that tells us about an audience gives a much more accurate impression.

Tip: Don't guess - use the content  to guide you. Also…ask for a copy of their media pack. This often contains quite detailed information about readers (or viewers/listeners)...

General training tips

Focus on 'doing': most people learn best when they are engaged in practical activities.

Encourage discovery: help people to acquire knowledge (instead of telling  them what they need to know) and they're far more likely to retain what they've learned.

Use a range of techniques and technologies: many people have preferred learning style(s) - although this can vary depending on the context - so keep things varied. While the activities described above are perfect for a short training session, if you're planning anything longer, it's a good idea to mix things up a bit with audio, video (and other visual materials) alongside verbal input and practical activities. And do bear in mind that in a world where many of us are glued to mobile phones, tablets and other devices for hours on end, concentration is not what it used to be.

 

 

Five things you should do if you're serious about improving your pitching skills...

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1. Learn how to write killer one-liners

Journalists think in headlines. So if you want to get their attention, you must too.

If you’re pitching a story, you should be able to summarise your idea in 6-10 words (the optimum length for an email subject header). It’s worth putting in the time to get this right, as not only can you can use this as an email subject header - you can also use it as the first line of your pitch (both for phone and email).

So how do you craft the perfect one-liner? Imagine you’re telling a friend or relative - one who knows absolutely nothing  about your industry - about your story. Or - better still - imagine your story is being featured on a local radio/TV programme. How would the presenter summarise it 5-10 words? (I call it the eight second rule)

‘And coming up next…(FILL IN THE BLANKS)’

Doing this forces you drop the jargon and explain it in the simplest terms - which is exactly what you need to do to engage a busy journalist.

Read more about the perfect length for an email subject header + the secrets of clickable content

2. State the blinkin’ obvious

Labelling up pitches with ‘story idea’ or ‘feature’ in the email subject header, boosts your chances of getting an open.

If you’re geeky about this sort of thing (like me!), here’s more about getting people to open your emails.

3. Practise ‘deep’ reading

Many journalists complain that PRs don’t read their publication (or watch their programme) before pitching. I disagree. Most PRs I deal with DO read publications before they pitch...they just don’t always do it in the right way.

Reading a publication is one thing; reading a publication you’re going to pitch to is something different entirely. It’s not about flicking through a magazine or newspaper to see if it covers a particular topic (which is what many PRs I deal with seem to do). It’s about taking apart a publication, and analysing its structure, content and audience in quite a lot of detail (hence the phrase ‘deep’ reading).

It may sound daunting, but like everything else in life, practice makes perfect. And if you’re organised in your approach, you can use ‘deep reading’ to get to grips with a new publication (or programme) in a matter of minutes.

Here’s more on how to read  + understand any new publication/programme in minutes

Do this regularly and I guarantee you’ll save time and improve your pitching success rate.

4. Make a few phone calls every day

When I’m working as a commissioning editor, I see dozens of great ideas that don’t get coverage - every day. This is rarely down to a shortage of space (there’s always a ‘home’ for great ideas). Often it’s because the person pitching the story hasn’t taken the time to make a few crucial phone calls. Here are the three most common reasons great stories don’t get coverage:

  1. There isn’t enough time to turn the story around
  2. It’s been pitched to the wrong journalist/editor
  3. It’s got potential as a feature/comment article but has been pitched to a news desk

...all of which could easily be avoided by making a few phone calls. Yes, you might get passed around, fobbed off or come across the odd grouchy sounding journalist, but there’s definitely more to gain than lose. And the information you collect will be far more reliable and up-to-date than any paid-for journalist directory or database.

If you don’t like making these kind of phone calls, here’s a tip I picked up from one of my favourite books on productivity (it’s far more positive than it sounds - I promise!) Why People fail (The 16 Obstacles to Success And How You Can Overcome Them): make a commitment to do this for just ten minutes a day. Once you’ve got started, and had a bit of success, you’ll probably find you can keep going for longer. But even if you don’t, at least you’ve made some progress. Anyone can do anything for ten minutes...honest!

5. Stalk journalists on Twitter

While I’d love to say journalists are completely objective in the stories they choose to cover, that’s obviously not true. We all have different interests, preferences and experiences that mean certain stories will grab us more than others.

Where other journalists might be drawn to stories about legislation or financial mismanagement, I’m generally attracted to issue-based stories like this one on the detention of children in immigration detention centres or this one child and adolescent mental health. That doesn’t mean I won’t cover other kinds of stories (often I don’t have a choice) but I know there’s certain stories I’ll fight harder to get past my editors. And I know I’m not alone in this.

That’s why it’s worth investing time in ‘getting to know’ your target journalists on social media networking sites like Twitter. Making  a Twitter list of key journalists in your ‘patch’ can be an effective way to get a feel for what kind of topics they’re keen to cover (and what they’re not). And the best thing is they need never know you’re stalking them; you can glean an awful lot from what they post about and the articles/blog posts they share.

Find out more about how to build relationships with journalists on social media.

And if you missed these:

Would you story idea pass the BBC Homepage Test?

Eight Pitching Mistakes You Might Have Made This Week (hint: #6 might hurt a bit)

Five, ‘5 minute or less’ pitching tips that will get you results (I’m using #4 in this title)

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23 questions you should ask yourself before you pitch a story idea to a journalist...

Most journalists receive hundreds of pitches and press releases each week - of which just a tiny percentage get coverage.

how can you make your stories stand out?

Here's 23 questions you should ask yourself before you pitch a story idea to a journalist:

Subject header

1. Is my email subject header short and to the point? (the ideal length is 28-39 characters)

2. Does my subject header evoke curiosity? (an element of surprise can be compelling e.g. What happens when teenage goths grow up?)

3. Is my subject header obscure? (Surprise is good, obscure e.g. 'Gothic Slide' isn’t)

4. Am I appealing to the emotions? (If you can invoke a common desire/experience within your headline, it will appeal to more people e.g. Why drying your laundry indoors could be bad for your health)

5. Is my intention clear? (Put ‘story idea’ at the beginning of your email subject header and journalists are far more likely to open it.)

To find out more, read: Headlines that make you go 'YES!' (and other secrets of clickable content) 

Opening paragraph

6. Have I started with pleasantries? (Unless you happen to know the journalist ‘hope you had a great weekend’ or ‘hope you’re enjoying the weather’ can sound insincere).

7. Am I gushing? (While showing you’ve read their work can be a smart move i.e. ‘I’ve just read your piece on x,’ resist the temptation to gush i.e. ‘I’m an avid follower of your marvellous work...' - it just sounds false).

8. Does my email get straight to the point? (i.e. ‘Would you be interest in a story on x?’ or ‘I’ve got a story idea that might work for you.’ If not, it should do).

9. Have I summarised the story in a single phrase or sentence? (If not, you should have).

Main body

10. Am I trying to act smart? (If so, don’t. This post on why using big words can make you look stupid  explains why).

11. Are my paragraphs fewer than five lines long? (Your paragraphs should never be more than 5 or 6 lines. Anything longer will make your content seem overwhelming to read.)

12. Does my story idea have a hook? (i.e. a reason why the editor should run this story now/next week/next month)

13. Why would this particular journalist want to run this particular story in this particular publication/programme at this particular time? (If you can’t answer this, you may need to go back to the drawing board)

For more on PR writing, read 49 words you should avoid in your press releases. 

Your overall pitch

14. Am I pitching to the right person? (Things change fast in the media, so it’s always worth a phone call to clarify. And beware of relying solely on journalist databases - they can be out of date).

15. Is my pitch longer than three or four paragraphs? (If so, cut it down. Busy journalists don’t have time to read 1000 word pitches).

16. Am I offering an exclusive? If so, have I said so?

17. Is it actually a story? (Would anyone actually care about your story? Would they want to tell their friends about it? If not, you may need to go back to the drawing board)

18. Would my story pass the BBC Homepage test? (more about this here)

19. Does my story have a villain? (If not, you might want to create one. More about this here)

20. Have I mentioned photography? (If you have photos or access to people who are willing to be photographed, journalists are far more likely to go for your story).

21. Have I offered relevant experts and case studies? (No need to describe them - unless they’re integral to the story - but knowing they are available will be attractive to journalists).

Your final paragraph

22. Have I given them a deadline for getting back to me? (This gives you a ‘let out’ if they don’t reply and you end up placing the story elsewhere).

23. Have I included all my contact details? (It’s amazing how many people leave them out).

 

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).