Public Relations

by Debbie Leven

PR and journalists

Journalists get their news from a range of sources: from contacts, press releases, liaison with the emergency services and via news agencies. PR plays a significant role in what is reported. A PR professional will target key press and media when issuing information.

News agencies

Depending on the story, they may also issue their news release to news agencies. A news agency accepts news stories and summarises, and then circulates, those considered newsworthy to subscribers to its services (press and media outlets). The Press Association, Associated Press and Reuters are the more famous news agencies. There are also specialist news agencies, for example with a geographical focus or an interest area, such as sport.

News is something, someone, somewhere doesn’t want to see published – everything else is advertising.

William Randolph Hearst, US newspaper magnate

How do journalists know who to contact?

Any information issued by the PR department/press office will include either a generic telephone and email contact and/or those of specific individuals in the department. So as well as receiving unexpected calls, staff may receive contact on the back of news releases that have been issued. Many PR departments, depending on the nature of the business, also run an out of hours/on call service so journalists can contact them outside normal working hours. This is particularly useful for journalists on weekend newspapers and in the broadcast media (where news reporting is now around the clock).

Journalists will build up their own list of contacts (individuals and organisations) and refer to them in relation to stories. They will also contact PR professionals in relation to news issued (for example, as a result of a press release or a statement). In addition, there are a certain databases that journalists use to access specialists for interview and comment.

Achieving press and media coverage

The PR department or adviser will secure positive press and media coverage in a number of ways:

  • By issuing press releases announcing news
  • Providing comment on the back of news issued by other organisations (interview, quote, letters to editor)
  • Securing feature opportunities – to tie in with news issued
  • Securing special interest feature opportunities
  • Providing journalists with information, statistics, case studies and so on that are particularly relevant to their interest area and what they are working on (this may be proactive or reactive – keeping a journalist updated or responding to a request for information from the journalist).

Identifying or creating the angle that will interest the journalist is the first stage for a PR professional. Staff will then work to develop the materials to support the story. Staff in the PR department liaise with journalists regularly and get to know what topics and angles they are interested in. By providing journalists with what they want, when they want it, and understanding how they work, PR specialists build relationships with journalists. Once a story or angle has been identified, the PR department can use a number of different tools to target journalists.

Given that there are specific things a journalist looks for in a story, the job of the PR department or adviser is to provide the journalist with the information, in the correct format, and make the journalist’s job as easy as possible while managing to get key messages across as effectively as possible.

In essence, staff will focus on understanding what journalists want and ‘packaging’ ideas and news stories to suit. There are three key elements that a journalist looks for in a news story – people, conflict and scandal. There are also other ingredients that contribute to a news story and will be of interest to a journalist:

  • Numbers/money – to indicate impact, size, scale, savings, benefits and so on
  • Unusual – anything out of the ordinary is of interest
  • Research – a useful way to highlight trends or challenge thinking
  • New – a journalist will not be interested in something that happened last year unless it can be linked to recent events, or the news marks a significant anniversary
  • Bad – death and disaster will always make the news
  • Change – there are always winners and losers with change
  • Extremes – the first time someone does something, the smallest, largest, highest and so on
  • Drama – something dramatic that has happened or is happening
  • Well–sourced comment – stories are often created because comment has come from a credible source
  • Timeliness – this is important for a news story. For the most part, the fact that something has just happened will give timeliness to an announcement.

In addition to including key ingredients, the PR professional will also ensure any story meets other specified criteria i.e. there is a reason for the story, it is relevant to the audience and it is within the publication/programme’s catchment area.

Getting information to the different channels

You can never get all the facts from just one newspaper, and unless you have all the facts, you cannot make proper judgements about what is going on.

Harry S Truman

Any one story may appeal to different types of press and media. The job of the PR specialist is to ‘package’ the news so that they can provide journalists with what they want. Press releases are usually sent by email these days, but PR specialists may also seek to use film, where appropriate, to support the story – by offering footage or setting up filming opportunities. TV programmes often want their own footage for a story, but where this is not possible, realistic or appropriate, they may use generic film issued by an organisation and keep this in their film library.

Many organisations have sections on their websites dedicated to news. Some also have ‘virtual press rooms’ where journalists can access up-to-date information and download background briefing material.

Identifying which journalists to target

The PR department will look at the different press and media and identify key targets, with the aim of building relationships and securing positive coverage. The press and media databases used by PR specialists provide profile information for publications and programmes – this is a useful tool for assessing suitability regarding targeting. The importance of these respective channels will vary, depending on whom the organisation wants to communicate with and why.

There is a range of contacts for any programme or publication. Staff in the PR department will identify the most relevant contact for the specific PR activity – news desk, feature writer, specialist journalist (such as the technology correspondent), forward planning desk for broadcast media and so on.