Handling the Media

by Jennifer Stenhouse

Press release

Larger companies will have PR staff, while others will hire a PR firm, but it’s handy to know the process of how to pitch. If your organisation is too small to hire a PR firm, here are some tips.

Selling stories

If your group or company wants to ‘sell’ a story to a news organisation, a press or news release can be an effective way of doing so and is the first means of contact for many campaigners and organisations. But every news editor receives dozens, perhaps hundreds, of press releases a day, so yours has to be as exciting and interesting as you can make it. And, because journalists are busy, your duty is to make it as easy for them to read as possible.

That means you should write it as the journalist would have written it, making sure that it represents YOUR point of view. The point of the story also has to be very clear.

You may never have done this before, but it is very simple. The major theme of your press release should always be an outcome or a conclusion – never a process. For example, the fact that you are releasing a report is not news. What the report says may be.

Press release pointers

Whether you’re approaching the press as part of a campaign to raise funds for your mother-and-toddler group or as a company announcing record profits, the format is the same.

  1. Lay your press release out clearly. Use an easy-to-read type, in one font, and in a size anyone can read without a microscope – 10 or 12 pt is fine.
  2. Make sure your organisation’s name is shown large at the top, so that no-one can miss it or mistake who it’s from.
  3. Give the text double spacing and wide margins. This helps the journalists. It gives them space to make notes or even edit the release for publication.
  4. Be concise – keep it to two pages in length or less. No-one has the time to read and take in more.
  5. Number the pages and put ‘more/’ or ‘cont/’ at the foot of all but the last page, where you may put ‘ends’. This lessens the likelihood that a journalist will lose a page and make the mistake of thinking that they have all the information you’ve provided.

Press release content

Every press release should contain the following, from the top down:

  • The date on which it is being sent out
  • Clear warning of an embargo – if it’s appropriate (see below)
  • A headline to give a clear snapshot of what the story is about – leave out the puns; let the headline tell the story straight
  • Diary information – if your press release is inviting journalists to an event, put the information about when and where it’s being held in a separate box
  • Contact name and numbers at the end of the release. Reporters will almost always want to speak to someone about the contents of the press release.

It is most important that you make sure the contact person is available as soon as the press release goes out, that they are well briefed on the story, the message and how to tackle any tricky questions.

Be precise about what can and can NOT be reported in any background briefing that goes with a press release.

Embargo or not?

Decide whether you want all the media you’re contacting to cover your story at the same time. An embargo is not binding but – depending on the good faith of the journalist – it can ensure that all media use the story at the same time.

Some journalists ignore embargoes as a matter of course. Learn who they are. An embargo does not make your story any more important than any other. A typical embargo might read: Embargoed until Thursday 14th January: 10.00 am.’

Keep the embargo period to a minimum consistent with its purpose and make sure it coincides with the event or suits the majority of the media.

Embargo don’ts

The following actions are guaranteed to irritate journalists and undermine your own relationship with the media:

  • Breaking the embargo to suit, or favour, the few
  • Leaking embargoed information through a third party
  • Giving advance reportable information relating to an embargoed story – unless that information is also embargoed.

Press release structure

You’re trying to communicate with journalists. The best way to do this is to emulate their style. This means structuring a press release to follow newspaper style, with the most important fact in the first paragraph. Each subsequent paragraph will contain facts and information in descending order of importance. Use simple, vigorous language.

As ever, avoid jargon and clichés. Use present tense and the active voice, rather than past tense and passive verbs. You need to give the impression that something dynamic is happening now, rather than point out that something has already happened. Nothing bores a hack more than what he or she perceives to be old news. Such press releases are carefully filed in the wastepaper bin.

Example

‘Amnesty International speaks out today about human rights abuse in Turkey.’

This will work better than...

‘Human rights abuse in Turkey has been highlighted in a report out today by Amnesty International.’

Who? What? Where? When? Why?

All news journalists are taught from a young age to use this formula when writing their stories. Ideally, the first paragraph answers three or four of these questions, usually the first four, leaving ‘why?’ for the second paragraph.

‘Why?’ should add to the information of the first paragraph, not bring in substantially new information.

The press release should contain a quote from you or someone in your organisation. The least important information should be at the end. A typical press release might begin as follows:

‘Rail workers (who) in the South East region (where) have voted to go on strike (what) next Monday, January 14, 2005 (when).

They’re taking action after talks over pay and conditions once again ended in stalemate last night (Monday, January 7)(why).’

Note the date in brackets in the second paragraph to add to clarity around when those talks took place. Follow this paragraph with a how and your quote.

As information is taken in through all five senses (hearing, sight, touch/feeling, smell and taste), the more you acknowledge those five senses, the better your message will be received.

Example

If you are sending a release from an environmental group, think about whether printing the release on environmentally-sound paper would give you more credibility.

Think again about what might enhance the message – pictures, video, audio and context. If you decide to send photographs with your release, make sure they illustrate your story and add to the information you’re giving.

Example

Barnardos, the UK’s biggest children’s charity, use videos to illustrate the points of their campaigns in dramatic form and to support their message.

Now take the finished article...

And send it to a named journalist, or to the appropriate specialist correspondent, either by post, fax or email – find out which they prefer. You should also send it to the news desk in case your named journalist is away at the time.

Press release and deadlines

Be aware of deadlines. For a daily paper, a press release should be sent about a week before the event. Put an embargo on it if you really do not want the story covered in advance. For a weekly journal, you will need to find out exactly when its various pages go to press. For many weeklies, the inside pages are finished five or six days before the paper comes out.

Radio has hourly bulletins and so its coverage is much more flexible, but a week’s notice or so enables news editors to plan their coverage. Television also has flexible deadlines, but due to the complex technology editors need to plan ahead. Ten days to two weeks is a good idea. Many TV stations hold a ‘look ahead’ meeting on a Thursday.

Other ways of pitching stories

Write a letter or send an email

This is worth trying if you have a well-thought-out proposal for a named journalist. Follow up with a phone call after a few days.

Make a phone call

Do this with a note in front of you containing the main points you want to get across. Try to sell ideas in 30 seconds max. Remember, journalists are busy. Check out the best times to phone.

Arrange a meeting

Arrange for a journalist, or small group, to come round the office, meet people and get to know your work. Have a story to give them at the same time. Or take a known journalist to lunch – part of building relationships.

Hold a press conference

Press conferences should be worth the journalists’ time and have been carefully planned, even when they’re held at short notice because of a breaking story. In the event of a running story, keep them to a fixed time every day.

Write an article

Why wait for a journalist to write an article for you? Offer your own – many newspapers are happy to run ‘think pieces’ by ‘experts’.

Write a letter to the editor

It’s one way of quickly setting the record straight, starting or entering into debate, or just getting the odd column inch!

Arrange a media tour

In the event of an ongoing story – one with legs, as they say – a media tour can be a good way of getting coverage across a region’s media, from local free-sheets, weeklies and dailies to regional TV and radio. Choose a good spokesperson and arrange well in advance.