Press your case but without losing the journalist

Learning to properly engage with journalists can mean the difference between getting good PR for your franchise and being permanently banished to reporters' spam folder

Press your case but without losing the journalist

Franchisors and their teams know more than most about building strong professional relationships and differentiating themselves from the crowd, operating in the competitive sector they do. But not enough of them realise those same skills are at the heart of great PR. I’ve been lucky enough to work on both the publishing and PR sides of the fence, seeing just how fast-paced and high-pressured the media world can be. If you’re looking for media coverage, then you need to begin with understanding what journalists want and need from you.

Know your audience

Journalists are busy. Very busy. In today’s 24/7 globally-connected world, media professionals have more to do than ever to cope with the demand for new content throughout the day and night. That means great opportunities for people who can consistently supply accurate, timely and engaging content. Like it or not, more and more of what we read, see and hear in the news has been provided through a press release.

So what do journalists want from you? Three things in general: strong stories, accurate and impartial information and to be able to get everything they need within a tight deadline. If you can meet these simple criteria, you’ll build a strong and mutually beneficial relationship – numerous surveys of journalists have said that most PRs fail on one or more of these principles. If you’re available and responsive when a request for a quote or image comes through, you’re already ahead of the overwhelming majority of people also clamouring for their attention. You might not like having to prioritise them but if you’re not then there are plenty of others that will. If you think of it as ‘How can I help them do their job more effectively?’ rather than ‘How can they help me get coverage?’, you’ll be ahead of the curve.

Although approaching the media, especially the major players, can seem daunting, never forget that it’s a person at the end of your message. The way to lose their interest within seconds is to send out a mass generic email that starts with ‘Hi, hope you’re well?’ If you’ve taken hours to craft the right story, the least you can do is take a few minutes to find the name of the person you’re sending it to and personalise your message. This is where your relationship starts, so show them that they’re not just another address on a BCC list of dozens. Journalists receive literally hundreds of emails every day, so you need to stand out as they’re scrolling through a never-ending inbox – for the right reasons.

Assess your story

The ability to determine what’s newsworthy and what isn’t is one of the core skills of successful PR. There are two ways to hone this ability. One is to have experience of working in PR or the media, which is fine if you have a team or an agency but unlikely if you’re doing things yourself; the other is to properly understand the outlet you’re targeting and the content they publish and that’s something anybody can do.

If you’re trying to engage with a journalist for the first time, start by reading their content. Don’t just skim a few headlines, take the time to find out what sort of things are important and how they write about them. Consider the national newspapers for example: if you’ve got a community-focused story about helping people then the Guardian is probably your best bet because your news resonates with its liberal-leaning coverage. If instead you have a more commercially-oriented success story, The Times or Mail are more likely to give you column inches because that suits their editorial slant.

Those are generalisations of course, but every outlet has its own focuses, readership and agendas and a huge part of good PR is knowing what they are. Look at your article objectively, can you see it on the pages or website of the places you’re sending it to? Sending a weak or inappropriate story to any journalist will harm your long-term coverage prospects by lowering their belief that you have something worth shouting about when your name pops up in their heaving inbox. Your aim is to become a trusted source of information, not an irritation.

When it comes to the writing or design of your content, there are a few golden rules to remember. Be precise and be concise. Use clear language. Put your gold in the first paragraph and the headline, not lower down in a paragraph which the journalist may never get to. Be accurate with any figures and stick to the facts – PR is not about selling your services or your franchise, that’s called marketing. Avoid hyperbole such as calling yourself ‘the UK’s leading whatever’ because it begs the question ‘according to whom?’ And remember that your email will initially be filtered out of hundreds simply by its subject line, so make sure it draws attention.

Image problem

It might seem strange to include pictures in a discussion broadly about the written word but that should highlight how important your visuals are when you’re looking for coverage. The right picture can see a story published that wouldn’t otherwise have made the cut and the wrong one can have an equally negative effect on good copy. Yet so many people still make the pictures an afterthought. Especially for print but even for digital media too, ensure you’ve got high-quality images that show off your story. The worst thing you can do is respond to a request for a picture with a blurry 50kb thumbnail. High-res photography or design is of course a prerequisite for print but quality images are just as important for digital.

Understand you’re not in control – they are

Everyone needs original content to improve their Google rankings and media sites are no exception. If you’re sending a news piece to a franchise directory you advertise on, they’ll usually post it word for word; that’s a privilege you’re paying for. But if you’re sending something out to larger regional, trade or national outlets, then don’t be surprised if your carefully crafted and approved wording is rewritten before publication. Every outlet has its own tone of voice and their content will reflect that, so anticipate that everything except your quotes could be worded in a different way. This is perhaps most important to remember if you’re ever invited to appear on pre-recorded television – it’s all in the editing and that’s usually out of your hands.

In the social world in which we live, it’s never been easier to contact a journalist than it is today. If you’re serious about engaging with them and building a relationship, then take some time to find out who you’re approaching and what’s important to them. You wouldn’t believe how much they’ll appreciate it.

Paul Stafford
Paul Stafford