WHAT MAKES NEWS?

A well written news release can persuade the media to act as your de facto advertising agency and help you “sell” your “product.” The product can be something tangible that you want to market for strictly commercial reasons. Or it can be an intangible idea being marketed for social reasons. Trouble is, in both cases, most news release fail to get published or broadcast. And that means that an awful lot of creative juice is being spilled for nothing. So why do the majority fail? Most don’t work because they never quite overcome what I call the so what factor – that is they are of little or no interest to the newspaper-reading, radio-listening, television-viewing public or, in the case of specialist publications, of limited value to even the readers of the trade press. Some stumble because they are poorly written. Others trip up for seemingly arbitrary or trivial reasons like they were sent to the wrong person or on the wrong day.

This article was written as part of the course material for ACM Training’s writing press releases workshop. If you’d like to find out more about this workshop or the many others we offer in the fields of media, communication and organisational development then please click here.

To make sure that your news releases don’t fall at the first of these hurdles it’s worth exploring what makes news. And that means doing an almost forensic dissection of your target media – the media outlets you’re aiming to get your release into or on because that’s where your target audience are. Doesn’t matter if you’re pitching at mass circulation daily papers or magazines, your local papers or specialist trade publications. Read them from cover to cover. Get to know them inside outside out. The same applies if you’re targeting television or radio programmes except, of course, you’ll be watching or listening instead of reading. What sorts of stories do they cover? Draw up a list. It’s likely to be a fairly long one but I bet you people will be at the heart of most, if not all. That’s what we’re after – human interest stories (even if they’re about animals). 

Dog bites man, as the old saying goes, is not news. Happens all the time. Just ask your local postie. But man bites dog is news because it bucks the usual trend. So trend bucking is one news category. What are the others? Well, on the subject of trends you could add stories that conform to trends – those that serve to reinforce our world view. For example, most stories about global climate change fall into this category. I say most because those dissenting voices who say that climate change is natural rather than man made fall into the previous category. And before we leave trends behind there’s a news category dedicated to trend creation the most annoying of which are the stories in the style pages of Sunday supplements and glossy magazines which tell us gushingly that brown is the new black, or that the Boysenberry is going to the next must-have electronic gidget (that’s a cross between a gadget and a widget by the way and not a typo). Private Eye has a satirical column dedicated to these stories. It’s called the Neophiles. Despite this, it’s a rich vein worth tapping into if you possibly can and, who knows, you may get some additional, free publicity courtesy of the Eye if you pull it off.

Another vein you might exploit is nostalgia. Not news, of course, in the traditional sense because it’s the exact opposite – history. But local papers, especially, love stories about the way we were and publish old black and white photos by the column mile. If, for example, you’re a business trying to promote the opening of a new building, your local newspaper may ignore your news release because it’s deemed too commercial. But if you can find some old photographs of what was there before and engage a friendly local historian to say a few warm words then it may get picked up, even if only as a kind of before and after photo story. Better than nothing.

The Oxford Times recently carried a full page feature about a local company developing a jet engine which could cut the flight time from Britain to Australia to just a few hours. This is a classic example of the cutting edge category. It doesn’t have to be high tech engineering as in this case. It can be in medicine, construction, commerce…pretty much any field, including a grass one if it’s an agricultural story. 

The tabloids, in particular, are obsessed with the rich and (in)famous. So your news release might be able latch on to this. Charities especially, realise the importance of celebrity endorsement. They understand that if you keep the message the same but change the messenger it can make the difference between being ignored and being talked about. You don’t even need the celebrity’s permission to invoke their good name. For example, if you are trying to promote healthy packed lunches for school children and would like, but can’t afford, Jamie Oliver to launch your campaign, then I see nothing wrong with saying in the top line of your release: packed lunches in Anytown are getting a Jamie Oliver-style makeover. The celebrity doesn’t need to be a household name. If you can’t get anybody on the A-list don’t worry, there are another 25 letters in the alphabet. Okay, so Z-list celebs may not have universal appeal but even the Mayor or Mayoress of the smallest place ranks as something of a celeb in their local media. As a fellow Z -lister I know, having opened more than my fair share of summer fetes when I read the television news from Pebble Mill in the BBC’s Midlands region. The organisers of those events misguidedly assumed my mere presence would boost takings a thousand fold. It didn’t but what it did do was almost guarantee a pre-event announcement and/or a post-event snap in the local paper and, frequently, a mention on local radio too. Years later the transient nature of (very minor) celebrity was brought home to me in my local town, Ludlow. One of the area’s best loved but slightly eccentric characters came up to me in the street and said without a hint of irony: “You used to be that Richard Uridge on the telly didn’t you.”

The old saying there’s nothing new under the sun could be re-worked along the lines of there’s nothing new in the Sun. There’s very little genuine news around – that is, literally, something new or novel. So instead hundreds of acres of newsprint and thousands of hours of airtime are dedicated to stories that add to the debate on topical events or include expert opinion or speculation. The rolling news channels such as BBC News 24 and Sky News and stations like BBC Radio Five Live couldn’t function without these time-filling categories. They have an almost insatiable appetite for information to the extent that one of these days a broken toenail is going to get the breaking news treatment. Well maybe not quite, but if you’ve got an expert in your midst why not suggest them as a guest? Universities do. However, they and other organisations could do much more to help meet the demand.

You can even search religious texts like the Bible for clues as to what makes news. Papers are full of parables such as David and Goliath and the Good Samaritan. Here are some examples. Plucky pensioner (David) refuses to pay council tax to local authority (Goliath). “Metric martyr” grocer (David) takes on the crazy Brussels bureaucrats (Goliath) by refusing to sell his produce by kilogrammes. Defiant granny (Davina) bashes yob (Goliath) with handbag. Have-a-go hero (Good Samaritan) rescues kids from blazing house. Disgraced MP in expenses wrangle gets job as swineherd. Okay, I admit, I made up the last headline. Casting my mind back to Sunday School it’s the first part of the story of the Prodigal Son. That or wishful thinking. But you get my point. Can you reframe your story to give it a familiar feel?

Perhaps the single definition that underpins all of the others is impact on other people. Does your story impact on other people in any way? The bigger the impact and the greater the number of people affected the better. Step back from your story and try to look at it with objective eyes. Of course you are interested in it. But will enough other people feel the same way? The whole purpose of working out what makes news is that your news release must be newsworthy in someway. As we’ve seen, it’s a pretty broad definition that doesn’t have very much to do with news at all in many cases so there’s plenty of scope. But if you can’t picture your proposed story sitting comfortably within whatever programme or publication you are pitching it at, then you’ll probably be wasting your time writing it up. Save yourself the trouble. Concentrate on those news releases you feel have a better chance. Look at it this way – if your news release doesn’t tick at least one of the definition boxes then it may not work. Journalists are unlikely to risk breaking a tried and tested formula. We think we know what our audiences want and, rightly or wrongly, feed them this staple diet week in week out. To continue with the foodie metaphor for a moment, if you want us to change the menu then what you’re offering better be appetising because we don’t want our readers turning up their noses and going to another restaurant!

Got a category to suggest? Something that’s paid off for you and you’d like to share? Click here to email me and I’ll add it to the list.

Next time…structure and how the Pyramids of Egypt can help you write a successful news release.

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Rich

Rich

Helping you communicate with the written word, the spoken word and body language.