It is far more important to come up with good ideas than to know how to pitch them says Alex Singleton

Author of the recently published book PR Masterclass, Alex Singleton, is a prominent PR trainer and consultant who works for FTSE100 companies and global brands – and has trained the staff of many of the largest public relations agencies. An impressive career for someone who, as he describes himself, was once a “slightly geeky teenager into computer magazines”.

It was this interest in magazines, and also politics, which helped Singleton land a press office job at the libertarian think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, after leaving school, where he was regularly dealing with nationals and the BBC. Although this was a useful apprenticeship, Singleton decided to try university, mainly because it seemed a good idea at the time: “I went to St Andrews to study beer mostly – and a bit of philosophy.” After university Singleton returned to the Adam Smith Institute where his work included expanding the Institute's internet output, for example by launching and editing one of the first think tank blogs, which rapidly established itself as the most popular in Europe.

Being a writer and a journalist has always been part of Singleton’s working life, so a move to a national newspaper was a natural one. He says: “I joined the Telegraph because I was at the party of a Telegraph correspondent when I realised how much the life of a journalist would suit me.”

While at the paper, Singleton had a “collection” of job titles which gave him a great insight into the newspaper: “I got to go to all sorts of editorial meetings, so I saw how different parts of the paper thought about things. I quickly discovered what makes a newspaper tick.” One key understanding that Singleton developed, having worked online and for the print edition, is that: “good writing is good writing, it doesn’t matter whether it is online or in print.”

Singleton’s next move was to become a consultant who trains people to get better results from their public relations and who audits PR campaigns. He says: “The most fun I have is taking an organisation that does something that, at first glance, sounds very boring and coming up with ideas that highlights how interesting it is. The PR industry puts out far too much PR that is full of jargon and pedestrian information.”

Singleton says that it is a waste of time following procedures and “ticking boxes” to get coverage, adding: “Propose a decent idea that will get coverage rather than spam journalists. Everyone gets hung up on the idea that pitching is what they do, but it is not the quality of the pitch, it is the quality of the idea that matters. You can take a really good idea and pitch it badly and it will still get coverage.”

The themes of quality rather than quantity are ones that Singleton comes back to, and he explains how they also apply to the online world: “Digital media is very exciting as it allows PR people to properly measure what they do. Where people go wrong is that they think in this digital age, the traditional skills of media relations no longer count, but successful blogs all follow the same principles of good storytelling – a key part of which is to have conflict.”

Now that everyone is talking about content marketing, Singleton explains how good journalistic skills are more important than ever: “I prefer to talk about ‘brand journalism’ rather than ‘content marketing‘. Sadly a lot of content marketing is farmed out to the cheapest possible source, but this is a mistake as content marketing should not be a cheap option. You need to invest money to do it well.”

The key to good content is to have good ideas, and Singleton devotes a chapter in his book on the subject of generating ideas that work. He gives the examples of using opinion polls and creating games: “For example the Royal Society of Chemistry came up with a competition that asked the public to solve the conundrum posed by the end of the film the Italian Job. It created a game that became very newsworthy.”

Asked for the most important piece of advice he can offer to PR professionals, Singleton keeps it simple: “If you can write well you will do well in PR. If you can’t write, you will be limited.”

Alex Singleton, PR consultant and trainer

Creative Moment Awards 2021