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The challenges of today’s news environment

Do you remember those happy times when getting into the news seemed easy? Sarah Taylor, account manager at PR agency Berkeley, does: “Years ago it was as simple – or so it seemed – as writing a press release and hoping that after a phone call to the journalist, they’d say yes and your client’s name would be in print. Then you could use your ruler to measure the column inches and report back to a very happy client. But those were the old days.” However, Taylor says the old days are not necessarily ‘the good old days’, as although it may seem harder securing coverage in an increasingly competitive editorial space, there are more tools that make it easier.

Brain power
One tool you can use is your ingenuity. Julia Ruane, head of PR and content at social media risk experts Crisp Thinking, says: “The main difference I’ve noticed in placing stories in the media is that I now use email and Twitter as my main comms approaches rather than picking up the phone (which I miss). But it does mean you have to rely on having a super interesting, well-targeted pitch – rather than relying on relationships alone – to get cut through. The upside of this is that you have to up your game and so when you get a result it definitely gives you more satisfaction. The downside is that getting that relationship started is harder as you’re part of a wider social ’noise’.”

Too much bad news
One problem that makes it harder to get noticed is the sheer amount of bad news that floods broadcasts these days. But Ruane says not all news is bad news if you switch to the BBC: “As more people turn to social media for their news fix, the BBC is focusing more on long-form content. The Today programme is even starting to run more features on fashion and lifestyle, moving it away from a pure ‘bad news/hard news’ agenda. The more established titles are looking to combat fake news with considered opinion and in-depth comment (the BBC ‘Reality Check’ sub brand has come about as a result of that). That approach represents many more opportunity for PROs to place stories.”

Too many outlets
Another challenge, as pointed out by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, managing director of agency Clearly PR, is the number of outlets these days: “In the past, there were fewer public relations specialists working in the industry, and a substantially larger number of journalists. These ratios have shifted. In the same breath, we also see a greater number of media titles – just with fewer journalists attached to them. This means there are far more outlets to be targeted, and far fewer contacts to speak with.”

News is changing
Gavin Loader, managing director of communications company Mantis, has crunched some numbers to work out exactly how coverage is changing: “The volume of press coverage that we're generating seems largely the same – 594 press articles across all clients in 2015, 513 in 2016 and I'm expecting 550 this year. It’s not so wildly different. But, how we’re generating that press coverage for clients is changing. 

“In 2015, we secured 98 press interviews for all clients, in 2016 it dropped significantly to 62. This year, I think 50 is going to be the total. We’re seeing a clear trend away from interviews, phone and face-to-face interaction. I think that’s a big shame.”  

Too much fake news
Last, but by no means least, there is the problem of fake news. MacKenzie-Cummins says: “Fake news is having an impact – the trust factor among the general public, of what they see, hear and read in the media, is not what it once was. Editors and journalists are increasingly demanding cold, hard facts to support every form of opinion that is issued. It’s their reputation as much as our own client’s reputation that is under scrutiny at all times. Fake news has made the job harder.”

There may be more obstacles to be overcome to get into the news, but more problems mean more solutions. Below, experts give their top tips for making headlines.

How to get into the news

  1. Tailor your message says Berkeley’s Taylor: “As there are so many platforms that you can utilise, it’s important to use the right approach depending on what your client wants to achieve. It’s no longer all about column inches. Does your client want to increase social media followers, drive traffic to its website, or sell more products? Depending on what the ultimate goal is, you need to choose your weapon of choice – whether it’s a briefing call, an infographic or a piece of research that will gain the journalist’s attention. Whatever method you choose, it has to have a story. Using business storytelling makes securing coverage a whole lot easier.”
  2. Be more creative says Clearly’s MacKenzie-Cummins: “The essence of PR hasn’t changed at all – just the strategies needed. Standard news announcements just won’t cut it – we’re having to be more creative in the hooks that we use to grab the interest of journalists. It is more difficult; 10 years ago, the press releases that we did could be all-encompassing. Today, we need to produce multiple versions… one which is online friendly, another aimed at the offline versions. Once size no longer fits all.”
  3. Use powerful imagery and sound for broadcast says Michael Gonzalez, head of influencer relations at communications firm Bite: “TV is about understanding the impact of the visual. Radio is about the power of voice. If you don't have a pitch that will be bring the story to life through imagery and emotion you will have a hard time getting the attention from broadcasters.”
  4. Mind your language for print says James Taylor, managing director of agency Roaring Mouse PR: “Journalists are deluged with information online and receive hundreds of emails every day, so the basics of presenting potential news to them have become more important than ever. Press releases must be written in plain English and have short, snappy headlines. You must be able to summarise the story in the space it takes to fill a tweet or an email preview screen. Good pictures help, particularly when working with trade and online media.”
  5. And time it right!: “Timing can be crucial. It is more difficult for small and medium sized businesses to attract the attention of major news outlets, so have conversations about potential exclusives early. It can also be worth holding a story until there is an opportunity to piggyback on a bigger, related news item.”
  6. Don’t be too slick on social says Sophie Harris, communications executive at digital agency e3: “With the rise of social media, people respond much more positively to brief tweets that look as though they’re written by your average Joe than a piece of content that has had around 10 proofreads and has so many tracked changes that it barely says anything at all. Naturally, with this, traditional media outlets have changed the way they accept and promote news too, it would be naïve of them to continue to endorse the ghosts of PR past.”
  7. Don’t overthink it says Andy Barr, head of PR agency 10 Yetis: “The media still works the same, if your client is interesting, says interesting things and is quick to respond to what the media wants, then you are going to get coverage. The clients that get the best exposure, in my mind at least, are those who don’t overthink every opportunity and are savvy to the importance of making themselves stand out.”
  8. Create your own original content says Mantis’s Loader: “We are now creating more content ourselves – mostly thought-leadership opinion articles. Placement of that type of content this year has delivered 89 press articles already. I think we could top 100 by year-end. In 2015 and 2016, it was 51 and 69 respectively. It’s also proving harder and harder to place the same content more than once – exclusivity is the name of the game as we move forward.”
  9. Be interesting says Keith Gladdis, director at communications agency MHP and former news editor at the Daily Mail: “The secret to getting good news coverage for a client is the same today as it has always been, you’ve got to provide great content. If you’ve got something interesting to say, a campaign that resonates with the reader or a brilliant photograph then people are bound to take notice.”
  10. Use the right voice: “It is a mistake to think the likes of Mail Online, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post will publish anything to fill their infinite pages with stories.These platforms have their own voice, style and editorial mix. The skill of the PRO is to understand what these titles want, and when, and to change our tactics accordingly.”
  11. Make people smile concludes Gladdis: “If you want to avoid bad news, the best way of doing that is by having something positive or fun to say. Despite what people might tell you, a good news editor wants to make their readers – and their editor – smile.”

 It is nice to end on a happy note, You might not always be smiling as you tackle the problem of tailoring all your news to stand out in so many different outlets – but look on the bright side – at least you can take a break and watch a cute kitten on YouTube when you need to! Or even watch a video of one of PRmoment’s pets in PR…

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