Journalists often accuse the PR world of ‘navel-gazing’ when developing messages and trying to sell-in stories. While working in various BBC newsrooms I often took calls from people trying to sell me a story by saying “This is really interesting…” Unfortunately, most of the time it was interesting to them but of little relevance to a wider audience.
Well, this week the boot has been on the other foot. Journalists have found the silencing of Big Ben interesting but the rest of the country less so. The Big Ben story went on and on for nearly a week. But apart from those inside the Westminster bubble, does anyone really care?
Perhaps one reason it got so much coverage is because it’s the so-called ‘silly season’ when journalists sometimes struggle to fill newspapers and bulletins.
Here are some questions to ask when developing angles and messages to sell into journalists.
Developing messages: Ask is the story timely?
In other words is it about an issue of the moment, next week’s news rather than last week’s. Clearly, Big Ben passed this test. Most of the coverage happened before it fell silent not afterwards.
Developing messages: Is your story relevant to people’s lives?
Do your messages pass the ‘So What’ test? In the case of Big Ben, most people have heard of it, so the news it will be silent for most of the next four years might be of some interest. But many people I’ve spoken to outside London remarked that they didn’t really care and found a week of coverage over the top, because it was irrelevant to their daily lives.
When developing key messages and selling-in stories, look for ways to make the story relevant to multiple audiences.
One good example of how to take engineering out of the laboratory and make it relevant was the recent story about replacing concrete blocks in washing machines with water.
Roger Harrabin is a BBC environment analyst (we used to call them reporters). The first line of his washing machine story is a perfect illustration of the second element you need when selling-in a story to journalists: can you sum up why it matters in one sentence? He wrote:
“A simple device to cut the weight of washing machines could save fuel, cut carbon emissions and reduce back injuries, according to researchers”. Now that clearly passes the ‘So What’ test? Journalists will respond better if you think the way they do and ‘cut to the chase’.
Developing messages: Have you joined the dots?
We understand, this approach is often at odds with the way many people think. An engineer once said in a media training session “You have to understand that, as engineers, we are trained that the facts should speak for themselves”. This, unfortunately, demonstrates exactly why selling-in stories, developing key messages or answering questions in a media interview can go so badly wrong. When speaking to busy journalists don’t fall into the ‘too obvious to mention’ trap: you have to connect the dots and (concisely) spell out the point you want to make and why it matters.
Of course, once you have the journalist’s attention it then really helps if you can back it up with a story, metaphor, anecdotes or proof points to bring your point to life.
A final example of effective communication – making it real – comes from Lord Browne, formerly of BP, who said in a recent talk that “engineering is about creating solutions to humanities most pressing challenges – whether it’s building a bridge, finding new treatments for cancer or tackling climate change”.
You can’t argue with that!
If you want more on this subject Robert Matthews blogged last year about a scientific study that was adapted to fit the Ted Talk formula. The talk was called ‘Can you really tell if a kid is lying’. The blog is here and the Ted Talk is here.
Photo credit: Big Ben used under Creative Comms licence.
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