Getting your story onto TV and radio is a notoriously tough part of any communications manager’s job. Sometimes it can seem almost impossible, especially for smaller think tanks and policy organisations, to catch the attention of broadcasters. So how can you maximise the chances of your press release standing out from the crowd and dodging the spike?
At the fifth WonkComms Breakfast Club, we drew on the knowledge of communications professionals including Katherine Jarman, Media and Communications Manager at Nuffield Trust and former health producer at the BBC, and Kieren Walters, Head of News at IPPR, and arrived at some practical advice to help you secure broadcast media coverage.
As always, our Breakfast Clubs are held under the Chatham House rule, so we can’t say who said it, but here is a summary of the things we learned.
1. Timing is everything
Is your story timely? Is your news actually new? Great press officers and comms people strive to get their story to the right person, in the right place, at the right time. If your story doesn’t have an obvious news hook, scour all diaries for potential pegs. It’s worth working this out in advance, then waiting patiently for the right moment. And make sure you give adequate advance notice to the news desk (2-3 days is preferable, and you should give at least 24 hours notice as an absolute minimum).
2. Think in pictures
If you’re pitching for TV broadcast coverage as opposed to newspaper and radio coverage, you need to think visually. Consider the places and real-life situations where your policy idea or research will have most impact (clue: filming outside the Houses of Parliament probably won’t cut it). Can you get back in touch with that homeless shelter that was used as one of your report’s case studies? Are some service users in your contacts willing to talk to the camera? If you can line up interesting locations and people to film in advance, you’ll be helping out an overloaded producer a great deal while proving that your story can translate well onscreen.
3. Engage your target
Broadcast journalists are fully focused on their audiences. They know their likes and dislikes intimately. So don’t send them something that is too boring or technical which their audiences won’t understand or care much about. Make sure you watch all relevant shows religiously so that you know the subtle difference between the programmes, and the audiences they’re likely trying to target. It’s not all about the Today programme and the One O’Clock News. Branch out a little. Consider tailoring your material so that it could work on You and Yours, the BBC News Channel, The Report, or Victoria Derbyshire.
Once you know who you’re addressing, shut out the experts and carry out a jargon-busting exercise. 47 per cent of people in focus groups had no idea what ‘a backbencher’ was. So visualise talking to a real person (not one of your colleagues!) to test out all your phrases in your press release or other materials. Would your Uncle David know what you were talking about when you say “social care” or “mixed tenure”?
4. Play nice
Competition between different shows – even within the same channel – can be tough. A top reason why a story doesn’t make it is because it was given to a newspaper or rival broadcaster the day before. Do this and you risk someone turning their nose up at your piece when it hits their desk.
Be even handed with your offers of exclusives and spread them out amongst different contacts. It’s best not to overuse this trick, in any case, and be very upfront about it to others when you have agreed to run something as an exclusive with another show. Don’t send your press release to too many programmes within one organisation such as the BBC. It’s better to ask who would be the most relevant than to send something en masse.
It is worth building relationships with the gatekeepers of TV and radio such as the producers and assistant producers, who may be more receptive to invitations to have a coffee.
Yep, nice is the word. Even when your TV exclusive has just been spiked with a split second’s notice after months of hard work (it can happen, unfortunately). So resist the temptation to give the producer hell for leather. There was probably a good reason for it, after all – and alienating a useful contact at your Director’s behest isn’t going to do anyone any favours in the long run.
5. Become a commentator
Commentators who are regularly asked to respond to news stories will raise the profile of your organisation and your arguments in a less resource-heavy way. We’re not suggesting you aspire to become a rent-a-quote, but it feels good to be asked, doesn’t it? Build up the media profile of key people in your organisation over time so that they become a recognisable name. For this, you might have to show willingness to speak at less popular opportunities, such as LBC in the later evening, or the ‘06.50’ slot first thing in the morning on the Today Programme. Or you might try Daily Politics or BBC’s General News Service, which will put you on 10-15 regional stations for the price of one.
Your spokesperson might feel under confident at first, so make sure you give them enough practice. Having the facts at their fingertips is important if they’re put on the spot, but so too is a having a firm grasp of the argument your organisation is trying to make. Wonky types often err on the side of neutrality when broadcasting, but it’s important to express a clear view, express it concisely, then back it up with facts. That’s why you’ve been invited on the show, after all.