On 22nd March, I attended the Best practices in Science Communication event held by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations at their head office on Russell Square. Among the speakers was Tom Whipple, Science Editor at The Times.
Science communication is a particular interest of mine, having previously worked with such clients as the Society for Endocrinology and the British Fertility Society. I had recently met with an editor of one of the UK’s biggest regional newspapers but I was keen to speak with an editor of one of the national qualities to ask one question in particular: What do you really want from PR people like us?
Communicate in the right way
Speak to the majority of PR people about the relationship they have with journalists and they will invariably respond by saying that they call them up and ‘sell’ their clients’ stories to them over the phone. I have always found this hard to believe.
Most of the journos I have ever dealt with actually stipulate NO calls from PR agencies and prefer to be communicated to via email. And, if a call is required, then they will call us not the other way around.
So are the PRs who claim that this is the approach they take telling the truth or simply bullshitting so as to give their clients the impression they have ‘the contacts’ they need to get them into the right media?
Tom Whipple himself said he preferred email communication to phone contact, and who can blame him. After all, these guys receive dozens of press releases every day and of those sent, only a handful at most will make the short list for publication.
While the subject line of the press release will serve to grab the attention, it is the opening paragraph that will determine its success of failure. He said that the very first paragraph needs to clearly describe what the entire story is about – the rest of the release is just ‘padding’, the proverbial meat to the bones.
Know your audience
Your initial audience is not the people who read, watch or listen to your story – it is the editorial team. As Science Editor, Tom can filter down the press releases that he thinks will be good for publication, but he has to get final sign off from the Home Editor.
He said that PR’s need to understand the audience they are pitching a story to – it is not just him, it is a team and unless the story is easy to ‘get’ and can be quickly described to someone else, it simply won’t go anywhere.
Get your timing right
Timing is critical when pitching story and it is important to know when each media puts to bed the next issue. The Times tends to hold their daily editorial meetings late morning and it is then when the stories that make the cut for the next day’s paper will be decided.
It is the same with most of the nationals, so when you are pitching your next story aim to get it to the relevant editor or journalist before 9:00am if your aim is to make the following days press.
Wednesday was the day of the attacks on Westminster Bridge, so I asked Tom how sudden events like the one that had happened just a few hours before impacts on the planned presses.
You may have a great story, he said, but the reality is that column inches will need to be found so that more attention can be dedicated to the breaking story. And that means that any number of stories will be sacrificed.
So does that mean that if our clients’ story is one that is cut then the opportunity will have been lost altogether? Tom said that it depends – if the story was strong enough then it could still be published a day or more later.
However, if a rival paper runs with it in the meantime then it is unlikely to appear in the same form as was originally planned (i.e. of the original version covered two columns then it may be cut to half a column).
The key to pitching your story to the media is to know who are speaking to, how they like to receive your information, when they prefer to receive it and being very very clear about what your story is all about. Get these key things right and you drastically improve your chances of seeing your story in the media of most importance to you.