PR’s New Mantra: Think Like a Journalist
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Holmes Report
News and insights from the global PR industry

PR’s New Mantra: Think Like a Journalist

Stop trying to get journalists to write the stories you want them to, instead frame yours with the narratives they are already using.

Holmes Report

Public relations professionals spend a lot of time and energy thinking about creative ways to get their clients in the news. They brainstorm story ideas, research targets and then reach out …and wait. And sometimes, wait some more. When reporters don’t respond, confusion sets in: “I don’t understand. This is a great story — why is no one interested?”

The answer may not lie in the story, but in how it’s told. The reality is most PR professionals pitch stories they think journalists should cover, rather than stories they know journalists will cover.   You’ve probably heard the marketing mantra, “think like the customer.”  The same applies to media relations: you need to need to think like a journalist. The better you understand the journalist you are pitching and the audience he or she writes for, the more likely you are to be successful in securing results.

Easier said than done, right? Journalists are challenging. They have their own language and unique rules for identifying the stories they want to cover. Those methods can be hard to decode, especially if you have never worked in a newsroom or been part of the editorial process. To unravel the mystery, we conducted a study which determined that there are actually clear patterns to the types of stories journalists and publications like to write about.  In other words, there may be a bit of “science” behind the way journalists pick their stories.

What did we find? By surveying ten top-tier media outlets for more than 100 days - and reviewing more than 1, 000 stories in publications including, Forbes, Fortune, New York Times, Time, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, we found that almost every single article we looked at fit into at least one of ten classic story narratives. These included “New Kid on the Block”, “History Repeats Itself” or “Recipe for Success.” ”Things Aren’t What They Seem” proved to be the most popular storyline, which comes as no surprise given that journalists are skeptical by nature, and trained to uncover hidden facts.

What’s more, our research shows that individual publications tend to gravitate towards certain storylines. Time, for example, loves a good David vs. Goliath story, while the New York Times is big on telling cautionary tales. 

While it’s true that media is driven by what’s “new” and by fresh content, we’ve found that journalists and publications tend to be more receptive to new pitches when they’re framed by tried-and-true storylines.  While the story elements change, the larger, common themes don’t. 

The lesson: stop trying to get journalists to write the stories you want them to, and instead subtly frame your stories with the storylines they are already using. By using these well-known storylines to shape a pitch, you can better target the specific journalists or publications you are trying to reach, and dramatically improve your pitch success rate.

Andrea LePain is VP of media relations at Greenough Communications based in Boston.

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