April 22, 2013
Industry Insight: Journalism and PR

2113f01In another guest blog entry, we welcome Kevin Maxwell as a contributor.  Kevin currently works in the field of Public Relations where has focused on a mixture of tech, B2B, B2C, business and personal finance accounts.  Before his foray into PR, Kevin worked as a journalist and can call upon 20 years experience in the industry having worked for the BBC, Sky News, Associated Press and ABC out in Australia.  In this entry Kevin talks about the changes that have occurred in the journalism and PR world what with the introduction of certain technologies, but also how despite these new methods, somethings never do change.  Kevin also gives valuable feedback into how to sell a story and what the journalist is looking for when they are pitched to.

You can find Kevin on LinkedIn here.


Everything has changed – and nothing has changed

In the 22 years since I completed my journalism course, the media sector has changed beyond recognition.

I started my career on typewriters, listening to gnarled veterans fondly recalling the ‘good old days’ of Fleet Street excesses. It was a time when the best part of their working day was spent drinking in a pub, staggering back to the office to submit questionable expense claims.

reporter-at-typewriterIt’s small wonder that a disproportionate number of journalists from this era have suffered from alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver.

And regardless of your political view, the ‘Battle of Wapping’ and the resulting breaking of the printers’ strike allowed a range of new technologies to enter newsrooms across the country.

Unknowingly I found myself at the front line of this revolution as part of the first batch of journalists taught to edit their own TV news stories. I spent hours still working on tape-to-tape systems – it was the analogue 1990s after all – learning to avoid ‘jump cuts’ and ‘drop outs’.

Hitherto this had been the sole domain of editors, conducted in the confines of their smoke filled editing booth. Meanwhile the journalist, cameraman and sound man (always known as a ‘soundy’), who knew exactly what pictures they’d shot at anyway, idly by.

In the pre-digital era, satellites – typically costing $2,000 for a 10-minute booking – played a central and expensive role in TV news gathering. Now increasingly sophisticated satellite phones and the roll out of broadband allow journalists to edit and send their stories from laptops in the field.

Gone are the days of three-man TV crews. In today’s cost conscious environment, it’s now common practice that multi-skilled journalists film and edit their own stories … and publish them across a range of platforms.

citizen journalism largeFor the bean counters in the newsroom, the uptake of smart-phones presents an even cheaper option. The birth of ‘citizen journalism’ provides newsrooms with rich sources of amateur coverage of breaking news dramatic.

This point was highlighted by the recent sad events in Boston. The most dramatic pictures – from the initial bombings to the police manhunt for the suspects – were usually taken by members of the public, posted on YouTube and then broadcast by media outlets.

While many parts of journalism are undergoing rapid change to keep pace with technical innovation, one part of the job remains the same – the search for interesting and relevant stories. In an era of tightening budgets and staff redundancies, PR ‘flacks’ (as we’re inevitably and endearingly referred to) can play a legitimate role.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that rarely is the story I’m promoting a genuine first – a ‘ground breaking game changer’. But when this sort of story falls into my lap, I count my blessings and hit the phones buoyed with the confidence that I’m onto a winner. Journalists love a story about a ‘first’.

The reality is that this is the exception, rather than the norm. Usually the client doesn’t have the sort of profile and their story lacks the ‘wow’ factor to automatically wet a journalist’s appetite. Most times the key challenge is to make their story or point of view newsworthy – to weave it into a bigger story.

To me, this is good PR – generating positive coverage for your client from what is generally seen as a second string story. It takes is a little bit of creative thinking – and lots of research.

Which brings me to my main complaint against people working in PR.

During my time working as a journalist, I realised the vast majority had never worked in senior editorial positions - if they'd worked as a journalist at all. Many simply didn't know how, why or when to pitch a story. Accounts were often won by senior and experienced managers – and then passed down to juniors who pretended they knew what they were doing.

I’m not saying that you can’t be good in our profession unless you’ve worked on the other side of the fence. That’s not the case.

And the opposite isn’t true either. In my time I worked with a lot of journalists who sat at their desks, watched the clock, contributed very little and simply waited to be told by their editor what to do next.

telegraph-newsroomBut I do believe newsroom experience does count. In my former career I ran planning and news desks; booked guests; reported and produced; booked satellites and put live TV programs to air. I even did make-up for (male) guests at Bloomberg!

My number one complaint during this time was poorly written press releases. Get to the point of the story in the first paragraph – by the second paragraph the journalist will be reaching for the ‘delete’ button.

Many stubborn clients effectively kill any chance of coverage by insisting ‘they’ are the story – a mistake reflected in poorly worded, yet officially approved press release. If you can’t get it changed, get on the phone to journalists and explain what the ‘real story’ is.

And while on the subject of phone calls – try to establish some sort of working relationship with your key titles. Don’t just rely on emails. None of us – including journalists – like to feel like we’re being spammed.

In today’s ever changing digital world, resist the urge to rely on technology to deliver the goods. Don’t rely on mail-outs. No journalist wants to receive random press releases that don’t, at first glance, appear relevant to their sector.

Bespoke your pitch – make it useful to the receiver – and pick up the phone and start talking. If nothing else, you can find out why it’s not for them – and just as importantly, what they are interested in.