How to get free publicity on the news

Do you run a small business and think the world should know about it?

Your staff are always praising your product. It’s time word was spread.

Getting free publicity is easy right?

It’s just a case of being noticed by the right people. The people who’ll put it on the news.

The art of selling a story

Getting free publicity in the media is difficult. Journalists are fussy.

Just because you and your staff think something is exciting doesn’t mean news journalists will.

Here’s a list of ‘dos and don’ts’:

DO

  1. Appreciate the value of news coverage – local, regional and national. Good publicity is worth more in terms of authority than any 30-second ad that costs £40,000.
  2. Know your target audience/readership.
  3. Learn what makes a good news story (see below).
  4. Understand the importance of case studies.
  5. Work on your ‘pitch – how best to sell your story in the fewest words.
  6. Make it as easy as possible for the journalists (offer interviewees/case studies, filming opportunities and background research).
  7. Know the best time to contact that particular newsroom (ie, not just before a deadline or programme).
  8. Know the right method to approach the journalists. Some prefer phone calls – others emails.
  9. Register with a forward-planning news agency.

DON’T

  1. Instruct your marketing person to take a box of cream cakes (your product) around the headquarters of a national news broadcaster.Man in suit devouring a cream cake
  2. Build your communications strategy around the building’s floor plan (as in cakes to be offered first to radio staff in the basement; then regional journalists on the lower-ground; national news teams on the first floor and international on the second).
  3. Be baffled when no one’s interested in mentioning your cakes on the news.
  4. Expect to be called in for an interview.
  5. Be impressed when told that the journalists enjoyed eating them.
  6. Berate the messenger – she was following your terrible advice.

Egos in corporate kingdoms

There are big fish in large and small corporate ponds with an emperor’s new clothes scenario playing out in many boardrooms.

People are afraid of honesty.

Instead they say ‘great idea’ when the boss mentions schemes like the cream cakes.

When delusion meets the brutally honest world of the newsroom, big egos take a bashing. The purpose of this isn’t to shield big egos.

It’s to highlight the waste of time and money spent on ill-thought out attempts at gaining publicity. And to suggest more fruitful methods to try.

The above-mentioned cream cake tour was a high street bakery’s ill-fated attempt at targeting journalists.

It was also conducted around the headquarters of several major UK newspapers.

The publicity officer was eventually asked by her boss why the company didn’t get mentioned on the front page of The Times.

A little understanding of how the media operates could have saved him so much time and money. And false hope.

The value of publicity

Appearing in the news – broadcast, online or print – is a fantastic way of raising awareness of messages or products.

It’s also free and more powerful than a paid-for advert.

The only cost is in the time and manpower of your staff or, if you have the money, the services of a PR agency.

What makes a good news story?

In order to sell a story you need to know what makes something ‘newsworthy’. A cream cake doesn’t.

Unless it’s been made by Lady Gaga who’s ditching pop fame for catering and wants to tell the world why.

A good news story must be about something new or different.

Ideally there’ll be a strong human element. You’re not trying to attract the attention of guinea pigs.

By making it meaningful to people, you’ll stand a much better chance of it being featured.

How do you humanise a cake?

Some topics are simply non-newsworthy, like cakes.

Other than hope a celebrity may announce something similar to the Lady Gaga example above, you could try and peg it to an existing story in the press.

Perhaps a report’s been published extolling the virtues of cream cakes as a new super-food.

If there’s a surprise element to it the journalists will definitely want to report it – cream cakes, the new superfood!

Now’s your chance to leap on the bandwagon – to ‘peg’ your product or expertise to it. Newsrooms will be eager for people to comment.

Seize the news opportunity

You could suggest your publicity person contacts media outlets you think might run the story.

Or writes a press release or email pitch outlining the newly-discovered health qualities of your particular cakes.

The pitch could sell you, as the head of a successful high street bakery, as an expert in the area of cream cakes and offer you for interview.

If a press release also contains a written quote from you that’s a big part of a print or digital journalist’s job done too.

Cutting and pasting have never had such important roles as those they play in today’s lean newsrooms.

Register with forward-planning agencies

Another effective way of securing publicity is to keep up-to-date with events in your industry by registering with a forward-planning service.

These companies send details of forthcoming events and other related issues linked to specific areas.

Once you’ve got that information your communications staff can draw up a look-ahead strategy.

Having months to plan allows time to investigate good, strong case studies and gives room for creative and lateral thinking.

Surveys and polls

Perhaps your company could commission a YouGov poll or survey of customers which you could issue as a press release on the day of the big industry event.

The more valuable information you can provide, the better able the journalist will be to develop a substantial news item.

Forward-planning requires thought, graft and understanding which can be done so much more effectively with the luxury of time.

How best to get noticed by journalists

I’ve written here about how to write like a journalist in order to increase the chance your press release will be noticed.

A press officer was asked to write a release about the shortage of health workers in a busy part of England.

His company had some findings to share. It had researched the cost to hospitals of patients who were ready to be discharged but were having to wait until suitable community care could be arranged.

Watch your language

The widely-used term for this situation in the media is ‘bed blocking’.

The more formal description used in the public sector is ‘delayed transfer of care and discharge of patients with undiagnosed problems’.

The press officer wrote the following headline:

More community health staff needed to help cut the £3 million cost of bed-blocking to (the region’s) hospitals

His managers were anxious. They didn’t want to use the term ‘bed-blocking’ saying it was offensive to patients.

They may have had a point but the release was not intended for patients.

Its only objective was to catch the attention of busy news teams in order to gain publicity and raise awareness.

The headline was changed to:

New report calls for more community health staff to help reduce the £3 million cost of delayed transfers of care and discharge of patients with undiagnosed problems

The press officer warned his bosses if they sent the PR with the new headline it would very likely be overlooked because it wasn’t in a language recognisable to journalists.

He was overruled and had to send the amended version.

On getting no response from newsrooms, he phoned them. The following is representative of several conversations he had that afternoon:

Press officer: ‘Hello, it’s the press officer from the (company seeking publicity). Did you get our press release about bed-blocking and the need for more community health workers?’

Journalist: ‘No. When did you send it?’

Press officer: ‘Two hours ago. It was titled ‘delayed transfers of care and discharge of patients.’

Journalist: ‘Oh that. I didn’t realise that was about bed-blocking and deleted it. Can you re-send it please?’

Don’t waste staff resources

There are many instances where the language used in a press release must of course be chosen cautiously.

But a report aiming to attract staff to an area is probably going to require more layman’s language in order to be noticed.

When you’re targeting busy news teams you need to use the right approach.

And that’s the mix outlined in this post – knowing their deadline, how they prefer to be approached and then writing material in their language.

Otherwise it’s as much a waste of time and money as offering cream cakes.

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