Press releases aren’t everything
While they can be a useful source of information for journalists, press releases are not the most reliable way of securing coverage for your school/organisation – particularly when it comes to national/specialist media.
This is partly because many press releases are written with internal audiences and not journalists in mind (what interests parents and school governors may not necessarily grab the attention of a reporter or editor, for example).
It is also a scattergun approach; send exactly the same press release to half a dozen editors and some might pick it up, but others may ignore it because they think someone else is covering the story.
Sending tailored story ideas to specific journalists or editors is a far more effective strategy for both print and broadcast media. There is more work involved (you have to actually read the publication/watch the programme for starters) but you are far more likely to get results.
It is not all about you
I get sent hundreds of press releases and story ideas every week – most of which are immediately deleted. This is because most of them fail to address my needs and priorities as a journalist.
A quick internet search of my name reveals that I write features, primarily for Education Guardian, which generally carries stories about issues that are relevant to the education sector in its broadest sense and often have wider political implications.
But many of the education-related press releases/story ideas that I am pitched are inward-facing: new buildings, student achievements and stories about pupils raising money for charity, for example – there just isn’t a “home” for stories like this.
There is also a lack of understanding about the difference between news stories and the longer, more in-depth feature articles. As a features writer, the first question I ask myself when I receive a pitch is: “Can I write 1,200 to 1,500 words about this?” If I can’t, you should really be talking to the news desk.
Instead of thinking about how you can persuade journalists and editors at your target publications/programmes to run stories about your school (which is, essentially, like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole), analyse the kinds of stories that they typically run and consider how you can offer them what they want, when they want it.
For example, a newspaper editor may not want to run a story about your new science wing, but they may be interested in a comment piece from your headteacher about capital funding.
SecEd may not be interested in a piece about your pupils’ latest fundraising efforts, but may be interested in a practical article from your school business manager on how to set up a charitable foundation.
These kinds of articles may only warrant a name check at the end (rather than the two-page feature article your boss is dreaming of) but can position your school or organisation as a thought-leader in the sector.
For some press/communications officers this approach involves a shift of mindset – but it is one that really works. I have blogged about some pitches that have worked for me if you would like to read more (see further information).
Do your homework
If you want to offer journalists the kind of stories they can’t say no to, you have to know your patch. This means actually reading/watching the publications and programmes which you are pitching to (you would be amazed how many press officers don’t do this) and spending time finding out exactly who commissions the section you are pitching to, or if you are approaching individual journalists, the areas they specialise in.
A trade publication will often have different editors for different sections of the paper (e.g. news, features, comment and opinion and so on) and knowing who is responsible for what will help you get the right ideas to the right person. Most of this information is easy enough to find online, but a few phone calls may also be necessary.
Timing is everything
Like many journalists, I have missed out on good stories simply because the press officer has approached me after my deadline. It is important to find out about lead times – that is, how far ahead publications/programmes are put together before they are printed/aired.
Monthly publications can be working up to three or months ahead. Weeklies can be up to three or four weeks ahead, but never assume anything.
If you are approaching daily publications/programmes, lead times are generally much shorter (the same day, usually) but it can be worth talking to journalists a few days ahead if you have got something interesting coming up.
But while a timely event – an anniversary or unusual event, for example – can provide a “hook” for a story (a reason for an editor to run it), remember that today’s news quickly becomes old news, particularly in our 24/7 media culture.
Whenever I write a story on apprenticeships, I can guarantee it will be followed by a flurry of emails from press officers wanting me to write about apprenticeships. While it isn’t inconceivable I might write another story on apprenticeships, unless there is something new for me to report, it is unlikely I will tackle the topic again for at least a few weeks – possibly months.
It’s not all about the press coverage
This might seem like an odd thing for a journalist to say, but I often wonder why press officers are so hung up on getting airtime and column inches.
While press coverage should certainly have a place in any organisation’s marketing/communications strategy, with so many social media platforms at your disposal, a cutting in a newspaper or an appearance is not necessarily the best way to achieve your objectives. So before you draft a press release or pick up the phone to call a journalist, it is worth asking yourself what you are trying to achieve and if any other methods might be more effective.
And if gaining press coverage is just about pleasing your boss or massaging someone’s ego, you might just want to think again.
Further informationRead Janet’s blog at http://lastwordgroup.com/training/pitches-janet-murray/
Janet Murray is a freelance journalist, editor, media trainer and consultant. She is founder of www.lastwordgroup.com which provides editorial and media training for those working in the education sector. You can follow her on Twitter @jan_murray