PR practitioners should think ideas, not events

This is an article by Richard Bailey.
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News is hardwired into the PR psyche. Need to gain some coverage? Then cook up a news release.

It’s a tried and tested approach – but there are reasons for thinking it offers diminishing returns. It’s not just that traditional media recipients of PR news are struggling; it’s that PR people now so outnumber journalists, and email distribution is so easy, that PR is becoming associated with spam.

Every thoughtful PR practitioner surely knows this. Here’s the bracing assessment of Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington in Brand Anarchy:

‘Shedding the shackle of media relations will be critical to the future success of the public relations industry. It is inevitable that as traditional media continues to fragment because of technological change, and consumer behaviour becomes increasingly participatory, that organisations much change how they communicate.’

Change takes time, and behaviour change is difficult. I’m not calling, as others have done, for the death of the news release or the end of media relations. I’m calling for some subtle behaviour change from PR practitioners.

Here’s an easy way to start. It’s a three-step programme for more effective media relations.

Step one: hard v soft news

Start by recognising that there’s a difference between news and PR news. A quick glance at the headlines in the major media at any time should reveal what I mean by this.

Right now, BBC News is leading with three stories: news about a rail franchise; a missing person enquiry; the civil war in Syria.

Headline news, as you will see from this, usually concerns disasters (it’s bad news). That’s what news reporters are looking for. Headline news stories are those that affect everyone.

PR news, by its nature, is necessarily good news. Therefore, PR news cannot be news. PR news rarely affects everyone (though it always interests the organisation involved, but that’s not the same thing).

Sure, there are exceptions. Product launches by Apple (ever the exceptional business) are reported as news. But journalists will quickly latch onto a negative angle if they can find one (think of Apple Maps) – so the rule still stands.

There are ‘easier’ media targets than the BBC – but economic forces are changing the landscape of the trade press and local newspapers, so you shouldn’t solely rely on them.

Having recognised that PR news is rarely hard news, you’re ready to move to step two.

Step two: segment your news stories

In the world of the web and the email distribution list, it’s easy to send everything to everyone. But that’s spam.

Once you’ve recognised a hard news story (they do not come around very often), then phone up the news desk or a specialist correspondent at the most major media outlet you can think of (don’t ignore the broadcasters or news wires). If the reporter’s interested in the story, then ask their permission to email it through to them (if they’ve requested it, and it’s unique to them, then it’s no longer spam).

If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try again with the same media outlet. Call someone else on your list. If you’ve not had any success after three calls, your judgement of what makes hard news (see step one) is probably flawed. Put it down to experience, and be willing to explain this to your boss or client.

You still have 99% of your news releases left to concentrate on. You should next focus on the second tier of news: those stories that are too soft for the major media, but might be suitable (if tailored) for the specialist, local or formal and informal online media. Once again, I recommend focusing on quality over quantity, so a phone call is a better relationship building tool than a blanket email.

Finally, you should have a list of possible news stories that don’t merit external publicity (if you’re honest, it will probably be 50% of the stories you’re working on). Is the effort wasted? Not if you can find suitable internal channels of distribution. Internal comms is where a steady flow of positive PR news might be most welcome. Who ever said that doing public relations only meant doing media relations? Go back and re-read the Earl and Waddington quotation above.

Step three: news v features

Opportunities for news coverage are diminishing, and even the biggest PR stories have a limited shelf life as news. So begin to shift your thinking away from news and towards features – much more fertile ground for your ‘soft’ PR stories. News is concerned with events; features focus on issues or ideas.

Here’s an approach you can use that’s guaranteed to generate features ideas on a daily basis. Let’s start with those same news stories (and let’s be up front that there’s a big risk with some of these: child abductions and savage civil wars are not safe territory for exploitation for commercial purposes).

Flaws scupper rail franchise deal

This is a classic hard news event, based on a surprising government u-turn. The story will soon move on. How to give it longer shelf-life? Any organisation involved in transport or business or the environment will have a view on the way the national transport infrastructure is managed. There are opportunities for comments from spokespeople and for positioning statements or white papers addressing the following issues:
  • How government and civil servants manage franchises
  • How to improve transport infrastructure and services
  • How to bring investment into public transport (public and private)

The nimble PR practitioner will find many opportunities to contribute to the national debate arising from this news event. There may be few opportunities to contribute finished feature articles, but putting in the thinking should pay dividends in terms of positioning and thought leadership.

Missing girl Land Rover appeal

This is one to avoid. It’s a sensitive story with an uncertain outcome and any attempt to coopt this for commercial ends is too crass to consider.

But there’s massive public interest, and the debate will surely continue over questions of safety and civil liberties such as:

  • The extent of and use of CCTV surveillance
  • The gathering and use of DNA evidence
  • The role of media (and social media) in missing people searches
  • The naming of suspects in high profile cases

Groups with an interest in child protection and those concerned about the erosion of civil liberties will soon enough have their opportunities to comment.

Deadly blasts rip through Aleppo

This is another one to avoid, for similar reasons. But the distance from the UK makes it less sensitive a topic, and quite apart from those with a political perspective on Syria I anticipate commentary from heritage experts on the damage to World Heritage sites in Syria (and other war zones).


To write news well, you have to wear a thinking hat called ‘events’. Features requires a different mindset: you need to put on a thinking hat named ‘ideas’ or ‘issues’.

Some people find it hard to move from the concrete to the more abstract; others will find it easy. It’s one of those things we work on at university and I’m aware of the challenges and the potential of this approach. I’m also aware that declining levels of media literacy mean that the problem of PR spam is not likely to go away in a hurry hence the ongoing need for education.


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