What Makes News News?

A few years ago, my boss at a professional services firm contacted me about a problem with our London office. It was a tiny office with less than 20 partners and staff and the revenues it generated accounted for less than two percent of the firm’s income.  Nonetheless, the Managing Partner of that office had expressed concern that his team wasn’t getting enough PR support, claiming it was imperative that the British media knew who they were or they wouldn’t be able to grow.

I reminded the Firm Chair that I was well-aware of the office’s issues and indeed with his and the Managing Partner’s input and approval had hired a freelance PR professional in London to provide them on the ground support, whom the office decided to let go after less than six months.  I also reminded him that I contacted the Managing Partner and other executives in our London office at least once a week, encouraging them to keep me up to date on transactions they were working on and potential trends they were seeing in the marketplace so that we could promote them as thought-leaders.  I rarely, if ever, got a response to those requests.

The Firm Chair sighed. “Look, they are a small office and not as productive as we would all want them to be.  Just do me a favor and from now on just send all news releases from our other offices to the UK press, okay? That way, I can tell the MP we are actively supporting them and care about their success.”

Like all of us who take our jobs seriously and need a steady pay check, I do not like to say “no” to the head of a company that employs me, even if sometimes that means doing projects that are unlikely to yield meaningful results. In this case, however, I had to decline because taking on such an assignment wasn’t just futile, it could potentially harm what rapport and relationships we had already built with journalists in the UK.

Think about all the emails you as a busy executive receive.  How many of them are truly of use or value to you?  How many of them do you know just by looking at who the sender is whether or not the emails are worth opening?  And how often do you decide to read the emails from those senders whom you know generally have something valuable to say first?

Now envision a reporter who receives scores of emails or phone call pitches each day, not only from your company’s PR team, but also from the PR teams of each of your competitors.  That is the situation that occurs when organizations overwhelm media outlets with what I call non-news news, e.g. pitching story ideas or sources that will only serve to irritate journalists rather than help them do their jobs effectively.

So what makes a reporter open that email from your PR team consistently? She opens those pitches from those PR pros, industry analysts and other potential interview sources who not only don’t waste her time with useless information, but also deliver information that could potentially get her byline on page one of her publication or be syndicated widely on the Internet and social media. What the reporter wants is something that will make him a trusted journalist who people will turn to time and time again for their news. Which is why he relies on credible thought-leaders and other sources to provide him with story ideas or information that he can report on.  But what precisely makes a story idea newsworthy?  What makes news news?

Can You Pass the News Litmus Test?

Regardless of the industry, type of media outlet he is interested in, or his position in a company, whenever an executive comes to me seeking media coverage for an entity or project he is involved with, I ask the same ten questions to determine if we really have a story worth pitching (e.g. if it is worth the time, effort and risk to stake my and my company’s standing and professional relationships with various reporters and news outlets to “sell” the story).

  • Is it timely? Did what you want coverage on just occur in the past 24-hours, ideally in the past four-six hours? Remember that given the speed and rapidity at which information can now be composed and distributed via social media, news can become stale in a matter of hours or even minutes
  • Does it have direct relevance to the media outlet’s target audience? If you just launched a product in Chicago aimed only at reaching top tier athletes for example, do not expect any news outlets outside Chicago or non-sports oriented publications to be interested unless you can show how it is relevant to their readers/viewers.
  • Is it related to the beat or topics the reporter covers? Make sure you are targeting the right journalist and know what issues she reports on. If you aren’t sure what areas the reporter covers, ask before pitching.
  • Does it help identify or define a trend? Generally, if all external factors are more or less equal and the same situation occurs three or more times over a very short period, it may be the start of the trend. For example, if after years of non-investment in alternative energy companies, three major private equity funds each separately buy a majority interest in three different U.S. solar energy companies in the same week, that clearly is the start of a trend.
  • Does it defy a trend? If, after years of losing market share to Internet booksellers and book chains, the publishing industry starts to notice a rise in the number of independent brick and mortar bookstores re-opening in the US, chances are reporters will want to learn more about what prompted this reversal.
  • Does it involve companies or executives that are household names? Certain companies or brands, like Apple or Coca-Cola for example, are just so influential that reporters may write a story even if it involves the smallest of matters.
  • Does it involve a large amount of money? Or involve a first of any kind? Even a lesser-known brand can generate lots of news if they get acquired for a vast sum or do something innovative, such as being the first medical device manufacturer to build a micro-robot that strips away the layers of plaque built up in a patient’s arteries.
  • Has a new rule been passed that may affect how an entire industry operates? Reporters are particularly interested in writing about regulatory changes or newly enacted federal or state laws that will have a significant impact on an industry or might alter consumer or customer behavior.
  • Is it controversial? Controversy is not always easy to define as something that seems quite acceptable to some people  may be viewed as deeply troubling by others. For the purpose of determining whether or not it is news, something is controversial if it is significantly complex or affects a large enough population that it likely will spark a debate of some kind.
  • Can the claims/ideas being introduced be substantiated? It’s all well and good to say that your company is the country’s leading manufacturer of widgets, but unless you can prove it with concrete facts and statistics, it is not news. Likewise, if you want to serve as a thought-leader on a specific topic, you must be prepared to provide concrete examples that illustrate your viewpoint and do so on the record, or it is not news.

These ten questions are the same ones that a section chief or managing editor will ask her reporters at a daily rundown meeting when determining what content to include in that day’s edition, and subsequently the questions that a reporter will ask you. The more of these questions you can answer with a yes, the more likely it is that a reporter will be interested in filing a story. If you can say yes to just two or three of these questions, it’s likely newsworthy to only to a small group of people, and therefore perhaps appropriate for an industry trade publication or  sharing on a topic-specific blog. If the answer is yes to five or more of the questions, the story is likely appropriate to pitch to more mainstream outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters or CNN.

Other ways to increase your chances of securing coverage for your news is to provide the reporter with additional sources such as a colleague at another company, a vendor or corporate partner you work with, an industry analyst, a knowledgeable academic or regulatory staffer and, where appropriate, and only if you clear it with them first before providing their name and contact details, clients or customers involved or likely to impacted by the issue. Doing so will save the journalist significant leg work and help him round out the story and gather all the relevant facts needed.

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