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What makes a good media story?

by Robert F. Abbott

Media relationsMedia relations can be difficult, but also rewarding. And the lessons we learn from working with newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and online publications should increase the effectiveness of all our communication initiatives.

That's because dealing with the media parallels our dealings with other stakeholders. In media relations, the competition to be heard and get a response intensifies. As the old saying about New York goes, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!"

So, if you can get the media to pick up your "story," you should be able to get other stakeholders to do the same. To get media attention for your story, you'll need to make it appealing to reporters and editors. One way to do that is to ensure it includes at least one of the four characteristics that make a story attractive to magazines, newspapers, radio, television, and online publications.

These characteristics come out of a chapter on media relations in my book, A Manager's Guide to Newsletters: Communicating for Results. In turn, that was based on 10 years I spent working as a radio news writer and announcer, and subsequent freelance contributions to print and electronic media.

While the details vary from medium to medium, reporters will look for these characteristics in your news release or article: widespread interest, something new, something dramatic, or timeliness.

Widespread interest refers to the degree of relevance for readers, listeners, or viewers. And, that's specific to the audience of individual outlets. For example, a subject may be relevant to listeners at a youth-oriented radio station, but not an adult-oriented station.

Something new refers to unique or previously unknown information, as in conventional news stories. It may also be a new perspective on existing information (which is what most columnists and commentators create).

Dramatic interest: Does an unknown factor somehow grab readers' or listeners' imaginations and not let go? As I'm writing this, a strike by teachers dominates the headlines. And, we ask, "How long will the strike last?" and "Will students be able to complete their school years?" Two questions with inherent drama in them.

Our fourth category, timeliness, kicks in most often around major holidays and important events. Most obviously, stories about the Christmas spirit in December, articles about making and keeping resolutions in January, and gardening stories in spring. Many quick-moving media relations campaigns also connect with high-profile events.

Now, as you can imagine, stories often have overlapping characteristics, so for example, as the teachers' strike goes on, we can expect articles about skipping the traditional spring break holiday so students can catch up. That directly brings in both drama and timeliness. Indirectly, it also increases widespread interest, because others will be affected if spring break is cancelled (think of resort employees, for example).

Here’s where the parallel with other communication comes in. If your other communication includes one or more, and preferably more of these characteristics, then it should be more effective. In fact, you might even start by asking yourself which characteristic you’ll try to include when you write your next memo.

In summary, by ensuring your story includes at least one of the four characteristics, your media relations initiative is off to a good start. In addition, you'll improve your communication with other stakeholders.