You PR people [Part 2]: A new way to think like a journalist
Dear PR person, you’ve often heard it said that you need to think like a journalist to increase your chances of getting your message out there. This is true. However, if the main reason you are learning to think like a journalist is to catch and keep a journalist’s attention, then you’ve probably missed the point.
Many PR people believe that once you get a journalist interested, your brand’s story will take care of itself. The journalist will do the heavy lifting. After all, that’s what they are paid to do, right?
We therefore spend hours learning about how journalists think, and what they are looking for, and then work to meet that need. While these are good and helpful media relations skills to have, they are quite limited (if not limiting) in the grand scheme of PR.
Beyond but not beside mainstream media
Despite popular opinion, the primary goal of PR work is not to get journalists or the media to tell your story. It is not even to get the journalist to write about your brand in a positive light. Indeed, the public once first encountered your brand via mainstream media. This may have been a big win for PR some 10 or 15 years ago. However, it is no longer the case today.
When I moved from the newsroom to PR two years ago, one of the first things I realized is how many good stories remain untold because the media couldn’t access information in an organization. What’s more, many organizations struggled to articulate their message in a story-worthy way.
Human stories, good stories
When I say “good stories”, I don’t just mean stories that make the organisation look good to the public (or, God forbid, at the public’s expense). I mean stories that make society a much better place by their mere existence. Stories of love, sacrifice, and overcoming adversity. Stories about hope restored and dreams achieved. Stories about good overcoming evil.
These are stories that have universal appeal, despite who is telling them. Yet, many such stories are locked away in inaccessible jargon or behind corporate red-tape. Organizations opt to hide such stories from the mainstream media because they may attract unwanted scrutiny or cause collateral damage.
Still, such stories need telling. Not just for the sake of your organization, but for the sake of humanity. Many of us in PR try to get such stories out to mainstream media. We know such stories will inspire humanity and get people to relate with our brands in a way that is mutually beneficial.
Crafting your story like a journalist
This is what PR is about, or should be about. Not to trick people into preferring our brand, but to get our brand a stand at the trade fair; and hopefully get people to appreciate our brand in all its (sometimes messy) glory.
The most effective way to attain this is by tapping into the humanity of every brand. It is not very dissimilar to what journalists do in their storytelling. They look for the people in the numbers. They track down the dashed hopes in a company downsizing and highlight the spawned dreams in the financial windfall. When journalist ask “so what” in response to your new product launch, this is what they are looking for.
Being able to give an answer to this human-centered focus is essential to PR. However, PR is no longer just about answering media questions and filling the gaps in a journalist’s story. It is increasingly evident that brands and organisations need to be able to tell their own stories without (needing to go through) mainstream media. This is where “thinking like a journalist” becomes an indispensable skill.
Traditional media no longer “mediate” the public’s access to good or bad information about your organisation like they used to. Therefore brands, now more than ever, need to be able to tell their own stories to the public..
Media training is no longer just about knowing how to navigate newsroom politics, or the best time to send a press release or call an editor. I am not saying that you stop caring about mainstream media or that you pay less attention to good media relations. Of course you need the mainstream media to talk about your brand and tell your story.
However, the way the media gets to know about your brand is changing. The mainstream media has now become part of the “public” you are targeting and not just a means to it. Just as people are now first encountering your brand message through social media and other online platforms, the mainstream media is also sourcing its news from the same chatter.
Do not be surprised if mainstream media’s editorial decisions are now informed by what’s trending on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. What does this mean? Well, for one, it means that it is no longer so easy to control your message by simply controlling what you share with the mainstream media. It is no longer so easy to shape a narrative by having a good relationship with news editors.
Every PR person a journalist
You can no longer afford to simply “care about your side of the story” and leave the balancing to the media. You are the new media. The PR person is, to a large extent, the new journalist. The PR person is now the first point of contact the public has with your message.
The same goes for management and other staff (through social media, for instance). They are no longer simply “not authorized” to speak for the organization. Are they prepared? In my third and final part of this series, I will outline a few reasons why corporations need PR today more than any other time in history.
Kenyan Journalist, Communications Specialist, and a follower of Jesus Christ. I graduated from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil and Structural Engineering but decided to pursue a career in journalism.
Worked at Nation Media Group for four years, first as a General Reporter for the Daily Nation before becoming an Investigative and Special Projects writer.
Later transitioned into PR and worked as a Content Associate for two years at Hill+Knowlton Strategies (WPP). Currently a Communications Consultant specialising in Content Strategy and Development.