Straight from the Horse’s Mouth: 6 tips by a journalist for journalists, and what they mean for PR

Newspapers Here at Greenough we’re lucky to have a few former TV pros in our midst.  Our “ex-newsies,” as they’re known, have noses for a good story, and we’ve learned a great deal from them.  

As a result, I tend to keep an eye on places like the Nieman Journalism Lab, blogs on writing, and any tips reporters are sharing with each other.  The better we understand their jobs – whether in print, radio, broadcast or new media – the better equipped we are to do ours.

When I came across a “manifesto” from an outgoing editor from The Guardian, I couldn’t help but think about how the editor’s tips to fellow journalist might be applied to my daily work in PR.  You can read the full piece, “A manifesto for the simple scribe – my 25 commandments for journalists,” but below are six of the tips that struck me most, along with the lesson I’m taking from them.

1. When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader.

PR Lesson: The reporter isn’t a copywriter penning an ad.  He or she writes for the reader, never for you or your client.  Make your pitch about the reader’s interests and you’ll connect with the reporter’s top priority.

2. Here is a thing to carve in pokerwork and hang over your typewriter. "No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand."

PR Lesson: Help the reporter.  Make things easy.  Use diagrams, images and videos.  Don’t use buzzwords.

3. And here is another thing to remember every time you sit down at the keyboard: a little sign that says "Nobody has to read this crap."

PR Lesson: If that’s a mantra journalists live by, then PR pros should live by something like “nobody has to write this story.”  Give journalists a story they can’t resist – no, give them a story their readers can’t resist.  If the reporter says no, it’s more likely that it’s because your story’s not going to interest their reason rather than because they don’t like you or your client or because they’re mean.   Don’t cross them off the list or take it personally – take it as a lesson that you need to work with your client to make the story more appealing.

4.  If an issue is tangled like a plate of spaghetti, then regard your story as just one strand of spaghetti, carefully drawn from the whole. Ideally with the oil, garlic and tomato sauce adhering to it. The reader will be grateful for being given the simple part, not the complicated whole. That is because (a) the reader knows life is complicated, but is grateful to have at least one strand explained clearly, and (b) because nobody ever reads stories that say "What follows is inexplicably complicated ..."  So here is a rule. A story will only ever say one big thing.

PR Lesson: Too often, we try to cram a lot into a pitch or a press release.  And why shouldn’t we?  There’s so much exciting news coming out of the companies we work for!  Our products are great not because of a single feature, but because multiple things.  And, of course, we love it when things come in threes.

But here’s the thing: while a product reviewer might like all eight of your new features or an editor might accept your “10 tips” for a contributed article, more often than not we can do a better job helping the reporter get to the “one big thing.”

5. Beware of long and preposterous words. Beware of jargon. If you are a science writer this is doubly important. If you are a science writer, you occasionally have to bandy words that no ordinary human ever uses, like phenotype, mitochondrion, cosmic inflation, Gaussian distribution and isostasy. So you really don't want to be effulgent or felicitous as well. You could just try being bright and happy.

PR Lesson:  I think we all know it in our hearts, but marketing buzzwords (industry-leading, next-generation, solution, optimize, functionality, etc) don’t carry much meaning.  More than that, though, they could be hurting our chances with reporters.  The more we can avoid them, the more helpful we are.  One of my favorite Greenough training packets includes phrases from everyday conversations rewritten with buzzwords to show how ridiculous they sound.  For example, “Grandma, when you were growing up during the Depression, did you have to leverage your synergies to put food on the table?” Or, “Doris, that was a great meal.  Cooking is definitely one of your core competencies.” Or, “Joey, your father and I want you to do well in school, but we need your buy-in before we can empower you to do homework on your own.”

Bottom line: Talk (and write) like a human!

6. Remember that people will always respond to something close to them. Concerned citizens of south London should care more about economic reform in Surinam than about Millwall's fate on Saturday, but mostly they don't. Accept it. On 24 November 1963, the Hull Daily Mail sent me in search of a Hull angle on the assassination of President Kennedy. Once I had found a line that began "Hull citizens were in mourning today as …" we could get on with reporting what happened in Dallas.

PR Lesson: This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Pitch the local angle to the local pubs, the tech angle to the tech pubs, the career angle to the career reporter, etc.   With a new executive announcement, for example, you might find yourself using all three.

Contributed by Catharine Morgan.  Follow her @c_morgan

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