Old fashioned PR - Successfully Pitch Your Story to a Journo... Then Cut Them Out Completely
Editorial tips and tricks with Gavin Thompson, Business Editor of the Bristol Post.
As, we said, basically I'm going to talk to you about, well, I'm going to talk to you first about how to pitch a story. How to get what you're doing covered in the news. And my background is local news, which I'll run you through in a minute. But also then a bit about how something new that we're doing that means that you can just cut us out of the picture completely.
So, first of all, if this works, there we go, that's me. I had a haircut before that picture, I think. So, my background, I’ll tell you about me first, I have been a professional journalist for fifteen years. I have done a number of roles all in sort of local media. From being a reporter to a news editor, chief sub-editor, if you don't know what chief sub-editor is then that's in charge of the design and the production and the front pages and the bad puns that you find in the newspaper. I've also, recently become assistant editor of the Bristol Post, and business editor. And my career's taken me up and down the country from Somerset up to Aberdeen back down again, and stopping off at a few interesting places in between. So, that's me.
The Bristol Post, hopefully, you will you will know a little bit about, but we have been Bristol's evening newspaper for about 80 years. And that's really, that's perhaps where you might know us. We've changed a lot in recent years so if this will work… our current daily circulation, we print Monday to Friday. We're no longer an evening paper in that we're on the shelves in the morning. We sell about 29,000 copies every day. That means we're read by close to 120 thousand people every day, if that seems to be a like bit dodgy math, it's base on the theory that more than one person reads every newspaper, and we don't make up the numbers, they are done by some, outside audited, body.
But, but increasingly our audience is growing online. And so we have 1.3 million unique browsers every month, we have 5.2 million monthly page views, we are very active on social media, we have around 27 thousand Facebook likes and a similar number of Twitter followers, and I think, that figure is now slightly out of date, because I had a look this morning, and it's about 28 and a half thousand on Twitter on the Bristol post account, and obviously our own individual journalists will have more themselves.
So that's who we are. As I mentioned I'm the business editor as well as being assistant editor. So that means that I write about businesses in the city, which probably includes you guys. So, I'm responsible for the weekly business pull out, which goes into the paper on a Wednesday.
Looks a bit like that, and increasingly, what I've been trying to do since I took over the business section is really to reboot it both in the print section and in the online channel to make it less about corporate men in suits and more about the kind of small and medium size businesses and the entrepreneurs, people like these guys and people like you.
So, that's me. You now know a bit about my story, but what I'm going to talk to you about first, well I'm going to talk to you about three things. First, the story. Second, pitch. And third, the DIY. So first, the story, I mean, the story is really at the heart of everything. If whatever business, whatever you do, you want to get media coverage, you need to have a story. That's great, so what is a story? Well, there's not a very easy answer to that, and actually we as journalists disagree about it all the time. Every day we have a morning conference where we sit around and we discuss the stories that are going in the next day's paper. And you'll probably have a hundred years of journalism experience in the room and we will all frequently disagree. I'll give you, just as sort of an example; you might get the news editor coming in, he might say I've got a story there's someone been on the phone to us, he's a council tenant and his boiler's broken. And the council haven't fixed it for three days. The editor might say no, not really interested. It's a bit sort of woe is me; it's a bit depressing. And hey, it's the middle of summer, he doesn't need his heating on it's not really a priority.
On a different day a different editor might have said, wow, that's outrageous. That's what, three days without his heating? That you know - it's really hot at the moment. The guy can't have shower or a bath. You know, he's having to go to work smelling and the like. It's outrageous, that's a great story. And it just really does vary so there is not easy straightforward answer. What it tends to come down to, is journalists and editors making judgments. And journalists will make dozens of such judgments every day about what is a story based on a mixture of their instincts and their experience. Which doesn't really help you all that much. But, hopefully, we can give you a few pointers that will.
So I get a lot of phone calls because I do the business coverage. People saying things like this; we've won a new contract for some new business. Our business is ten, 20, 30 years old. Actually, in this room, digital industry, it's probably more likely our business is six months old, isn't it? And things like we've opened a new office, you know, we're expanding. And all that stuff is fine and, and if you're looking at a story, there does have to be something new, I mean the key is in the word news, news. The first three letters of that. So there has to be something new and all these things can fit the bill. You know, there's something new and you’ve won a contract, so that you celebrate the anniversary.
But news also has to be interesting. And those are a bit dull though on their own. Those are starting points, but if you come to me and say, we've, well yeah we’ve won a new contract. Well, that's great, you're interested, and your competitors are interested. But probably no one else, so how would you make it more interesting, how do you take that sort of new information and make it interesting? And there's a few ways that you can look to do that. So, first of all, what makes you different, what makes you interesting, why is your business different from someone else’s? The whole point of, of news is that it should be something unusual, something that maybe hasn't been done before or something that you're doing differently so think about that.
And, really try and sort of boil that down to be able to describe that succinctly as to why, what you are doing, hasn't been done before, what's the need for it, you know, why are you doing it? And that particularly I suppose applies if you're talking about a new product, which might be the sort of thing you guys are doing. If you're really excited about your new product, well you might be excited about it, but really, what's different that no one else is doing out there? How would you tell a friend over coffee, this is really just about putting things in simple terms. And picking out the most interesting thing, interesting element. So let's say you're gossiping in the office, you wouldn't start this story by saying, oh, the stationery cupboards been locked and we can't get any new envelopes, and it's because Bob and Sheila in Accounts have been having it away in the stationery cupboard. You would say, oh my god, did you hear Bob and Sheila have been having it away in the stationery cupboard, and by the way, we can't get any envelopes, which is really quite annoying. So, think about what's the interesting thing? How would you tell it to a friend and relate that to what you're, you know, what you're trying to pitch as a story. What your sort of story is.
And then people, we are all interested in people. If you think about television, I'm sure all of you are big fans of Britain's Got Talent. Let's say, you'll pretend you're not but you know, we all know. And, when you're watching that program or any of the others like it, it's not actually the talent that you're really interest in. It's, it's the people, it's the story behind it, and it’s the sob story. It's the triumph over adversity or the fact that you know, Susan Boyle, doesn't look like she can sing like she does. And it's the people, so think about that with you as well, you might not have a fantastic sob story behind your business, but there will be interesting people behind it. Because people care about people, we relate to other people, so your product might be great, but tell me about the people who've designed it, you know, tell Craig's story or tell me you know, the people who're involved, because that will make it, that will make people relate to it.
And finally detail, detail, paints the picture. It's if you're telling, describing an event or telling a story, it's the little details that make it stand out, that make it more interesting. And, that kind of makes someone be able to visualize it, make them interested in it and I'll give you an example of them.
Of all of those things; I got a phone call, I think this was towards the end of last year from someone saying, our business is 25 years old next month and, and we think you should write about it. Well as an aside the first thing is never tell a journalist what they should do because it just winds them up.
But, I'm more polite than most of my colleagues. So I said, okay, tell me a bit more and they said well we make caravan seat covers, it's pretty exciting, we employ 22 people and, and we're just opening a new arm of our business. Okay, so those two sort of new bits of information in there. There's the fact that you're doing something new, you're opening a new part of your business. And you’re celebrating 25 years old. Yeah, well done, 25 years old, that's great. Not really interesting yet, so what else can we do? Well, tell me about people, who's involved in your business? And they said well we're actually, we're a company that people work for, for quite a long time. We've got quite a few employees you know, who stuck with us. And actually none, more so than actually the founder, who's our managing director still you know, he stayed with the company, started it up; he's still there. I said OK, alright well, maybe there's, you know maybe he's an interesting guy. Like, we find out more about him and actually it turns out that he was an interesting guy. He was a chap called John Reddish, and he had been a born entrepreneur. He started his entrepreneurial skills, if you like, when he was at school and he would take his friend's bicycles, and re-spray them for money. Didn't impress his mom too much, because he used to do it in his bedroom.
And the he didn't want to go to university, he wanted to go straight into work, so he got a job at Lloyd's bank, and his bosses there thought he was the real party animal and they thought he was hung over every Monday morning. Actually he wasn't, it's because he was an entrepreneur. And he was getting up at 4: 00 o'clock on Saturday and Sunday mornings to run a market stall selling, I think, it was car seat covers at the time, because he was determined to build up his own business.
And he was working so hard that come Monday morning he was just knackered. Then from there he met a business partner on the market floor and they went into business together. I think they initially had a premises, I think it was basically a shed on the coast down I think it was Breen or Burnham and then got washed away. But undeterred they carried on and moved to Bristol set up the business properly and despite the fact that the factory burned down some point there still going 25 years later and they're celebrating their anniversary and launching an arm of the business and now you've got a story because now we care about John. We're interested in him; we're engaged in his story. So the fact that his business is 25 years old, that might be the reason that we're writing about him. But it's not actually the thing that's interesting. The thing that's interesting is his story. So that's what you need to think about with your business.
So, we've got the story, fantastic. You've thought about all of that, you've got a brilliant story to do with your business, your product, what have you. What you need to do then is tell someone about it. And in PR terms, they would call that the pitch. In the real world, it's kind of making a phone call, or sending an email, or maybe even a tweet, or some form of contact, maybe approaching a journalist at a business event such as this one. And how do you then take your, you got your story, how do you take that pitch that story and put it to the top of the list if you like, you know, make it grab the attention of a journalist like me.
Well, I thought I would ask some of my colleagues, so I've got a few views on this but I'll give you a wider perspective. I asked some of my colleagues in the newsroom what do you like? What things do you find really helpful when someone approaches you with a story? And they gave me a few things; we have pictures. Pictures are always, a story with pictures is always more likely to be used. Particularly if they're good pictures, if they're great pictures then it's really likely to be used. When I'm talking about pictures, I'm talking about pictures with people in. So, I did a story recently about a guy who makes squash concentrate in little sachets. You get a glass of water at work, and you can just put it in, you don't have to carry a big bottle of Robinson's around with you, great. He sent me a picture of the little squash, and that's very nice. But it's not going to carry a page, it's not going to be a good image on the website. So we got a picture of him tearing open one of his products. It's not going to win the Pulitzer prize or the equivalent for photography, but it does the job, it's a nice picture, because its got a person in it, so I am reading about him, I am caring about his story and I can see him as well.
Picture is really important, and just a few sort of I suppose technical things; we like, if you're talking to media, we like names, full names, ages, job titles, captions from left to right. And all those kind of things will make us warmer to whatever you're sending us because; we think you're sort of covering the basics of making life easier for us. And also, bear in mind that although you might be a digital business and we are digital too, we tend to produce things cross platform. So, if you send us a picture that might be great for our website, we probably also want to use it in print too. Which means it needs to be bigger, so we have a very rough guideline, we need images to be about one MB in size, normally about 200 dpi, if that means anything to you, so size of pictures is important. The next thing is video.
Now obviously send pictures too, because we can't use video in print. But video for the website is great, and part of the reason of that is that we like to think of ourselves as a very modern multi platform media company. But most of us came through the print tradition rather than digital. So we're not really quite as good at making as many videos and things like that as we should be. So if you've got one, we'll have it for free please; that would be great. And I mean the guidelines with that, I suppose is again keep things short; it doesn't need to be polished.
You know something done on a phone is fine, but it does want to have some kind of story or some kind of action. Something that's actually worth clicking on, that was worth someone spending 10 seconds of their life on. And then honesty. We like people who don't bullshit us. We know that if you're coming to us saying we're fantastic, we've got this great story. We know you're sort of bigging it up a bit. And that's fine but be reasonably straight because otherwise we can see through it. If you say this is the most amazing thing ever and it really isn't, then we'll see through that and we'll think that you're more likely to get ‘spiked’ is the journalistic term or deleted would probably be more common if it's an email.
So be honest with us, be straight and use plain English. Now whether you're sending something out and you've turned your story into a press release and you're sending it in to us or whether you are just phoning up and saying we might be interested in this explain things in plain English because our audience is not specialized, even our business audience. They're probably not in your business; they're not necessarily a specialist in your industry. So write things in plain English, use short words, you know, layman's terms. It goes back to how you would tell it to a friend. You know, put thing in words that people will clearly understand and boil your technical stuff down to what it actually means to the man on the street. And then quotes, we always like if you are doing something as a press release, if you are just sort of putting someone forward they should assume someone we can quote. A name of a person with a picture who we can put their face their name to the story because that is very important going back to people caring about people. And also we like people who read our products. That I suppose is a given but if you're a national company and you're trying to get stuff in, you know, newspapers and websites across country. You might feel you haven't got time to read the products in each area, that's fair enough, but if you are a Bristol business, or you're a marketing agency that's based in Bristol, and Bristol is your target market, then it really is worth taking the time to actually read our stuff, but maybe some of the others as well, and just know so that you're not wasting your time, because you can see the kind of things that we like.
And so you can, you know, pitch ideas to us that you think we will appreciate. So then I asked some of my colleagues, tell me some of the things that really annoy you that you really don't like about someone pitching a story. And to be honest, I think they got a bit carried away, some of them found it quite cathartic I think and vented their spleen. I haven’t brought them all to you here, but I'll give you an example of some of them. Calling to chase up an email, phoning to say, did you get my email, that we sent the other day and then emailing again just in case you didn't get this last week, I'm emailing you this again. And then maybe before all that, calling beforehand and saying, is it okay if I send you an email? And then presumably, I guess following that phone call up with emailing the story again, and then phoning to see whether we got it. Bad grammar, journalists, it will vary but some of us are probably guilty of this ourselves at sometimes, but many journalists particularly the older ones are pedants and if you have that apostrophe in the wrong place or whatever, then it might count against you so worth trying to remember your grammar.
Missing key facts. An example, it's not so much your sector, but someone might contact us and say, we're a housing developer or an estate agent and we've built or we're building this fantastic new project and there's all these wonderful flats and people are going to love it, but they don't tell us how much the houses are going to cost. I mean everyone, if they're interested in a property story, wants to know how much the house costs, you might not be able to afford it, but you still want to know. And that kind of stuff, so include those key facts. So think about, I suppose, think about, if you didn't know the ins and outs of your story, your product or your business, what would be the questions people would want to ask, what would you want to know? And it comes down to the traditionally, you know, what, when, where, who, how and why. And, just have those, again if you're sending a kind of ready made story, if you like, then include all that stuff in there. If you’re not, just make sure you have that information at your fingertips, or you know where you can get it. And then jargon, that goes back to the plain English. Everyone often picks up on the jargon and technical terms and the like.
And surveys, people if they're trying to market a product or something will think, oh, we'll do a survey. It's a kind of marketing thing. And, and they'll send us something that says, five out of ten people in Bristol, or 50% of people in Bristol eat cake for breakfast. So, okay I could eat cake for breakfast. But then you say, okay well, you look through and it doesn't actually tell you how many people they spoke to so you phone them up saying, how many people did they speak to? And they say, oh we spoke to 1,000 people. Oh, okay were they all in Bristol? No, no. But about a hundred are in the southwest. Okay, how many were in Bristol? Ten. So you found five people, probably in a cake shop at nine o'clock in the morning, who happens to be eating cake for breakfast and then you said that 50% of Bristolians eat cake for breakfast and that's just not true. Surveys wind us up when they're done like that, when they're not genuinely local. And that brings me on to the next point which is we don't hate Birmingham. It's nothing against Birmingham, but Birmingham begins with the letter B and so does Bristol. And what you will often find is that people approach us with stories that aren't really local. We're interested in local content, things that are happening in Bristol and so what they do is they, they have a generic press release that they're going to send out and they send it to lots of different media but they change the word. And that's annoying because it's generally not very interesting but what's even more annoying is when they forget. To take out the Birmingham and leave the word Bristol in because that's the previous one they sent.
And then the other one, and this this tells you more about us than about the people approaching us with a story, but lots of my colleagues came forward with they don't like people who are over friendly. They don't like people saying I hope you had an amazing weekend. I think it's fine if you know the person by all means. But if you've never spoken to this person, you don't actually care whether we've had a good weekend, really the tempting thing to do is always actually yeah I did, I did. I went to see my mum and went out to the pub, watched a bit of TV, and perhaps that will put them off. But no a lot of my colleagues picked out that one. So what does this tell you? It tells you that we're really quite grumpy. That's the main thing it tells you. It tells you that we don’t - that's not me in case you're wondering - We don't always, you know, have the best of tempers should we say. But I think that it’s information actually worth knowing, you know because it's not actually that we're grumpy people, it's that we're busy people, and I'm sure you guys are too, so, if you are phoning, or e-mailing a journalist, they're probably working on 5 or 6 stories that day and they're probably getting dozens if not hundreds of emails that day, all from people like you who think they've got a story.
So, what they need to do is know really quickly is whether what you're telling them is relevant, local and interesting to them. So the advice for that will be, if it's an email, put that in the subject line if it's genuinely local. I mean I get emails that I read and I think, where's the Bristol connection in this? And then because of that most of my colleagues would then just delete them. I tend to think, I must have missed it somewhere, and go back through because you have this sort of nightmare image if you've suddenly missed this huge story because Bristol was in the fifteenth paragraph and you didn't get that far, but most of my colleagues would just say, oh, delete it, you know, so make it relevant quickly, make it obvious why it's relevant straight away.
Also, I would say the busiest and most stressed person in the newsroom is the news editor. Which is unfortunate because he's probably the person you'll be put through to. And if you email the generic sort of news@email addresses that most media organizations have, that's the person who'll get it.
And really he's the last person you want to speak to. Or she, in our case it's a he. Because they're the most likely to be grumpy, in fact our news editor is actually the grumpiest person in the newsroom and, he's most likely to delete your email so what I would recommend to you is if you're a local company, you think you might have some stories to promote over the coming period of time. Try and build a relationship with individual journalists. Not the news editor but pick someone, now it might be because they're covering your subject, so I mean I cover business so if you're businesses it might be me.
Or, you might think I don't like the look of him so I'll try someone else. Have a look, you know, have a read of what we do and find a journalist, you think 'I quite like their stuff, you know, she's quite good' or whatever and then contact them directly, because you're more likely to get a positive response and particularly, because what that allows you to do is to really get to know what they like, what they don't like. You know, you can build a relationship with them and if you've sort of helped them with stories before and that they've sort of been pleased with it, and they're more likely to help you the next time, and if they know you're a kind of good contact and that you provide good stuff, then maybe your next story isn't quite as interesting, but they might just use it anyway because they quite like you and, you know, they want to keep you happy in case there's something better next time and so on. So build a relationship and then you're more likely to get someone like that.
And obviously that is me on a Saturday night. No, no one in our office looks like that, to be fair. But it was the happiest picture I could find. And so that's how you kind of pitch the story to us successfully. And actually I would just say the people, on the individual thing we are different. So actually I don't mind people saying I've got this potential story would you be interested and that helps again the personal relationships but that's how to pitch.
The next thing is the DIY, now if you can't be bothered with all that you think I've got a story but I really can't be bothered talking to those grumpy miserable journalists. Then don't worry, because all is not lost. We, on our website have just introduced a new thing where we have, opened our website up to the masses. So, what we are looking to do is, really we have a big audience, I mentioned before some of our audience figures. But we want to widen our content; there are only so many journalists you can afford to pay so we'd like you to do it for us is for free if that's alright. But no, what we'd like to do, what we're inviting local people and local businesses to share their news with our audience because there's a benefit for you. You've got news, you want to get your message out there, we've got an audience. And it's something that we think will work really well, and we're really excited about it, but it's quite a new thing. Traditional media organizations are quite protective about what we do, and that we're in charge of the news, and we decide what the news is. And that's just kind of opening it up to you. So it's an experiment for us, but it's one that we're really interested by. So, it's really simple to do and I'll just talk you through the basics of how do it, I won't bore you with it for too long. But if you look at our homepage, in the top right hand corner, you'll see the word 'register' in small letters. And you basically have to register as a user, you click on that, you fill in all these details and then you can basically post stuff to our website.
So what you do is on every article on the Bristol Post, and by the way this works on all newspaper sites within the local world group, which I don't know if the others have actually told anyone you can do it yet so if you've got an interesting story about Derby you can log on to the Darby telegraph website and post that on there. But just don't tell them that I told you that you could do it. And down the side of any article you'll see a little box that says write an article and for some reason there's a picture of a woman in blue dress lying on some grass presumably composing here story for the Bristol post. And, you click on that and it takes you through to this page, it's the Get Involved page. And, you can basically choose the things that you can do, so you write an article, upload pictures, and so on. And then basically it's really simple, you just write into a box. You write your story into a box. You write a headline, you write a story, you can upload pictures, you decide where on the website it goes. So, you can put it in the news channel, there are sub-channels, one of which is business, which is this one. It will go in there just the same as anything I've written. It will just go in that sort of channel of stories. So it's a real opportunity to get your news out there in the same way as if, as if I'd done it. And we also have, some of the bigger companies we've created dedicated channels for, Airbus for example.
And we really feel this is something that could work, but there are a few sort of technical things. It's dead simple but don't copy and paste from Word because it does crazy formatting, and it looks really daft. And it's something that I'm hoping our technical boffins, if we have any, will sort out. But for the mean time, the best way, if you want to write it beforehand, which obviously, you might do, write in whatever word processing package you use, but then, paste it into Notepad, and I'm sure most of you will know Notepad. It's the really basic word processor that you get on all kind of Microsoft and PCs. And that strips out all the formatting, so paste it into there and then copy that version and paste it into our, into our browser otherwise you'll get random words in big font sizes and it'll make you look like you've been drinking before you wrote it. No hyperlinks now perhaps a bit controversial but the moment the policy is that if you have a hyperlink in the story and you're not a paying customer of our business directory which is like our yellow pages then it will just be automatically rejected. So don't, don't stick typed links in unless you're a paying customer. And I'm sure if anybody wants to be a paying customer, I can point you in the right direction. No duplication, I'm sure if you’re in digital, most of you know Google and the like hate duplicated content on lots of different websites. So we're looking for original content. If you've written something for 3 other websites, we don't want that on ours. We want something original; because otherwise it kills our Google rankings and that's not good for us and it's not good for you either, because it means no one is finding your stuff. And really, the basics of what I was talking about before, tell us a story, use this medium to tell a story. If you write we've got new hamburgers for sale at 2.99, or whatever it might be; people aren't going to read that, it's not going to work.
So follow the advice that I told you about, about what's the story, what's interesting about your business, all of that because that's. Because that’s really what it's about, it's a medium for telling stories, and, I think, just before I come to that, the message I suppose some people say how will you maintain standards, how will you make sure that what you guys are writing on our website isn't rubbish. And isn't blatant advertising and the answer to that to me is it's about mutual respect in terms of respecting our audience. And also respecting each other, because if our website is full of rubbish, no one will look at it, but it doesn't help you either. If you post a story on our website that is a blatant advert, has no merit to it then we all know I think, that the online community is pretty quick to tell you what it thinks. And they'll post comments on it saying what's this rubbish and so on and I've seen it happen. But also as a safety net, the stories are pre-moderated so if we think it is rubbish, it won't get on there. So take that on board, it is about working really for your benefit giving you a medium on the Bristol Post, but on all the other websites across the local network of which there are many across the country and just using that as a medium to get your story out there.
And the final thing I would say is that people sort of say, well, you know, why should we, why would we want to do that, because you're a professional journalist, and that's fair enough, but there are in the former Avon area there's 36,000 businesses, and I believe that every business has a story in it.
I really do, I think any business in this room there is a story in there somewhere. But there's three hundred and sixty-five days a year and there's only one of me. And, if you do the math, if I was to manage that, giving myself a few days off over Christmas, that's a hundred stories a day, seven days a week, and I can’t quite manage that. I write pretty quickly, but that's a little beyond me. So hopefully, what I've talked to you about today will give you some knowledge and some tips, to first of all get your story to the top of the pile. But secondly, to mean you don't have to hang around and wait for me to phone you back, or email you back, but you can just get on with it and do it yourself.