The essentials: Public relations - Insider's guide to the media

Patrick McCurry

It's hard to overestimate the value of media coverage for kick-starting charity campaigns or simply raising a voluntary organisation's profile. In today's competitive environment, reaching the public through the media is crucial. Charities have some great human-interest stories to tell and some powerful messages to get across, but they often fall short in the basics of dealing with the media. That may mean failing to research the publication they are targeting, to develop relationships with individual reporters or to sell their ideas in a creative way. Six journalists and former journalists give their tips on how to get the media interested in your story.

MIKE PEAKE, Features editor, FHM

"We probably turn down 99 per cent of the ideas we get for articles. It's no good a charity contacting us to say: 'It's Testicular Cancer Week next month - would you like to write about it?' I'm looking for ideas that are a bit different and that fit in with the magazine's ethos.

"As much as I'd like to help charities, I need to think of the magazine and its readers first. Charities need to read the magazine and think about what would work for us, as well as for them.

"Charities assume the topic will sell itself, but they need to come up with a couple of specific ideas. They should try to be creative and think more laterally.

"For example, in the case of testicular cancer, can they find a major celebrity who has recovered from the disease and who would be willing to give us an interview? Or what about 50 photos of decaying testicles?"

ANDREINA CORDANI, Features director, Cosmopolitan

"We have strong links with two charities: the Everyman male cancer campaign and domestic violence charity Refuge. We're about to publish a 'Centrefolds VIP special' featuring a host of sexy male celebrities, all in aid of the Everyman campaign. We've used our centrefolds to promote the campaign for five years now.

"It might seem strange having a women's magazine associated with a male health issue, but the truth is that women often have a role in educating men about health issues.

"The relationship is a two-way street. Among the benefits we get are that the campaign can put us in touch with celebrities or put us in a stronger position when we approach celebrities for the centrefolds, especially as some of the celebrities may have had experience of cancer themselves, or through friends and relatives."

GORDON BORELAND, Founder of press release service The Press Works and former national journalist

"We live in an era of increasingly complex communications, with internet blogs, satellite and digital TV and podcasts. But the most cost-effective way to get media coverage is still to submit a newsworthy story about your charity. Journalists welcome information in writing, which is where a good press release comes in.

"Your story should be written in journalistic style, be free of jargon and possess a strong news angle if it can. Write it in as detached a way as possible in the third person, restricting 'I' and 'we' to the quotes. Put a headline at the top. Keep it simple, and make sure these few words invite the journalist to read on.

"Smaller charities that don't have the in-house expertise to generate positive publicity don't have to be excluded from making their mark in the media. Reputable and talented PR operators are available online to carry out one-off media relations tasks, charging from £100 upwards.

"A quick search on Google for 'press release' will produce a decent number of UK-based PR companies offering a range of publicity services and prices."

MICHAEL PRESCOTT, Former political editor of The Sunday Times, now managing director for corporate and public affairs at PR company Weber Shandwick

"Charities are for people in need, and the media love a heart-rending tale and stories about people. That gives charities an advantage because they work with people who have fascinating stories to tell. PR is about stories, so charities should work from the ground up by targeting the local media. For example, a charity campaign about the risks older people face in the winter could come up with people in need in each area.

"Journalists also like reports as a peg to hang their stories on. In the case of, say, an older people's charity, it could take local case studies of people at risk in the winter and put them into a wider report on the issue to get further media coverage."

SARA WARD, Features editor, Take a Break

"It sounds obvious, but it's really worth reading the magazine before you approach it with a story. Lots of PRs and publicists don't bother and end up pitching wildly inappropriate ideas. I'm often approached by PRs who tell me about a campaign that interests me, yet my eyes glaze over as they reel off a list of celebrity patrons - our magazine doesn't feature celebrities at all. We'd much rather hear a decent real-life story idea.

"As much as we want to help charity PRs promote their good causes, we also need stories that keep our readers entertained. This doesn't mean we want only sensational or racy case studies, just something different or interesting. We want to make our readers laugh and cry.

"I'd recommend contacting magazines by phone in the late morning or the afternoon - a features or commissioning editor will be probably very busy in the morning and not that receptive to calls from PRs."

STEVE TAYLOR, Communications director at Sue Ryder Care and a former tabloid journalist

"Journalism has changed a lot in the past 20 years - particularly in the past 10. For example, regional newspapers used to have lots of specialist reporters covering topics such as health, local government and so on.

"Because of cutbacks, the journalist you end up talking to about voluntary sector funding these days may come from a sports reporting background and have very little knowledge of charities. That means it's important to take the time to explain what the issues are, so the reporter can write a balanced article.

"I tell my people to build good relationships with journalists from the regional and national press and not to hide behind press releases. You can do this by, for example, making yourself available to give them background briefings on topics."

CASE STUDY

STEPS

Getting a full-page article in the Daily Mail was a major coup for Steps, a charity working with the families of children who have lower-limb abnormalities. The piece last December described a new method for treating clubfoot.

THE CHARITY'S VIEW

The idea for the article came from the charity. "We follow the discussion forum on our website so that we know what issues parents are talking about, and we also identify topics from enquiries to our helpline," says Sue Banton, director of the charity.

One of the hot topics among parents was a new treatment called the Ponseti method. "We wanted to get knowledge of this treatment to a wider audience and thought a women's magazine or national newspaper would be the best outlet," she says.

One of the journalists with whom the charity has developed a relationship is Emma Burns, whose child has a lower-limb condition.

"Emma is a freelance journalist who has done several articles about our work, so we thought she'd be a good choice," says Banton.

THE JOURNALIST'S VIEW

"I'd already written something for the Daily Mail health pages, so I submitted an email with the Ponseti idea and it was commissioned," says Emma Burns.

Steps has a list of parents who have said they are willing to talk to journalists about the condition, and the charity put one family in touch with Burns.

As well as developing relationships with individual journalists, Steps uses a PR company, 24seven, to develop relationships with publications.

Banton says: "We use them to 'warm up' newspapers by sending a few press releases on a particular topic, which can stimulate interest and lead to an article."

TEN STEPS TO BETTER COVERAGE

1. Consider whether the message you want to get across will be best communicated through a news story, a feature, a photo story or some other method.

2. Be clear about the type of media you want to target. Some stories suit local or regional newspapers. For others, a national consumer magazine would be best. Always read the publication carefully or listen to the programme you are targeting so that you match your story idea with its audience.

3. Develop relationships with specific journalists by sending them information, meeting them or making yourself available for background briefings.

4. If you aren't able to do the PR yourself, consider using an agency, or send your story to Community Newswire, which selects the best charity stories submitted each day, writes them up and sends them to newspapers and magazines.

5. Make sure you have spokespeople so there is always someone available to talk to a journalist.

6. Consider media training for staff likely to be talking to journalists.

7. Put together a report to underpin your campaign or story.

8. Consider organising case studies and photo ideas to accompany your story idea.

9. Be proactive - put your chief executive or chair of trustees forward to write an opinion piece.

10. Don't be afraid to ask the publication why your story idea was turned down; there might be things you could do differently next time.

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