Every day, reporters and editors endure an overwhelming tide of news releases and story ideas—in their email inboxes, in the mail, by fax. From this ocean of information they hope to fish out a few stories that are truly newsworthy to their audience. Some stories cry out for coverage, and I don’t just mean acts of violence or the snafus of politicians. For example, it’s newsworthy when two large companies merge or if an international rock star gives a benefit concert.
But what if the story is smaller? Why do some get selected and some don’t?
Although I have been a public relations professional or news reporter for more than 25 years, I still can’t tell you how to guarantee media coverage of a smaller news story or one that may be part news and part feature.
But I can share a number of mistakes that will typically guarantee that the news release ends up in the trash bin. When I was a television news reporter years ago, not a day went by in which I did not see at least one news release with one of these mistakes. And, judging from the complaints I hear from reporters and the news releases that I see on company websites today, these mistakes are still quite widespread.
Here are six of the most common errors that organizations and marketing agencies make when approaching the news media:
1. Send the news release to a reporter or to a media outlet that would never consider covering the story because it’s not in their editorial scope.
2. Send it to a reporter in a way that he/she doesn’t like and perhaps doesn’t use. While most reporters like email, some still prefer facsimile transmissions or even regular mail. It’s best to find out ahead of time what each reporter prefers.
3. Write the news release from the point of view of your organization or its customers and not from the point of view of the audience for the media outlet.
4. Use too much jargon or make the news release too technical.
5. Make syntactical errors that virtually all reporters know are wrong. For a full list of some of the more common of these glaring writing mistakes, see the Associated Press Style Book or any edition of Strunk & White. Here are two examples:
- Misuse of “comprise:” saying that “animals comprise the zoo” when in fact “the zoo comprises animals”
- Referring to a company as an animate object or a plural object in the use of pronouns, “the company who…” and “the company and their employees…” are both wrong. It should be “the company that…” and “the company and its employees.” Don’t trust the word check function in Word on this point: it is just plain wrong to say “the company who” and “the person that.”
6. Use some overworked words that signal that there is more hype than news. Our research shows that many reporters and editors automatically delete email that contains words they hate to see; the words that will most commonly turn off reporters include “solutions,” “scalable,” “state-of-the-art” and that enduring classic of hyped language, “unique.” By the way, a recent study showed that the media receive a news release containing the word “solution” every eight minutes.
The common theme in these mistakes is lack of knowledge of or respect for journalists and the news gathering process. It is a lack of knowledge that causes organizations to misuse words or send a news release to the wrong reporter. It is a lack of respect for the process that is at the heart of focusing the message of a news release on something that is important to the organization, but not to anyone else.
The best way to approach reporters is to treat them like you treat a customer: know what makes them tick, understand how your product—the news story—helps them out, communicate in the language they like to use, and make it as convenient as possible for them to work with your organization.