If you’ve ever pitched a reporter by phone, you know how hard it can be to succeed.
When reporters say “no,” the person pitching often protests, “But this issue is so important!”
It might be important, but there’s a big difference between what you consider important and what the reporter considers newsworthy.
For example, there are more than 35 million people worldwide with HIV. That’s an important story. To a reporter, that story will be no more important tomorrow than it is today—unless something related to HIV happens today. If physicians discover a new vaccine or a drug company pledges to provide free drugs to a million HIV patients in Africa, the important issue will suddenly become newsworthy.
As a spokesperson, you must understand what reporters consider newsworthy. You can often propel your story from important to newsworthy just by highlighting a different angle.
So, look at that story you’re about to pitch, and see which of the following 16 elements it has (hopefully it has several). If you’re not prioritizing those elements, turn them into your lead.
1. Conflict: Reporters are professional storytellers, and good stories contain conflict. If you disagree with a competitor’s approach, you’re more likely to receive coverage than if you agree.
2. A local element: Most news organizations cover specific geographic ranges. An Iowa newspaper may report on a local charity event, but is unlikely to report on a new condo development in Florida (unless, for example, a well-known Iowa entrepreneur is the development’s lead investor).
3. An incident: Anything that goes wrong has the potential to become newsworthy, such as an industrial explosion, car crash or school shooting.
4. Extremes or superlatives: Reporters love extremes or superlatives: the first, last, best, worst, biggest, smallest. If your story contains one, highlight it to make your story more newsworthy.
5. Newness: It’s no coincidence “news” contains the word “new.” News stories have to answer the question, “Why now?” Stories that don’t are “old news”—or worse, “no news”—and usually receive little coverage.
6. Clickability: This is a new category, spawned by the popularity of news and entertainment websites such as BuzzFeed and Upworthy. Because these sites depend on clicks to draw readers (and thus advertisers), they’re more likely to run your story if it helps them attract a large audience. Think of provocative, highly emotional and downright weird stories, images and videos.
7. Timeliness and relevance: Timely stories are often newsworthy, as are stories relevant to the news organization’s specialty. An upcoming hearing at your local statehouse about a topic that affects the state’s senior citizens is a good example. The story will be of greater interest to a news organization that covers local politics than one that doesn’t.
8. News you can use: Fletcher Doyle, a former journalist, recommended this category. He writes: “Tell me something that will help my readers, and tell me how it will help them.”
For example, if a local Department of Motor Vehicles introduces a new auto registration process that shortens drivers’ wait time, local outlets might be interested.
9. A scandal: The congressman who hides money in his freezer, the hedge fund manager who rips off clients and the music mogul who murdered his companion are almost guaranteed to be newsworthy.
10. David vs. Goliath: Many stories have a “big guy” and a “little guy.” Because journalists often view themselves as the protectors of the exploited, the little guy usually receives more sympathetic coverage.
11. Incompetence: The corporate executive, politician or celebrity who can’t seem to get it right will almost always draw press.
12. Surprises: Stories with unexpected hooks are reporters’ candy. If your study discovers fried foods have previously undiscovered health benefits, you can bet the media will lavish you with coverage. (That story would also make me happy.)
13. Hypocrisy: Say you’re an anti-gay rights politician who was caught with a gay lover, or the president of an animal shelter who was caught abusing animals. There are few stories as delicious to reporters as powerful people betraying their publicly stated positions. These stories are almost guaranteed to remain in the headlines for several days or weeks.
14. Emotion: William Runge, one of my readers, suggested this category. Another reader, Juliet C., agreed, pointing out that many stories are neither surprising nor new—but that by digging deeper you can often uncover a story worth telling.
For example, imagine you released a product two years ago. It’s no longer news, but if you just learned about someone using the product in an unexpected, potentially life-altering way (e.g., a technology product that unexpectedly helped a hearing-impaired child hear for the first time), reporters will eagerly share the news.
15. Milestones: Susan Pepperdine (a reader) suggested this category, pointing out that “the seven billionth baby on Earth” was newsworthy, but “the baby born just before seven billion and the one after were not newsworthy.”
Some anniversaries are inconsequential—few journalists care that your business just celebrated its 35th anniversary—but others, such as Sept. 11, will be noteworthy for decades to come.
16. Narrative extenders: You see this category most often in politics. For example, a small political gaffe might not normally receive much attention unless it’s committed by someone with a long history of gaffes. Or perhaps a politician with a bullying streak gave a constituent a sarcastic answer, confirming the “bully” narrative the media already established about him.
What did I miss? Please add your thoughts in the comments.
Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm, and author of “The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.” He blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this article originally appeared.