Reporter-speak: Words and phrases PR pros should know

The nomenclature of a newsroom shouldn’t be a mystery. Mastering a few key terms will help you communicate with journalists, while bolstering your credibility among members of the Fourth Estate.

An account executive recently walked into my office with a look on his face that said he either drank bad milk or his favorite team just lost. He looked at me and nervously asked, “What is a vo/sot?”

A reporter had just responded to one of his client pitches and said he would do a vo/sot on the story. My AE thought he had failed the client when, in fact, the opposite was true. A vo/sot is a good thing, and he realized as much after I explained to him what it meant.

That got me to thinking that this could be a problem for many PR professionals. I had the good fortune of spending more than 15 years in a newsroom as an anchor, but let’s face it, not everyone spends four years of college and a good portion of their life learning about newsroom jargon.

Have no fear—I’ll decode some frequently used terms from newsrooms and what they mean:

VO (Voice Over): A reporter might say, “We’ll spray your event and get a VO.” That’s not a disease; it’s a good thing. That means they will send a camera crew to your event, usually for 5-10 minutes, and get some video of the event or story you have pitched. If you are watching the news, an anchor will read the story and they will run video over the story. VOs last usually between 15 and 40 seconds, sometimes followed by a graphic, but there is no interview attached. A VO is also used for sports highlights, as well.

VO/SOT (Voice Over/Sound on Tape): This is an expanded version of the VO. An anchor reads the story using video of your client then an interview with your client or representative. This usually will run about 45 seconds and allows the anchor to talk about your story in addition to giving your client the opportunity for a quick interview that will run on the air. In sports, this is used on game day where the anchor reads over the highlights and then says, “Coach Brown had this to say about the win…”

PKG (Package): As it sounds, a package comprises video and interviews coupled with a reporter voice packaged in about 1:15 to 1:30. This depends on the story and time of year. An evergreen story will run no more than 1:30. A breaking news story could run less or more, depending on content, and an investigative or sweeps piece (stories in February, May, July, or November; please see later entry later on Ratings/Sweeps) could run upward of five minutes-but those are deep digs into bigger-picture stories.

For example, this story on a high school football coach who needed a kidney transplant has video of him coaching, at the hospital, and after he received the kidney from his sister-in-law.

Kicker: You just pitched a story, and the reporter said, “Great—that sounds like a kicker.” There will be no physical violence involved— the kicker is the last story in a newscast or a story that transitions out of serious news into well, fluff. Remember the squirrel on water skis? The ribbon-cutting of the new YMCA—it’s the feel-good story that ends the show. A kicker is usually either a vo or vo/sot, but either way what makes a kicker powerful for the client is that when the story is finished, there is usually talk between the anchors before the show ends, which is an added value to your client and their story.

AP Style: The first book I give my staff when they are hired is “The Associated Press Stylebook.” If you follow AP style, you will make a lot of friends in the newsroom. You also have a better chance of your release, copy, or content going in a paper or online without any editing. Here’s a little secret; television reporters and anchors do not follow AP writing style, they talk off the cuff, but online and print adhere to AP style. To command respect from them, you should as well.

Byline: In newspapers and online stories, you will generally see a byline, which identifies the author. Sometimes the story has a real writer, sometimes the byline says Associated Press, and sometimes, in rare cases, the reporter will put the byline of your PR firm. If you can write in AP style and send a finished product to a media outlet, your will become a trusted source and will not only be a credible source for content, but you will also be a pseudo-writer for the media outlet.

Ratings/sweeps: In TV and radio, this is the most important time of the year for journalists. February, May, July, and November are the four months that media outlets are measured by viewers (Nielsen Ratings). The higher the ratings, the more money they can charge for ads—and the happier the management team is. It is also during these months that reporters file long-form stories or harder hitting, in-depth stories. So, if your store opening pitch isn’t resonating during one of those times, that is probably the reason.

Here’s a tip on how you can be a part of the story: Talk to reporters a month or two before key ratings periods, and ask them whether they are working on anything specific for sweeps. (See how you are already using reporter-speak?)

Figure out how your client/story can be a part of a bigger story during those times, or how you can position your client to be the story during those months. These are the “teaseable” stories-the stories that you hear, “Coming up tonight at 6:00, you’ll never believe what one man did to save his family.” Reporters are always required to come up with sweeps stories; help them out, and you will make a friend for life.

There are many other terms that a journalist will throw your way—all of which might sound foreign to you because in a sense they are. Reporter-speak, like any lingo, is learned over time, and the faster you can speak the language of the newsroom, the more productive you will be when talking to reporters.

Lee Gordon is the director of corporate communications for 180 Communications. He is a journalism veteran, working as a television sports/news anchor at CBS and FOX for 15 years.

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Topics: PR

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