Newsworthiness and Implications for PR

Last September, NPR wrote about the Occupy Wall St. protests that were happening in New York City. People got upset. They complained to the NPR Ombudsman.

The executive editor for news, Dick Meyer, responded by saying “The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.

The ombudman said he doesn’t weigh in on daily news judgements unless a decision is “totally egregious or part of a long term trend”, and he said the decision not to write about the Occupy protests was neither.

So, if Occupy Wall St. in September 2011 wasn’t newsworthy, then what is?

Today’s assignment for PRL 614 (PR Writing for the Web is to examine a day or two of top news on: CNN.com, ABCNews.com, CBSNews.com, NYTimes.com, HuffingtonPost, FoxNews.com, WashingtonPost.com, MSNBC.com, and LATimes.com, write about what the featured stores indicate about newsworthiness in today’s media climate, and write about what the implications of the current trends in newsworthiness are for today’s public relations professional.

If PR Theory has taught me anything is it to begin with key concepts and try to define them. While there isn’t quite one all-encompassing definition of newsworthiness, there are a few important characteristics of it.

Brad Phillips, president of Phillips Media Relations and a former journalist with ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN’s Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang, wrote about 11 Things that Journalists Consider Newsworthy. Let’s begin with them.

1. Conflict: Reporters are professional storytellers, and good stories have conflict. If you disagree with a competitor’s approach, for example, you’re more likely to receive coverage than if you agree.

2. Local: Most news organizations cover a specific geographic range. A newspaper in Iowa may report on a local charity event, but is unlikely to report on a new condo development in Florida.

3. Incident: Anything that goes wrong has the potential to become newsworthy, such as an industrial explosion, a car crash, or a school shooting.

4. Extremes or superlatives: Reporters love extremes or superlatives: the first, the last, the best, the worst, the biggest, the smallest. If your story contains one, highlighting it will usually make it more newsworthy.

5. New: It’s no coincidence that the word “news” contains the word “new.” News stories have to answer the question, “why now?” Stories that don’t are considered “old news” and usually receive little coverage.

6. Timely and Relevant: Timely stories, often about an upcoming event, are often considered newsworthy, as are stories relevant to the news organization’s specialty. A Boston-area real estate journal will consider a story about next week’s annual gathering of local real estate pros newsworthy, but the Boston Globe probably won’t.

7. Scandal: The Congressman who hides money in his freezer, the hedge fund manager who rips off his clients, and the music mogul who murders his companion are almost guaranteed to be deemed newsworthy.

8. David vs. Goliath: In many stories, there is a “big guy” and a “little guy.” Since the media often view their role as being the protector of the exploited, the little guy usually receives more sympathetic coverage.

9. Incompetence: The corporate executive, politician, or celebrity who can’t seem to get it right will almost always draw the critical eye of the press.

10. Surprising: Stories with an unexpected hook are candy to reporters. If your study discovers that fried foods have previously undiscovered health benefits, you can bet the media will lavish your work with coverage. That story, incidentally, would also make me very happy.

11. Hypocrisy: I saved my favorite for last. Say you’re an anti-gay rights politician who gets caught with a gay lover. Or the president of an animal shelter who’s caught abusing animals. There are few stories as delicious to reporters as powerful people betraying their own publicly-stated positions – and they’re almost guaranteed to remain in the headlines for days or weeks.

So if we start with the assumption that Brad is right and the more of these attributes there are to a story the more “newsworthy” it is, when we can move another what the implications are for PR.

First, the headlines

Biden is in ‘denial’ about Libya, Romney says

Romney seizes on Biden’s remark on Libya attack

White House moves to insulate Biden, Obama on Libya security question

Libya Attack Gains Steam as Issue in Race for President

‘MATHEMATICALLY IMPOSSIBLE’

Clearly, remarks from the debate triumph, and Biden’s remarks on Libya can be seen by some as incorporating the Conflict, Incident, Timely and Relevant, Scandal, Incompetence, and Hypocrisy sections.

What’s further evident is that no stories on the top on any of the above front pages currently have any stories that one could quickly assume originated with a pitch from a media relations person.

However, partway down the Washington Post page you see a review for Argo with the headline “Affleck’s ‘Argo’ is a nail-biting political thriller with a Hollywood twist“. This film, regarding how State Department employees were sheltered in the Canadian Embassy and then taken out of the country clearly is timely in that it relates to current tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

Overall the stories indicate that Brad Phillips is right and that those are aspects of a story that makes it newsworthy and that news organization publish and feature stories like those.

What it means for media relations professionals is that they ought to write their releases and pitches in a way that makes them newsworthy. Organizations need to be careful when piggybacking on current events to ensure they are not being insensitive or inappropriate like Kenneth Cole was when the made light of the violence in Egypt in February of 2011.

About Geoff Campbell

Geoff Campbell is the Digital Communications Coordinator for Hebron Academy.

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