Writer & producer - gaming, tech, web culture, fintech, crypto, and nerd lore.
When I started doing Public Relations, more than 20 years ago, I was kind of a mess…
I had just gotten my MFA in Playwrighting and had been working in documentary development, so I earned some writing chops but they needed adapting to corporate writing.
And then to news writing. It shows how little the issue of writing for PR is understood in most organizations — you can move your copywriter to write press releases if you want your press releases to sound like marketing copy. Worse, marketing content that is completely out of touch with the news cycle.
Looking back, I marvel at the degree to which I did not ask questions. Leadership asked me to write a release, usually something about a partnership or new client that has virtually no news value. I would draft the release dutifully and I would post it on our website as instructed with no clear expectations as to what that is supposed to accomplish.
And nothing happens at all in terms of press coverage.
I was trying too hard to be a team player and I wasn’t asking WHY we were doing the news stories we were doing.
I had already been learning in the intervening decades the importance of gathering information, but what crystalized the lesson was when I started writing my own articles.
When we started with social distancing and semi-lockdown in Pennsylvania in March, I felt a certain lack of control over my circumstances so I took the time to build up a skill: writing articles.
Not ghostwritten guest posts and op-eds for executives — I have dozens of those published without my name on them, but that’s a totally different experience. You don’t get the byline when you ghostwrite, but you are also shielded. It’s not your brand attached to the piece.
I wanted to start with something that is personally important, so I wrote about COVID-19 and PR — as a way of framing an issue and providing a sense of control.
By writing articles I learned more about PR. It led me to keep asking questions (like a reporter) until I had a story — just like I had to when I was publishing my own pieces.
This comes into play when I am kicking off a new client, I prefer to start by doing interviews with all the key stakeholders and delivering a messaging document to them at the end of the process.
All the question asking I get to do allows me to get to know the leadership, their stories, and what they are passionate about (and therefore good speaking about), the strengths and weaknesses of the brand from a candid POV, etc. I transcribe the interviews and produce a high-level messaging document from the process. (You can use the transcription service that has been added to Zoom Pro, or you can use a free service like Otter.ai which provides limited free transcriptions without a paid subscription.)
But understanding your clients is just the beginning. It gives you what you need to represent them but you won’t get anywhere with your story till you learn to embrace the news cycle.
As a PR writer, you are a part of the news ecosystem. You need to understand your industries’ news cycles ideally as well as the reporters that you pitch.
If you don’t understand what is relevant to a particular reporter on a particular day, don’t write that reporter. It can be a daunting amount of research but you can tie almost any story into an active news cycle — as long as you take the time to make your angle work with and not against news trends.
Reporters get between dozens and in some cases hundreds of pitches each day. They do not have the time to give you feedback and educate you on what will matter to them.
But there is a better way to get a first-hand idea of what makes a good story, how to stick to what people want to read, and how to be relevant in the news cycle. By learning first-hand what it takes to make a good article.
It is a different kind of accountability to publish under your own name. It feels liberating and at the same time, your personal brand is exposed.
Most importantly, if you are contributing to a legitimate publication, you are now having a taste of the experience your media contacts have all day, every day around every story.
Now it’s on you to make sure that the article answers the 5 Ws and one H of journalism, first invented by English rhetorician Thomas Wilson (1524–1581): Who; What; When; Where; Why; and How.
In short, you learn that if you are going to call it a story — including press releases, since they are really meant to inspire stories in earned media coverage — then that story needs to have an actual point.
It’s easier to just push out a story that was someone else’s idea using some words they insisted on and send it to hapless reporters. It is a different matter to publish a story in your own name and have to ask yourself “what is the news here.”
As a PR professional, you are going to enjoy some tasks more than others. Each press release is a chance to assess the odds on a press release gaining traction in the media. All too often we accept what we are given without trying to reshape the angle in such a way as to make it relevant to the news cycle.
Recently, I was asked to write a press release about a corporate re-branding. If the story had been released without any acknowledgment of the current pandemic it would have been seen as worse than irrelevant — it would actually seem somewhat insensitive.
Rather than just taking the order to do the press release and filling the order — as I would have done 20 years ago — I pushed in an interview to get out of him how this story relates to, is an extension of, and even a victory story in the face of a global pandemic. The rebranding had to be part of the news cycle or it would be irrelevant and ignored.
In short, putting on my contributing writer hat helped me look at the story in terms of what is real news, not just a self-serving corporate report. The results were much more successful than the original release would have been.
It’s a natural thing to want to please your client, but by questioning the stories your clients want to do with the same filter you put on your own stories when you publish them, you will serve your clients better by giving them a stronger angle that can meet the criteria of reporters in terms of being relevant and usable.
The same ideas apply to entrepreneurs who are doing their own PR — get closer to what is important to your audience, understand their news cycle, and contribute to what is topical.
News is its own entity and is not obliged to follow our business goals, such as providing our clients coverage just because we want them to (unless it’s a paid placement.) It is up to us to understand the needs of our clients (media contacts) and to find a way to make our news items meet their needs. In finding that balance, first-hand experience writing stories helps tremendously.
Justin Roberti has a background in media and fine arts and has been writing and doing PR/marketing for over 20 years for Fortune 500 and startups in media, gaming, consumer tech, mobile tech, fintech, and blockchain. He is the PR Director for blockchain agency Zage.io
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