From Press to PR: The dark art of pitching to the printed press

Award-winning, multi-media journalist and sub-editor ALISON LOWSON recently swapped print for PR after 28 years in the weekly/national newspaper business. Now working for leading Scottish independent marketing agency Volpa, Media Scotland’s former Central Tayside regional editor (Perthshire Advertiser, Strathearn Herald, Blairgowrie Advertiser, Stirling Observer) shares her top tips for teeing up top notch newspaper coverage …

Gone are the days when a journalist could spend time researching a story to her satisfaction.

With newsrooms under pressure to churn out content 24/7, fact-checked and finely-tuned copy is becoming a luxury that the printed press cannot afford.

Back in the day, an army of “readers” were employed to scour the paper for factual errors, glaring typos and wrongly captioned photos, before printing.

But that era is long gone, and it’s not unusual to see the hallowed pages of the big, national daily papers littered with embarrassing mistakes and so-called “fake news”.

It’s no surprise that standards are slipping. In this brave, new digital world, the overworked, underpaid hack isn’t just responsible for filling the paper with quality copy. She has to be a design genius as well – laying out pages, writing headlines and resizing pictures.

The toil doesn’t stop there. Every story has to be re-filed and packaged for the website. In some cases, this means briefly tweaking existing copy before uploading the words and images to the web. But, more often than not, it means creating a bespoke video package or photo gallery for the title’s digital offering. Which then had to be linked to the title’s social media with click-bait catchlines to maximise unique users and page views.

While extremely bad news for journalists, this state of affairs presents a real opportunity for the well-placed PR professional.

During my last 10 years as a newspaper editor, the daily flood of press releases were a lifeline that frequently kept my six weekly papers and companion websites and social media offering ticking over.

Admittedly 80% of the releases that pored into my in-box were pure dross (restaurant openings in London; book signings in Perth, Australia; random surveys etc. etc.), but the other 20% were gold dust for the hard-pressed editor faced with filling hundreds of blank pages every week.

There was a small, hard-core of agencies – Volpa at the top of the list – that I could rely on to send me great local stories, beautifully written and fact-checked, with a Dropbox link to some fantastic photography. All I had to do was re-write the intro and Bob’s Your Uncle/Fanny’s Your Aunt and I was in business.

Since moving from Media Scotland to Volpa at the beginning of the year, I’ve learned that many PR people consider pitching to newspaper journalists some kind of “dark art”.

But it’s really just common sense …

  1. RESEARCH. Read the newspaper and get a feel for the kind of stories they run. No point pitching a restaurant review or a press travel trip to a publication that doesn’t have a features section.
  2. COMPETITIONS. If you can’t get coverage in the news/features pages, ask you client to consider a competition. Usually they’ll have to put up a prize valued at £500+ but in return they’ll get at least ¼ page coverage. Most papers have a dedicated marketing/competition departments – these are the people to contact in the first instance.
  3. ADVERTISING. Weekly newspapers look after their advertisers extremely well (they are an endangered species after all!). If your client agrees a regular spend (even if it’s just a ¼ page, twice a year), then the editor is usually happy to give them “added value” editorial coverage.

4.. DEADLINES. Find out when the paper goes to press and DO NOT PHONE and hassle the journalist on deadline.

  1. CUTTNGS. Journalists are plagued with PR agencies looking for back copies and PDFs for clients. You might get one if you are a good contact (or if your client is an advertiser), but generally speaking you’ll just piss off a potential contact (particularly if you don’t know if/when the story was published). Instead, phone the customer service number and order a copy. Or better still pay for a cuttings agency.
  2. BE UPFRONT #1. Don’t hide bad news in the last par. It’s the first place a journalist will look. Especially in council press releases.
  3. BE UPFRONT #2. Don’t use jargon or council “double speak” to disguise bad news. Journalists are multi-lingual and know full well that “rationalisation” and “restructuring” mean job losses.
  4. IMAGES #1. Unless Justin Beiber/Meghan Markle is involved, it’s unlikely you’ll get a staff photographer to cover your event (especially at the weekend, or after 5pm). To boost your chance of coverage, always attach a great image or video (or both) with your press release. And remember to caption it properly, with a left to right of everyone pictured.
  5. IMAGES #2: Bypass the newsdesk entirely and consider pitching to the picture desk (nationals) or staff photographer (weeklies).
  6. EMBARGOES. Embargoes are a waste of time. Particularly if the release has been sent out as a blanket mailshot to dailies, weeklies, TV and radio at the same time. Someone ALWAYS breaks the embargo.
  7. HOUSE STYLE. All newspapers have a “house style” particularly for dates and numbers. Generally speaking, dates should be written as follows: Friday, May 8. And numbers: one to nine should be written in full, and 10 and above in numerals. Time-pressed journalists hate having to make these changes when cutting and pasting press releases.