Provided to FALA by Ed Shiller
© 2019 by Ed Shiller
Messaging and key points
Your key points are the actual words you will write or speak. Their purpose to persuade your key publics to behave in desirable ways. In the case of Bill C-81 that primary purpose would be to have the legislation receive royal assent before the 2019 general election, and to achieve this you want to persuade your various stakeholders and the general public to express their support for the bill. When doing this, bear in mind that you will likely be more effective by downplaying or avoiding hard-sell statements, and instead giving information that will enable your publics to draw their own conclusions about you, your organization and what you are promoting.
Note that I use the phrase “key point” and not “key message.” There is an important distinction.
The former are the actual words you speak when answering a reporter’s questions or the words you write in a news release or op-ed article. The latter are what those words actually convey. The two are not always identical. Indeed, sometimes putting into words the underlying message you want to convey will actually have the opposite effect.
For example, an organization that makes a large donation to the new oncology ward of the local hospital wants to build good will by conveying the message that it is a good corporate citizen. But making a direct statement, usually in the form of a quote in a news release, along the lines that the gift “demonstrates our commitment to being a good corporate citizen” might backfire.
Instead of conveying the desired message, the quote might instead generate ill will by leading the public to conclude that the organization is insincere and is only interested in making itself look good.
On the other hand, conveying the desired message would likely be accomplished by talking, not about the generosity’s generosity, but rather about the benefits to the community of the hospital’s new oncology ward.
- Identify the topic of your news release or op-ed article and list the newsworthy aspects (sub-topics) of the story.
- Write out as separate statements – or key points – what you will say about each of these sub-topics. Each of these key points is a fact, interpretation or argument, and should meet all of the following criteria:
- It is truthful (i.e., factually correct);
- It is accurate (i.e., it gives an accurate impression of the organization);
- It is beneficial to your organization (i.e., it will instill those attitudes and perceptions that will likely induce your key publics to act in ways that will advance your organization’s goals and objectives), and
- It is beneficial to your key publics (i.e., it helps them make informed decisions that will advance their own enlightened self-interest).
- These are your positive key points, and they will only meet the above criteria when an organization does good things and does them well – or comes clean when it doesn’t. But if an organization tries to mask incompetence or to cover up wrongdoing, all of the four criteria cannot be met. Under these circumstances, being truthful and accurate will not advance an organization’s goals and objectives (assuming that these goals and objectives entail continuation of the incompetence or wrongdoing), since key publics, in making informed decisions, will likely not act the way the organization wants them to. Conversely, the only way an organization could get its key publics to do its bidding would be to lie outright to them or to bend the truth in order to create inaccurate but glowing perceptions about the organization. And this, of course, is unethical, immoral and, in some cases, illegal – and you ought not to do it.
- Identify any newsworthy elements of the story, and what the media might say about them, that could have an undesired effect on your key publics. Such statements are negative key points. They may be true and valid, in which case the organization might well benefit from a re-evaluation of how it interacts with the affected publics. But if the statements are, in fact, incorrect or misleading, you might want to raise them pre-emptively in a way that will set the record straight.
In summary: A key point is positive, if it is truthful and accurate and will help you attain your goals and objectives. It is negative, if it is misleading or will hinder the attainment of your goals and objectives.
Creating a media kit
Format the news release or op-ed article.
- Use letterhead or special news release letterhead containing your organization's name, address and phone number, email address and website url.
- Use brief headline, if it contains one of your key points and is the most newsworthy aspect of the story.
- Give the name, title and day and night phone number of media contact person.
Write the news release or op-ed article.
- Be straightforward, lively and brief and avoid jargon. News releases should rarely be longer than 500 words; op-ed articles can be up to about 900 words long for major dailies, but significantly shorter for small daily or weekly publications.
- Organize your thoughts by listing your key points in order of priority.
- Choose which type of lead paragraph you want: "Spot-news" or "Feature.
- Time element is essential to the story (it happened today and the media will want to report it today);
- The writing style is straightforward and factual.
- The story lacks a definite time element and can thus be reported at any time;
- And it usually has human interest that paints a "word picture" or uses a "people" lead to capture the reader's attention.
- While the feature lead may work for some news releases, it is almost invariable the desired approach for op-ed articles.
- Write the lead paragraph, ensuring that it contains a key point that is both newsworthy and high on your priority list and that it incorporates the five Ws (Who, What, Where, When and Why).
- Introduce your other key points as a means of supporting or explaining the lead.
- Sprinkle news releases liberally with brief quotes. The media love to use quotes because they bring the reader closer to the subject of the story, so putting your most important key points in quotes increases the likelihood that they will be used. A good technique is to use a quote as a transition from one topic to another, either to introduce the topic or to sum it up.
- Review the release to ensure that the information is presented logically, clearly and in accordance with acceptable journalistic style and standards.
- Double check to ensure that you've included all necessary key points.
Determine the remaining content of your media kit.
The following is a list of materials that might be included in addition to the news release. It is not a list of items that must be included - with the exception of the news release, which forms the basis of all media information kits.
- News Release or op-ed article.
- Backgrounders or fact sheets, if needed to expand on information contained in news release or op-ed article.
- Biographical sketch or organizational description, if appropriate.
- Photos, if appropriate.
- Covering letter, if appropriate.
What makes a story newsworthy
Broadly speaking, news is whatever an editor believes will appeal to the kind of viewers, listeners or readers that the media outlet wants to attract. Some stories generate their appeal because the information they convey will have an immediate and significant effect on peoples’ well-being. Examples of such stories would be the levy of a new tax, the dropping of an election writ, tougher airport security measures, banks raising their mortgage rates and the death of a prominent public figure. The newsworthiness of other stories may result from less tangible factors: how the story relates to others things going on at the time, where the events of the story take place, whether they touch an emotion chord or even how well they are written and illustrated.
I’ve tried to distill these often-elusive factors into a concise definition that would not only be easy to grasp but would also have extensive practical application; that is, they would help you weave your story in ways that would incorporate the most newsworthy elements in the most appropriate way.
The following definition has evolved over the years, and I also began to see in it aspects that I had not been aware of when I first created it more than two decades ago. For example, those elements of newsworthiness at the top of the list are more rational and less open to distortion caused by emotions and prejudices than the items lower down on the list. And in a cruel twist of fate, stories built upon the criteria of newsworthiness placed at the bottom of the list, though more likely to distort the truth, generally get greater media coverage than will stories built upon the criteria of newsworthiness at the top of the list. In effect, the greater the newsworthiness of a story, the greater the likelihood that the story will promulgate distorted perceptions of reality. Thus stories based on controversy will likely be more newsworthy, but less accurate than stories based primarily on factual information.
Relevance - The impact that the factual information contained in a story may have on readers, viewers or listeners. There are four significant components of relevance:
- The size of the impact – i.e., the degree to which a story affects you personally or the number of people a story affects. The greater the impact, the greater the newsworthiness of the story.
- The timeliness of the story – i.e., when the impact occurs or when the impact is known. Something happening tomorrow is more newsworthy than something happening next year.
- Geographic proximity – i.e., an event occurring in your backyard is of greater interest to you than an event that takes place in another city, province or country.
- Credibility – i.e., the more people believe what the story says, the more newsworthy it becomes.
Topicality - Other events or issues before the public that relate to your story may make it more relevant and, hence, more newsworthy.
Human interest - Stories that touch our heart strings or affect our sense of justice and morality. Stories that focus on individuals and are told through their eyes. As Stalin once remarked: A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. Mundane stories may sparkle when human interest is added to the mix. As a business reporter at the Toronto Star, I was assigned to write a story on record-low rental apartment vacancy rates in the city, but when I handed in a straight-forward factual story reporting the latest statistics from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the editor tossed the copy back with the dictum: “Put people lead on it.” I began the piece with a brief account of the frustrations experienced by three families trying to find an apartment to rent. The remainder of the story remained substantially unchanged from my original version. But by injecting human interest into what would have otherwise been a rather hum-drum bit of copy became a front-page take-out.
Entertainment - If it's fun, funny or a bit off-beat, the media will love it.
Controversy - It's the meat and potatoes of the media, but you don't want to cook your goose. The fact is you rarely, if ever, look good when ranting and raving. But the media want you to because it's gripping and will thus sell more papers and attract more viewers. So you will constantly have to repel reporters' efforts to embroil you in controversy. The trick is to seize upon controversies because of their topicality, but not to get embroiled in them. And when you do speak out publicly about controversial developments or are directly involved in them, comment on the facts, not on the personalities or motivations of other individuals or organizations.
Increasing the media coverage of your story
Most of the stories that organizations generate have low or moderate news value, most frequently because they lack high values in one or more of the four aspects of relevance: Impact, timeliness, geographic proximity and credibility. The naming of a new vice president, the issuance of unspectacular quarterly earnings, the opening of a new branch, an organization’s views on the new federal budget, the winning of a new contract – these are all newsworthy events that will likely garner limited coverage in those media that appeal to the specialized audiences affected by the particular information you are disseminating. People working for other organizations in your industry or sector will want to know of significant personnel changes at your organization; current and potential investors will want to keep tabs on your earnings; people working or living in the community in which your new branch is situated would like to know of a new bank, department store or factory in their midst, and so forth.
Frequently, the limited media coverage that such stories receive will suit you just fine. But on occasion, the attainment of certain organizational goals and objectives may depend upon generating a significant increase in public awareness of, and a willingness by people to act with respect to, certain developments. In such situations, maximizing the scope and frequency of the media coverage of what might generally be regarded as minor news stories becomes an important communications strategy.
The key to maximizing media coverage is to leverage one or more of the criteria contained in the above definition of newsworthiness that would most appropriately and effectiveness bring to the fore the salient aspects of your story. For example, interjecting controversy into a story will almost certainly give a dramatic boost to the newsworthiness of any story, though in most cases I would advise against doing this because of the increased probability that the eventual media coverage would significantly distort, to your disadvantage, what you are trying to convey.
Among the most common reasons stories have low news value are that nothing new has actually occurred, or the facts have been previously reported; the impact of new or changing circumstances is not immediate or it is speculative; the relevance to people’s lives is not readily apparent; the facts are complicated, highly technical or otherwise difficult to comprehend; the events described are taking place far away; a person or organization is unknown so is easily overlooked by the media.
Here are some of the tactics that can be used to add newsworthiness to – or harden – soft stories:
Localizing your story
Since geographic proximity sharpens the relevance of a news story, adding local angles to your news release will increase its newsworthiness. Let’s say, for example, that a Toronto-based national restaurant chain is announcing awards that mark exceptional achievements by its employees. It would issue what might be called the master news release distributed to media across the country. This might read something along the lines of: Taste Good Inc. today awarded a four-week all-expenses paid European vacation to each of its six top-performing managers, chosen from among the Canada-wide chain’s 135 restaurants.
Then it would write an additional six news releases, with each highlighting one of the six managers, for distribution to the media in the region of the restaurant in which the manager worked. Such a news release might being: Jane Doe, who runs the Taste Good restaurant in downtown Vancouver, was one of six of the nationwide chain’s top-performing managers to be awarded a four-week all-expenses paid European vacation.
And if any of the managers might have come from a region different from the one in which the restaurant was situation, yet another news release could be written and distributed to that region. The lead might read: Jane Doe, a Mainville High School graduate, was one of six top-performing managers at the Canada-wide Taste Good restaurant chain to be awarded a four-week all-expenses paid European vacation.
Speaking engagements are activities that, ostensibly, would take place in their own right, regardless of whether the media would take an interest. In point of fact, however, speaking engagements greatly enhance the newsworthiness of “soft” stories by adding timeliness, geographic proximity and credibility, thus greatly increasing their relevance. The media coverage usually generated by a speech tends to be uniform, with reporters giving a straight-forward account of what was said.
Follow these steps to get media coverage of a speaking engagement:
- Establish your news “peg.” This is the salient newsworthy point of the story; i.e., the one bit of information that will attract the greatest audience (for example: Bill C-81 will be the first legislation of its kind ever enacted by the Canadian government).
- Select the appropriate forum. Organizations such as the Board of Trade, Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Club invite speakers for their regular luncheon or dinner meetings. Also seize the opportunity when you or others in your organization are invited to speak, either as a sole presenter or member of a panel, at workshops or seminars organized by professional or trade associations.
- Write the presentation.
- Prepare a media kit. This will always include the presentation and the news release on its content, but it may also contain a brief bio and photo of the speaker and relevant backgrounders or fact sheets.
- Several days to a week before the speech, invite the media to attend, telling them who is speaking and giving a brief description of the topic (being sure to include the news “peg”). Bear in mind that the media’s attendance at the presentation is secondary to getting the media to cover what was presented.
- Email the kit to all the invited media on the morning of the speech.
- If the topic has broad regional or national interest, distribute the news release to non-invited regional or national media on the morning of the speech.
- Hand out hard copies of the media kit to all journalists (reporters, photographer and video camera operators) as they arrive at the presentation venue.
Staging an event to get your message out makes the story timely, dramatic and proximate. The procedure for getting media coverage of a special event is almost the same as it is for speaking engagements, except there is no speech. Of course, if you say a few words at the special event, you have also created a speaking platform and would include the text in the media kit.
As with speeches, media coverage of special events will tend to be uniform with respect to salient facts. But because so much more is usually going on at special events than at speaking engagements, reporters may approach the story from different angles and focus on different aspects of what occurred.
Also, since some events, such as trade shows and exhibitions, may continue for several days, you can expand media coverage by issuing news releases as specific developments unfold. The first such development would be the announcement that the event will take place. This can come years in advance of the event, as is the case, for example, with the Olympics, when venues are announced seven years or so before the games take place. Or, it can come just days or hours prior to the event.
The facts and opinions you wish to convey in one-on-one interviews may be the same as those you raise in a speech and at a special event, but the coverage you get may be quite different.
A speech or special event occurs at particular time and place. This enhances newsworthiness by emphasizing those aspects of relevance that relate to timeliness and geographic proximity, and the stories printed or broadcast by the media tend to be similar, since all reporters have been exposed simultaneously to essentially the same material. And their stories will be printed or broadcast right away, since the various media outlets are in competition to report a breaking story as quickly as possible.
With one-on-one interviews, however, each reporter has a greater opportunity to develop the story in his or her own way, and each media outlet can choose its own time for printing or broadcasting that story. That’s because a one-on-one interview is a unique and private event that takes shape from the interaction between interviewer and interviewee. Each reporter doing an interview is really working in isolation from all other reporters.
Elements of timeliness and geographic proximity do exist in one-on-one interviews, and they add to the news value of the story. Indeed, this is why it is more effective to give interviews in the community in which the media outlet resides. But timeliness and geographic proximity are usually supplemented by other aspects of newsworthiness, such as topicality or human interest. As a result, news coverage following one-on-one interviews tends to vary – both in content and day of publication or broadcast – from one media outlet to the other.
If your aim is to build awareness of and goodwill towards an individual, organization or issue rather than to promulgate specific information about that individual, organization or issue, than arranging one-on-one interviews is more effective than speaking platforms or special events. This is so precisely because the various media outlets will tell different sides of the story over an extended period of time.
To set up one-on-one interviews, follow these steps:
- Choose the geographic areas where you want media coverage.
- Establish a news “peg.”
- Write a news release that builds upon the news peg.
- Assemble a media kit, consisting of the news release and such other items as a bio and head shot of the person quoted in the release and giving the interviews, fact sheets on the topic, annual reports and corporate or product brochures.
- Write a covering letter that notes what’s in the media kit, mentions the most newsworthy element of the story (the “peg”) and invites the report or editor to set up an interview.
- Set aside time for the interviews in each geographic area.
- Distribute the media kit and covering letter about five days prior to the interviews in any given geographic area.
- A day or two after distributing the media kit, call each journalist to whom it was sent to set up the interview. This is a “soft sell” call. If the reporter or editor expresses disinterest, briefly explain why you believe the public would be interested in the story (in effect, give the news peg). If the journalist is adamant about not doing an interview, do not push the issue.
- You can further increase media coverage by combining one-on-one interviews with speaking engagements or special events.
Op-ed page articles
Most newspapers devote space to commentaries submitted by recognized experts on newsworthy issues that affect some aspect of public policy. Since this space is usually – although not always – on the page opposite the editorial page, the term “op-ed” was coined.
In style and structure, op-ed articles are similar to the commentaries written by the newspaper’s staff columnists. They are usually between 600 and 1,200 words long; state arguments and opinions, give the facts to back them up and in so doing, clearly explain how the public interest is affected by the issue.
As to content, an op-ed page article conveys substantially the same messages that you would convey in a speech, a news release on a special event or a one-on-one interview. It’s only the packaging that differs.
Here are the steps:
- Identify the news peg (same as for speaking engagements and one-on-one interviews).
- Write the article. It should be bylined by someone whose title or function indicates expertise on the topic of the article.
- Email the article to the editorial/commentary editor with a covering note that you’re submitting the piece for publication on the newspaper’s opinion pages.
- You may make a follow-up phone call to the editor a few days later to ask about the status of the article and to give the one or two most important reasons why you believe the public would benefit from reading it.
Editorial board meetings
If you have a story that’s suitable for an op-ed page article, then the subject is one on which the newspaper might wish to write an editorial. If you also believe that the newspaper’s position would be similar to yours, then set up a meeting with one or more members of the editorial board to explain the importance of the issue and why your point of view would prove most beneficial.
Here’s what to do:
- Prepare an information kit containing the facts and your arguments on the issue.
- Send (email, courier or hand deliver) the kit with a covering letter requesting a meeting with the editorial board.
- Follow up with a phone call to the editor enquiring about the status of your request.
While you may think that an editorial board meeting is off the record (insofar as editorial writers rarely quote sources directly), nothing you say is actually off the record. You can be quoted. Also, the newspaper will frequently invite the relevant beat reporters to the meeting, with a story appearing the following day.
Be pleased if this happens: You’ve gotten more bang for your buck.
“Tip” or “how-to” articles for community newspapers
As weeklies, community newspapers do not usually publish breaking stories, unless they have a direct impact on the local area. However, they will publish features of interest to broad segments of the population. These are ideal circumstances for articles containing helpful information on how to improve the quality of life; hence tips on such topics as universal access, healthcare, personal finance, food, recreation, travel, home improvement . . . the list goes on and on. So if your organization is involved in any of these areas, you become an appropriate source of “tip” or “how-to” articles for community newspapers.
The advantage you reap does not stem from touting yourself in the articles (this is something you should never do), but from building goodwill as the messenger of helpful information.
Here’s what to do:
- Identify the theme.
- Write several columns, each about 250 words long.
- Distribute the columns to the community newspapers via email.
Articles for specialty publications
While how-to articles for community newspapers reach broad audiences in small geographic areas, articles for specialty publications reach narrow audiences in large geographic areas. The effect of each is the same: To build goodwill and credibility among your key publics (while also persuading them to take action on current issues).
Here’s what to do:
- Identify topics for articles by perusing the editorial line-ups of upcoming issues of specialty publications that are read by key publics.
- Contact the editors with a proposed article that relates to the focus of an upcoming issue.
- If the editor likes the idea, discuss such particulars as length, illustrations and deadlines.
- Write the article to the agreed-upon specifications and deliver by deadline.