Information for this article was derived from a Community Media Organizing Project (CMOP) publication A Recipe for Southern Fried Media, written by CMOP consultant and SOCM member Charles “Boomer” Winfrey.
Planning a statewide publicity campaign, or indeed any media campaign, can be daunting for members who are unfamiliar with media relations and press management. Drawing from decades of media experience, Boomer Winfrey writes in A Recipe for Southern Fried Media that a creating a “perfect” news story can be accomplished by adhering to what he calls ‘The Ten Golden Rules’ of what makes a story newsworthy.
1. The Element of Controversy
There is an old media axiom that states: “If it bleeds, it leads.” This mantra can be better understood by stating that if a story has shock value it has more potential to be reported by the media. Natural disasters, school shootings, and terrorist attacks are all examples that come immediately to mind, “but [this principle] also can be expanded to include any story that offers an element of controversy. An angry group of parents confronting a school board or public officials can be just as enticing to an assignment editor as a report of a shooting or fatal accident, perhaps more so,” (Winfrey 17). Including an element of controversy in your media efforts can make stories more palatable to reporters and make it more likely your story will find its way to the front page.
2. Timely Subject
A basic requirement of a successful news story pitch is that the story must “be of interest to a significant number of readers or viewers and that it be timely,” (Winfrey 17). Stories that invoke a recent controversy, tragedy, or issue can help make the story more attractive to reports. Making sure that your media efforts are built around timely events or issues is a cornerstone of building a great story.
3. Significant Numbers
Significant numbers catch the attention of journalists, “a rally attended by 300 members of an organization will always attract more media attention than a press conference on the same subject attended by four or five speakers,” (Winfrey 17). The more people that come to your event, press conference, or meeting, the more likely reporters will come along as well.
4. Concrete Events
Concrete events always take precedence over stories that build off of ideas or potential problems. People are more interested in stories documenting something happening right now that stories speculating on potential problems, even if that speculation is built from concrete evidence.
5. Dramatic Visuals
In today’s world of lighting-fast news, sound bytes, and digital media, visuals are paramount in the battle for the public’s attention. Eye-tracking studies conducted by newspapers found that the typical reader looks at the photograph included with an article before reading an article (Winfrey 18). The importance of photos have been similarly demonstrated in the realm of digital media; for instance Facebook posts that include a picture see more than three times as many clicks versus posts without a photo. “Television…is all about visual news,” and a story’s value for television is determined by is visual impact (Winfrey 18). Photography and videography should be of paramount importance for organizers looking to pitch a story to the media.
6. A Unique Tale
Stories that include a unique or unusual twist can often push reporters to cover those stories. People are interested in stories that break from typical conventions and derive from their preconceptions. Framing your stories to demonstrate its unique position can help make sure those stories get picked up by the media. Boomer Winfrey utilizes a particularly illuminating case study to demonstrate this concept:
“A scheduled press conference in one Southern city cam to grief when all of the television stations in town rushed out to the suburbs to cover the robbery of a Burger King. What made a story out of this particular robbery was that the two robbers locked all the employees in the freezer and ran the drive-in window for about 30 minutes, serving customers, collecting and pocketing the money before leaving the scene.” (Winfrey 18-19).
7. The Value — and Risk — of Celebrity
Along with controversial and unusual stories, stories involving celebrities can attract a multitude of media attention. “Even if the story is somewhat lame, say a ribbon-cutting or fundraising event, the presence of celebrities can place the event on the front page or push it to the front of the evening forecast,” (Winfrey 19). What exactly is a “celebrity” can vary. “Generally speaking, musicians and actors, sports figures, well-known politicians and authors seldom fail to capture the attention of the media,” (Winfrey 19). Celebrities can also be local celebrities or small-town figures of note. Additionally, the advent of social media has allowed the rise of celebrities who are “famous for being famous,” or who rose to fame through digital media such as Twitter or YouTube. The effect of celebrities can differentiate according to the audience. “A well-known actor may draw people out of the hollows of a small Appalachian town but fail to turn heads on Hollywood Boulevard. Ralph Nader or Michael Moore might draw crowds on a college campus, but barely a yawn from the citizens of Montgomery, AL” (Winfrey 19). Celebrities can open otherwise closed doors, drawing extra media attention to events that would otherwise be overlooked, but the use of celebrities can also backfire. Sometimes, the involvement of someone famous can cause the focus of the media to shift from the issue to the celebrity himself or herself.
8. Connecting to National and International Stories
When a local news story can somehow be connected to a story of national or international impact, news coverage can quickly ramp up to a frenzy. Local news professionals and TV anchors dream of the day when their stories are picked up by the AP wire service or a national network. On the other hand, the opposite is also true; media representatives often try to connect to national stories by finding connections in their local venues. “After 9/11, most daily newspapers and local television stations around the country combed the countryside in search of local people with connections to the twin towers…” (Winfrey 20).
9. New Information: Significant Polls or Studies
The release of a new study, poll or report from authority figures – such as scientists, economists, and scholars – can usually attract the attention of editors looking for a great story. This is especially true if the study challenges existing conventions or public opinion (i.e. dark chocolate is healthy). By producing such reports themselves, partnering with scholars to produce reports, or highlighting undiscovered studies organizers can help propel their pitches to the front page.
10. Themes That Resonate
There are a number of themes that consistently tend to play well with the public and attract media attention. These themes draw upon well established archetypes and tell stories that readers are both familiar with and inspired by. These themes include:
David and Goliath Stories – David and Goliath stories are always attractive to news editors, where the underdog comes out on top
The Rich/Powerful Are Silly – Stories that poke fun at powerful individuals are very popular in the media; one example of this is the media coverage of the several rhetoric missteps of President George W. Bush during his presidency.
Little Guy Makes Good – Stories depicting individuals overcoming odds to find success
Angels Among Us – Stories that about people showing unusual kindness or courage
City/Community Pulls Together – Stories depicting a particular group of people overcoming tragedy or obstacles to make change or improve the lives of citizens
Democracy Is The Highest Virtue – Stories championing democracy
Strong Families As The Cornerstone of Society – Stories depicting strong families and their influence on positive living
Honor In Serving One’s Country – Stories about the troops’ struggles, sacrifices, and success
Boomer offers several additional considerations for organizers to consider when planning their publicity campaigns:
“Plan an event that has a concrete date and time. Look for a location that provides good visual effects or turn to artists and craftsmen to create visual props. Determine whether it’s possible to turn out significant numbers of people for the event. Is there a report or other document that provides new information or casts the issue in a different light? Does the issue contain an element of controversy and if so, should the controversy be highlighted? Is there a connection to a bigger story of national impact? Is there a celebrity whose interest or participation could increase public interest in the event?”