Monday, April 30, 2012

For PR pros: How to read a journalist

Occasionally yelled at and hung up on by journalists on deadline, PR professionals know there are right and wrong ways to persist in pursuit of a news reporter’s attention.

Most mentors tell you to read several of a reporter’s previous articles before making contact. But they rarely tell you what, in particular, to look for while reading

I suggest you ask these questions while doing your research.

(1)  How many sources did the reporter use?
(2)  What’s in motion?
(3)  What remains to be seen?
(4)  What kinds of words did the reporter choose?

1. How many sources did the reporter use?

This question helps you determine whether the reporter poured his (or her) heart into a story. If not, don’t spend a lot of time studying it. Reporters quickly tap out some stories just to get them out of the way. Signs of this:

  • cites just one or two sources (compared to six or so for a good story)
  • lists but doesn't interpret statistics
  • fails to add colorful or emotive language, instead offering facts without anecdote or narrative
Advice: Pay less attention to stories that the reporter himself paid less attention to.

2. What's in motion?

Look for words like "on the rise," “becoming _____er” and “shifting.” Look for depictions of anything that is changing character, shape or approach, or getting bigger or smaller.

For example, an article on phishing (luring Internet users to bogus websites where they will give up passwords) noted that big banks have long been top targets, but lately smaller banks are being targeted, too. Another article said phishers were becoming harder to detect. Another said the approach was shifting from scattershot to precisely targeted.

Advice: Pay closer attention to whatever is changing – the topics that are in motion – than to static factoids. Change is inherently more newsy and likely to remain of interest in the future.

3. What remains to be seen? (This is the really important one.)

Pay extra attention to where the reporter has raised questions, identified obstacles or said something like “only time will tell,” “no one knows if …” or “it remains to be seen whether …”

Look for the edge of the cliff, so to speak, the place where the reporter can no longer acquire more knowledge because there isn’t any, or so he thinks.

For example, one article said IM and peer-to-peer networks might supplant email as the next major vehicles for phishers. Another said efforts to fold phishing security into spam security might not work because spam filters mostly look for previously blacklisted URLs, and phishers dismantle bogus sites within hours or days of putting them up.

When these articles were published (a while ago, I confess), the reporter didn’t know for sure whether there’d be an explosion of phishing via IM and peer-to-peer networks – that remained to be seen. The reporter didn’t know whether new security efforts would work.

Addendum (12/13/12): Here's more recent example from a WSJ story. 
What happens next remains unclear. Some of the industry's top bankers, executives and analysts are puzzling over Mr. Ergen's next move. Dish said Tuesday it will "consider its strategic options and the optimal approach to put this spectrum to use.
Mr. Ergen's next move will be closely watched by the reporters who wrote this story. This is the edge of their cliff. They don't know what will happen next, but the moment they do, they will write about it.

Similarly, keep your eye out for what is anecdotally becoming evident but is not yet backed by a body of supporting statistics or expert confirmation. Look for what's still fuzzy.

Does your client have anything that could help a reporter connect these fuzzy dots?

For example, if your client is an authority on digital signatures and if the "how" behind that technology is an answer to the security shortcomings of simply blacklisting URLs (as in the previous example above), then these details might be a good hook for the first line of your pitch.

Advice: Start your conversation in the middle. The first line of your pitch can pick up where the reporter left off.

4. What kinds of words did the reporter choose?

Look for discretionary vocabulary that reveals the writer's "ear," or literary and syntactic preferences. Jot down examples and listen to how they sound.

For example, one reporter liked bogus, dump, lure and dupe. He could just as easily have written false or counterfeit instead of bogus, jettison or dispose in place of dump, attract or entice in place of lure, or mislead or deceive instead of dupe. But he didn’t -- this writer liked the style and sound of the first list.

Listing these preferred words when you notice them helps you see similarities and patterns that can help you adopt a comparable voice.

Caveat: It's always best to be yourself and write in a style you can consistently maintain throughout your dialogue. Genuine is better than clever, but if you can be both, go for it.

Advice: Notice how his words sound and, when sensible, use words with a similar tone.

What next? How to use what you discovered

The first question (“number of sources/poured heart out”) helps you filter out stories less helpful to your research on a particular reporter. Skip over those.

The second and third questions (“motion” and “unknown”) show you the reporter’s own agenda, the places where he may appreciate your client’s help moving a story forward. Start your email abruptly with those specifics. No need for background or chit-chat. Hook him first with data or observations you retrieved from what he thought was the gulf beyond the edge of the cliff.

The fourth question helps you in the final stage of polishing your email and, to a lesser degree, in the early draft phase. Appealing to a reporter’s own ear may help put him at ease, leaving him slightly more receptive to your thoughtful assistance.

You still need to meet all the usual criteria for a good pitch. But you’re more likely to entice a reporter if you’ve mapped yourself to his agenda, rather than dumped information helter-skelter onto his desk in hopes he will sift through and recognize something of value.