As an education journalist, I receive hundreds of press releases and dozens of phone calls each week from people wanting me to write about their client or organisation.
I delete most of the emails, unopened, and I rarely return phone calls unless the story is of interest. I know that sounds rude.
But if I followed up every idea, I’d have no time to write. I’m not alone. At a recent conference I hosted for PR and communications professionals, The Daily Telegraph’s education editor Graeme Paton said he received around 170 emails and 20 phone calls a day from people pitching ideas.
You’d be surprised by the tiny percentage of my FE stories that come via colleges or sector organisations.”
Helen Lewis, the New Statesman’s deputy editor, said she received around 30 unsolicited pitches for opinion articles each week, but commissioned, on average, just one in ten.
So why do so few press releases and story ideas capture the interest of journalists and editors? You’d be surprised by the tiny percentage of my FE stories that come via colleges or sector organisations.
This is because many of the pitches do not take into account my needs or priorities as a features writer for national newspapers.
I’m looking for stories that reflect – and sometimes predict – developments in the sector and across the political landscape. And the first question I ask myself when someone contacts me is ‘can I write 1,500 words about this?’ So – and apologies if this sounds harsh – I’m not likely to be interested in writing about your celebration assembly, new drama studio or royal visitor. But a good proportion of the pitches I receive are about exactly that sort of thing.
In fact, many could easily be mistaken for internal memos: stories about what’s happening to individual staff and students, individual colleges or sector organisations.
That’s not to say there aren’t publications, particularly in the trade press, that will run stories like this.
But a one-size-fits-all approach can limit opportunities for quality press coverage, and it can be a bit disheartening to see how few PRs bother to find out anything about me or the publications that I write for.
The most effective PR and communications professionals know they can’t rely on a single press release to generate coverage of their college or organisation.
They understand that building a media profile is about long-term relationships – not one-night stands – so they take the time to get to know their target publications, analysing the kinds of stories editors are running so they can offer them what they want, when they want it.
They appreciate the contrasting needs and priorities of news and features writers (and, increasingly, new media) and recognise that a story that works well for a local paper, may not be suitable for a national or trade publication – or vice versa – and tailor their pitches accordingly.
They also keep a close eye on policy developments and current affairs, so if a relevant story breaks they are well-positioned to offer comment or debate.
And, crucially, they understand that if you focus on what journalists want – and not what you’d like them to want – you’re far more likely to get the results you need.
Janet Murray is a journalist, media trainer and consultant, and founder of www.lastwordevents.com. She will be delivering a session on managing the media with Ed Dorrell (new editor, TES) and Pete Henshaw (editor, Sec Ed) at the Education Innovation Conference and Exhibition at Manchester Central on Friday March 8.