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Hold the Presses! You Forgot My Story

Needing publicity? Jo-anne Fuller gives some practical clues

Plans for your project or event are well underway when someone mentions that mystical word, publicity. You can guarantee that when the call goes out for volunteers, most eyes will be downcast. Fear not, it's not that hard, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. So, if you take on the role of publicist, what exactly does it mean? It means that you want people to notice a particular thing-an event, a product or a person.

The difference between marketing and public relations comes down to the bottom line. You pay for marketing (advertising). Publicity is a favour and you will need to earn it, which is why it is often referred to as an art, not a science.

The first thing you need to do is to assemble your arsenal. Essentials will include a diary or calendar (month to view), a telephone, the Yellow Pages and your address book.

Keep an eye on the 'big picture'. Your project is part of a particular theme or concept you are continuously in the process of marketing. An essential part of your role as publicist for specific events or products will be sifting information for relevancy and repackaging that information for a specific market. If your committee or project group has not already done this, take an hour or two to synthesise what it is you will be promoting- the thing itself-plus how it fits into the overall raison d'être of your organisation. You should end up with just a few points to which everyone agrees and these should be reflected in, and reiterated throughout, your campaign. They should also be clearly spelt out in any briefing document you prepare for your spokespeople.

And So to Work
First, figure out who's responsible. Remember that it's a frantic world out there in medialand, so keep your conversations tight and information rich, and make your questions succinct.

Compose yourself before you pick up the phone. In the first instance you will be asking for names and best contact points-generally a fax number-and the receptionist will probably be the person to fill in these details and provide advice on who is the best person to contact for your particular story. Editors' secretaries or PAs are also a valuable source of information and direction. Don't use old contact lists--and three months is old-without first confirming name and position details or your press releases may end up in the wrong area or in the bin. Newspapers especially are a very fluid environment.

As a starting point, remember that radio stations have news directors and program directors. Television stations have news editors and program producers. The top dog in magazines is a chief editor, and newspapers have a chief of staff. Newspapers will then have editors, plus section editors and senior writers for particular subject areas (e.g. education, computers, lifestyle).

Match Your Story to the Medium
The type of event or program you plan will interest the media for different reasons. Dramatic, people-filled events are the stuff of television, especially if you can throw in a few famous faces. Radio and newspapers rely more on press releases and telephone calls for their news stories.

Magazines have much greater lead times (six months is usual for monthlies) and so are interested in a different beast-the feature story. Features are seldom about breaking news, but they are often about ground-breaking activities and the impact they have on people's lives. If you can make that link-between a thing and its impact-you will have a better chance of interesting a magazine editor in your story. It is essential to note that there are often quite different expectations with feature stories news items- for example, a newspaper or magazine may expect exclusivity (the story not appearing elsewhere in the same geographical area or at same time). It is wise to be explicit about such expectations, and to offer, for example, first right of refusal on a story.

Make sure you also do your homework about the audience of particular titles and programs. Is this the audience that you want to reach? If not, don't waste their time and yours by talking to them.

Timing-Nothing Else Matters
Having decided where your story fits, check the leadtimes. Most media news teams have events diaries, so a short advance notice, complete with date, time and contact details will be useful. This is sometimes referred to, and even explicitly called, a 'media note'.

All relevant leadtimes should be clearly marked on your calendar. Remember that they are non-negotiable.

Keeping your event under wraps doesn't mean not telling anyone, unless you truly want your event or project to be a secret forever. You can instead put an 'embargoed to' statement on your press releases (e.g. Embargoed to 12 noon, 15 December 1996). This means that your release will not be used before the date and time you specify.

A sample schedule for press releases for a news item would look something like this:

Two weeks before

2 or 3 days before

1 day before

On the day (or the day before if it is a morning event)


My friend Lee Welch, a whiz at this publicity stuff herself, always refers me to Mrs Beaton at this stage, who apparently advises that etiquette demands a thank you within three days.

In dealing with the media, you will find that very personal relationships develop-which is why it gets easier the more you do it. Use calls to talk about future as well as current projects. Creating an atmosphere of excitement is very important.

Credibility is also important, for both you and the journalists you will be talking to. Be honest about the capabilities of what you are promoting and about the people involved in the promotion. If you are sending people to the local radio or television station, make sure they can perform and make sure they are well-briefed. Such professionalism will reflect not just on this event or occasion, but on the media's perception of you and your organisation as the source of a good story.

Use your contacts well. Don't just wait until your next event before you speak with your journalists again. Develop a rapport-drop them postcards with tips about other things in which they might be interested. For example, tell them the date and theme for Australian Library Week has just been announced (4-10 May 1997, Libraries-A web of information), or give them a lead on an interesting story.

Remember that journalists too are trying to sift through a monstrous morass of information. Your job as publicist is to help lead them to the good stories.

Writing a Press Release-The Mystic Removed

A list of essential ingredients, to be used in order, which when assembled will produce a perfect pyramid. Why is a pyramid important? Because you can cut off the bottom-several times if you like-and it will still retain its basic shape and include the most important ingredients. Here goes ...

The Date
(that you will be sending out your release)

The Headline
Don't let the creative juices flow too fast on this one. Catchy is good, overly crafty is not. Your headline alone can determine if your release is read. The implied focus of your headline is relevancy-not just to your event or product but to the media to whom you are presenting it.

Lead Paragraph
This must include the big five-'what, where, when, why and who'.

The Story
The second paragraph should focus on 'how'. Then go on to answer obvious questions in the body of the press release.

Quotations are important and your press release should include several. They add interest, express opinions (that often cannot be aired any other way), introduce the human element of your story and make great, easily 'lift-able' copy. If you do not have direct quotes you can write something for someone else, but get it checked by them before you send out your release.

It is an oft quoted and very accurate adage that if you write a good press release, you have written the story. Heed this and never include any information that shouldn't end up in print. Know also that if the media do use your release, the usual practise is to edit from the bottom up, which is why it is important to include key elements in order of importance from the top.

The Contacts
Choose reliable, articulate spokespeople, who have the authority to speak on behalf of the project or organisation. Cite their full name and title and their position, which will help to highlight their relationship to the event.

Contact details should always include after hours numbers (this is where the mobile telephone comes into its own).

Make every effort to include all of this information on a single page (one and a half pages maximum). A press release is just that-a teaser meant to elicit further contact or having the media turn up at your event.

General Information

If you feel journalists will require background information do not include it within the body of your press release. A separate document attached to the press release will serve you better.

Be aware of your competition for media time and try to tip the balance by anticipating the connectivity between happenings. Other events or products can usefully be employed to your advantage if you know about them in advance and can work to establish effective alliances, for example, the launch of a community health information service in National Heart Week.

Remember that the words-thousands of them in fact-are in the images. Make sure that your picture says as much as it possibly can. For example, have appropriate signage on the lectern or the walls against which photos will be taken.

There are two ways to get a photo of your event into press. You can create a photo opportunity and organise for the newspaper or magazine to send their own photographer, or you can take your own and send them out with post-event press releases.

Most magazines and major dailies prefer colour photos. Local rags will still ask for black and white if given a choice, but this too is changing as technology increases the ease of image handling. Ask about format preferences when you speak to the staff about your story.

If sending photographs by mail, always package them carefully. Use stiff cardboard to prevent bending, and tape a piece of paper bearing the caption to the back of the photo. Do not write on the back of the photo itself and never send the negative (unless you have spare ones of the same thing).

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