Journalism Schooling for the PR Pro

In most journalism schools there are two sets of cardinal rules: “If it bleeds, it leads” and “Trust no one. Question everything. Follow the money.” The first reminds us that action leads a story; the more action, the closer the story is to the front page. The second, although perhaps seeming a bit paranoid, advises us to not take anything for granted or at face value.

In public relations, we often focus on what is newsworthy within a client’s organization, rather than what is newsworthy to the client’s community. When writing for the media, we should ask ourselves the following four questions:  

  1. Who or what is “bleeding?”
  2. Can we provide a voice that is credible?
  3. What probing questions will a reporter have, and can we reasonably answer them?  
  4. What are the economic impacts of this story for the organization and the community?

If it bleeds, it leads. In traditional, beat-based reporting, the first cardinal rule refers literally to blood; shootings, accidents, fights and wild animal attacks all rate higher than graduations and city council meetings. This rule provides an easy, if crass, metric by which to judge the newsworthiness of a given event. However, depending on perspective what’s “bloody” varies widely. A business editor will see mass layoffs at a local company or news of new jobs as crucial information compared to sales awards or business milestones.

Trust no one. Trust is of primary importance in any transaction. Reporters are always looking for a source, and yet are traditionally trained to distrust their sources. Knowing that a PR pro has an objective in pitching a story, reporters will start off doubting your statements. Being able to provide a credible source or the chance for a one-on-one interview makes it easier for a reporter to engage with your story because they are able to get it from the proverbial horse’s mouth.

Question everything. Take a step back and into a reporter’s shoes, and think of all the questions you might have if someone were to approach you with the same story you’re pitching. Shine a bright light on any gray areas, and be prepared with definitive answers for all the good, bad and ugly questions a journalist might ask.

Follow the money. In looking at stories, reporters are trained to follow the money, because, really… it’s always about the money. Where is it going? Who is getting it? What is it going to buy? How much is it going to cost? Put the answers to these questions up front (when appropriate, of course). You don’t need to give away trade secrets or privileged information to lead with financial information. 

By using the cardinal rules to walk in a reporter’s shoes, we can better deliver content to the media that both meets their criteria for newsworthiness and casts our clients in the best light. We know reporters and editors are pressed for time and we know what they want: credible stories with questions answered, and just a touch of blood. — by Michael Geneseo, Broadreach Account Executive