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Breaking down barriers between journalists and “civilians”

16 March 2010

Working with journalists can get your more coverage for your organisation's cause. Journalist Lynne Walsh explains how she thinks the relationship should work

Let me start with a few provocative statements. From a journalist’s point of view, I’d say to charities and voluntary organisations: I’m not here to give you free coverage, help you run campaigns, fundraise or recruit volunteers.

Neither am I keen on writing about bunions today simply because it may be National Bunion Day.

Nor do I appreciate a phonecall when I’m on deadline. Nor do I want press releases four pages long, riddled with errors and with no perceptible story.

Trust, tactics and tantrums

Harsh? Yes, I’m afraid so – but true. In fact, I’m not the most brusque journalist I know, but then, I don’t work to daily deadlines at the moment.

I spend half my working life as a journo, and the other half training third sector staff to work with the media. Sometimes, I’m a broker too, introducing charity CEOs to reporters and feature writers. Often, I referee when a journo is pursuing a breaking news story and my client feels under threat and panicky.

One of my training sessions is called “Why won't the media cover my campaign?" I added a strapline, “Trust, tactics and tantrums: the Third Sector takes on the Fourth Estate.”

It’s based on acknowledging stereotypes exist, for all of us – and that addressing them is more important than ever before. I have a colleague who has been known to call non-journalists “civilians”. He’s a bit of a dinosaur, and hasn’t noticed that barriers are already falling, thanks to technology. You may not be journalists, but you do have greater access to the media: you can blog, you can tweet, you can call radio shows. In fact, with job cuts in the media, and journalists expected to deliver more copy than ever before, you can contact us and offer yourselves as ‘experts’ – you may find yourself writing a comment piece or even a regular column.

The art of compromise

In a training session, I encourage clients to tell me what they think of those of us in the media. If they are too polite (this is rare), I offer my friends’ and family’s observations: “opinionated”, “pedantic”, “brusque”, “sloppy”, “lazy” – oh, yes, and “very good in a pub quiz.”

And our views of third sector staff? Unable to express a simple idea without resorting to meaningless jargon; “ivory tower”; ponderous and rambling – everything communicated must be qualified into oblivion; and hardly ever available (certainly not after 5pm).

The art of compromise paves the way to good relationships with journos: help us and we may well help you. Make an effort to give us what we need, and you could be surprised when we do lend a helping hand. In short, we need the material you give us to be accurate, timely, interesting and live (something should be happening!)

This is what I tell my clients. Journalists want:

  • Stories
  • Human interest
  • Facts & figures
  • Real people
  • Calls to action
  • Problems, dissent, conflict (this does not have to come from within your charity – you might have a comment on an argument that's already raging.)
  • Stories…….. stories……… stories

 But, what do we have to work with?

  • Press releases – dull, pointless, badly written, badly timed, lifeless
  • Sales pitches in disguise
  • Inarticulate interviewees
  • “Research” (it rarely fulfils the most basic criterion)

In 2005, the Voluntary Action Media Unit (VAMU) published Culture Clash? An investigation into the relationship between charities, the media and commercial PR agencies. This highlighted what the media wanted from charities: “good stories and great human interest case studies. The journalists and reporters interviewed weren’t in any way opposed to covering volunteering stories, just as long as they were 'strong stories' tailored for their publication or programme.”

What's our line on this?

I won’t pretend that developing a "nose" for good stories is easy, but it can be developed. Read newspapers (all of them, from time to time), watch several news bulletins and register how stories shuffle around, are cut or expanded.

Practise your responses to breaking stories – out loud. Good press officers constantly ask their media spokespeople: “What’s our line on this?” and need to hear that spoken. Refining what you say helps you get to the point faster (a relief to the hard-pressed, deadline-oppressed reporter). Get used to speaking in quotes, shorten sentences, use a bit of passion.

The time is right for breaking down barriers. At a gathering of journalists recently, the talk was of the rising pressure of work. Not that we mind the pressure, as such; what we don’t enjoy is not having time to go out of the office, meet people, find new contacts and pick up ideas for stories. You know where we are. So…

  • Make a list of your key media
  • Find named journalists – spot bylines in print, watch for producer or researcher names on TV, get production teams’ names from the Radio Times or on media websites
  • Send a brief e-mail, telling us what you expert areas are – with a hotlink to your website, so we can check you out
  • Make a time to call – we (especially in broadcast) want to hear you
  • Give us mobile phone numbers
  • When a story breaks, move fast: send a quick e-mail, e.g. “Stern report on rape – comment from us”, and get ready to give a quote by phone or e-mail

In short, the media is not a monolith; it's made up of real people, who may bark but don't bite. There are fewer barriers today than in past decades. In fact, there are many more open doors.

Lynne Walsh

journalist, Walsh Media

Lynne set up Walsh Media in 1993. She is an experienced journalist, campaigner, trainer and press officer.