Hacks vs Flaks

RAFT’s resident hack, Velo Mitrovich, talks to Kate Chaundy, RAFT’s public relations flak.

Once upon a time, the world of journalism was full of hacks and all was well. This wasn’t the name reporters called themselves, but what those in power called them with contempt. However, reporters being reporters, in a rare moment of sobriety when the pub was closed for fumigating, they elected to wear the name like a medal.

But then, some wise corporate president realised that the best way of deflecting all the flak hurled at him from hacks, would be to hire his own team of hacks. Thus public relations was born and one of the world’s greatest feuds began: hacks vs flaks.

Kate, will you think less of me if I tell you I once was a flak for Thames Valley Police? This is, a course, something I’ve kept secret from my children. How did you get into PR?

I’m impressed with you!

I suppose I fell into PR. I come from a family of journalists; my dad was head of obituaries at the BBC for 20 years and is now freelance and my sister works for The Independent newspaper. I thought it was what I wanted to do but I decided to apply for PR work experience as it seemed to offer a more stable career. I was offered a job at an agency in Cambridge within a week. I trained in music PR and loved every minute of it as it offered me so many opportunities. After a few years I decided to become freelance and now specialise in the health and lifestyle industries. However, I really enjoy the writing aspects of the job and blog regularly on various issues and topics.

I joke about hacks vs flaks but the truth is, todays media is heavily dependent on public relations. Indeed, it is estimated on the financial pages of newspapers and magazines that at least 60% of all stories are generated from PR releases. Do you see this as something bad?

I don’t see it as a bad thing as long as the PR has spent time putting together a release that is accurate and structured accordingly, and the journalist has extracted the news elements from it and written an informative and well-researched piece.

Our job at the end of the day is to inform journalists of interesting angles relating to our clients and I think the statistic shows that this works more often than not. Obviously our press releases are going to be exhibiting the best sides of our client and so it is down to the journalist to read around the subject and extract the information that they need.

Journalists now are busier than ever and unfortunately in the current climate news rooms are emptier than they have ever been. With rolling news, corresponding websites and video content they need as much help from PRs as possible in order to stay ahead of the game. The age-long battle between PRs and journalists can be quite complex and of course journalists hate lazy PRs just as PRs can find it frustrating when a journalist wants you to pen the article for them because they are too busy.

Things are certainly quite different to how they used to be, especially with the incredible rise of social media where now citizens are acting-journalists and it has never been so easy to express your views to a mass audience. We even now often communicate with journalists via Twitter! Providing each respects the other’s role and does the job properly, the relationships shouldn’t just work, they should work brilliantly. Where the role of PR has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades is that in high-profile cases, the PR can be as famous as the client themselves, and the power they have can be hugely influential.

When I was a reporter in Hong Kong, I had a wonderful relationship with PR managers, especially those with Don Perignon champagne. The reality is, without my ties to PR managers it would have been next to impossible to do my job, mostly because we were understaffed and I looked to the PR managers as experts – or with ties to experts – in very specific fields. In a way, is this what you do for RAFT?

Absolutely. I bridge the gap between the charity and the media, whether health, science, lifestyle, charity or local journalists who may never come across RAFT or learn about the exciting things it achieves.

Working with charities you come across many case studies who are approached to speak to the media and the wonderful role of a PR is that we can get to know these people and explain in detail how the process works without them feeling too overwhelmed.

Rather than negotiating directly with a journalist, who they may not trust, they can dictate to us their preferences in pictures, in quotes and the tone of the piece and we can then negotiate with the media to ensure we get as close to this as possible, and consequently a great piece that is inspiring and raises awareness of the cause.

People often suspect PRs as wine and diners that spend most of their time in private members clubs buying their way into a journalist’s hearts and news agendas, or awkward and argumentative dictators who butt in every time a journalist asks a question to protect the interests of the client. But this is not the case.

When I worked in music PR in Cambridge I didn’t have the luxury of being able to pop out and meet a journalist for coffee or take them to lunch in Chelsea, even though that was very much the ‘culture’ then, we had to rely on perfected pitches and strong press releases to do the talking. I’m grateful for that experience as I’ve always known the results were the product of hard work that has paid off and my relationships with journalists are not at all compromised.

At RAFT my job is one of communications, which is pretty much what PR people do as well. I take the very complicated and try to make it so the average person can understand and appreciate what we’re doing. How is your job similar and how is it different from mine?

It varies. If I am putting together a scientific press release on a project, such as the artificial skin scaffold, we have to think about the different audiences that we are approaching. So for a science editor, we can afford to keep it quite technical as they are going to understand the process far more easily and be able to question points with experts from the charity that we provide.

If we want to pitch it from a lifestyle angle to a glossy women’s magazine we need to tap into the human interest side of things and detail how this treatment can change someone’s life and the lives of wound victims in the future. Therefore, we would need to work in simplifying the release so that it can be easily understood by a non-medical journalist but for them to understand how it works and why it is so revolutionary.

Your role is crucial to ours as we need to thoroughly understand the projects before we can pitch and that often means someone like you going over the details with us to ensure we have grasped it before speaking to the media.

I always picture a PR manager having a phone with a thousand speed dial keys on it (I do live in the dark ages of communication). Your day is spent constantly on the phone, pitching ideas for your clients. Is this what you do?

I’d say it is around 50% of what we do, yes. We divide the project up into various stages, for example, local press, national newspapers, national magazines, trade press, online, etc. There’s nothing better than calling up a journalist at a national publication and confidently selling it [pushing the story] whilst discussing and brainstorming about different angles and how it would work for the publication.

Over time, we have learnt the different preferences of various journalists and so we can call them and tailor the pitch to suit their style. With the huge rise in freelance journalists and bloggers, we are always meeting new writers and so we spend a lot of time calling them and learning about their journalistic interests for future reference.

The rest of our job involves client liaison, report writing, speaking to case studies, handling social media, organising events and thinking of new ways in which to publicise the client. It is a very varied job where no two days are the same and it’s fantastic to be able to work with such inspirational clients, such as RAFT. 

Working with students: a win-win for all

I was looking at the clock. I was thinking.

What were the chances that somebody broke into RAFT, didn’t steal anything, but in the end decided to change all the clocks so they were 90 minutes fast? Yeah…that’s what I figured too, about a zero chance of that.

Could I be in a parallel universe where time did strange things? Doubtful. Or maybe, just maybe, could the four students I had coming in to RAFT just be very, very late? As much as I hated to admit it, that did seem the most logical explanation.

I’ve been working with university photography, film making and journalism students now for over 16-years. While time keeping has never been a positive feature with most of them, their enthusiasm, desire to do an outstanding job and lack of cynicism has more than made up for it.

It was in Hong Kong that I first started to use students. At the newspaper where I worked I was doing a feature story on Down’s syndrome adults and children. The editor wasn’t happy with my idea, preferring to put on the Sunday magazine cover instead the latest Cantonese female pop star.

To do the story right I needed a photographer who was willing to spend time with the subjects to understand them; to produce honest work. After the editor said I could have a staff shooter for around 20 minutes; I contacted Chinese University’s journalism department instead.

While a staff photographer would have taken up none of my time – I wouldn’t even had to have been there for the shoot - by spending time and working with a student in the end I got exactly the shot I wanted.

Now, a continent away from China, I’m still working with students. At RAFT we have four students from the University of West London who are filming basic laboratory procedures for The Knowledge Channel and who eventually be doing some work for the yet to be launched Young RAFT.

I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit frustrating at times. While with a professional film crew we would have had the finished product in about a week or so – paying professional prices – with the students it’s going to take longer. Their university has cut semester hours, which means they have less time to utilise equipment and have more competition from other students who also need the kit and computers.

Still, in the end we will have a product we can be proud of, plus we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing we provided these hard working students with a wonderful subject material for their portfolios.

The good:

·         Students can bring in a fresh set of eyes to any situation

·         ‘We’ve never done it that way before’ is a phrase they don’t know

·         Equipment is usually state-of-the-art

·         Being students, they have instructors who can guide and assist them

·         The price is right - free

 The bad:

·         Students have a sense of time not based on anything in this solar system

·         A simple obstacle can stop them in their tracks

·         Students don’t always have access to equipment, especially during summer months

·         Being students, they have classes, exams, etc. It’s next to impossible to get anything done quickly

·         Sometimes you’re much better off paying for a professional

To make it work:

·         Have a crystal clear idea what you want the students to do

·         Be specific with them; and then be even more specific

·         Have somebody assigned to assist the students at your work

·         Stay in contact with their instructors

Nine steps to make your media strategy work - Guest Blog by Rough House Media

Our thanks to Ann Wright of Rough House Media for her advice on making a media strategy work

Does your charity have a press department? Does it have a public relations strategy? There’s no doubt that charities which are good at PR make more money for their own particular good cause. And if you can become the media’s favourite expert in the field in which you work, that can also do wonders for the profile of your charity – you only have to look at Camilla Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company (http://www.kidsco.org.uk/) to see that.

So public and media relations are extremely valuable to charities - and it is important to get them right.

But before you even think about contacting editors and journalists to secure coverage, you need to have laid the groundwork and established a realistic media strategy. This is best done with media consultants or PR experts who can help identify stories, potential outlets and who will provide you with a realistic assessment of how to make your strategy succeed.

Here are nine steps you should take when planning your media strategy:

1. Identifying why you want more media coverage and who your key audiences are:

Once you’ve done this, you’ll be able to have a far more targeted approach to securing coverage, which is likely to yield far more coverage than a ‘scattergun’ approach. Key audiences may be potential fundraisers and volunteers, people who you would like to donate money, those in need of your help or influential people in your field and politicians.

2. Identify key publications and programmes to target

Once the initial aims and key audiences have been identified, draw up a contact list containing the names, numbers and emails of key and relevant journalists on every potential outlet for stories. This might include national and regional media, local newspapers and magazines plus specialist press.

3. Developing consistent key messages for the organisation

It is important that your charity has a clear identity and brand, and established ‘key messages’ which are consistently presented whenever media opportunities arise. This helps build up recognition and awareness of the charity and what it stands for, and ensures that these values are reinforced every time a story is released. If there are particular issues on which you need to take a view, then work on key messages for each of these – particularly if they are political or contentious. Test them with working journalists or media consultants.

4. Establish a clearance procedure for press material and press releases

This is important, since opportunities for coverage can easily be missed if the process of approval is unclear or protracted. The PR team needs to the ability to be as nimble, proactive and reactive as possible, especially nowadays when social media is so influential.

5. Produce a ‘media toolkit’

This would include short biographies of key figures within the charity, a history of the charity, case studies of people who you have helped, or who need help, and interesting photos to demonstrate your work. These should all be ready to send out with each news release, although every element may not always be used, and new case studies and photos may be necessary for individual stories. It is important you obtain the permission of anyone who is the subject of a case study, and if appropriate their agreement to be interviewed. Having case studies (or ‘victims’ as the media often rather callously describes them) available for interview can be the make or break factor in whether you get the coverage you seek.

In addition, aim to establish contact with potential local celebrities (even MPs get lots of coverage in the local media) to ensure that if you are holding an event you have a list of people you can invite who might attract coverage.

6. Establish a social media policy

Social media is becoming increasingly integrated into the mainstream media, so make sure your PR or media strategy recognises this and incorporates it. It is important that whoever manages your social media is part of the PR team, and knows all the latest issues and messages that you need to deliver.

7. Story Brainstorm Session

Brainstorm potential story ideas and for each one, establish the key elements needed to them attractive to the media and your target audience. Produce an action plan to make sure the stories happen! Again it helps to do this with working journalists or media consultants who can tell you what the press are looking for.

8. Identify potential spokespeople

It is important that you have several spokespeople who are prepared to do interviews on your behalf. Each one needs to be credible, happy to make themselves available at odd hours, and comfortable doing interviews with the media. Oh, and able to make your case effectively! They must be clear what your key messages are and, if necessary, receive media training to ensure they are able to make the most of each interview.

9. Produce promotional film

A promotional film and some stock shots which are made available to the media help tell your story in a vivid and compelling way. Often the availability of footage can make the difference between a TV programme deciding to cover a story or not. For example, if someone has raised money for you by trekking to the South Pole, you’re far more like to get coverage if you’ve got footage of them battling through blizzards and doing video blogs as they try to reach the spot than if you can offer is a photo of them handing over a big cheque.

This might all sound like a lot of work, but once you have all these elements in place, it will be far easier to then go out and make sure you attract the kind of coverage that will have the donations flooding in. So it’s well worth investing the time at the outset, rather than sending out press releases and email pitches to journalists which just end up being deleted and don’t ever secure the coverage they deserve.

Ann Wright