The Secret Ingredient of News Coverage
How to Attract the Media to Your Story
Why do so many PR campaigns fall flat, failing to attract the media attention that their creators crave?
For the same reason that a loaf of bread falls flat if you leave out the yeast. You've failed to add a small, but vital ingredient.
Like baking bread, creating news requires us to follow a recipe. The secret but indispensable ingredient of that recipe - the ingredient that the flacks will ignore, overlook or avoid - is controversy.
Controversy is really nothing more than conflict combined with crisis. To understand why controversy is so vital to your success, you must understand the nature of news.
As presented in today's media, the news is not simply a rehashing of yesterday's events. When a reporter writes or broadcasts the news, what he is really doing is fabricating a story.
By "story," the PR Rainmaker means "an interesting tale filled with characters, action, plot and suspense."
Every major news story - whether it's the Gulf War, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the World Trade Center attack or the Enron debacle - is an ongoing soap opera filled with larger-than-life characters, plot twists and high drama.
On a much small scale, the same is true about a local fire, a city council meeting or a school board election.
Think about it.
Take a house fire. It's the firefighters versus the consuming blaze, battling to save property and to preserve human life.
How about a city council meeting? It depends.
There are many things that occur at a council meeting that never appear in a news story. For example, few newspapers are likely to report that the council approved the minutes of the previous meeting.
Why? Because there is no controversy.
But if the mayor is fighting with the council over whether to approve pay raises for the police department, that changes everything. Now you have a story. Now you have controversy.
This is the recipe for all news: big and small, hard or soft, national or local.
The raw materials of news are a change, a conflict, an aberration or a problem. These materials must then be presented as an on-going story that involves characters, action, plot and suspense.
But the catalyst - the secret ingredient that will transform your media campaign into major news coverage - is controversy. And lots of it.
If you want proof, pick up any daily newspaper in America. Study the articles you find there. You will find that every news item contains a story, just as certainly as will a Danielle Steel novel or a Steven Spielberg movie.
The news story will be told in the language of journalism: who, what, when, where, why and how. The writer will apply one of the standard structures of journalism, whether it's the Associated Press' inverted pyramid or the Wall Street Journal's feature formula.
But the article is still a story with heroes and villains, problems and solutions.
The story will also include a controversy. And the bigger the controversy, the bigger the news.
Indeed, without some kind of controversy, there is no real news.
If a toddler falls down in her backyard, that's not news. But if that same toddler falls down an abandoned oil shaft, and the local emergency crews spend two days digging her out, now it's national news.
If four teenagers attend high school for the first time, that's not news. But if those four teenagers are the first African-Americans to attend a segregated high school in the Deep South, and the governor calls out the National Guard to stop them from entering the building, now that's national news.
That's the nature of news. And the PR Rainmaker knows how to take advantage of that nature.
Most PR specialists make sure they include the Five Ws and the H in every news release. Most are careful to portray their clients or companies in a favorable light. But you can accomplish all of this with advertising.
If you want publicity, if you want to attract a reporter's attention, then you must add controversy. And you must directly connect your company, its product or its service in some way to that controversy.
Now many intelligent, well-meaning executives will shudder at the idea of allowing their companies to be associated with a controversy. After all, doesn't a controversy mean "negative news?"
Not necessarily. The key is to position your company as the solution to the controversy, not as the cause. Do that, and your company becomes a hero while someone else or something else becomes the villain.
Basically, it's the difference between a mortar shell and a skyrocket. Both are made from explosives. But a mortar shell will destroy a building. A skyrocket will light up the night with beauty and wonder. It's all in how you package the ingredients.
The same holds true with controversy. Package it badly, and it will blow up in your face. Package it expertly, and you'll draw applause.
The PR Rainmaker knows: Controversy breeds coverage.
Copyright 2003 by W.O. Cawley Jr.
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