Contacting journalists is often a key part of getting your charity’s message out there. But how can you achieve cut-through to ensure your press releases are read, considered and published? And how can you make your story go further?
At a time when charities have suffered a good deal of negative media attention, it’s important that they don’t shy away from contacting journalists with positive stories about their work and the impact they’re having. These 9 steps will help you secure profile-raising press coverage.
1. Stories win over facts
While facts and figures are important, remember it’s stories that journalists deal in. So, your best chance of securing press coverage is to find a compelling story.
There are stories everywhere, you just have to look for them – and with a pool of beneficiaries you’re in a prime position to find and share (with their consent, of course) some emotive stories.
The story of one individual, with an emotional story to tell that will elicit empathy in the readers, is probably your best bet. A kitten rescued from a well, an elderly man reunited with the family he was separated from during war….
A good story can also be based on the results of research you’ve done, or the impact you’ve had as a charity – 300 children in South Africa who had their sight restored thanks to a recent community fundraising event, for example.
2. Make your charity a key part of the story
If your ultimate goal is to raise the profile of your charity, then ensure you work your charity into your story.
If a fundamental element of your story is about how your charity has directly helped a beneficiary, then you can put that in the main body text of a press release, even the header – for example: ‘Dog stranded in floods rescued by local charity’.
If the charity’s part in the story is less direct, you nonetheless stand a good chance of getting the charity’s name mentioned if your spokesperson can supply a comment the reporter can quote you on.
Ensure your comment shows how the story relates to your charity, and how the work it does is helping beneficiaries in similar situations.
3. Research your targets and hone your angle
Before sending out a press release, make sure you get to know the publication(s) you’re submitting it to. A scattergun, copy and paste approach to sending out releases is not necessarily the most effective use of your time. A more targeted approach could pay dividends, so research what kind of news or stories the publication covers, and make sure your story is relevant to their audience. Bear in mind that local papers’ interests tend to differ from national papers, specialist or consumer publications.
As well as ensuring your story aligns with their target audience, you could also try tailoring the angle of the story, including the headline, so that it more closely matches that publication’s tone, style and content.
With most publications now online, you can research them on the web. If you’re really pushed for time, though, it may be better to pick up the phone and call them, briefly introduce yourself, and ask them what kind of subjects and stories they like to cover. They will likely appreciate this more than being sent a bunch of irrelevant releases that they have to trawl through and process.
Before you make your approach, though, try to pinpoint the right journalist – if approaching a newspaper and your cause is health-related, find out which journalist there deals with health stories and contact them directly, or send an email marked for their attention if only a general press contact is supplied.
4. Ensure your press release is formatted correctly
When you’ve got your story ready, email is preferred in the first instance by most journalists. They will expect to see your press release written in a particular format. If you’re not used to writing press releases, you can find plenty of top tips and sample press releases online. The key ‘rules’ include:
- get all the key story information into the first paragraph – the who, where, when, why and how
- Keep it short, don’t waffle, don’t use flowery language and keep your sentences under 25 words
- Include quotes where possible (if you’re charity, try to get a direct quote from the beneficiary)
- Don’t forget to supply contact details (for your spokesperson at the charity)
If you’re trying to raise the profile of your charity, at the very least you should make reference to them somewhere in the main body text of the press release, but also make sure you include a couple of sentences at the end about what your charity does and the impact it makes.
5. Write a killer email header
That brings us to your email header – the most important part of grabbing a journalist’s attention and getting your email read in the first place. Journalists are busy people, and are often inundated with hundreds of emails each day, all vying for their attention. The email header is the first thing they will see, and if it doesn’t jump out at them, it’s likely to be overlooked or moved straight to the electronic trash can before it’s even read.
BUT DON’T WRITE YOUR HEADER IN CAPS AND DON’T USE EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!! This will certainly make your email stand out, but not in a good way – it looks unprofessional and will only make a bad impression from the start.
Your header should be tantalising and demonstrate in just a few words that you’ve got a great story to tell – whether you’re divulging some important new information, or sharing an emotive human interest story.
6. Follow up with a phone call
If your email header stands out enough from the start, it may be picked up immediately, and you might receive a phone call the same day asking you for a comment or further information. Sometimes, though, to catch the attention of an email-swamped journalist your communication might need a little boost – so if you don’t hear anything after a day or two, call the journalist and ask if they received your email and whether it was of interest.
If they’ve read your press release but decided not to cover the story, ask them why it wasn’t of interest this time, and/or how you can better appeal to their readers next time.
If they are interested in publishing your story, show that you’re friendly, accessible and helpful – tell them you’ll be at the end of the phone/computer if they need you, and ask if there is any other information, quotes, interviewees or photos you can supply.
7. Start local
Many charities find local newspapers a good place to start, because they tend to value human interest stories above all else, and indeed are often crying out for them. Furthermore, once you’ve got local press coverage, you then stand a better chance that it will make it onto the national papers’ radars, thanks to the independent press agencies who trawl the local press looking for stories to sell to the nationals.
Again, it depends on the strength of your story – a local fundraising event that raised £2k is extremely unlikely to be of interest to the nationals, but the story of a man whom your charity helped walk again after 14 years in a wheelchair might be.
8. Be willing to work with press agencies – but be careful
If you’re contacted by a press agency (or ‘news service’) that has seen your story in a local paper and you agree to them spreading the story on your behalf, make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. The press agency’s job is to get as much mileage out of your story as possible – which is great so far as raising your charity’s profile is concerned – but be prepared that you might be contacted by national newspapers, and possibly even radio/TV stations and lifestyle magazines asking to interview the subject of your story.
If that subject is a beneficiary, ask if they’ll consent to being interviewed and for their contact details to be passed on, but make sure they understand the potential ramifications of national coverage. Such attention could make your beneficiary feel exposed or exploited, and you should inform, support and protect them as much as you can – and never make them feel pressurised.
In some cases it might be wise to consult an expert media advisor before giving an interview to a newspaper, TV or magazine.
9. Capitalise on your coverage
If your story is covered, this means the journalist has decided it will be of interest to their audience – so learn from it, and remember it for next time.
A really useful thing you can do is to send a follow-up email to the journalist who covered your story thanking them for including the story, but also asking them why it stood out for them. They might have some very useful or even surprising feedback for you that will help you craft your next story.
Local newspapers prefer stories about local people and places. But if it’s been of interest in one local paper, similar stories might be of interest to newspapers in other local areas. So if your story about a beneficiary has been covered in one area, can you find beneficiaries with similar (or equally compelling) stories in other areas, see if they’re willing to share their own stories, and approach the local papers in their area too?
Finally, it doesn’t hurt to ask journalists to include a link to your website and/or a link to your donation pages. They won’t always be prepared to do this, but sometimes you’ll get lucky, so it’s always worth asking.
Jenny Ramage is editor of The Fundraiser