Monday, February 2, 2015

The Force is with the story...

I can remember a long time ago, when I was just a wee lad growing up in north Jersey, going to mini-courses offered on Saturday mornings at a school not too far from where our family did its grocery shopping. They were held at the Pearl R. Miller school, and they happened on Saturday mornings, lasting about an hour and a half for about 12 weeks.

Both of my brothers ended up taking guitar classes. And, while they learned riffs, chords and tuning, I had my first experience working in the media. My parents signed me up for the newspaper course. My first real work as a member of the media.

The instructors were great, banging us over the heads with the basics of reporting, which included the big questions all reporters have to ask:

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

This was going to be a big deal, because our blockbuster edition - due out the last week of class - was going to be something Pulitzer worthy - an in-depth expose on the world of Star Wars.

This should give you an idea of just how old I am, but that movie had just come out, and the entire world was in its grasp. We were going to be visited by a few ambassadors from the universe who were going to give us an update on the battle with the forces of the Empire.

So, when these two schlubs showed up at the school dressed as B-List rejects from the movie, the teachers sicced us on them. I, as many other students did, asked all types of questions about the technology. How cool were your blasters? How fast did the spaceships travel? When were more light sabers going to be built to arm more future Jedi knights?

There was a girl in the class, however, who had a totally different perspective. I'm sure she must be working professionally as a journalist today. If not, she missed her calling. While we were geeking out about the tech, she asked the real questions that journalists ask on a regular basis today.

What were the living conditions like for the rebels trying to fit in to the Empire-controlled worlds? Were the rebels afraid that the Empire would come back looking for them? What were the next steps for the members of Rebel alliance after their victory?

She got the message that we as PIOs often overlook, even though we get paid to do this as grown ups. All stories are about people.

A classic example of how to get it wrong - I can't tell you how many folks have come to me from the fire service. "Hey, Tom," they ask, "my chief wants me to get coverage about a brand new fire engine, but no one will cover it. How do I get the media interested?"

You know, the reporters really don't care about that fire engine. I know it's all red and shiny and it has bells and lights and sirens and a pump and hose and ladders... But, by itself, it's an inanimate object. Just a thing.

What do the reporters want to know about?
  • How will it affect the firefighter who has to use it while doing his or her job? Will it make him or her safer? More capable? The reporters will want to talk with a fire fighter.
  • Will the fire truck make it easier to rescue someone on the fifth floor of a high-rise condominium or office building?  The reporters will want to talk with someone who will be helped by this new piece of apparatus. 
  • Will the fire truck be an obnoxious, loud piece of apparatus that will wake up nearby neighbors at 2 a.m. on its way to a call? Yes, the reporters will want to find and talk with that person as well.

As you can see, the shiny, bright fire engine is just one part of the story. There really isn't a story until the reporter can speak with someone about how it affects them. That's when the reporter can head back to his or her station or office and say, "yes, I got the story."

That's a lesson that this PIO learned a long time ago, when doing a story about a galaxy far, far away...

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

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