Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What makes news? Timeliness

One of the most frequently asked questions I get as an instructor is, "Why do some stories get covered while others don't?" It seems like such a simple question, but as with any other simple question, there are many nuances that you have to understand in order to fully grasp the concept.

Imparting some wisdom
Ask just about any reporter, and they will tell you what some of the most important traits that make a story pitchable in an editorial meeting, they will respond:
  • Timeliness
  • Proximity
  • Impact or Consequence
  • Novelty or Rarity
  • Conflict
  • Human interest
  • Prominence
For this and the next six posts, I am going to delve into each of these traits so we can all better understand what the reporters are looking for, and why some stories just never make the news.

Those word definitions...
The first topic is timeliness, and etymologically, that's exactly what makes news news - the fact that the information being provided is new to begin with. And, as we know, there is a very fine line between what qualifies as news and what qualifies as history.

Let me start off with a simple example. If I were to tell you that President Abraham Lincoln had been shot, where would you look for information? A history book, probably. Or maybe an online encyclopedia. If I was to tell you that President Obama had been shot, where would you go for more information? Your nearest TV or online news source for sure.

That's why I routinely tell my students that information is as perishable as a head of lettuce on a produce stand. Just as the farmer has to get that lettuce to market as quickly as possible, we do have to get our information out to the public and reporters quickly, which means that our approval process has to be as efficient as possible.

If the information we provide isn't necessary for life safety, and it is for a planned event (the start of Hurricane Season, safe holiday shopping tips, a news release about seasonal watering restrictions, etc.), then it's up to us to ensure we allow enough time for the release to navigate the twists and turns of the process. We also have to have that information out when it can do the most good for the reporters. Here in Florida, our dry season is during the spring, so pushing water conservation in July and August, when we average nearly 10 inches of rain a month, doesn't make as much sense as pushing it in February and March. 

Seasonal watering restrictions can be handled with planning
If the information we provide is life safety critical, then we need to get buy-in well in advance of the event to determine the shortest and most efficient way of getting the information approved. That's why it's critical for public information officers to be at the table with emergency planners and responders to build that trust. When the event does take place, we have the confidence of those involved and we know exactly who we should seek out for approval.

A crisis briefing can be made easier with clear lines of approval
Remember also that information provided to the media in advance of an event is always more appreciated than that which is only sent as a follow-up. This way, it provides reporters an opportunity to decide if they would like to cover it, and it also primes them to be more receptive of photos and video of the event you may send after the fact.

Oh, if you are going to follow up with photos or video, be sure to do that the same day, if possible. Believe me, there will be little - if any - interest in mentioning an event that took place three or four weeks ago. That's history.

You will notice many times during this and the next six posts that I advocate for pre planning and building relationships. Believe me, these words of wisdom come through years of making many mistakes. Some by me, some by others. Again, it's my hope that through those experiences, we can improve how we function and help advance our craft.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida