Creating News Sense

February 28, 2013

Lacking a degree from a university journalism school, brief stint as a working journalist or extension class certification in news writing? So what steps can any PR professional take to improve his or her writing skills to the benefit of all strategic communications?

Transform yourself into a combination of eclectic researcher, investigative reporter, daily columnist, tough editor and Wall Street Journal fact-checker. Use both sides of your brain to figure out the creative aspects of telling a story and the logic to support the concept. Establish your own habits for generating new sparks of creativity to become a better writer and PR pro.

Think about how fact-filled, rich content can work as a foundation for developing strong positioning for your client or organization, then be integrated into all planning, public relations, social media, website content, investor relations and all other forms of strategic communications.

Ask questions

To set a high critical bar for each idea you are considering, start with two questions that an acerbic editor/mentor pinioned me with as a rookie when reviewing my brilliant feature concept: So what and who cares? Whew.

First, begin honing your news sense by becoming a voracious reader of news. This may be considered heresy in the digital age, but scanning real newspapers gives you a feeling for how editors rank the importance of stories by their placement.  The news universe unfolds in context with each page you turn.

Establish reading rituals

I start the day with four newspapers — The Wall Street Journal, a financial paper and two local dailies — to get a quick feeling for news of the day, plus editorial, columnist and feature topics. I almost always discover thought-provoking stories that I probably would have missed when scanning online news sites. The process helps ignite creative thoughts for what new content we might develop for our clients and topics to use with the media.

Another reading ritual:  Subscribe to news feeds from your favorite publications and bloggers. Add searches on Twitter to find current tweets about your subjects.  You will find abundant fluff, of course. But tweets can provide links to relevant news stories and other resources you can use in your own programs, to include finding new media covering your areas of interest.

Second, develop an appreciation for the structure of news stories in the media you are trying to reach — local, regional, trade, national. Write down the headlines or TV teasers of four or five different stories that catch your attention.  Then, identify the three most important facts and points made in each story.  Analyze for patterns and insights. You will begin developing an editor’s news sense to help you tell your clients’ stories in new ways and better connect with the media.

Third, get creative. Start with writing the perfect headline to grab the attention of your target audiences. Then, craft your story or copy in a human voice, without industry jargon (e.g. instead of writing about “provides software solutions,” bring the benefits to life, such as “provides integrated software programs to help companies in the XYZ industry better manage, monitor and improve their manufacturing processes”). Avoid hype and superlatives. Be fact-filled. Use data from outside sources.

Fourth, grade your progress. Look at something written six months ago or more. How would you rewrite the release? Add more information? Be provocative? Eliminate fatuous quotes? Ask: So what and who cares? 

Fifth, be extra critical. We developed the following Gable PR seven-point litmus test to evaluate potential news stories or other messages:

  1. Is it really newsworthy or of interest to anyone other than the company, the CEO’s family and a few friends?
  2. How big is the impact: company, community, region, industry, technology or science breakthrough, nation, humanity?
  3. Has someone already told the story? If yes, then see if new data and creativity can make your concept work, including for new targets.
  4. Can data, third-party sources and ongoing proof of principle support the premise?
  5. Does the company have credible “gurus” who can become trusted resources for the media?
  6. Can people, technology, culture and personality further differentiate the company?
  7. Can you summarize the story in a compelling headline, tweet or one- or two-sentence sound bite or elevator pitch? 

This quick test can help focus your efforts to create a smart, compelling and interesting story or other communication that breaks through the clutter, connects with your targets and supports the long-term reputation of your client or organization. Raise your bar on quality content to the highest level and always remember to ask: So what and who cares?

Tom Gable, APR, Fellow PRSA
Tom Gable, APR, Fellow PRSA, is vice chair of Nuffer, Smith Tucker PR, San Diego, and previously founder and CEO of Gable PR. He has been in the PR profession for more than 40 years. A former financial journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee, he is author of “The PR Client Service Manual” and a frequent speaker at national conferences and teleseminars on jargon-free public relations, creativity, strategic reputation management and crisis communications. Contact: tg@nstpr.com.


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