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Selling the Positive Stories

Written by Cara Donlon-Cotton

A lot of bad news is on TV and in the papers. The industry thrives on the bad news—crime waves, internal investigations, legitimate screw-ups—they’re all bread and butter for the media. The bad news simply sells. However, they need some good news just as much as they want the bad news. It is a “yin and yang” formula…the news industry must offer its patrons a few feel-good stories to counter all the bad.

In the TV world, these stories are sometimes called the “kicker”—quick stories with great, happy pictures that are shown at the end of the newscast to leave a pleasant taste in the mouths of the viewers. In newspapers, this happy-go-lucky story might be a feature story, or it might just be a big centerpiece photo with extended captions giving some details. Regardless of what they call it, what form it’s in or where it goes, a good feel-good story has one very important element—pictures.

And although most media types don’t realize it, law enforcement agencies can be great sources of feel-good stories. There are a lot of positive, upbeat, warm and fuzzy things in law enforcement. There are youth projects, safety awareness campaigns, car seat installation inspections, self-defense classes and so on. And each one of these programs or events has one thing in common—they all have potential for great pictures.

There’s actually an old journalist rule for photos and video, part of which includes: “tots, vets and pets.” Children, military and animals make great pictures and video. As law enforcement, you can satisfy all three of those elements with any kid-oriented event—just make sure your personnel in attendance are uniformed and the K9 and mounted patrol units are on hand, thereby making it the perfect “dog and pony” show.

The key to getting your warm and fuzzy story covered by TV and newspapers is in how you pitch the photo opportunities. You must make sure your media outlets are aware of the potential for great photos and video. Whereas, the traditional sending out of press release after press release about an upcoming dog and pony show is one strategy, it’s usually ineffective for the feel-good stories. While this is easy for your public information officer to do, it’s also easy for those pieces of paper to be thrown off to the side in a busy newsroom and forgotten about.

Similarly, you can call and harp about your event, which may work, but it may also tick off an assigning editor and get your positive event placed at the bottom of the “maybe” pile. So what works? Like Sergeant Friday said, “Just the facts.”

Be ostentatious. There is nothing wrong with being blatant about the fact you have something the media will want to photograph or videotape. Instead of calling it a “press release,” come right out and call it a “photo op.” Or bold face those words in 14-point font on your press release and detail what will be available, i.e., the K9 units will demonstrate their skills for the children of Main Street Elementary.

You can even pitch the story to a newspaper photographer rather than the beat reporter you see every day—worst case, the photographer will have a standalone photo in the paper and best case, a reporter tags along and does a story to coincide with the photo. But shamelessly selling your photo op is not a guarantee that the reporters will buy. There are, however, some other things you can do to hedge your bets.

Timing. Logic dictates that staging an event on a Saturday might be the best way to get in the Sunday paper (so more people will see it), however, Sunday papers are almost always filled to the brim with longer, more in-depth stories. There’s always the possibility those stories will bump your feel-good story to the back pages or out of the paper entirely.

It would be better, almost guaranteeing coverage, for you to stage your event on a Sunday. Monday papers are thin, primarily because there aren’t a lot of reporters working on Sundays—and the ones who are will willingly accept a dog and pony show assignment because it makes their jobs easier. The result? A feature story with pictures in Monday morning’s paper… the one everyone is reading as they procrastinate at their work desks at 9am.

Having an event first thing in the morning, regardless what day you have it, might be easier for you but it’s harder for the reporters. Making a reporter’s job more difficult will only have disastrous results for you, so you want to make it easier for them. If you want TV coverage on that evening’s newscast, make sure your event starts at around 11am and goes until at least 2pm. And if you’re providing food, the reporters will definitely show.

Movement. Live action will almost always guarantee that your story will be covered—especially when dealing with TV cameras. K9s being present is one thing; K9s doing an apprehension demonstration is another. Do you have a bomb robot? Power it up and let it steal something from a kid who’s gawking at it; it shows the robot’s dexterity, as well as movement. People moving are always more interesting than talking heads behind a desk.

Another aspect of movement is that of the reporter. Any situation that allows the reporter a chance to participate in the action will result in a positive story. This also almost certainly guarantees coverage because once a reporter feels vested in the story, the reporter will fight harder for more significant play back at the office—more space on the front page or a longer segment on the news. It all works to your advantage.

For example, are you trying to get a story about SWAT that doesn’t have a “gung-ho cowboy” angle? Suit the reporter up in tactical gear and let them play. The result will definitely be a sympathetic reporter.

Semantics. All these tips are related to the game itself…the mind game you’re playing with the media. Basically, you want them to think that covering your story is all their idea. You need to subtly place this idea in their heads as early on in the game as you can. The way you win this game, then, is through your pitch.

And remember, when pitching a feature story to newspaper reporters, you should never tell them the best way to write the story. Doing so will immediately turn them off, and they might just do the opposite of what you suggest, just out of spite.

Cara Donlon-Cotton is the former media relations instructor for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center and a reformed newspaper reporter. She can be reached at cdonloncotton@yahoo.com.

What NOT To Say... What TO Say...

We need the PR... Can you help us make the public aware of X?

Can you give us some positive coverage on... I think this is a story you may be interested in, and if you want, you can come see it first hand.

The chief wants this in the paper/on TV... Any way you can get this in the paper/on TV?

Why don't you do stories like (your competitor)... Would you like to see how we do (blank)? Then, if you're interested, I'll get you the approval to do a story on it.

This is how this story is going to go... Let me get you all the documentation you need and set up some interviews for you...

You do a good job on this one, and I'll keep hooking you up... (This is what you'd do, of course, just don't come right out and say it!).


Published in Law and Order, Sep 2006

Rating : Not Yet Rated


Comments

Comment on This Article

Nice overview.

By Howard LaMunion

PR and media training are sorely lacking in large and small departments. They have no idea what a positive impact branding, marketing and PR/media relations can have on ensuring accuracy in reporting.

Submitted Dec 8 at 11:29 PM

Feel Good Stories

By maria

I enjoyed reading this article and I would like to thank you for all your great tips. Maria

Submitted Oct 24 at 12:16 PM

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