In yesterday’s Telum Media PR Alert (sign up here to receive all the latest PR moves and news) Simon Holt, Editor-in-Chief of the Brisbane Times, wrote about how PRs should interact with modern newsrooms. Today Telum Talks To... Gary Nunn, Director of Communications at Change.org about how the modern PR team works.
What are the internal pressures that you face as an internal PR team who have to work with the media?
Understandably, most journalists want exclusives. A pressure we face is maximising the media for a petition on a certain issue. We try to help petition starters get as much media as possible, but once the story has broken, it loses its news currency within ten minutes. We want stories to really travel - so we help our users build a strong narrative arc. Our challenge is to advise the petition starter on the creative ways they can keep building pressure around their ask by giving journalists different angles and new case studies. We never like to pitch a weak story, so we work hard for our petition starters by encouraging them to workshop ideas with us to keep things fresh and at a certain standard.
When you take a story to journalists, what kind of time, effort and energy has gone into that release or outreach before it even reaches their inbox?
Quite honestly, that varies. Often, heaps of time has gone into crafting a story pitch that's succinct, snappy and relevant to that audience. I've spent hours analysing new data and building relationships with potential case studies to offer journalists something juicy enough. But pitches need to be timely too, and if a hook emerges that morning, a story offer or op ed offer needs to be put together in twenty minutes - meaning not much time has gone into it, but mountains of energy have shaped that 20 minutes! It's what Tony Abbott would call "febrile." I call it "efficient speed working."
I'll always remember going to a conference and three major editors were asked: what are the top things you want in story pitches? The first two gave lengthy, useful responses. The third gave a one word response: "brevity." I've never forgotten that!
I think the press release is almost dead. It still has its merits, but I think there are more dynamic ways of breaking stories, and I think that mostly comes from relationship building.
Behind the scenes, what happens for you and your talent when you get an interview request and what is your evaluation process for that interview?
I'll give you an example - recently the Talent Producer for Lateline rang and asked Karen Skinner, Head of Change.org Australia, to go on their panel discussion that night. The evaluation process took me all of three minutes - excellent opportunity, see who else is on - big fat yes. That meant I ripped up my to-do list for that day and worked with Karen on extensive prep and just like that, I became an expert on Senate Voting Reform. The key was to give Karen interesting enough key messages about how tech tools like Change.org disrupt politics in a similar way that technology has disrupted the way we take cabs, watch TV, date etc. Technology has devolved power out of the hands of the few (Canberra elites) and into the hands of the many (everyday Australians).
If the talent is a petition starter, often they're the most disempowered people in Australia in desperate situations. They've come to our platform because they feel voiceless so on one hand, these media requests give them the chance to empower themselves and finally be heard. On the other, they can be very vulnerable. One of the proudest stories we tell at Change.org is the 14-year-old girl who came to Change.org on her nan's laptop just three weeks after her mum's suicide. She wanted domestic violence prevention lessons in schools because she'd thought the violence in her household was normal. With interview requests, we did due diligence and made her petition anonymous. Over time, many meetings, trust building and lots of professional advice, she told us she felt confident enough to reveal her name to the media. Look her up - Josie Pohla - she's a true people power champion. And still just 15.
In terms of working with journalists, what do you need from them, and when do you need it, in order to help them get the best story or content?
Here's a bit of an open secret because some journalists haven't yet caught onto it - Change.org is like a free newswire. It's AAP for the disempowered or voiceless. A story factory, packed full of David vs Goliath human stories. The savvy journalists check it daily and tell me exactly what they want and when they want it - and the quick ones are getting the stories first. It's also a barometer of public opinion - we have 3.8 million users, meaning one in seven Aussies have signed or started a petition. If there's a sense of outrage or injustice, we're the platform that can tell you how Australians feel about it - 50 petitions get started daily and some grow to up 250,000 signatures or more.
In terms of what do I personally need - a simple and snappy yes or no, so I know whether I can offer the story elsewhere and don't piss them off because a rival has responded to me sooner on a breaking story. I never break exclusives and am meticulous about this, so a simple 'no thanks', if possible, is better than blanket ignorance. That said, I know some journalists get 300 emails a day so typing 'no thanks' 297 times isn't always possible!
Journalists talk about only having limited time to check their inbox for stories. On a busy day when a big issue is breaking, what does the day look like for you?
We'll start early with boomerang pitches to radio journalists as they come on shift. We have a small team at Change.org - just four of us full-time working on campaigns and communications. Our media campaigner is excellent, she knows how to hit the phones when she backs a big story. Without pestering, she'll call newsdesks or journalists we've built relationships with when we have faith they'll love a big story we have to break with them. We don't do that for every story - we'd drive journos insane! I tell the team it's important to keep credibility with journalists by only doing phone follow-ups with them with something very big, very relevant and very timely. I reckon they do it with panache. I'm super proud to work with them. Mornings are frenetic; afternoons give us more time to be strategic / creative about where to take the story next.
What are the top three things you’ve learnt since you’ve moved into PR that you wish you’d known when you were a journalist?
1) It's a symbiotic relationship. PRs can offer fantastic content or ideas and really help stressed journalists on tight deadlines.
2) A simple emailed 'no thanks' can really, really help a PR to move on to their next target for pitching. I still do some freelance journalism now and make a point of responding to all pitches because ignorance is more stressful than a decline.
3) I once spoke to a prominent, well-known reporter who said they respond to those "did you get my email?" phone calls with the, frankly, brusk retort: "Did it bounce back? Then I got it." That's just a PR being professional and doing the job their managers expect of them. Often they've done a lot of research on you and what you write before they make that call so, although it can seem irritating, giving them 30 seconds of your day could make theirs.
How is the structure and make-up of PR teams changing as the demand for PRs to create their own content increases?
PR will need to transform as an industry. We can't have an army of thousands of PRs pitching to a dwindling number of stressed out journalists; at some point the balance will tip. I once spoke to a PR who said he "doesn't do and will never do Twitter." I suspect he's currently doing Centrelink. We must adapt and start creating ourselves the stories we're often so good at pitching. It's exciting to up-skill and keep across the new platforms on which to deliver news. But I think it still comes down to whether you have an innate, age-old knack in your DNA: story telling. Everything still comes back to that. The tools to do it are just evolving. Change.org is one of those tools: the power of people telling their own stories is making insurance juggernauts pay delayed claims, making politicians actually listen and act on behalf of the masses rather than narrow business interests and making corporate giants more responsive to their consumers. That's the most uplifting story of all.
Is having a background in public relations a major advantage for a journalist?
Gary Nunn tweets @garynunn1