Monday, April 14, 2008

Honing your media instincts

(Or, The Difference Between Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly)

We’ve all got our fair share of obsessions. Sports teams. Shoes. American Idol. As a publicist, I cultivate one my obsessions daily, on an almost an hour-by-hour basis: the news. It’s my job to stay as informed as possible, across a wide range of media genres. Sure, I caught the last presidential speech on CNN. But did I catch the commentary on The 700 Club? The Daily Show? Bill O’Reilly? Much as we’d like to believe in journalistic objectivity, the news isn’t purist. There’s always a smidgen of opinion, because different news outlets serve different news audiences.

If you think you’ve got a newsworthy book or message, that’s great! But it’s only the first step. I’m going to teach you how to watch / read the news with a publicist’s eye. Not all media outlets are created equal, and neither are books and authors. The trick is to know how to package your message for different audiences, using verbage that is compelling, and angles that are timely.

1.Go on a media diet.
For most diets, you have to give up something: carbs, calories, wheat gluten. For a media diet however, you’ll want to consume as much as possible, so as to familiarize yourself with the types of stories used by different outlets.

Here are a couple of stories taken from’s website:
“NFL considering ban on long hair”
“Dad faces son's alleged killer, sees hope”

Now, here are a couple of stories taken from’s website, on the same day:
“Get your gossip fix now!”
“Chocolate: A health food?”

Given that quick glance, what could you tell me about CNN’s vs. iVillage’s audiences? Would you say one attracts more females? Exactly. If you’re an NFL expert, you won’t pitch the long-hair-ban story to iVillage. It’s not for them. Different news outlets go for different material, so a media diet will allow you to pick out those that are most in-line with your message.

2. Get your buzzword on.
What’s a buzzword? “Bromance.” “Feme-ssance.” “Mompreneur.” You get the idea: made-up words (or phrases) that create puns out of a trendy concept. Bromances are male-bonding buddy movies (like Superbad), the Feme-ssance describes women who, mid-life, find themselves again (like the book Eat, Pray, Love), Mompreneurs are mothers who have gone into business (like stay-at-home-mom-turned-Food Network personality, Paula Deen).

Inventing buzzwords isn’t easy, and definitely takes a little practice. When you see on in the news, write it down for future inspiration – it could come in handy later. Here’s another key: all buzzwords point to trends or hot topics happening right now. We would never refer to Mick Jagger and ex-wife Bianca as “Mianca,” would we? But perhaps you’ve heard of “Brangelina.” So, before you go wild creating buzzwords centered around your message, first devote some serious energy to understanding why your message is relevant and timely.

3. Recognize the difference between hot and evergreen stories.
Mother’s Day comes once every year, on an exact date. Fortunately, political scandals do not. But both have media potential.

If your book, message, and expertise relates to an annual event or time period – say, summertime, or President’s Day – offer the media a fresh look at these well-known time markers. Are you an environmental expert? Offer some ideas on green summer vacations. Are you a financial expert? The public always needs tips on money and savings, so offer tips for saving on your home payments. That is what’s called an “evergreen” angle, but you still want to tie it into sometime that’s going on right now: home foreclosures, for example. It may be evergreen, but the operative word in news is new, and the media looks for timely inflections of lasting issues.

A hot news story may not have a long shelf-life: a young starlet’s pregnancy, a governor’s sundry affair, etc. The media outlets who run these stories aren’t interested in tip sheets or cutesy sidebars – usually. They’re interested in expert commentary, an insider’s view, etc. – people in the know who can explain why this happened, and the repercussions of such an event. Know when your message (and perhaps more importantly, your credentials) is appropriate for these stories. And when it’s not, back off - there’s nothing more annoying to media than fame-seekers desperate for a little airtime! Don’t worry: the perfect story for you will come in time.

4. Have perfect timing.
Different media outlets have incredibly different lead-times. Daily newspapers? Anywhere from a few weeks to a few hours. Monthly magazines? Whole seasons. Sometimes, it’ll be December, and one of my author clients will say something like, “I have an awesome holiday story idea – let’s call Family Circle!” Sorry…they did their holiday stories back in August.

On the flip side, daily newspapers and TV news programs move very quickly. Did a presidential candidate just drop out of the race? If you’re a political expert, then move! You can offer insight into how this will change the direction of the presidential race, what strategies the remaining candidates will use now, etc. If a top-tier outlet is interested in your expertise, be gracious and offer the exclusive (frequently the only way to seal the deal with them anyway). A zillion publicists and expert sources will be after the news in the days to come after a big story breaks, so get your voice in early.

When you watch or read the news, it’s important to know when to jump – and even if it’s a hot story, keep in mind that your message may be more appropriate for delayed, in-depth coverage after the story has broken. This is especially true if your credentials are more abstract an academic: say, a political science professor commenting on the presidential race, rather than a political advisor directly involved in the race.


Watching the news as a well-informed citizen is different than watching the news like a publicist. Honing your media instincts will give you the ability to come up with story angles for your message that are creative, appealing, and timely. Plus, it’s a great excuse to be a little indulgent: sure, you’ve got your daily NPR fill, but have you checked out today? If anyone calls you on it, just tell them it’s “research.”

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Blogger Unknown said...

Excellent. I actually love listening to the radio news. I totally enjoy watching the 4 TV's while on the eliptical at my gym as well. Now they aren't just distractions, they are work. Hmm, would this make my gym membership tax deductible? ;-) Where's a financial/tax expert when I need them? :-D

February 6, 2009 at 2:37 AM  

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