Confession time: I don't consider myself an expert in political communications. Truth be told, no one truly is an expert given the nature of the current media environment. And if someone tells you they know precisely how to navigate this new environment, my first piece of advice is to run a mile in the opposite direction.
One of the major problems with political communications and gaining media coverage, particularly of the positive variety, is it is such a changing area of expertise in the modern world of social media and fake news. It becomes all the more difficult in the environment in which I operate, as the head of press for the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, the country’s fifth-largest political party.
In a previous life, I was a paid-up, card-carrying (literally) member of the fourth estate. After serving half a decade as a journalist, I turned to the dark side, as many would see it, and got into political PR. So I’ve been on both sides of the fence and therefore have a reasonable idea both on what makes a story, as well as what media are after in terms of copy.
For smaller parties across Europe, the key to generating coverage and getting your message out in a positive way is to nail the basics. As simple as it sounds, too few parties seem to understand that garnering media attention in the current environment isn’t about being overly provocative or aggressive in posture toward the ruling party. Sure, that can grab headlines. But more fundamentally, it’s a solid grasp on best practice when it comes to media outreach that will serve you best.
The first thing you need to decide is what medium you want your PR to end up in. If it’s simply good old traditional newspaper copy, one of the best pieces of advice I can offer is write how the journalists do.
Pick up a few copies of the publications you’re targeting – see what they’re writing about and how they’re writing it. Now tailor your press release to that style, while obviously getting your information and message in.
Oftentimes, journalists can be lazy creatures. This is not a criticism but a reality when you’re faced with numerous pages of empty white space and nothing to fill it before your rapidly approaching deadline. So if something lands in their inbox which they don’t have to do much to in order to fill some of that said space, they’re always more likely to take that.
Speaking of deadlines, learn them and keep a note of them, particularly for more local weekly newspapers. Speaking with my journalist hat on, there’s little more frustrating than a decent story arriving when you’re about to go to print or even worse, when the deadline has just passed, meaning it’ll be old news and therefore useless by the time next week’s edition rolls around. A golden rule of thumb is as early as possible or at least inform the journalist you have something for them and to save a space.
Now is as good a time as any to mention those interactions with journalists (and this goes for any form of media). I cannot state this simply enough but go out and form relationships with them. After all, they are people you will spend a vast chunk of your working day talking to, asking favours from and often seeking favours in return. All of that will go much easier if they know you, like you and can talk with you.
I’m not saying you have to be best friends with them and know the names of each of their children but if they see you as a human being, it helps immeasurably. Along those same lines and within reason (not including times when you’re temporarily actively avoiding either a particular media outlet or all media for various reasons) always be available and always be productive.
We’re back to the journalists being lazy thing again (sorry) but if they call you looking for a quote, a face to give a line to camera or simply insight on an issue, be the one to provide it. When you’re competing for space and airtime with bigger parties or bigger candidates, you need to use everything to your advantage. If you can be a person a journalist knows will provide what they ask for, they will inevitably come back to you again and again with requests. They fill their need and you get your message out there. Everybody wins.
Likewise, try to think of a unique angle to a release. It’s always an easier sell to media when you can give them something no one else is saying. Follow-ups are also often a more successful pitch when you find out who covered the original story and pitch your message directly to them.
In the current environment, it’s perhaps not the best thing to extol the virtues of Facebook but Mark Zuckerberg’s under-fire platform, along with other social media platforms, can provide a whole new outlet for promoting your political PR.
At its most base, it is a chance to put your unfiltered message out there and gain coverage but again, there’s a couple of key things to remember.
Remember while it’s fine to just use social media as a way to output press releases and other messages, the best way to use it is to interact. Converse with people. Don’t go too far and have endless arguments with faceless trolls but by the same token, engagement is the key to getting noticed. More often than not these days, journalists are lifting quotes from social media the way they would do from an official source, so make certain you aren’t writing something on Twitter or Facebook you wouldn’t want to see in print.
Lastly, think about the role of candidates themselves. Sit down with them, talk about their message, see if you can work out something unique and memorable about them. Again, if you have a distinctive way to market them and their message, it’s an easier sell. Identify their strengths, hide their weaknesses and make them stand out.
While these rules are not hard and fast, they certainly will give you a good grounding to get your message out there, getting media attention and get you closer to becoming that communications expert yourself.
Scott Jamison is Head of Press for the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.