Credit: Full Story Media

When you think about it, none of the press releases and story pitches filling up your inbox will win you scoop of the year. But they can help with the looming deadlines.

Many newspaper and magazine newsdesks rely on a steady stream of press releases to fill column space and update website sections. That is not to say journalists should run every story that crops up in their inbox, though.

For the journalist about to head into their editorial meeting, what questions do they need to ask themselves before attempting to pitch and run a news story based on a press release? spoke to Jon Card, a business journalist who has written for the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and The Times, at The Chief Storytellers' Club event last week (20 February 2020), where he presented his new book "How To Make Your Company Famous".

Why are they contacting you?

Understand this from the get-go: PRs do not email you out of the goodness of their heart; they are after publicity. That does not mean you should not hear them out but be mindful that this is their goal. Your job as a journalist is not to do their PR, but find an interesting story to talk about.

"If something interesting is happening within a company, we should encourage them to be open," said Card.

What is the story?

"There are different reasons to write a story: to inform or to explain. But sometimes you need to entertain your audience," he continued. "It’s fair to say some stories can be light - I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that."

Your decision to give them that exposure rests on whether there is a genuine story that either your audience cares about or if it feeds into a wider topic. If neither is true, hit delete: it is not worth your time.

"You could be talking about a fantastic new app and through reviewing it, you are to some extent promoting it because you are bringing it to people’s attention. [That's fine] if there’s a wider hot topic to talk about."

Think about connected topics. With a popular kids app for example, can you take an angle around forward-thinking parental controls and restricted usage?

What does the potential headline look like?

Newsrooms talk about the 'top line' for a good reason. Not only do you need to be able to sum up the story in a line or two, but your audience needs to understand the story at a glance.

"Is there something which makes me want to write a headline and jumps out?" asked Card.

Use your journalistic instincts. The top line should come naturally and not forced. If you have read the email a few times and still cannot spot it, how do you expect your readers to make sense of this story? A clumsy and unclear press release or story pitch should go straight into the trash folder.

A cynical editor of any newspaper or magazine - whose job it is to be cynical - will ask very direct questions to verify the story: what are the facts? Does it stack up?

Are there holes in the story?

Journalists are trained to include the who, what, where, when, why and how in the standfirst and opening paragraph. If any of those are missing or vague, that should be setting off alarm bells.

"It should contain all the pertinent facts such as names, dates and locations. If any of these are missing a journalist should be wondering why. Perhaps the story is an over-the-top promo or even fake news."

Be especially vigilant about who you are quoting, as an anonymous spokesperson generally does not cut it. Make sure quotes are attributable to a recognised and credible person within the company, and they are also relevant to the story. Safe bets are high-ranking positions like CEOs or those specific, product lead roles.

Do the claims stack up?

We have all seen press releases with grandiose statements. Any claims - be that popularity of the product or being first-to-market - should be scrutinised and verified by a credible source. It does not take much digging for a suspect claim to be found out.

Card ran a story with The Times about a shower created by Kelda technology, which claimed to be 50 per cent more efficient than any other market brand. When confronted on the bold figures, it had already run trials with the University of Southampton to back up its numbers.

"It was a profile piece and that was possible because I could verify this essential claim that this was a super-efficient product."

Do the quotes read like a human?

Is there anything worse than a poorly-disguised written quote? 'I am delighted to announce that we are embarking on a new partnership...' is the type of quote that frequently plagues press releases but has never been said by a human. Ever.

Use such quotes to your peril. If you do use press release quotes, make sure they sound like they have been said rather than written. The test is this: if it sounds ridiculous when you read the quote aloud, avoid it altogether.

Do the quotes read like a sales pitch?

Another common offence is to use quotes which sound like they have been plucked out of an elevator pitch. Avoid marketing and sales talk at all costs.

"I never want to quote someone who is just pitching their business. They have to talk about something other than their product."

Again, look for context within the market they are operating in. For example, what is the user need or market gap for this product?

Is there the option for a follow-up interview?

Press releases and story pitches can provide good news leads. But remember point one, the PR will have reached out to many inboxes to try and secure exposure as far and wide as possible. With that in mind, can you put a new spin on the story through an interview?

There is no better way to get the story off-script than to actually speak to someone directly. However, not all press releases give you the option to do follow-up interviews. If that is not on the cards, consider whether it is worth the time investment.

"You should always give the journalists the opportunity to speak to someone directly - usually the person quoted in the press release. While some publications do run stories straight off press releases, many journalists will want to find their own angle," said Card.

What would your editor say?

Ideally, you would have followed the above steps before pitching this story to your editor. After all, they will be the final line of approval and will be able to spot shaky figures, fluff and marketing spiel a mile off. If in doubt, ask yourself what they would do.

"A cynical editor of any newspaper or magazine - whose job it is to be cynical - will ask very direct questions to verify the story: what are the facts? Does it stack up?" asked Card.

"But they will also ask: why should I care? Why should my audience care? Why does this deserve space ahead of the other pile of stories?"

Searching for more press releases? You can find more than 15,000 press releases on our PressGo service.

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