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When a big story breaks…

By Keren Haynes


Understandably, when something terrible happens in the world, it becomes the absolute focus of broadcast news. Last week’s tragic incident outside Westminster was a classic case – resulting in extended news bulletins at the time and special, more in-depth programmes in the days that followed.

On the day of an incident like Westminster there’s going to be blanket coverage of the story; this includes the facts about the incident, how many dead, how many injured, what happened when. Reporters are deployed to the scene to describe what they see and if possible interview witnesses. Their role is to provide colour and often “filler” – when news like this first happens what exactly has taken place is not always obvious – the reporter may well be floundering when they first go on air!

As time passes the coverage becomes more about analysis. We learn more details – identification of the victims, more information about the injured, who might be behind the atrocity and what were they trying to achieve. As the speakers at the Shout! Communications Big Talk confirmed broadcast news is being given a run for its money by social media; we can so easily find out what has happened online but we turn to TV and radio news to understand and interpret these facts.

So how can we in the PR industry advise clients planning a story  on a day like last Wednesday? Often a pre-planned PR story is not a natural fit with the top of a news bulletin anyway.  So when the airwaves are dominated by a tragedy there is no choice but to drop or postpone a story.

This is difficult because once a story has been sold into broadcast it’s hard to undo. Even if it had never been aired broadcasters may dismiss it in subsequent days as “old.” Our advice would be to re-write the story with a re-worked top line to freshen it up. We are certainly not advocating lying to journalists – if it genuinely hadn’t been aired, as former journalists ourselves, we would accept it as a new story. We would however clarify that position if questioned. Honesty is always best!

The next day though is slightly different. We had actually been selling in a campaign on the day of the attack, and whilst some stations did cancel interviews the vast majority went ahead. That’s because whilst Westminster was still the biggest story on the news agenda there was less to say about it. The story developed the next day with arrests in Birmingham – but then it really becomes a police enquiry and as such journalists are limited in what they can say – the only other story progression was about the condition of the injured victims.

So in terms of national coverage it’s quite challenging to sell in a PR story but not impossible. A story can dominate the airwaves but there’s still an appetite for alternatives stories too. Competition to get on air will be tighter but to boost your chances you can try and provide all the ingredients a broadcaster would look for. That might include:

  • A willing, enthusiastic and – crucially – available spokesperson. If you want national coverage that should mean they are in London, unless you are desperate for BBC Breakfast in which case they should be in Manchester.
  • If appropriate, case studies. Broadcasters love a case study because they bring a story to life and in the case of TV news they make for very useful
  • Moving pictures. That’s either something broadcasters can film for themselves, and/or B-roll footage that you provide. B-roll is around 5-6 minutes worth of roughly edited footage, produced by agencies such as Shout! Communications then distributed to broadcasters free of charge and any copyright issues. Broadcasters will re-edit the footage, sometimes mixing it in with pictures they’ve shot themselves. For more about B-roll have a look at one of our blogs on the subject.

Another approach is to focus on other elements of the media. For example, if the nationals are stuck fast on the big story of the day it might be more appropriate to put more emphasis on regionals. With the Westminster story, regional stations in London and Birmingham where there were arrests would not be interested in a PR story, but the rest of the country might still have a hole in a programme that needs filling.

If you’d like to know more about broadcast PR you might be interested in coming to one of our free workshops. We hold them a couple of times a month, covering different elements of broadcast PR.  Shout! Communications was set up and is run by former broadcast journalists and many of the team have this sort of background too – so you’d learn from people who have made decisions about what stories should run, and what stories should be dropped, themselves.

Keren Haynes is joint Managing Director at Shout! Communications. Before working in PR she worked as a journalist for the BBC, ITN and Sky News. 

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