NEWS ANALYSIS: Meet the new digital Max Cliffords

PR professionals and whistle-blowers alike have been flocking to a new crop of web-based publicists. Matt Cartmell examines this increasingly popular method of gaining coverage in national newspapers.

Matthew Croucher
Matthew Croucher
The News of The World's splash on 30 March struck a heroic note: Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher, a royal marine, has been recommended for a Victoria Cross after flinging himself on a hand grenade in Afghanistan to save his comrades. It was the perfect front page for the gung-ho red top.

That story, like the Richard and Judy phone quiz scandal and the fact that Northern Rock directors were due for huge bonuses, was brokered by Cash4-YourStory, the web-based media publicists who are challenging Max Clifford's stranglehold on the big exclusives.

The four-strong Norwich-based team now deals with 40 to 50 such stories a day via its website, which enables people to send in a story without even picking up the phone. The Northern Rock story is typical of the type in which it deals - the tip came from a whistle-blower within the bank.

More than just whistle-blowers
Members of the public with a secret to tell and a desire for cash are not the agency's only market. Many in-house PROs have found that agencies such as Cash4Your Story (see box for others) can be an effective way of achieving coverage as an alternative to regular PR agencies.

The British Association of Dermatologists' comms manager Nina Goad has used Cash4YourStory in the past.

'I use it when I am not entirely clear how to pitch a story,' says Goad. 'They have better contacts. We don't have the budget for a good contacts database.'

Similarly, Anglia DNA, a Norwich-based DNA-testing lab that offers paternity tests, has used Cash4YourStory to sell stories. These include last August's Daily Mirror feature on people who send their dead fathers' walking sticks and spectacles for DNA tests to see if they were their real dads. The headline: 'He'll Test in Peace.'

'In the past we used a PR agency, but we didn't like it because it was not proactive,' says Anglia DNA's Dr Thomas Haizel, who has sold stories through Cash4YourStory to papers such as the Mail on Sunday, The Times and the Daily Mirror.

'The team knows the newspapers very well. It seems to know what it will get out of the paper. If the timing is wrong it tells us to do it at another time.'

News of the World features editor Matthew Nixson says the publicists have sold him tales of everything from train drivers falling asleep at the wheel to 'domestic activities of celebrities'.

But the one that really stands out for Nixson was the video footage of two marines fighting from two years ago, which a serving soldier sold but remained anonymous.

Cash4YourStory began when founders Jonathan Hartley and Mark Houldey met while working as journalists on the Norwich Evening News. They left to set up a press agency called KNS News, which then became Cash4YourStory. 'We felt that people could do with independent help to get the best price,' says Hartley.

Nixson says Cash4YourStory has 'an enviable reputation', adding 'lots of people have websites, but they were the first guys to see the web's potential'.

People with stories to sell can broker deals worth anything between £200 and £50,000, with Cash4YourStory taking a standard rate and/or percentage for every story sold.

Once they have a story, Hartley rings a 'trusted contact' to run the story by. They will then set up a confidentiality agreement so the client can speak to the journalist with a promise that nothing will be printed until a contract is signed.

'We'll go to another publication if we think we can get a better price. It happens quite often.'

Cash4YourStory often deals with PROs when checking details on stories. 'Generally they are fine,' says Hartley. 'Sometimes they try to kill our story, but we will not approach them unless we are sure of the story.'

Hartley advises PROs to be honest with them, and let them know if something is incorrect with a story, even if it is off the record. 'We would not want to be embarrassed by a story if there is something lurking in the background. It would ruin our reputation.'

So how does the UK's most famous story-broker, Max Clifford, feel about Cash4YourStory and other services competing for the market he once owned outright?

He says he has never heard of them. 'I am sure there are lots of people doing this kind of thing,' says Clifford. 'In the past 25 years we have established a huge market.'

He differentiates himself by explaining that just ten per cent of Max Clifford Associates' business is now story-selling - the rest is taken up by his PR work: 'For every story we break there are half a dozen we stop.' Clifford is scathing about anyone who thinks they can become an overnight rival: 'People say "look at how much Max is making". But it takes a long time.'

Less intimidation
Hartley says that he thinks Cash4-YourStory is 'more for ordinary people. It is less intimidating to come to us. We also have a wide-ranging market, from women's titles to broadsheets.'

As agencies such as Cash4YourStory continue to blur the boundaries between PR and publicity, should more clients and agencies consider this model?


THE ONLINE PUBLICISTS

Cash4YourStory
www.cash4yourstory.co.uk
0845 60 90 118

Talk to the Press
Deals with celebrity secrets and cosmetic surgery stories. Contacts at the Daily Mail, The Sun, News of the World and women's magazines.
www.talktothepress.com
020 7229 0023

Kiss N Sell
Founded by ex-News of the World reporter Kizzi Nkwocha. Contacts at the Sunday Express and The Sunday People.
www.whereonearthgroup.com/kiss-tell/talking-selling-story-media-press.php

The Front Page Story Agency
Contacts at women's titles such as Woman's Own and Bella.
www.frontpageagency.co.uk

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