How to shape the narrative in 90 minutes or less

This week's royal baby birth is a great case study for the current media cycle.

This week's royal baby birth is a great case study for the current media cycle.

The news broke with a tweet from a lucky photographer; a global media frenzy ensued with all of the network morning shows quickly sending correspondents to the sidewalk in front of a London hospital. An official birth announcement was made at 8:31 PM – in the heart of TV prime time and at deadline for the UK's newspapers – and, by nightfall, Niagara Falls and dozens of other famous world landmarks were bathed in blue accent lighting.

On the surface, this is all in a day's work for a royal family and press corps that's had some time to perfect the art of making headlines. Underneath the pomp and circumstance of it all, though, the royal baby story offers a playbook for decoding the contemporary, global news cycle and unlocking the various entry-points for those of us who might not have the genetic keys to the castle.

The prime example of this playbook in action could be found in The Wall Street Journal's coverage of the event. There was the main article, of course, which covered the straight news story. But it was also accompanied by a photo slideshow, an infographic containing a royal hierarchy org chart, a series of four videos, a collection of newspaper front pages from around the world, and a feature on odds-making for baby names. For those keeping score, that's eight standalone pieces of content supporting a single story.

This kind of multifaceted approach has become pretty standard fare for the Journal and its contemporaries.

Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor at the Associated Press, was the first to give this reporting style a name when he issued a memo in December of 2011 encouraging his reporters and editors to find ways to elongate their content's shelf life. He called it a “new distinctiveness,” explaining that the AP had historically been most relevant when news was breaking, but an hour or two after, their coverage was being co-opted by another outlet that would build on the story with new insights.

This line from Oreskes' memo serves as the template for today's multi-disciplinary coverage:

“AP wins when news breaks, but after an hour or two, we're often replaced by a piece of content from someone else who has executed something more thoughtful or more innovative. Often it's someone who has taken what we do (sometimes our reporting itself) and pushed it to the next level of content: journalism that's more analytical, maybe a fresh and immediate entry point, a move away from text, a multimedia mashup or a different story form that speaks more directly to users.”

This type of reporting presents huge opportunities for PR professionals with the foresight to anticipate what kind of supporting materials and data these publications will need to round out their coverage of big stories and position their clients as the perfect sources to deliver that information.

In his mandate to AP reporters, Oreskes describes a fertile news hole where smart PR can wield disproportionate influence. Imagine, for example, a slightly less royal scenario, such as the monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing better-than-expected US employment data, as it did this past July 5.

There is a roughly one-to-two-hour window following that initial news announcement when companies and individuals with a stake in the story have an opportunity to shape the news cycle by offering thoughtful content. This can include infographics, historical data, mathematical projections of future outcomes, smart quotes, etc. – that help journalists achieve that distinctiveness they are chasing.

In our case, for the story above, it was bond market data depicting the magnitude of the move in Treasury bonds following the jobs report. It could just as easily have been commentary on real-estate prices, data on retail trends, or interview tips for active job-seekers. All of these topics were intertwined with the base jobs data announcement and helped to move the story forward.

The key for PR firms and their clients who want to capitalize on this type of fast-moving opportunity is setting up the protocols and systems in advance that allow them to respond thoughtfully in a one-to-two-hour window.  That means streamlining approval processes, making senior execs available when news breaks and planning ahead for multiple possible outcomes. While the shorter cycle certainly doesn't make things easier, it does confer an enormous advantage to PR practitioners who know their space, can get their spokespeople mobilized, and add value when it counts.

John Roderick is president of J. Roderick Inc., a strategic communications firm in New York. Follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

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