OPINION Why third sector comms teams should aim high with stories

Steve Palmer on why a good story can arouse the interest of journalists and fall in with the ‘fashion’ of the day

Last week, the US TV news anchor Mika Brzezinski refused to read an item on Paris Hilton’s release from jail, because she said there were too many other important stories that day that should have led the bulletin. She shredded the script live on air. Brzezinski felt honour-bound to point out that some stories were, in her view, high in the running order because they are fashionable.

I’ve just presented my views on this subject at the NCVO seminar in Nottingham. Of course it was an opportunity to fish out the ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’ headline and to whinge on about how difficult it is to get the press to understand the value of third sector stories. The former I did; the latter I did not.

‘Fashionable’ is basically whatever is on the media’s agenda at any particular time and particular day. At the moment, for example, a number of journalists seem to be pursuing interviews with teenagers with mental health problems. There’s nothing wrong with an agenda: it is the law of supply and demand.

Sometimes I am deluged by calls from TV companies who want to film at one of our services on the day. Yet the morning I offered a rare opportunity to film four injecting drug users for Turning Point’s ‘At the Sharp End’ campaign, this golden opportunity went missing because it was not on the media’s agenda that day.

As a former BBC journalist I know that this is the way the media work. But, although this experience was frustrating, I know that next time I’ll use exactly the same tactic. On that occasion there’s every chance that it will dovetail with the media’s agenda.

There has been an improvement in relations between the media and our sector. Organisations such as Ask Charity put on speed-dating-style conferences where journalists find out more about not-for-profit organisations.

And we’re getting organised too. Rob Dyson at disability charity Scope has
set up a discussion group on the networking site Facebook so that third-sector comms people can share best practice.

Comms officers can get the media to concentrate on serious matters and we should aim high, when we have the right story. The answer is to keep trying and to give journalists, as an output editor said to me on my first TV placement 10 years ago, ‘a rattling good yarn’.

Steve Palmer is in charge of press for Turning Point

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