Harried Journos Need Your Story-Shaping Skills

If you’ve been in PR long enough, you’ve been annoyed at least once by a needy journalist who doesn’t have the time or desire to do the grunt work of reporting.

But if there’s one adjustment we need to make in the changing media landscape, it is that reporters need our help now more than ever before. With shrinking news staffs, expanding beats and never-ending news cycles, the best news stories today are shaped by journalists, PR professionals and sources working collaboratively. The successful PR people today understand this new dynamic and have adapted to play the role of “story shaper.”

To be clear, shaping stories with today’s media goes far beyond PR’s traditional role of advocacy. It involves two other fundamentals we forgot during the easy days of the dot-com boom. First, we must relearn how to think like reporters. And second, we must know the definition (and shifting elements) of a good story, whether that story is a 140-character tweet or the endangered 10,000-word essay.

One doesn’t need a journalism degree to think like a good journalist. But one does need the empathy to understand that it’s never been tougher for journalists. Print circulation went down 10% in the past three years, according to the Pew Research Center. And the AP reports that advertising revenue has plunged some 30%.

In this devastated news landscape, however, is a very compelling and telling statistic—online circulation is up sharply. Roughly 6.2 million unique visitors, for instance, go to Forbes.com each month. That’s almost seven times larger than Forbes ’ print circulation.

This is where our opportunity to shape stories comes in. Do everything you can to make the reporting process easier. Here’s how:

Encourage your clients to grant consistent, high-level access. And make it easy for them to make the case internally. In this environment, journalists simply don’t have the patience to wait on spokespeople debating the merits of being quoted.

Ferret out your clients’ best spokespeople and circulate their quotes by any means necessary. Use Twitter, Facebook, the company blog—a good, old quote sheet. If your CEO isn’t a quote machine, make sure he or she is armed with a best-of quotes collection from the executive bench.

Provide good journalism yourself. Whether it’s via a world-class online newsroom like that of the U.S. Army (http://www.armyaccessionsnewsroom.com), regular tweets about and from your clients or something in-between, this “inline” approach covers both the traditional and social media. First, you’re giving journalists access to fantastic information and story ideas—in your own words. And second, you’re talking directly to your audience. What better way to shape a story?


Of course, reporting is only one half of journalism. The other half is storytelling. Know what a good story is.

In media training, I explain the difference between why most companies tell stories and why most journalists tell stories. Companies tell stories to highlight product accomplishments, differentiate oneself from the competition or counter a competitor’s news. Journalists tell stories because those stories are surprising, fresh, trendy, entertaining or controversial. These are not mutually exclusive definitions. One can advocate a position, a product or a company and still tell a good story.

But journalists today have no tolerance for a second-rate story. The irony is that they also don’t necessarily have the time to deliver a first-rate one on their own, either. So know what a good story is—and do the legwork required to help a reporter make it happen. That means circling every bullet on this list, at minimum:

Take the time to find the right story —not just the one that sounded good in the new business pitch, but the one that both the client and the reporter like.

Find, train and excite a stable of strong spokespeople about the story process. Folks who understand the process, know what it takes to succeed in interviews and are excited about their message are more likely to help you identify good stories and less likely to cancel interviews.

Know (and collect) the tactical elements of a good story. Today, that means photos, videos and links to additional information.

If you’re thinking that all of this is the journalist’s job, you’re right. But given today’s changing media landscape, you have two choices: Get annoyed or get results. PRN


Dave Reddy is senior VP/media director at Weber Shandwick. He can be reached at dreddy@webershandwick.com.

  • Linda Schiffer

    My apologies to journalists of the past but your heirs have become sloppy, lazy and print anything without checking first.
    To the PR PRO, Amen that someone is able to provide these people with the information they need in a format they can use immediately .. already checked and written!
    Sad, but all too true.