In the digital age, spreading the news about your cultural organisation can be difficult. So how can you make sure your heritage site or initiative gets the attention it deserves? To answer that question, Roel Daenen of FARO, the Flemish Institution for Cultural Heritage, has written and published an excellent guide for any cultural heritage organisation. The original article on the FARO website is written in Dutch and has been translated and published by the European Heritage Tribune with the permission of FARO.
“As interesting as our activity is, we rarely make it to the media. And if it does happen, then there will be little left of our story.”
Do you recognize this outcry? But… the good news is that, technically, anyone can get more out of press or media relations, provided you follow a few simple rules. Because, technically, any cultural organisation can reach the media. Provided that we are aware of the functioning of the mechanisms of the ‘news market’. In this chapter, we provide you with a number of tips and recommendations that you can try for yourself.
Note: in this text, we are talking about 'media', in the sense of news media. By this we mean: the press (printed and digital newspapers, magazines, etc.), but also audiovisual (radio and TV) and digital news editors. The emphasis is on news, and not on longer programs of content, such as documentaries or podcasts.
The very first question you should ask yourself, over and over again, may seem redundant at first glance. Why do you want to reach the media? Possible answers are:
“Because we have something new.”
“To get the attention.”
“To raise awareness or to recruit new members.”
“To lobby (local) politicians, who pay little attention to our needs.”
These reasons are obvious and legitimate. After all, everyone tries to market their ‘product’ – whether it is an exhibition, a new publication, the organisation itself or an activity – with the available resources. In any case, there must always be a good and substantiated answer to that first question. Because if you don’t know, who will?
An often-cited argument for getting airplay (literally and figuratively) is that generating attention through the media is relatively cheap. You don’t have to develop ads and pay for space in a newspaper, magazine, radio or TV. The journalist reports on your offer, and in turn tries to turn it into an interesting article or fascinating report, without costing a penny.
What is the context?
As a communication officer or manager of a heritage organisation, you are one of the many actors in the so-called ‘media landscape’. You can best compare this to a marketplace. There is a great deal of supply – everyone wants to sell their valuable goods – and … there is also demand, which picks a number of things from the multitude of options.
Does it still need to be said? The supply is exponentially greater than the demand. Journalists and editors receive tons of press releases and phone calls every day—far more than they could ever report. Numbers? Belgian Press agency Belga says it receives about 900 press releases every day. Moreover, the space available for what we can conveniently call ‘culture’ is limited. It is therefore first and foremost a matter of surviving that first ‘selection’.
It is essential that you know which media you are targeting. Het Laatste Nieuws (a popular-populist newspaper in Belgium, note EHT) is a different newspaper than De Tijd (a Belgian financial-economy newspaper, note EHT). The Pompidou program on Klara (art and classical music radio show, note EHT) differs from Nieuwe Feiten on Radio 1 (radio show about absurd news, note EHT) and from De Madammen on Radio 2 (popular feel-good radio show, note EHT). And so on. The better you can tailor your press communication to the potential recipient, the better chance you have of success. The media landscape consists of different segments. For example, there are:
various press agencies (local, regional, national and international),
daily and weekly newspapers,
magazines that focus on specific target groups,
radio and television stations (regional and national),
digital media (websites and e-zines).
Each of these media are specific in terms of timing (when they schedule and ‘close’ in other words), the functioning, the nature of the info they offer and, finally, the audience to whom they offer their services. . As a ‘provider’ you should always take this into account by tailoring your information specifically to the medium you are aiming for. “Intensive,” you think? Sure. But also rewarding.
Everyone has their own idea of what “news” is. Communication manuals often refer in this regard to the statement of The New York Sun editor John B. Bogart (1848-1921), to the same question: “When a dog bites a man, that it is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that’s news.”
In other words, news is something that is unexpected in the first place. Ask a journalist what the characteristics are of news, or what qualifies to be picked up by the editors. Then he or she will usually give you an answer that corresponds to one, and preferably several of the points below:
Is the fact sufficiently current? Old news is rarely interesting, except for historians, nostalgics and heritage workers.
Is the event extraordinary enough? If your news item can be described on the basis of one or more superlatives, you are in the right place.
Is the message socially relevant? If the fact directly relates (or can relate to) a large group of people, or can affect their lives in some way, then it is socially relevant.
Is there enough variety in the news offer? Media usually make a trade-off between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news. Hard news is about economics or politics, for example. Cultural items, ‘human interest’ and miscellaneous facts are usually understood as ‘soft news’. This is a criterion on which you as a provider have little control. Try to find out who decides what goes in News Feed.
Is this fact relevant to us and/or this medium? For example, newspaper De Tijd focuses more on financial and economic facts than on cultural items. Unless there is a financial component in it… radio stations such as Studio Brussel and MNM keep tabs on the ins and outs of pop and rock music, and the world of showbiz.
Can the news fact be approached from a human angle? Abstract facts or ‘big stories’ stand a better chance if they can put a face on them, in other words, if they can be presented as a recognizable, human story.
Can the news fact be visualized? Of course, this only applies to (audio)visual media, where the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ still applies.
So when you deploy your instruments – such as the press release or the press conference – it is best to take these seven ‘criteria’ into account. This list is of course not absolute and exhaustive, but it can help to look at your news offer through the eyes of a journalist.
Building a relationship
As with many things in life, it is easier to talk to people when you know each other a little better. That certainly applies to this theme. Try to find out who the person behind the journalist is, what concerns her or him, what his or her interests and passions are, and so on. Then you can also gain insight into how the editors work: who makes the decisions? What are points of attention? What could be better?
Also, think about pitching (exciting) news beforehand to a journalist who you know has a good chance that he or she will pick it up. Remember, the news market mechanism is a play, and it’s a bit of give and take. If you fail again and again, or if there is no question of a ‘relationship’ (yet), you can follow various routes:
Contact the intended editor(s) and request a meeting with the editor-in-chief.
In doing so, try not to take the underdog position – not even subconsciously, but keep the idea of the news market in mind. Your story or news item could potentially interest a lot of readers, viewers, or listeners.
Before you do that, you should of course do your homework and go through the medium you are contacting from front to back. Analyse the articles and reports that deal with cultural heritage: which perspective is used? Who gets a podium? What is the core of the story?
Of course, you also follow the media closely and read everything that is published about dealing with the media. Certainly in an area that is constantly changing (including through mergers and what we can describe here as ‘cost savings’).
The video below also features tips and tricks from Belgian journalists and people working in the media and news sector. It is only available in Dutch.