The 3 drivers of news and how they can lend power to your pitches

There are thousand of media stories generated by reporters around the world every day. And while those stories might cover thousands of different topics, they can ALL be traced back to one or more of the three drivers of news:

  • Change
  • Controversy
  • Human Interest

That's it.

Just three.

And they've driven every news story since Gutenberg (Johannes, not Steve) was in diapers.

Whether or not they're actually aware of it, this is the measuring stick journalists and editors use every day when deciding which stories to cover, which news releases to read and which PR pitches to respond to and which ones to delete.

Take a look at 'change', 'controversy' and 'human interest' in action in the following three headlines, chosen at random from Google News:

County gives first reading to new dog bylaw - Sure, it's kinda lame. But this is a story about change. There's a new bylaw on the way. And dog owners need to know about it in order to avoid a fine. So while it's not exactly the latest Tom and Katie news flash, this is a legitimate news story in a community paper.

Corrupt Fine Gael politician gets 6-year jail term - While this has elements of all three news drivers, this is really an example of controversy. And controversial stories don't need pitching. They're like dried kindling, just waiting to catch fire. 

Wallenda eyes Grand Canyon for next high wire walk - More than a billion people tuned in to watch Nik Wallenda walk across Niagara Falls on a high wire. A billion. That's, like, Superbowl type viewing numbers. For a guy, a wire and a stick. That's the power of human interest. can this help me as a PR pro?

The vast majority of PR pitches end up in the 'deleted' file. I know this because I've worked as a reporter. And because I have many friends who are currently working in the media. One of the biggest failures in the typical PR pitch is to hang the pitch on one of the drivers of news: change, controversy or human interest.

Sometimes you need to really dig and think about how to hang your story on one of these three news drivers. But it's worth the expended effort. By telling your story in a way that's more in line with the way reporters tell stories, you're more likely to get their attention and move your pitch along to the next stage - a callback or email asking for more information or an interview.

It's worth noting that not every story actually has an element of change, controversy or human interest. Unfortunately, in those situations, what you have isn't actually news. And you'd be doing everyone (yourself, your clients and the media) a favour if you just told your client their story isn't newsworthy. That's a topic for another blog post on another day...

In many other instances, however, PR folks take what has the potential to be a really interesting story and bury it in a long, uninteresting pitch or under a boring headline that doesn't hit on one of the three drivers of news.

Here are a few real examples of news release headlines we gathered from CNW, a newswire service in Canada. Imagine you're a reporter scanning over these headlines....would you click for more information or keep scrolling down the page?

1. "Cool rates for hot dates! - The InterContinental Montreal shows great concern for Montrealers during the heat wave"

This was the headline of a news release from the InterContinental Hotel in Montreal. The idea is that if the temperature reaches a certain peak (exceeeding 30 Celsius or 86 Farenheit), the hotel will offer a discounted rate to people in the city. Sounds great. The only problem is that it's unclear what the promotion is based on the headline. While it mentions the heat wave, it fails to use this as a driver to grab the reader's attention. Re-written to hang on the driver of human interest, the headline might read something like this:

"You save during the heatwave: 5-star InterContinental offer Montrealers big discounts when the mercury rises"

2. "War Amps News Conference"

Yes. That was the headline. "War Amps news conference." Talk about a missed opportunity. The War Amps is a highly-respected non-profit organization that has countless inspiring stories of young people overcoming significant health challenges. But instead of highlighting those human interest elements, the headline of this news release should include a warning about causing drowsiness. If a reporter had actually clicked on the headline, however, they would have found an inspiring story about young people who continue to participate in sports and other recreational activities, despite being amputees. Rewritten with the drivers of news in mind, it might sound something like this:

"Overcoming big odds: Young amputees show how recreational limbs, provided by War Amps, put them back in the game"

3. "New study offers candid glimpse at how Canadian teachers feel about teaching in today's classrooms"

This is a great example of "burying the lede." The report mentioned in the news release contains several potentially controversial elements -- elements that could generate media attention, highlight issues important to the organizations involved and increase public awareness of their positions. The news release mentions that a survey of teachers found many of them want more creativity in the classroom and feel stifled by rules and restrictions. But few reporters would make it past the headline. A new headline, however, injects real interest into the topic: 

"Teachers call for increased flexibility and creativity to enhance student learning: Report"

The bottom line

Competition for media coverage is fierce. Don't waste your time or your client's money by sending lacklustre pitches. When crafting news releases, Twitter updates, blog posts and media pitches, invest a few minutes figuring out how to hang your story on one of the three drivers of news and you're much more likley to grab the media's attention and get yourself (and your clients) some well-deserved coverage.

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