How to pitch positive stories when the press doesn’t want them

The press doesn’t like good stories and nor does the public

Why can’t you get a positive story in the press?

There are multiple studies that explain why.

One that is often quoted was performed at Ohio State Univeristy by John Cacioppo. 

In the study, they showed positive images to people such as cars and food and then images of dead animals or a disfigured face. They also showed more neutral images too.

Guess which got the biggest reaction? I don’t need to tell you that it was the negative images.

Our brains “wake up” to negative stories and hardly stir mentally to positive ones, even when they seem exciting.

Just think how the public’s brains would react if they heard some of the fluffy, cheerful organisational news stories that pour into newsrooms every day.

Good news just doesn’t work and journalists know it. 

A news organisation’s goal is indeed to deliver the news but the other goal is to keep its audience. If they don’t have an audience they don’t have a job.

So how do you get a good news story in the press?

Is it therefore possible to get that news story that you or your boss wants in the press to get used?

The solution is to wrap a good story in a bad one. 

Let me give you an example.

A government press office came into the radio station where I was working many years ago. 

No one wanted to talk to them but I’ve always enjoyed situations like this so I went down to the cafe to meet them. 

Their department was having success with a scheme designed to reduce teenage drunkness. They wanted to promote that but no one was using their stories.

I asked what the story pitch was.

It was not good!

I wouldn’t have used it in that form. There was nothing meaty in it. It was just a self-congratulatory press release.

Give it a case study

I told them the first thing they needed was a case study.

Always try to humanise your stories if the press isn’t interested.

People relate to human emotion. They want people to recount dramatic stories, not “do-gooders”.

They needed someone who had turned their life around and had moved from being an alcoholic to sober (or at least a sensible drinker). 

Brief the case study not to jump the gun

Whether you are writing quotes or putting your case study up for an interview the next step is not to be too hasty in delivering your core message.

If you this story in front of most journalists, the inevitable next question is “how did you turn your life around”

The temptation is to get the case study to say “due to this amazing scheme by X” but that very statement is likely to at best fall on deaf ears, at worst make people think the case study is just a stooge set up by PRs!

So again let’s human’ify (if there is such a word) the punchline.

Turn the government or the organisation into a person.

The case study says instead something like, “Mr Smith is the person who made all the difference. He did <talk through emotional process>”.

By saying this you now have the buy-in of the listeners. They are drawn in. They are listening.

Now you can put the message you wanted to put in…..

“…he is one of the advisors on this government scheme I found called XYZ and I know it’s help loads of other people”.

Wrapping a positive in a negative

What we are doing is wrapping a good story into a negative.

The positive story that your organisation is having success with turning around alcoholics, isn’t news but a powerful human story where your department is mentioned is. 

Where do you find the negative story in the positive?

So, how do you work back from a good story to a negative one?

Let me give you a hypothetical example of what might at first seem an even harder sell but it makes a good point.

You want to put out a good news story about your department but you work in a tax office. I hate taxes as much as you, so this is a tough sell, right?

This technique applies to any organisation that might be seen as a pain rather than a benefit.

Why do you do what you do in that department?

As much as we hate paying taxes there is a reason for them. It might be to rescue people from trafficking? It might be to fund a homeless person who went on to set up a business. Maybe it is that 70% of youngsters who listen to classical music funded by your scheme dropped truancy by 20%.

You get the point. Why are you doing all this bad stuff people “hate” you for? There must be a reason.

And once you’ve worked this out, who is your case study this time and who is your Mrs Smith?

Summing up

To get a good story into the press, work back to the negative. The drama, the story arc, and the “human” story grabs the attention and allows it to “carry” your main message.

Listen to the episode for more context

Photo by Anete Lusina: