Saturday 4 February 2017

Headline Folk

(or How To Get Journalists to Love Your Folk Club)

Frustrated by the lack of interest in your folk club by the local press – or other news media for that matter? At the recent Folk21 West Midlands regional meeting, Pete Willow drew on his 30+ years’ experience of writing the folk column for the Coventry Telegraph to offer a 20-point guide on how to increase your chances of positive media coverage. Here’s what he told us…

I’m about to give you 20 hot tips on how to increase your chances of getting good press coverage for your folk club. But before we look at any of them, I would like to share one fundamental piece of advice.

Have pity on the poor press reporter.

You may not feel inclined to, especially if your local newspaper has studiously ignored your emails and avoided publishing any feature articles with screaming headlines or even a 2-liner ‘late news’ item about the amazing guests appearing at your folk club. But journalists, especially regional press reporters are having a tough time.

Circulation of local papers have fallen considerably. In the 1950s, my local publication, the Coventry Evening Telegraph sold 100,000 copies a day. Recent years have seen Coventry Telegraph sales decline by 10-15% a year and it currently only musters a circulation of 18,000. Its parent company Trinity Mirror can no longer afford large newsrooms populated by wannabe John Pilgers, or even external folk music correspondents (my fee was a princely £35 per week!). Meanwhile, those young, overworked, relatively inexperienced hacks remaining in the newsroom have to work harder to fill the same number of column centimetres with scintillating copy that drips with drama and exclusivity. It’s a tough call.

Don’t be tempted into thinking that falling circulations make local newspapers irrelevant. People still read them, especially older people who are more likely to attend your folk club. And local newspapers still try to present themselves as the voice of their community, something that your venue definitely needs to be part of.

Bearing these points in mind, you are in a position to make life easier for your poor, hard-pressed local newshounds. You can achieve this by doing their job for them as much as possible. The less effort needed for the journalist to report on your club, the more likely you are to get coverage.

Which leads me to my first hot tip:

1. Give them a story, not a plug.
Your local newspaper is not a noticeboard for you to pin up your posters. If you simply want to advertise they’ll expect you to pay. It’s of little interest to the local Argus and most readers of its news pages that a singer-songwriter and Joni Mitchell soundalike is your next guest act. They need something more gripping.

2. Give them a hook on which to hang the story.
They might be more interested if your guest is making a one-off appearance at your club after a sell-out tour of Europe (two well-attended gigs in Belgium?). Or that the gig aims to raise cash for a worthy cause within the community. Or that the resident band has been approached to represent Great Britain in Eurovision.

Here’s your chance to be creative without resorting to the current trend of ‘alternative facts’. If there isn’t an obvious hook, dig for ideas. Has your guest released a new CD? Is the club attracting more young floor singers? Has a former floor singer made it big? Has the club sold its 1000th ticket? What’s biggest, newest, latest about your club? Look for the hook.

Once you have a story, you need to tell it to the journalist. Hence…

3. Press releases are still popular with journalists.
Now that we’ve had the digital revolution, we often hear the claim that the press release is dead. It isn’t. Its format may vary but as long as it tells the story simply and clearly without the need for too much editing – or any at all – journalists will be more likely to use it. Don’t send flyers or posters. Show them you’ve made the effort to talk in their language.

When writing your press release…

4. Leave clever headlines to the experts.
In this case, the experts are the sub-editors and they often take pride in the clever use of puns, alliteration, cliché or other eye-catching rhetorical device to grab their readers’ attention. Your job is to grab the sub-editor’s attention. So keep it very simple – ‘Award-winning folk act to appear in Upper Munchley’, ‘Folk club MC to appear on Big Brother’, or whatever.

5. Tell the story simply
The standard textbook advice in press release writing is to answer the five Ws:
         What’s happening?
         Who’s involved?

These questions need to be answered in the first couple of sentences. Busy journalists have a short attention span and if you can’t capture their interest from the start, the story will get ‘spiked’ or transferred to the trash. 

Newspaper narrative usually starts with the basic facts so that it is possible to get the main sense of the story from the beginning. As the story progresses it offers more and more detail (background, quotes, and so on) which becomes less and less essential, making it easier for an editor to lop off the last two paragraphs if necessary without having to rewrite the entire item.

The only variation I would suggest from the textbooks is to ensure that the first sentence offers some intrigue, opening up a question that can only be answered by reading further. This is usually achieved by offering a ‘factoid’ statement that needs context for it to make sense. For example:

Melbourne’s celebrated singer, songwriter and poet, Ian Bland can’t get enough of Coventry. 
(OK that’s the Who question. But intrigued – why should a singer from Melbourne be so enamoured with Coventry?)
After flying back to Australia after an extensive tour of local folk venues last winter, Ian was back within six months to perform at the Warwick Folk Festival and plays his final UK gig tonight – at least for this year. 
(That’s the What, When and Why questions dealt with.) 

Catch him at the Nursery Tavern in Lord Street, Chapelfields for an evening of lively songs and stories interspersed with his wry sense of observational humour.
(And that’s the Where – with a bit more What.)
With over 30 years’ experience of performing, Ian is known for his relaxed and engaging style and has established himself as a powerful force in the Melbourne music scene… 
(And so on, the item now fills in background to add colour to the story and already comes across as an item that is definitely NEWS rather than a plug.)

Moving on…

6. Give them some interesting quotes.
Quotations add a human touch to the story and if you provide a quote they can help create the impression that the busy journalist has actually taken the trouble to interview someone. 

They can be a bit of a cliché however. In the world of newspaper quotes, everyone is ‘delighted’ to be appearing, visiting the area, welcoming the guest, and so on. The world is a delightful place! Clichés are OK in small doses but they can be too much of a good thing. (See what I did there?)

Now, here’s a practical tip about your press release…

7. Make it easy to copy and paste.
A lot of local press journalism is licensed plagiarism. Busy journalists aren’t going to rewrite your story if they can simply copy it and place it under a headline, often with their own by-line! No-one minds – the story is in the newspaper and the world knows about what’s happening at your club. 

This is less likely to happen if your press release document is an older version of a pdf file containing text that can’t be copied. Don’t take chances. Send them a simple Word document, or – if your press release forms part of an online press kit on your club’s website – make sure that the text can be highlighted.

8. Give them a well-composed photograph
This can make all the difference between a few lines squeezed into page 36 or the leading story in the Entertainments section of the paper. A good eye-catching photograph makes their newspaper look interesting and can also fit in with the design and style of the publication.

These are examples that I like:
Perhaps more of an Arts Centre act than folk club guest, this image of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is wonderfully quirky, intriguing and generally engaging, projecting a lot of character.

This is also full of personality and the composition allows for an interesting page layout; the space to the right of Billy Bragg’s face could be used to superimpose a headline.

Perhaps over-the-top Photoshop, but you can’t fail to notice this image of Lucy Ward with its extravagant use of colour and juxtaposition of unrelated objects (knitting wool, blue hair and a raincloud). It offers a new and lively image of folk music and it even incorporates her name!

Again a practical point…

9. Give them a high resolution photograph.
Low-res images will limit the editor’s options and will appear as postage stamp size at best. Also, avoid monochrome – newspapers prefer colour. And avoid poorly composed amateur smartphone snapshots which only show the backs of audiences or present the artists with clutter behind them and microphones up their noses. 

Remember, this is all about making life easier for busy journalists and photographs that need lots of editing are a waste of your time and theirs.

10. Give them time to work on your story.
Be aware of deadlines. Special feature sections of daily titles usually need copy and photos to be on the newsdesk at least 4-5 days before publication. Weekly publications usually prefer around 10 days notice. If you are not sure of deadlines, phone the newsroom and ask. 

Don’t expect journalists to drop everything to run your story on the day before the event happens. They’ll appreciate you a lot more as a source if you give them an opportunity to work with your material. But beware – copy sent too early risks disappearing to the bottom of the inbox.

Here are some tips on courtesy and successful interaction with journalists…

11. Target your information to a named journalist.
Do some research and find out who is most likely to work on your story. Or again phone and ask for a name. Unsolicited emails to ‘the Editor’ are likely to get shunted around the newsroom with no-one taking ownership of the story.

And if there are rival publications in your area…

12. Offer different angles to different news media.
Sending out identical press releases and photos could be counterproductive if one local newspaper wants to have the edge on the other. If you can’t come up with a different news angle, at least send out a different photo to give each title the opportunity of some level of exclusivity.

13. Give them contact details that actually work.
Press releases must always have contact details and there is nothing more annoying for a newsdesk reporter than trying and failing to make contact with the source of the story. 

Check emails frequently and respond immediately. But preferably, give a phone number and make sure that any return call is answered by you and not your voicemail. News reporters tend to phone first when following up a story as they are working against tight deadlines and looking for instant responses. There’s a risk that journalists waiting for email responses will give up the will to live – or at least to run your story.

And on the theme of exclusivity…

14. Offer them a chance to interview.
Journalists probably won’t take this chance, unless your guest act is very very famous, but at least there’s an opportunity here for them to construct their own story based on their own questions and genuine quotable answers. It is relatively simple to set up a telephone interview with your guest even if they are on tour. If you have booked them through an agent, they should be able to set an interview up for you.

15. Offer incentives.
Newspaper editors would love a free holiday for two in your villa in the Algarve but that’s not the type of incentive I’m talking about. Journalists are more encouraged if your press release is well-written, timely and newsy. They may even be interested in running a competition if you provide the prizes.

Of course, a CD by your resident band, a couple of free tickets for the club and, perhaps, a bottle of wine with a Christmas card may be gratefully received as a token of your good faith in the powers of journalism.

One good incentive is to …

16. Keep the stories flowing.
Journalists who see you as a regular and reliable source of news are more likely to work with you. Once you are on their radar and in their contacts book, they may well offer further chances of media exposure, for example by inviting you to comment on a wider folk-related story. So be ready to offer quotable opinions on the rise and fall of local pubs, craft breweries or the nefarious practice of morris dancers blacking up.

17. Offer background information.
This again relates to exclusivity. If your friendly journalist is willing to put the time in, he or she could build a story around your press release by adding further information about your guest act or venue. Offering background information, often in the form of easy-to-digest factoid bullet points, increases the chance of making the story interesting and original without the need of too much effort in research.

18. Do not divert them to a rubbish website.
Here are some characteristics of websites that do more harm than good in establishing rapport with your reporter:

  • The background information on the guest band is full of esoteric claptrap about how they used their music to ‘find themselves’ and achieve a transcendent connection with their inner spirits. Stick to the basic facts: names of band members, what they play and the release date of the latest CD - stuff like that.
  • The photographs cannot be downloaded
  • The information is out of date
  • The site is difficult to navigate
  • The press release is only available as a downloadable pdf document or (even worse) a jpg scan. Yes I have seen press releases in this format and I can vouch that they are utterly useless for the journalist.

19. Make friends with journalists.
This goes back to the point about Christmas cards and wine but generally first-name terms are always good. Journalists are more likely to take notice if they can put a face to your name or, at least, recognise your voice on the phone. Once they know you are a normal human being and not a stereotypical pot-bellied, beer-swilling, finger-in-ear folkie (yes journalists are prone to stereotypes), they are more likely to interact happily with you.

And when they are looking for a good story, they become a friend in need.

Of course friends like to be appreciated, so every now and then, so…

20. Thank them for running the story.
Even if they only gave you a short paragraph and spelt your name wrong, grit your teeth and say the magic word.

To conclude, the essence of successful media relations is a combination of

  •           An appeal to news value
  •           Offering something new
  •           Making life easy for journalists
  •           Creating or spotting the opportunity for a good story.

If you were simply an advertiser, paying for space in the paper, you may have better control of how the information is presented but at the end of the day, readers will know it is just an ad. To be more credible, you have to take the risk and trust the journalist to run a story based on the information you supply.

The better the information – and the easier it is for the journalist to process – the more chance you have that he or she will love you and write an excellent story about your club.

It’s a win-win-win situation: the journalist has a good story, your club has more visibility in your community and the reputation of folk music generally is a little bit more enhanced.

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