Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Find the Right Angle

As promised recently, I'm going to take a short break from the social media focus to go back to the public relations realm for an entry or two.

I'm sure you've all heard of the phrase, "news angle."  It's that mysterious, almost ethereal concept that guides the direction of news broadcasts and headlines.  Honestly, news angles aren't that mysterious and once you understand how to "find" the angle of a hot news story, you'll find your pitches will be significantly more successful.

When I was producing talk radio, I had several different jobs to do each day.  Among those included getting the sound ready, booking guests, catching up on voicemails and emails, hundreds every day.  But my primary job, both before and after the show, my focus was finding the "angle" on the hot topics of the day.

As a talk show producer, I would look at the hot news of the day.  Sometimes there were a number to choose from, sometimes the hot story was a single, obvious one.  But we couldn't just report on the hot news story and then say, "discuss" hoping the audience would respond.  We had to give them something to think about, something that would push their buttons, something they could relate to.  Because every story has a hidden story.  Something underneath the headlines that the public can relate to, or that infuriates them, or simply grabs their interest.  I had to find that something, that's called, finding the angle.

Let's play a quick game.  

One of the headlines in today's Denver Post deals with the ongoing trial of the accused killer of former Denver Bronco, Darrent Williams.  During the trial, an alleged confession letter, mailed by the killer to an outside source was placed into evidence.  In the letter, the accused reportedly confesses to pulling the trigger and killing Williams.  Here is a link to the full story in case you want to read it. 

Based on the short description above, what about that story interests you?  What aspect about it makes you angry, or sad, or fascinated?  Is it the culture of pro-athletes?  Is it the ongoing gang problem in the U.S. (or Denver if you live here)?  There are a number of angles to this story and the job of a reporter, or producer or editor is to find the angle that is going to resonate with the largest number of the viewing and listening public. 

This is what you're doing when you look for the "angle" of a current news story.  sometimes the angle is obvious.  Let's a take a look at a plane crash as an example.  Below is a copy of what I call the news tree.  I call it a tree because, to me, it looks like a tree.  If you lay it on its side, it also acts as a timeline, a timeline of future potential stories.

Every news story has a beginning, a singular event that is generally covered as it is happening, or immediately afterwards.  From there the story develops.  If a story has legs, it has many more opportunities for potential news angles.  In the case of the news tree above, the singular news event is a plane crash.  The story is covered and then, as the investigation continues, it begins to grow legs, or branches.  These branches represent potential news angles. 

You can see that some of the angles include, the safety of airplanes in general, the safety record of the plane in question, airline staff training, the rights of survivors to sue, survivor stories (if there are any), family stories, etc.  As more information comes out about the crash itself, the more potential angles there are to the story.

As a small business and non-profit, knowing what the potential news angles are is important because it allows you to tailor your pitch to catch the interest of the largest number of viewers, listeners and readers.  Which, of course, will also catch the interest of a newsroom.

Let's look at another example, this time from real life.

A local non-profit specializes in cat spaying and neutering.  This is their focus.  The non-profit officers are working hard to spay and neuter as many cats in the Denver area as possible.  It's a low-cost clinic and open to anyone who has a cat that needs to be fixed.

Up to this point, their primary goal was to raise awareness not only of their clinic, but of the problem of unfixed cats in the area, both owned and ferrell.  Now, the issue of unfixed felines is a big issue, but not one that most people think about every day.  So the challenge facing the organization seemed daunting.

Of course, they promoted the opening of their new clinic and used many of the PR and social media tools available effectively.  The coverage was minimal for the opening, despite many pitches and some social media outreach.  So how to reach the average person who isn't thinking about spaying and neutering cats?  There has to be an angle that grabs the interest of the audience, something that makes them sit up and take notice. 

One of the biggest angles the organization has is the overall tax dollars saved by the city through their spaying and neutering efforts.  This is a huge angle for the simple fact that any story that impacts a person's wallet will make them take notice.  But numbers alone won't well a story.  Numbers are dry, after a while, they make people's eyes glaze over.

But couch those numbers in a good story, and suddenly you have yourself an angle that news outlets will fall over themselves to cover. 

Here's the story to go with the numbers, the story that gives the spay and neuter organization an angle that is of value to a news outlet:  The clinic works with individuals who go out, late at night and traps ferrell cats and then brings them to be fixed.  These are people who care deeply about the cause of the clinic and take time of their own to help control the cat population in Denver.  Like ghosts in the night, these individuals set traps, and humanely capture these cats and delivers them to the clinic to make sure they can't give birth to future litters of ferrell cats. 

Suddenly you have all the makings of a very good story.  You have a character, in the form of a trapper, you have conflict (the challenges facing the trappers to catch the cats, as well as the overall ferrell cat problem in Denver), You have a structure (a path or journey that the character follows, why they do what they do and how they got started), movement and resolution (seeing the character lay the traps, searching for the cats, catching the cats and delivering them) and you have an aha moment, the moment the audience understands how the story impacts them.

Within this story, the numbers resonate better with the audience.  The story puts the puts the problem of ferrell cats in perspective, it gives it a human face, it gives them something they can see, it makes the poblem real. 

The organization realized that the angle that will make people really take notice is the angle of money.  Angles that impact the wallet will always be important and make for a successful pitch.

What this means for you:

As a small business owner or non-profit director, knowing how to find an angle means you can find the one or two elements within the larger story that audiences will really relate to.  Of course, in order to do this, you have to stay on top of the news of the day. 

By reading the headlines and watching your news updates, you can know which stories news organizations fell are important and are keeping an eye on.  Following your twitter counts and by using certain social media tools, you can gauge what the general public is talking about and finds interesting.  Trust me, newsrooms are doing the same thing, and the more you are thinking like a journalist, the more success you'll have pitching your story.  Plus, the more you know what people are talking about, the easier it will be to find the right angle.

More importantly, by keeping up to date, you'll be able to react immediately when news breaks.  For instance, recently there was a school shooting in Jefferson County, Colorado.  Certainly, images of Columbine re-emerged for most of us.  However for specific non-profits in the area, such as the Conflinct Manager Center, the news story presented an opportunity for them to work with local news organizations as experts in what escalates conflicts to the point of violence.  Mental health professionals also could have capitalized on the news event to help put the story in context for news outlets and their audiences. 

The same operating procedures work for orthopedists when a famous local athlete gets injured, or for local salons when discussing the latest hair disaster of a famous actor at the Oscars, or for restaurant owners when discussing the outbreak of e-coli (obviously, the restauranteer wants to go on to talk about making sure people are eating in a clean and safe environment). 

One last thing to keep in mind when looking for a news angle to spice up your story and pitch.  Look for angles that people can immediately relate to and that resonate with them on a personal level.  This includes things like:

love and relationships
nostalgia (We once spent four hours during the Jay Marvin talk show, talking about people's memories of the drive in.  Seriously.  And it was a great show.)

These are subjects that are often close to people's hearts and create an emotional response almost immediately.  If you look for those kinds of elements in any angle you pitch, you'll find that your success rate will shoot up.  By the way, the same holds true when looking for conversation topics on social media.  Clearly, if it works for news organizations, it's most likely to also work for your social media efforts.

So keep an eye on the news and don't let the angles pass you by. 

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