Is it news? Identifying the heart of the story

When I look at news announcements which don’t hit the mark, they most commonly fail in two ways. The first is that the topic chosen really just isn’t newsworthy. The second is that, while the topic itself may be newsworthy, the writer has failed to identify the heart of the story – and delivered something which then isn’t newsworthy, when in fact it could have been. Let’s look at these two things.

1. Is It News?

This is something which requires a degree of objectivity – to look at the question from an outside perspective. Here are a few common topics for news announcements which aren’t really news:

  • a new hire
  • a new service
  • an offer
  • attending a trade show
  • running a webinar
  • winning an award

“But those are news!” I hear some people cry. Well, it’s not uncommon for such topics to be perceived by organisations as newsworthy. Sorry to burst your bubble, but they seldom are.

The fact that you’ve hired someone new may be important to you and your company – but is rarely even remotely interesting to outsiders. A new service may be exciting to you, but it’s hardly ever – whatever you think – exciting to others. The right place for an offer is an advertisement, not a press release. And attending a trade show?

Let’s think objectively about that. “XXX company to display at XXX.” What exactly is news about that? “Man gets on bus” is the same level of newsworthiness. “Ah,” you say, “but this is the industry’s biggest event and we’re one of the industry’s biggest players.” I’m not buying it. For this to be really, really news, you’d have to be a major brand – and there would need to be something unique about the exhibition.

What makes this news announcement any different from those of your competitors? “XXX company to display at XXX.” It’s not news. The media will pass it over. The public (customers and prospects) will be disinterested. It has no impact.

Let’s look at the final item on the list. Winning an award is important – but it has to be something like “Leonardo Di Caprio wins Oscar” to be important enough on its own. Most other awards, especially industry awards, aren’t newsworthy enough.

(An aside here: this cycle of releasing stories that bomb often leads companies to believe that ‘publicity doesn’t work’ whereas in fact, it’s their publicity which doesn’t work. Strong publicity works fine.)

What Makes It News?

To be news – and newsworthy – something has to have a real impact on the outside world. Something of consequence. Something that affects people. Something that changes the landscape. The new in news isn’t just the fact that it’s happened now. It’s new – it’s change.

This is a challenge for many organisations, because their ‘news’ is seldom genuinely earth-shattering.

Which brings us to the second of the two things – properly identifying the heart of the story.

2. What Can We Do To Make This Newsworthy?

If we look at the six items I’ve listed as ‘not being news’ I’ve actually cheated a little. How? Well, quite often, they can be news. It’s a question of finding what within the story is actually the one thing which makes it newsworthy.

Attending a conference or exhibition isn’t news, but using that venue to launch something genuinely new gives the story legs. “XXX to launch new mousetrap at XXX” is a different kettle of fish to “XXX to display at XXX”. (Whether it’s news really does depend on the quality and innovation of that mousetrap.)

A new hire isn’t interesting. But why are you hiring? If it’s just a straight replacement, then move along – nothing new to see here. But are you expanding into new territories? Pushing a particular growth strategy? That could be news.

A new service isn’t news. But what’s the problem that the service solves? Does it save time or money? Does it make something obsolete? Is it a game-changer? That can make it news.

“My Company to host XXX webinar on XX date” - no news value here. But there is potentially news value in “XXX webinar to reveal ABC” or “ABC to be debated by XXX”. The news value in a webinar is likely to be in what is being covered and why the webinar is taking place (and not just that it is happening and when it's happening). Asking these questions can help to uncover the heart of the story.

An industry award is great, but also not news. It can become news by focussing on the reasons behind the award – what was changed? What was the impact? In other words, not that an award has been won, but what the reason was for winning it.

(It's here, in identifying the heart of the story, where the PR professional really earns their crust: taking what's happening and communicating why it's happening and what that means for customers.)

The Importance Of Objectivity

When assessing whether something is news and how to make the most of that story, objectivity is vital. Remember that your customers, potential customers, the media, specialists, bloggers, analysts and others simply won’t view your company with anything like the same degree of importance that you do. (Sure, if you’re Apple then a change in fleet policy can be news. But few companies carry this newsworthiness simply for existing.)

Many will view your news with a degree of cynicism. So, it’s really important that it is newsworthy. That it’s factual; objective. That you find ‘the story within the story’ and aren’t pushing what seems important to you.

Passing The Newsworthiness Tests

These two questions: “is it news?” and “what’s the real story here?” should be considered as the entrance examination for all news announcements. They are questions which need honest answers. If the answers don’t measure up, it’s not news no matter how hard you spin it.

Creating a press release about something that isn’t news can damage your reputation with the media (they’re smart cookies – they’ll see you as a company peddling ‘business as usual’ as news). It can damage your reputation with customers and prospects, who may think you have little of value to say – yet you seem to be shouting all the time. And it can damage your reputation internally – stakeholders are more likely to feel that the PR bombed because it wasn’t well-written or well-placed rather than accept that the story wasn’t up to much.

If a story’s not newsworthy, better to be honest with stakeholders up-front than waste time on it. If the story seems like it should or could be news, then focus your writing on what’s important – not how the topic of the news announcement affects your company, but how it affects the outside world.

But where a story fails both of these tests, then it would be far better to kick it into the long grass – and spend your time on something more productive. Such as writing a news announcement that is news – and one that is far more likely to be both distributed and read.


‘Newsworthiness’ - co-written by Peter Labrow, a content marketing consultant and owner of Labrow Marketing, and Rob Clarke, founder of Learning News.