This is an extract from the new book “Media relations for property” which I have co-written with Graham Norwood and will be published in March 2006.
Writing an article involves a different type of writing skill from the technical writing that most lawyers, accountants and surveyors do as part of their professional job. Writing articles is also not something that all marketing people are comfortable with – it is very different from writing brochures, direct mail letters or even web copy. And, to be truthful, there are relatively few people outside the media sector who have the relevant skills and experience in writing really interesting articles with a broad appeal.
Therefore, the people who by-line articles in national, trade/technical, business or consumer press will probably need some help from either their in-house or agency media relations consultants or from a specially commissioned ghost-writer.
Often, an enthusiastic fee-earner might take the time and trouble to write an article on a topical or technical subject and then expect a PR professional to ‘place’ it with the chosen medium. This rarely ends happily. A much better approach is to identify the topic for the article and prepare a synopsis so that it can be pitched in to a magazine or paper and that a firm commitment (or commission) is obtained before the author commits the time and trouble to writing the piece.
If you speak to the features editor before writing in earnest begins, you will get a very clear description of what will be contained in the article, exactly how long it should be (there is a world of difference between a 500 word article and a 3,000 word article) and when it must be submitted (the deadline – so called because if you miss it your media career will be dead or will be shortly after letting down the editor/journalist involved).
You might pitch the article in as part of a regular discussion with a known journalist. You might use one or two different article ideas to initiate a conversation with a journalist that you have not dealt with before. You might simply email the synopsis to a journalist with whom you communicate regularly.
Preparing a synopsis
Your synopsis should be no more than a single side of A4 paper and contain roughly the following:
- Name/Organisation/date/contact details
- Potential title of article:
- Broad description of what the article is about: Short paragraph describing the purpose and content of the article
- Context: Why the article is relevant/topical now – a legal development, an unusual opinion, an imminent market change, a recent transaction etc
- Relevance to the readership: Why the readership of this particular magazine should be interested
- Main content: No more than six bullet points on the main contents/messages
- Likely length: (Indicate whether there is a minimum amount of words and also the ideal)
- Background of the author: Reasons why the author is best positioned to write the piece, key credibility statements (e.g. qualifications, experience, positions of responsibility, acknowledged expertise etc)
Another approach is to review the forward features list of the relevant media and pitch the synopsis in as part of that feature. A word of warning here – features are designed to generate advertising revenue (see advertorial below) and so sometimes they will only wish for articles from those who back up their article with advertising.
However, special features and supplements are usually prepared well in advance of their publication date. Sometimes this means getting your synopses to the magazine up to six months in advance of the publication date. For popular features, there will be a lot of competition from other people who are keen to have material included. The other point to consider is that often the special features and supplements are outsourced by the magazine to be written by freelance journalists or contractors. This means that they may not know your organisation as well as the regular reporters at the magazine and that they will be less interested in a long term relationship and more focused on what they specifically need for that particular feature or supplement.
Whether or not that particular article is accepted, you should pay careful attention to the conversation with the journalist about it as you will learn a lot about that medium’s attitude to contributed articles. Some media have set policies about who they accept material from. Some will be keen to accept material but reserve the right to alter it significantly. Most will want to have the copyright of the article to use in on-line versions. Some might indicate that they are happy to have a by-line crediting the individual – but not the organisation. They will all stress that the article must be just that – an article – and not a marketing/promotional piece about either the writer or his/her organisation.
But in addition to the general policies and approaches towards features, the discussion will reveal what types of topics ARE of interest to them and their general requirements for contributed articles. A well organised media relations professional will keep detailed records of the needs and preferences of both the key publications and the individual editors and reporters so that they build a good knowledge-base of who is likely to be interested and in what material which makes future article pitches more accurate and likely to be successful.
Writing and submitting the article
So you have a firm commitment from a magazine that they will publish your article so now you must write it. The deadline looms and you put off the dreaded task of starting to write.
How people approach the writing task varies hugely. Some people simply start typing – a sort of stream of consciousness approach – and, after a short break, go back and structure, edit and refine the material. Others will spend time identifying the overall structure of the article, listing out the main points to be conveyed and approach the writing in a systematic and structured way.
Those who have difficulty articulating their ideas on paper may prefer to tackle the task by speaking the words out loud and hoping that someone or something (dictating machines are useful here) will capture their words which they can then edit into an article at a later date. Another approach – again, this is helpful for people who are brilliant at their subjects but short of time and interest in writing – is to have a media relations professional of some kind ‘interview’ them – asking questions, probing responses, asking for examples, challenging etc – and write down what is discussed. The media relations professional (or ghost writer) can then prepare a first draft of an article for the author to then edit and refine as required.
It is always advisable to wait a day or two (if deadlines permit) after writing an article and then coming back with fresh eyes to check it for a) flow and style b) fit with what was agreed in advance and c) the word count. Whilst no one will get too upset if you submit 1,500 words for a 1,400 word article there will be major tantrums if you submit 3,000. It also helps to get someone unrelated to the article to read through a draft and make comments and observations that will enable it to be further refine.
You must take care with any material you incorporated from other sources – so acknowledge research and other sources. If you have mentioned clients or other organisations in the article, make sure that you have their permission to do so if this is required. Sometimes obtaining permission isn’t required but it is a polite and responsible thing to do. If you can provide photos and illustrations this will be of considerable assistance but check the position on copyright.
Once the article is submitted the editors may ask a few questions – to confirm spellings or facts or to check that contributed material has the necessary permissions. It is also common for the publication to send a proof of the article for the author to read and approve. Please bear in mind that such proofs must be turned around very quickly (usually within 24 hours) and that they do not expect you to be making changes to the content – only corrections.
A final word of warning – though it may be tempting to try and place a particularly good article with more than one newspaper or magazine, this is to be avoided at all costs. You may destroy a carefully nurtured relationship with a magazine if they find that the article they have just published by you has already appeared in another magazine.
To maintain a high profile and generate enquiries from articles means that you will need to devote significant time and effort to researching, pitching and writing articles on a regular basis. If you have a flair for writing then it can be a very effective element of your marketing communications strategy – but many professionals find that alternative marketing approaches are easier, more targeted and more likely to generate real opportunities for new business generation.
The dangerous world of advertorial
In the book, the difference between media relations generated editorial and paid for advertising is described in detail.
Whilst most magazines will have separate teams dealing with editorial and advertising there is inevitably a link between them. It is important that you understand the relationship between them in any particular medium.
Above we mentioned the advertising objectives of features. The advertising teams will be keen to ensure that major advertisers with their features are given a fair crack at the editorial content. Whilst the editorial teams might resist this in principle, commercial success means that it is often a reality.
However, there are some magazines where the main way they generate advertising income is through advertorial. This is where the author/advertiser gets to write an article but has to pay for the privilege of having it published. So it is really an ‘advertising feature’ rather than an article. The good news in these situations is that as author you really do have editorial control – what you write in an article is what will appear. The downside is that most of the reader will know that the articles have been paid for and are closer to advertising than editorial and give it the same attention and credibility.
This advertorial approach is prevalent with the regional business magazines and if your target audience is business tenants in a particular region then you will have little choice but to accept the price. This approach is also common in many mainstream consumer newspapers and magazine so the residential property market.
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As always, if there are particular topics you would like me to address in the future, please let me know. You will also find a source of more and up to date information on a broad range of management and marketing issues in the professions by checking out the blog where I also post regular reviews of books that might be helpful.