This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
If you are like most public relations people, you tend to think in terms of words when you pitch story ideas to news media. I know I do. However, often a media pitch is more effective when it is based on a pictorial idea, especially if the news angle isn’t strong. Therefore, when you prepare to pitch a story angle to media, pause to think of any pictorial element that could add strength to the pitch.
Corporate communication and journalism increasingly rely on imagery to create strong messages. As a result, there has been a shift from mostly text-based content towards a greater proportion of pictorial content. Unlike text, images have the power to convey meaning ‘at one stroke’ and more powerfully than words. The ease with which images convey meaning suits the fast-paced modern lifestyle where information can be – and is expected to be – delivered to the world instantly.
UK research findings published in 2017 found that images in online journalism serve as eye-catchers that stimulate engagement of readers and attract reader interest in news stories. Other studies found journalists tended to seek ‘attractive’, ‘eye-catching’, and ‘attention grabbing’ images. Close-up photos of people were most often desired, and photographs of specific people and portraits generally dominated in news publications.
Online media assess images for topical relevance, recency, and accessibility of visual information in the image. There is a clear preference for images depicting people whenever a specific person is related to the story. If a specific person’s name is used as a search term, the general rule is to select an image of this person with their face clearly visible. The two photographs below illustrate this point. The photo of the footballer in the left hand, original, wider-angle shot has been cropped, so in the second, right-hand image the player’s face is highlighted, his body has been centered in the image, and slightly more of the image to the left of the player’s body (his right-hand side) is shown. It is a stronger shot with more human interest.
Image source: Conference paper, “Selecting and tailoring of images for visual impact in online journalism,” 2017.
Photographs used in online news sites tended to assess relevance of images at the level of individual objects depicted in them, e.g. a presence of a particular person, rather than of the image as an item. They clearly did not search for the ideal image, instead they tended to search for images that could be Photoshopped (‘image tailoring’ rather than changing images) to create visually engaging illustrations. Image tailoring is not equivalent to fixing of images. All images have to good resolution and sharpness.
Many selections are based on content that requires an image depicting a specific person. For instance, in the study group, 76% of illustrations typically depicted one person, of which 73% showed a identifiable person. Images depicting people were selected purposefully, since it is likely these images would generate stronger visual impact on readers.
Ensure you don’t email images as attachments in media pitches because journalists also receive fake images and malware in emails, and so they don’t want jeopardize the operations of their organization when they open the wrong attachments. Therefore, the attitude of online journalists is “Don’t attach images or PDFs unless absolutely necessary. Instead, just provide text or include links to the images,” which was the response from a Wall Street Journal reporter to a Fractl survey question in 2019.
Considering visual elements is especially helpful if you know it will be difficult to generate media interest in your story angle. For instance, there is only one daily newspaper in my home town. The paper has a monopoly and has taken an aggressive tabloid approach to news. They are mainly interested in sensationalist news angles and adversarial story lines. Therefore, when we put a story idea to them, we never know if they will sensationalize unfairly or ignore the pitch altogether.
At one time I was working on a project to promote our national Census. This was yawn material to our tabloid newspaper and when I spoke to the chief of staff, he admitted this quite happily, saying he wasn’t interested in giving any coverage until almost Census night. I was stuck with the problem of the monopoly newspaper taking no interest in the lead up to the event.
After conceiving an alternative strategy of working through talkback radio, I also thought of a pictorial angle – a photo of someone stacking millions of blank Census forms to the roof of the warehouse with their forklift. I bypassed the chief of staff and phoned the pictorial editor, who jumped at the idea, and next day his photographer turned up to take a good pic. Here was a successful way to get past the editorial policy of the newspaper. Of course, I reinforced the verbal pitch with an email to the pic editor briefly summarizing the key points.
As shown in the above chart, when you include a screenshot or snipped image of a suitable visual image in your pitch to any journalist (no email attachments!), you create more shareable content for them and hence they are more likely to accept your pitch angle as well as the image (full image emailed separately).
You may have intangible products or services, which are usually difficult to publicize. But an intangible item still needs to be delivered to an end user, and therefore you could show shots of it being used – preferably by a person who looks reasonably natural and not contrived. Think hard about the pictorial angles you could set up showing the end user or customer of the product or service. (It’s not easy with some subjects like computers, but try brainstorming visual angles with others.) And try to get some quotes from these real-life users of the product or service. All people are interested in other people’s stories and comments, so work hard to get the quotes for your material.
Obviously the pictorial angle is even more important for television. In fact, it is all about the visual element. If you don’t have a visual angle, forget the TV news! However, if you plan ahead, you can line up a visually interesting event and contact the news director about it.
Above all, try to keep a news angle to it, no matter how slight. Many marketing people think that news can virtually be controlled and that the television stations will jump at the chance to do a story on a new product regardless of its news value. They think a cheesy shot of the product with a celebrity or a model will be enough. You need to constantly educate these types of people, who don’t seem to learn over time about the difference between controlled and uncontrolled media.
Daily newspapers generally won’t allow you to supply them with pics, although this is changing. Union agreements oblige the news outlets to use only photographs taken by their own staff. Instead you need to pitch the pic angle as part of the story idea.
It is best to give daily newspapers between one and two days’ notice of the event unless it is a feature article you are seeking through the features editor. A longer lead time will usually make them forget about it. (Dealing with the newsroom is like dealing with kindergarten kids – they lose your material if they have it any longer than 24 hours. That’s why you should call to remind them of the event, even though many of them hate being hounded.)
And remember their deadlines. Do your homework to ensure you have sufficient time to pitch the idea – allow for difficulty in reaching the pic editor. Pic editors of daily newspapers tend to go into an editorial huddle about 11.00 am each day and again during mid afternoon, so try to call at other times. But don’t call too early (before 10.00) or they may not yet have arrived at work. This leaves you with narrow windows of time to call. Above all, never leave a message for them to call back, because they will almost never bother to call you back. Just keep calling until you can speak to the pic editor, or at worst, get their sympathetic admin person to put your case to them. Have a pitch email ready to go as well. You can send the pitch email cold, but again, they usually don’t bother to respond, so a phone call is usually necessary. You are competing against many others for space in the paper, so be assertive about pushing your case.
Suburban and regional newspapers (usually weeklies) often are under staffed and will readily accept pics – but only if you include a local angle to the pic. This usually means showing identifiable local people – after all, that’s what local media are about – with supporting text in the form of a media release or email. Many of these newspapers wouldn’t be interested in your news angle without the local pic you have organized to go with it.
I remember one particular instance when I was trying to interest a weekly regional newspaper in a town over 1,000 miles away (its a big State!) in the local end of a national story (the Census). The national story lacked a local angle, so I paid a local photographer to take some digital shots of our staff workshop in progress in the town, which he emailed me within 30 minutes. I made my selection and emailed the shots to the editor a few minutes later. It all happened in a couple of hours over the long distance from the other end of the State. If the pics hadn’t have accompanied the text, the story probably wouldn’t have been run.
Magazines will readily accept pics as well, but remember that their high amount of color content requires much longer deadlines than newspapers because color pages require much more processing, and therefore you need to arrange everything well in advance, preferably on an exclusive basis.
You can try video news releases (VNRs) as well, especially for national stories. This is done often with new medical products and formulations. When accepted by local television stations, VNRs give you a lot of control over the content of the material because you set up the interviews with the experts and ask them easy questions designed to show the new product in the best light. Ensure you remember the deadlines for different television stations, especially in different time zones. You also need to know how to send material by satellite to the different stations in different States, some of whom share the same satellite service and others who don’t.
If you don’t have an online newsroom, set up a clearly labelled area in your website containing all your media material. (This is the subject of another article.) When you post pics in the newsroom, don’t use stock photos! These always look corny. And don’t use the posed shots beloved by marketers, showing models in unnatural poses in unnatural settings. Journalists and pictorial editors who would otherwise be interested in using your pics will back off immediately when confronted by these types of shots. Therefore, arrange for a pro photographer to take news pics to put on your website.
You can post shots on your website in JPEG format, which compresses the file size, but you also need to provide these shots to media who need high-resolution versions. One way to do this is to show the JPEG file on your website and ask media people to contact you for a high-res version of the pic. Dropbox could be used for this. High-res pics take up a lot of storage capacity, eg each pic can take up to 30-50 megabytes of file space, which is far too big to email. (JPEG files are smaller than one megabyte.) Therefore, burn the pics onto a CD-ROM and be ready to deliver them physically to the recipient.
Another tip: don’t forget other visual elements. Where you can, make use of other visual elements such as charts, graphs, diagrams, audio feeds and video clips of speeches for your online newsroom.
News websites crave visual images, so they will accept low-res photographs from smartphones and many other digital sources. Much of the time a news website is a spinoff from a larger news media organization, so you need to work out who best to contact. Again in my home town, the monopoly daily newspaper has recently integrated its operations with a popular television service, and also runs a news website. In time, a single individual will probably be the contact person for all three outlets. This precedent may be forming in many other places as well.
Article updated in 2020.
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