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7 min read

How Print Journalism traditions shape our digital PR campaigns

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Before starting my career in Digital PR, I studied for a degree in International Journalism. It is a popular choice for those working in the industry, especially if they had some prior media experience. Most focus on the more practical aspects of working in the media – shorthand writing, editing copy and ethics. 

However my degree focused on the study of journalism as an industry, analysing patterns of reporting on different issues across the world. My dissertation looked into how our national tabloid newspapers here in the UK covered the EU Referendum in 2016. This experience has helped me understand the bigger picture with journalism and where PR can add value – especially with Britain’s main national newspapers. 

This blog will discuss how the print traditions of these newspapers shape their online content, and therefore the content our industry produces for links to those sites. I’ll then talk about how to produce campaign ideas with those specific sites in mind, with some examples from the industry.

The tabloids take over

It’s fair to say that there are mixed feelings among digital PRs towards the nationals. On the one hand, the majority of them have a nofollow linking policy and two of the most authoritative sites – the Times and Telegraph adopt the subscription model and carry a paywall. Some desks won’t put links in their articles altogether.  As a result, outreaching these sites can be frustrating at times.

On the other hand, these sites have high domain authorities (95 for Guardian, 94 for Independent), clients will value the PR benefit of national press coverage, and they can often lead to more natural pick-ups, particularly with the Daily Mail. For these reasons, any digital PR outreaching a campaign will most likely target relevant national journalists first.

Our newspapers continue to have a massive influence on British society and politics, despite an irreversible decline in print sales. In February this year, the Sun managed to sell just over a million newspapers, down from almost 4 million in its peak in the late 1980s. However, its 34 million online readers and the continued influence of Rupert Murdoch make it the most influential (if divisive) newspaper in Britain.

Though many of Britain’s newspapers were formed in the era of the printing press revolution of the early 20th century, the Sun’s rise to prominence in the 1980s revolutionised print journalism in the UK and cultivated the sensationalised media landscape we as digital PRs operate in today. 

Though many remember their over-the-top headlines the Sun’s most effective reporting technique is through its personal tone. It wants to create a community among its readers by using “we”, “us”, “Brits” or “Sun readers” when reporting on human interest stories. It also contrasts that with the perceived threat of opposition with “they”; “them”; or crass nicknames; “Argies” for example. 

Other newspapers like the Mirror, Express and Daily Mail have more recently adopted this style of reporting, creating a strong culture of tabloid journalism in Britain which is now being played out online.

Creating the perfect campaign idea for national journalists

As digital PRs, we know that tabloid journalists are constantly looking for great stories with attention-grabbing headlines that drive traffic to their site – ideally ahead of their competitors. Before producing any digital PR campaign idea, I would suggest asking yourself the following:

  1. Does the idea generate headlines that will catch a journalist’s eye?
  2. Does the idea have human interest? Can the average member of the public relate to it?
  3. Can the idea appeal to a wide range of journalists and audiences in the same way?

Headlines and Deadlines

For ideas that produce bold headlines, following the media cycle and spotting trends for stories that get picked up is crucial. As we recently saw with the Woolworths twitter hoax, national journalists will scramble to cover a story if it has a headline they know will generate clicks. 

It might seem simple enough, but it’s the most difficult thing to get right with ideation. When producing ideas, I always try to visualise the ideal headline and work out how best to provide journalists with the information necessary to credibly write that story – whether that be data, a survey, visual content or a PR stunt. 

This was the case with Impression’s most successful campaign – the Donald Trump amphibian. Trump’s presidency has dominated the news agenda for the last four years, so creating a novel way to generate a fun headline by naming a new species of worm in his honour gave journalists all they needed. The Sun, Guardian and Independent all ran with an identical headline – “Blind creature that buries head in sand named after Donald Trump” – another telltale sign of a successful campaign.

What do Brits find interesting?

Human interest is an easier quality to find in campaigns but still requires knowing your audience. It helps to know the quirks and nuances of British life and culture, as campaigns can often feed into this. When working with GoCompare for Verve Search, we ran a survey that found BMW drivers were considered worse drivers than ‘white van men’ – two common sights on British roads. The results proved popular with national journalists as the story is relatable to their audience. 

My colleague Damian Summers got this spot-on with ‘The Lazy Scale’ for Great Bean Bags. The campaign pulls together various metrics to see how lazy or active you are compared to the average Brit. Launched just after the New Year when everyone says they’re going to the gym, the campaign proved a big hit with the nationals

PR stunts can also work for this. Journey Further knew to tap into the public’s love of the Sunday roast with their Yorkshire Pudding taste test campaign – likewise Rise at Seven with their Christmas-themed mulled wine spa.  The key is to get inside the mind of an average Brit – the type of individual newspaper editors seek to build a community around. 

Breadth of Appeal

One of the great debates in digital PR – do you create something that carries emotional appeal, or something that will broadly appeal to a range of journalists? Personally, I’m more confident knowing I can build links on a campaign knowing I have a number of angles that could work for different sections of a publication. 

A recent Impression campaign for AskTraders is a good example of what I mean. Our study looked at high street bank closures to find out where the decline of traditional banking is hitting people the hardest. It appeals to financial journalists as it tells a story about the decline of high street banks, consumer/real-life writers who focus on how this affects the customer, and a technology angle with the switch to banking apps like Monzo and Starling. When you can contact three national news desks with one story, you only increase your chances of building links.

Broad appeal of campaigns was a hot topic when I was part of Verve’s outreach team. One of my favorite campaigns of theirs was ‘Wheeler Dealer’ for GoCompare, mainly because of its breadth of appeal. It could target personal finance journalists on the value of vintage toy collections, lifestyle writers asking whether you might have a hidden fortune in your attic toy box, and motoring journalists to talk about the £4,800 Opel Diplomat model someone owned. 

To make this work, try widening your focus when considering new campaign ideas. You may be working for a car insurance brand, or a bean bag company, or a water softener provider, yet any market will have a target audience that extends beyond just cars or beanbags or water softeners. Ideas that can target those readers in different verticals as well as specific trade press or section desks give you a much better chance of picking up national publications consistently.


Whatever our opinions on our national newspapers, we as digital PR professionals rely on their journalists to cover and link to the content we produce. However, these journalists also look to our industry for relevant stories that their audience engages with – driving traffic to their site ahead of their competitors. Next time you’re sitting down for some ideation, consider these publications, and how their editorial style shapes the campaigns our industry continues to produce. We’re both looking for the same thing – a headline that writes itself, and a story that appeals and emotionally connects with a broad audience – the Great British consumer.