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6 min read

Pressworthiness: how to get the sixth sense of the media

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Something that’s talked about a lot in the industry is “pressworthiness” – a concept that seemingly comes naturally to those of us that have been fortunate enough to spend the last decade-ish in PR agencies and press offices.

However, those fresher to PR or dabbling in link-building for SEO purposes may become frustrated when their great ideas flop with the media and they just can’t figure out why. This leads to PR teams hearing things along the lines of the following:

  • “How do you just come up with that so easily?”
  • “How did you know that would work?”
  • “You were born to do this.”
  • James, you are a legend.”

I remember being boggled by this seemingly natural talent in my seniors when I first started in PR, which resulted in the unhelpfully accurate quip, “You’ll get it eventually.”

Unfortunately, “pressworthiness” can be a difficult concept to articulate or teach since there really is no set formula. A specific idea can hinge on a whole set of wild variables, including but not limited to: the audience, the outlet, the timing, the format, the culture, the expert, the data, the context, the niche, the topic, the weather, the journalist, the industry, the history, the vertical, the location, the wording, the agenda, the day, the presentation, the year and let’s face it – a little bit of good fortune.

Previously, my colleagues have discussed the the buttons of buzz, which is a good starter guide on knowing whether something is going to fly with the press. And of course you can’t go wrong with looking at data, data, data…

However, a lot of people still talk about this a certain ‘intuition’ when it comes to reading a headline and knowing whether it will land with the press or not. Thankfully, I believe that everything is learnable, and gaining that “pressworthy instinct” is far more achievable than simply “some people have it and some people don’t”.

Rather than putting together another guide on what makes something pressworthy then, I’ve tried instead to consolidate top tips which will help you develop that elusive pressworthy sixth sense, or what I like to call “the James Watkins effect”.

Top tips for ‘getting it’

1. Consume the news

This seems too obvious that I nearly didn’t include it. If you’re working in the media and you want to understand the media, you have to consume the media.

And I’m not just talking about the stuff you like either. For example, if you’re the kind of person stuck in rut of comfortable-Guardian-reading-psuedo-socialist articles, open your mind (intentional irony) to the glorious world of the sensationalist, crass, click-baity Tabloid press (I’m just making assumptions based on the digital marketing young professional demographic likely to be reading this blog here – see also point 3: Generalise).

But seriously, there is nothing like reading broadly that will help you understand over time the anatomy of a good headline – and not just consumer press either. If you’re working in a specific industry then consume the business press, financial press, marketing press, gardening press, farmer press – you get the pigture

Put half hour aside every morning to scan the headlines whilst you’re having a coffee/tea/other soft drinks are available.

2. Read the news as the news

This might seem synonymous with the previous point, but there is a slight variation. A lot of people who work in, or even comprehend the fundamentals of PR can get into a habit of reading everything as a PR story, rather than as a news story itself. Stop denying it, I know you all do it – you’re probably doing it now.

One of my core philosophies in life is take everything with a healthy dose of cynicism, so I am by no means suggesting you suddenly become an overly-impressionable fickle consumer; it’s likely that spotting PR campaigns will come naturally to you anyway. However, try to kill a little bit of your PR integrity (and soul) by wilfully absorbing yourself into the narrative, purely consuming the news for the news story sake, without second guessing what PR story or campaign that someone somewhere is trying to push. Then, once fully absorbed into that narrative, re-approach it with that trusty PR mindset and a deeper understanding of what the emotions it evoked in you and thus what made that news story emotive for many other readers too.

3. Generalise

Some of you might have noticed that the press have been known to sometimes make certain generalisations. Before I become victim of a Twitter witch hunt, I am aware that this is not good life advice – however, some of the best PR stunts are based on generalisations, so (sorry logic, sorry Science) get used to making them more.

4. Start with the hook, not the format

“This worked before for [insert popular vocal Digital PR] – why isn’t it working for me?”

Despite our constant attempts to distance ourselves from traditional PR, we can’t deny that our discipline is an evolution of many of the traditional techniques, and we should therefore remember that PR is about telling a story. We’re so data driven in digital marketing that it’s easy when link building to look at something that has worked in the past and try to replicate it, as this is largely how we work across SEO. But that doesn’t always fly in PR, and something we often forget then is that we need to start first and foremost with that strong story, not a format.

5. Get out more

People think whatever is related to them is interesting. Hint: it isn’t. In ideation sessions I see time and time again people coming up with ideas that relate directly to their own life and experiences, which isn’t always entirely unhelpful. However, if you’re like 99% of humans, then the people you interact with will also sit firmly within your own confirmation bias, giving you a very limited world view. And funnily enough we intentionally only listen to what we want to hear.

It might seem ridiculously intangible (you’re reading an article on how to get the sixth sense of pressworthiness), but try to expand your understanding of the diversity of thought that exists. Talk to more people who are outside your comfort zone, read unfamiliar forums online, politically antithetical social channels, intentionally overhear people chatting on the bus, and actually listen to people in general.

“I always listen to people”, you exclaim indignantly.

No, I mean really listen. Think about their concerns, their desires, what psychological aspects are driving their experience of the world. The fluffy, intangible advice here is open your mind, but genuinely being open to other peoples’ realm of thought can help tenfold when empathising with campaigns that sit outside the demographic you sit within.

The headline takeaway

I could go on about not being too methodical, immersing yourself in it and letting go of previous misconceptions etc, but I feel like the majority of these start getting into irritating immeasurable PR advice blog territory. The headline is (no pun intended) – there is no secret sauce to understanding pressworthiness, but the people I know who understand the press better than anyone else have (and continue to) employ these tactics over time to hone their understanding, which feels a lot more tangible than “you’ll get it eventually”.

Happy New Year!