The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Monthly Archives: February 2011

What, with wikileaks, phone hackin’ journalists, social media on the interweb, a new UK Prime ministerial spin meister and things called quora, it’s all enough to give you a migraine.  Of course, it hasn’t always been like this, and occasionally it is good for the soul to hark back to more tranquil times, just as Simon Hoggart of the Guardian did recently:

“Isn’t it a reflection of modern times that the prime minister’s appointment of a spin doctor has attracted as much attention as any new cabinet minister might? Rightly so – Craig Oliver will probably be more influential than almost all of them.

Only one kind of spinning here ...

More than 60 years ago Clement Attlee had to be persuaded to install a Press Association ticker in Downing Street and only agreed when he was told it would allow him to follow the cricket scores.

One day Francis Williams, his press secretary, gave his usual briefing to the lobby. Later Attlee exclaimed in astonishment: “There’s an account of this morning’s cabinet on my cricket machine!” He didn’t even know what his spin doctor did.

I think that, on the whole, that was a good thing, and we were better off.”

Hear, hear!

“So what?”

It’s a question that is under-used in any media campaign.  People utterly involved in their work, be it selling microchips or helping others, are often pushing out press releases, statements, calling press conferences to tell the world their ‘news’, only to be often dumbfounded when the media fail to report it.  That’s because they often don’t ask the “so what?” question in terms of news factors.  There are factors which make news, which raise an eyebrow, which journalistic radars lock on to and which the general public wake up to. It’s pretty obvious stuff but when down in the weeds working on a product or a campaign a myopia can strike preventing people from understanding, in media terms, what will ‘fly’ and what won’t.  Before sending that press release or calling that press conference, just check for news worthiness.  If the story doesn’t flick any of the switches below (edited from a version at, it’s failed the “so what?” test.

1.  Timeliness:  News is what’s new. An afternoon raid on a drugs den may warrant a live ENG report during the 6 p.m. news. However, tomorrow, unless there are major new developments, the same story will probably not be important enough to mention.

2.  Proximity: If 15 people are killed in your hometown, your local TV station will undoubtedly consider it news. But if 15 people are killed in Tokyo, Tipperary, Timisoara, or some other distant place you’ve never heard of, it will probably pass without notice. But there are exceptions.

3.  Exceptional quality: One exception centres on how the people died. If the people in Timisoara were killed because of a bus or car accident, this would not be nearly as newsworthy as if they died from an earthquake or stings from “killer bees,” feared insects that have now invaded France.

Exceptional quality refers to how uncommon an event is. A man getting a job as a music conductor is not news—unless that man is blind.

4.  Possible future impact: The killer bee example illustrates another news element: possible future impact. The fact that the killer bees are now in France and may eventually be a threat to people watching the news makes the story much more newsworthy.

5.  Prominence: The 15 deaths in Timisoara might also go by unnoticed by the local media unless someone prominent was on the bus—possibly a movie star or a well-known politician. If a soap star gets married, it’s news; if John Smith, your next-door neighbour, gets married, it probably isn’t.

You may find it exciting but will others?

6.  Conflict: Conflict in its many forms has long held the interest of observers. The conflict may be physical or emotional. It can be open, overt conflict, such as a civil uprising against police authority, or it may be ideological conflict between political candidates.

The conflict could be as simple as a person standing on his principles and spending a year fighting city hall over a parking citation. In addition to “people against people” conflict, there can be conflict with wild animals, nature, the environment, or even the frontier of space.

7.  Numbers: The more people involved in a news event, be it a demonstration or a tragic accident, the more newsworthy the story is. Likewise, the number of people affected by the event, whether it’s a new health threat or a new tax ruling, the more newsworthy the story is.

8.  Consequence: The fact that a car hit a power pylon isn’t news, unless, as a consequence, power is lost throughout a city for several hours. The fact that a computer virus found its way into a computer system might not be news until it bankrupts a business, shuts down a telephone system, or endangers lives by destroying crucial medical data at a hospital.

9.  Human interest: Human-interest stories are generally soft news. Examples would be a baby beauty contest, a person whose pet happens to be a nine-foot boa constrictor, or a man who makes a cart so that his two-legged dog can move around again.

On a slow news day even a story of fire fighters getting a cat out of a tree might make a suitable story. Human-interest angles can be found in most hard news stories. A flood will undoubtedly have many human-interest angles: a lost child reunited with its parents after two days, a boy who lost his dog, or families returning to their mud-filled homes.

10.  Pathos: The fact that people like to hear about the misfortunes of others can’t be denied. Seeing or hearing about such things commonly elicits feelings of pity, sorrow, sympathy, and compassion. Some call these stories “tear jerkers.”

Examples are the child who is now all alone after his parents were killed in a car accident, the elderly woman who just lost her life savings to a con artist, or the blind man whose seeing-eye dog was poisoned.

This category isn’t just limited to people. How about horses that were found neglected and starving, or the dog that sits at the curb expectantly waiting for its master to return from work each day, even though the man was killed in an accident weeks ago.

11.  Shock Value: An explosion in a factory has less shock value if it was caused by gas leak than if it was caused by a terrorist. The story of a six year-old boy who shot his mother with a revolver found in a bedside drawer has more shock (and therefore news) value than if same woman died of a heart attack.

Both shock value and the titillation factor (below) are well known to the tabloid press. The lure of these two factors is also related to some stories getting inordinate attention, such as the sordid details of a politician’s or evangelist’s affair—which brings us to the final point.

12.  Titillation: This factor primarily involves sex and is commonly featured—some would say exploited—during rating periods.

It’s a simple question – “so what?”