It seems ironic to be talking about the silly season – traditionally downtime for news during August – when this summer journalists have struggled to keep up with the fast-changing events of Brexit, Westminster politics and international terrorism. But there is normally a hiatus in the flow of potential stories into newsrooms caused by the rest of the world having gone on holiday – it’s enshrined in France that everyone takes August off.
However, the show goes on, there’s still some proper stories around but fewer of them. Yet there is an increase in speculative stuff of varying quality. FOI (Freedom of Information) requests are now a mainstay of mainstream news coverage. On some papers there are teams of reporters trawling through data they’ve generated. Some of these ideas are dreamed up specifically to make stories during the twin nadirs of the news year, August and Christmas.
More polls and surveys are also on offer, from reputable sources such as Age UK, Alzheimer’s Society, Anchor, a charity for older people, and cancer charities. They provide a central statistic and accompanying comment, and often get coverage. Anniversaries are used as a news peg, but there has to be a harder edge to the press release than a past timeline.
Maximising the opportunities offered by less competition still requires the raw constituents of news values such as novelty – the first, biggest, best – that defies the seasons and topicality. But health controversies that are bread and butter for newspapers such as late diagnosis figures, and updates on the hip replacement surgery and silicon breast implant scandals, can be profitably re-heated during the often tepid temperatures of August.
The emotional impact of these stories is always enhanced by a cracking case study – having one land in your lap during August makes a difference. One person’s heartache or dilemma can carry the weight of an issue, particularly at this time of the year. It’s a cliche but think about the season. One August I had a ‘timely’ story sent to me by PRs about BBQ blunderers, a survey on the numbers who have been served underdone meat or had a stomach upset, along with a request to ‘include it at some point this week’. It was timeless but topical and it got coverage in a Saturday paper, which carries the most consumer material. It’s always worth a punt with a press release that’s been hatched with the silly season in mind – you never know. But there may be a rather more productive way to spend time this month, which may not result in the instant gratification of column inches yet improve the chances of them happening in future.
The lull can be used to strengthen relationships between you, your organisations, and the journalists you’d like to target. You may already know the specialists in your field, but they change and it’s a useful time to update files, work out who’s most interested in your field and making a personal approach to find out what they need. Despite the madly busy nature of most journalists’ schedules, many make time to meet contacts for coffee to further our mutual interests, and August can be a good time to make that overture.
It’s a good time for housekeeping: make sure you know who you want to target on which paper. Are they specialist reporters you already have a relationship with? If so, a phone call to check whether there’s anything going on to which you can contribute now or in the near future can do no harm. If not place a call to introduce yourself followed up with an email giving the contact details you’d expect them to want and need. Raise the issues you think will be coming along for your organisation with the intent of seeing where they are on the paper’s agenda – or how you might get them there.
Doing FOI requests within house – your organisation – might save a newspaper hassle and expense, discuss the areas where the reporter can see a headline coming out of an FOI survey that they might want to cover. Likewise with surveys or reports you’ve got coming along. Do you want to place an exclusive? Assess the feedback you’re getting from these overtures (having already analysed the stories you see consistently published under these bylines.)
It’s a buyers’ market for journalists most of the time – sifting through mountains of material and making judgments. But getting a better idea of the issues that matter to the reporters you expect to deal with won’t just pay off once a year. There will be a better relationship for the diary stories they have to cover, and for the days of the week when most reporters are more than usually open to off-diary suggestions, namely Fridays for Saturdays and Sundays for Mondays. The benefits could be year-round.