AH: So hello, it’s Anita here, and welcome to this month’s podcast. In this episode I’m talking with Penny James, who some of you in Wales may know as one of the best media publicists on the circuit. She’s held press manager roles with organisations such as Welsh National Opera and St David’s Hall, and she’s created national, and in some cases international coverage for people like Wales Millennium Centre, Music Theatre Wales, Black Rat Productions, Artes Mundi, and many others. So, welcome Penny and thank you so much for taking the time to chat to me today. It’s really, really lovely to have you here.
PJ: Thank you.
AH: And I guess I should mention that we know each other pretty well, don’t we?
PJ: We do, very well, yes.
AH: Because we job-shared together as Marketing Manager at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, many years ago. How long ago was it now?
PJ: I think about 18 or 19 years ago now, which is unbelievable, but yes, quite a while ago now but we’ve kept in touch with each other since so it obviously wasn’t all bad.
AH: And we were clearly child marketers weren’t we.
PJ: We were, yes.
AH: So then after that we went in different directions as freelancers, with you focussing on press and media which you’ve built up such a lot of expertise in those years since. But before I go on to ask you about that, I’m always really interested to know how people find their passion? So how did you end up doing what you do today, and why is it so important to you?
PJ: OK. Well as somebody growing up, I was very lucky in that my parents gave me lots of experiences of the arts, sort of music and theatre in particular, which helped really make me who I am really and helped mould by interests and passion, and now also my work. I realised at a particular point that actually that isn’t the case for all people. And there’s so much to gain from experience of music and art, and so for me, one of the things that really sort of drives me is trying to sort of break down the barriers for people of experiencing different elements of the arts and also creating different opportunities where people of all ages, not just young people, who are able to stay involved and participate as well as see and hear things, I realised the benefits that those things bring really. So I think that’s what drives me on, on a daily basis, is trying to help those things happen and people realise the impact it can make on their lives.
AH: Thank you. So moving on to what you do. Can you tell me why press and media is still important in this era when everybody is just a little obsessed with social media?
PJ: Yeah, sure. I think social media obviously has its place, and it’s a big part of the mix, you know, how people get their information or find out about things, but it’s not everything. I think there are lots of ways where press, media and other work around what you do is really, really important. So I think sometimes because of budget some people often rely totally on social media, there is a lot of benefit of using other platforms really to get your messages out.
AH: Yeah, I mean in communications you need to go where people are, don’t you? And sometimes you story and your point can be made more valid by other people writing about it.
PJ: It can. I think other people endorsing messages or talking about the impact of your work for you, says a lot than you just sending out your own messages on social media. And I think that’s true, actually, using other people to advocate your work is really important generally in all the activity that you do.
AH: And obviously with journalists they have a certain sort of status, and people may, or may not believe them more than you.
PJ: They do, and I think that’s the other thing. In terms of journalists talking about your work, and very much you look at what you want to say and then who you want to tell it for you, and that might be people within your organisation, or journalists, or if you have any performance element to your work the reviewers, so it’s really about trying to get the messages out but other people helping to do that for you, rather than it always coming from you. And that’s the other thing. Often the case with social media it can become almost sort of sales, and that type of thing, or even if you try and get human interest stories out there, it’s still coming from you. So engaging other people to help tell your story is really important.
AH: So, what would be your advice for somebody who’s not really worked with the media before? What would be their first step?
PJ: Right, OK. Well, the way that I approach it is, I really think about what it is you want to say. Be really honest about what’s interesting about your work, and your organisation, and the impact of what you do. And then you think about how can I show this? What can I do that will help, you know, showcase what we’re trying to achieve here? This might be some facts and figures about the impact of your work. It might be that you’re able to create content, you know, whether that’s pictures and images, quotes. And that’s a good thing now in this digital age you don’t have to be hiring professional people to take images and get film all the time. Sometimes it can be, you know, more informal than that. So literally getting content together which helps convey what you’re doing and the stories that you have is really important.
But also, from a journalist’s point of view, I always try and say, think of the ‘So what?’ theory. That if you were trying to explain what your organisation does, try and think of the key things, the key impact things that makes you different, or if you were stuck in a lift with someone for three minutes and you were trying to get across the key things about what you’re trying to achieve and the impact of your work. And that’s quite a good way of condensing down really, what you’re trying to get over.
And it could be throughout a period there are specific projects, or elements of the work that you’re doing, that really help showcase that. So, I say to people, think of the gardener’s diary for the year, and try to split up your activity throughout the year. What are the key things throughout the year that are really going to get the message across about what you do, and rather than try and cover everything, pick out a few key things that will help you do that.
A good way of doing it is to try and create a bit of a toolkit of contents, so that’s images, messages, quotes, all those things, and also there might be people surrounding a project that you know that you can call upon to help do interviews, and that might be the figurehead of our organisation, but it might also be other people, or artists you’re working with, children, or people in the community who are participating. So it’s all that really.
Try and think about who can help do it, but then obviously the key thing is, who do you want to tell the story for you, and where you want it to be seen. And quite often, it might be, you know, you have to do a bit of research and follow some people, or start getting key papers that you want to be in, or whether it’s radio or television, just try and think, right, well where do I really want this and try and follow and see what those people are interested in and what they’re covering, and that helps you place your message correctly. So when you go to them, you’re not just saying this is what we want to do and how do you think you might cover it, you already know a bit about that journalist or that programme or whatever, and then what’s the best way of you working together really. The other thing that I find is that a lot of journalists are being cut and so for example, if it’s your local paper, you know where they used to have somebody who covered music and the arts, but now, or even education, sometimes those journalists have been pooled to cover a multitude of subjects. So, you need to do as much as possible to make life easy for them.
AH: So those are some really great tips Penny, and there’s three key things that you’re suggesting that people start with, which is, (1) try to create a little bit of a content calendar, and I don’t know if you do this Penny?, but I put content calendars on Google Calendar and electronic means, so that people can share those. But whatever tool you use, what you’re saying is, have a kind of gardeners diary or a content calendar, is that right?
PJ: Yes, that’s right. I just think it’s really useful because once you’ve done that you can see the key areas of your work and what might be the most interesting. And I also think that it’s good not to bombard people all the time. You know, picking out a few key projects rather than constantly, you know, telling people that can often have more impact, so you need to plan it out really.
AH: And so the second tip (2) was then to make sure that you’ve got all your ducks in a row, all your content there, or as much as possible. You know, have some written information, and have some photos, and have some people lined up who could be possible interviewees.
PJ: Yes, that’s it.
AH: And then your third point (3) was, and this is what I think sometimes throws people, is well how on earth do you know who to contact? What you’re saying is, start to follow people, maybe on social media, or actually in the newspapers, buy the newspapers, listen to the radio programmes, etc., etc., and try to get a sense of the type of stories that they’re putting out there. And so start to actually identify key journalists.
PJ: Exactly that. I mean another thing, if you sometimes can’t find the key person, even the Contact Us at the bottom of the website, you know I’ve done before now just to find out who looks after a particular area, or, just do your research really, because I think journalists really appreciate that. They’re so stuck for time and if you go to them already knowing about them and what they’re interested in, you’re able to mould what you’re saying to them in a much better way, but also they realise how it might work for them as a feature or a piece or an interview. So it’s better for everybody really.
AH: Yeah, absolutely. So have you got any advice about what sort of journalists then that people should start following and listening to? So, obviously it depends upon your kind of scale, whether you’re a national organisation or a regional organisation.
PJ: It does. I think it’s always good to be realistic with your stories about what’s likely to be a local story, or what’s likely to be a national or an international story, and often it can be, you know, what you are doing. You have to be honest with yourself about what’s a piece of news, or again it’s that ‘So what?’ theory. I often apply that because sometimes people often tell me about things and I think, ‘Yes, OK, but there’s nothing new there’, or ‘Lots of people do that’, so you have to think about what’s unique in what you’re doing and what impact are you having? So for a local story for example, it could be you’re working with local people and that will definitely have local interest, then fine, but obviously that might not have a national level unless you’re literally doing something new, breaking new ground, and therefore something that becomes more national news rather than local. So it’s applying those sorts of filters really. It’s sort of logic really, you know, how you’d normally think about things. And usually your common sense will tell you.
AH: And can you kind of break it down a bit for people in terms of, for example, in newspapers, is there usually an arts correspondent on a local newspaper? Is that the kind of person they should be looking for, or should they be approaching the news desk? And for radio, the same, you know, are you looking for a particular radio programme to do with the arts and will there be a kind of central desk that would deal with the arts?
PJ: Well both really. With all the cuts of journalists, there are less arts editors and programmers than there were, and so lots of people, or they may have become What’s On rather than arts. Or it could be with education writers. But I would say there’s two things here. Sometimes you do want to hit the arts pages, or you know, in terms of arts programmes, but also think outside the box. Because it could be that there’s a very human element to what you’re doing that helps take it more into the news or general pages that helps you reach a different audience.
And that’s where you engage people sometimes who don’t necessarily think about the arts as part of their lives. And it might have more impact for that person rather than someone who’s always looking for the arts pages or programmes. So you talk differently as well. Because obviously if someone is already engaged in the arts you’re able to talk possibly in a more involved way and go into more detail about a project. Whereas obviously when somebody’s less involved, perhaps looking at general pages, how you might approach that piece might be different. And it could be just even somebody within the organisation who has an unusual hobby or something like that, that helps takes it on a general page, but then as part of that story you’re able to talk more about the organisation’s work. I think when you’re working with opera, you know, as I do, both with Music Theatre Wales and Welsh National Opera, you have people who are very engaged and already have a good knowledge of opera. But then also because opera is storytelling, and both companies work with people in the community as well, so there are lots of ways that we’re trying to reach different people, but obviously you talk to those two different audiences very differently. Because somebody who’s not engaged, you’re trying to talk to them about the fact that it’s storytelling and the impact that it can have on you as a drama, but also it can affect your life in a different way, you know, either singing with a community choir, or going to a performance and just hearing something.
AH: Definitely, and certainly with the listeners to this programme, they’re probably thinking around education and social issues, and young people today, or elderly people today, and the issues that affect them. So you could think really creatively about the journalist who might be interested in that and how you could angle your story in slightly different ways, is that right?
PJ: You do. And I think just sort of document your work as an ongoing process because then what you find is that content all builds up and then when you need it to tell your story, even at a later date, you’ve got that. It also helps you to see what might be interesting and not be interesting to people, because we’re all helped by images and film and quotes and things like that, rather than us just talking about it, you know.
AH: Yeah. So gather a real richness of content just as you would for evaluation and promotional purposes, getting appropriate permissions etc. obviously. So I just wanted to ask a little bit more about content. A couple of questions really. So first of all, to what extent do you prepare the content for the journalist? Everybody knows the term ‘press release’ and I often get asked ‘Oh, will you write a press release for us?’, or ‘How do you write a press release?’, but that written information isn’t just about that is it? Tell me a little bit more about the content that you prepare.
PJ: Yeah sure. I do write a press release, but also …
AH: Is that the starting point would you say?
PJ: It would be. It is a starting point because it helps as a sort of background document for everybody with key pieces of information, and it helps to focus your own mind on what needs to be in there.
AH: With the press release, can you just outline what that is?
PJ: So I would say that in a press release you’re really trying to pull out the key news elements of what you’re doing, to some extent you’re summarising what’s going on if it’s a project, you know, or if the company is doing a particular thing. So you’re trying to summarise that but you’re also trying to get over the key impact points if you like, because as I said, the ‘So what?’ theory, if people are looking at that they’ll think, ‘Oh right, that’s lovely, but why would I want to cover it?’. So you’re trying to draw those points out.
Usually early on in the release your headline is really important, because sometimes people only read the headline, and if the headline doesn’t grab them then they sometimes don’t read the rest of it. So you’ve got to really think about your headline and the key impact of what you’re doing and try and get it in that headline.
And then you’re summarising what’s going to be happening but pulling out the key news points from that and then within that, and towards the end, it might be if there were details about, you know, if it’s surrounding an event, or you know, you obviously want to make sure that the details of the event are in there so that if somebody’s writing a piece completely, they’re able to add that piece of information in.
I always try and end with a sort of call to action really, because you’re trying to say why someone should cover it. And also when you’re sending a release out, again, try and make it easy so if there’s a picture or a piece of imagery that helps show what you’re trying to explain so that journalists don’t have to come back and contact you again and say, ‘Can I have a picture?’. The more content you can send out at that time in one go, the more they are good to go. So again make it as easy as you possibly can for them.
AH: Brilliant. That’s really helpful. And so we were talking generally about the content you pull together, so the press release being the foundation one and particularly when you’ve got news. Anything else people could create to make a journalist’s life easier?
PJ: Yes. One of the things we’ve found more and more really, in the industry in the last few years is that often whereas journalists used to be able to do lots of interviews with people, because of the cut on their time and the fact that they’re usually covering much more across the different industries than they used to be, that quite often I will, for example, create a Q&A (question & answer) interview. I’ll put on the journalist’s head and think what are the key things that people will want to know about a particular project. And think, you know, if I knew nothing about this project, what would the questions be that I would want to be asked. And then by doing that and sending them to the person in your organisation or the artist or whoever it is you want to be telling your story, you’ve got a ready-make piece of content that you can supply to a journalist with your press release. So if they want to add in any particular elements themselves they can, but it just means that you’ve taken an element of the work away from them. And it’s not as some people would say, ‘lazy journalism’, but that to me is just the reality of the world we’re in now, and some nationals are still in a position where they’re able to do interviews, but even they sometimes say, ‘The more you can give me, the easier it will be’, and particularly with regionals it’s more the way that it’s going because of the number of people who’ve been cut. So the easier you can make things for people the better really.
AH: And you’re talking very much about the press there obviously as it’s written stuff. Is there anything that you’d prepare for radio or TV? Do you want to talk a little bit about radio and TV and the difference?
PJ: Yeah, so, I’d say with radio that one of the key things that people usually want is audio. Before you approach them, always think, what are they likely to want, are they likely to want maybe one or two people to interview, if there’s music involved they might want a short clip or a longer clip. Look into that yourself, is there going to be any rights issues, can I overcome that, you know what’s the situation for me to get a piece of music that will help illustrate what we’re talking about here? If you can do that in advance rather than waiting for the journalist to ask you for it, then you already know all the answers to the questions about rights etc. So getting a piece of audio in place know that you’ve got that and getting the file before for them so it makes your offer better because you can say to them, ‘I can offer this person to talk about X, Y and Z’, but I also have audio clips you can use to demonstrate that.
Or you could offer, because sometimes, depending on what the programme is, the journalist might go out and about and do some recording or if it’s for news they would do that. So you can offer them the chance to come in on your project or into your organisation, or before a performance or rehearsal or whatever it is, to get some different sort of content rather than being in a studio. So you need to think more widely about what would demonstrate what you’re trying to say the best way really. And include that in your offer, in your pitch, so that you’re creating opportunities for them to create a better programme really.
And with television again, think about the news elements, depending on what you’ve decided whether it’s a magazine-type programme, or whether it’s news, who will tell the story the best, whether that’s somebody in the organisation. I mean for example if you had a project involving older people, I’m thinking about something like the Welsh National Opera has got a dementia choir, so it could be that when we launched that we tried to get, you know we had people talking about the work but also people talking about the impact, because that choir involves people who have dementia, but also the members of their families who are also impacted by the positivity of being involved. So having people from the different sides of that and being able to talk about the impact is really strong.
So in advance of offering those interviews for television, if you know you can approach people and say you know would be happy to talk about your experience to television – because obviously you want people who feel confident speaking in front of a camera – but also that they’re happy to talk about their own experience, because some people aren’t. You do all that research before. So that when you go to a journalist you’ve got a ready-made offer for them, and then it’s for them to say whether they want it or not. And if they don’t, it’s not a personal thing, because sometimes people also get offended if somebody doesn’t want something, but you just have to move on. But obviously if they do, then you try and go through that process as smoothly as you possibly can.
And you keep in touch, and you go back, and sometimes you have to keep going back to people because they say, ‘Yes, I am interested, but at the moment I’m in the middle of X, Y, Z’, or ‘I need to talk to you about this in a few weeks’, you just go back to them in a few weeks and just keep going really. Or it could be they say, ‘At the moment I’m full’, or ‘I haven’t got a slot, but I’m really interested in what you’re talking about, so please keep me up to date with other projects that you’re doing’. So then you go back later with something else. The good thing with that is that it’s much better to be doing that, because you stay on their radar, rather than not contacting them at all or just sending them a press release. If you have that dialogue going with them going then they’re aware of you and what you do, and then what you find is that when you do go back to them another time they’re already in tune with what you’re talking about and are more likely to cover it really. So it’s keeping that ongoing dialogue. And also it’s that thing where something might happen within the area of your work in the news and then they think, ‘Oh, actually, I’ve talked to somebody from that organisation and they may have a point of view on that’, and so they sometimes then come to you and think, ‘Oh gosh, I know who I can contact to get a comment on that’.
AH: Yeah. So that’s another thing. That whole thing about keeping your antennae primed to understand what’s going on in the news space, and how you capitalise on that. It’s not always all about thinking about what we’ve got to offer on our content plan.
PJ: Yes. I always say to people, ‘Try and be active, there’s a certain amount of reactive work within press, sometimes it’s things you want to be involved with because it’s news-based or sometimes, you know, there’s people contacting you. So there are two elements of that. But yes, I think keeping across the news in your industry is really important. Just so that you’re aware of where you may be able to pass comment or just get involved really with something that’s going on.
AH: So creating a really appealing package with rich content for the journalist making their job easier. I suppose it’s a little bit like classic marketing, you kind of put yourself in your journalist’s shoes and think what would they and their audience want. And then not being put off when you get a knock-back, keeping in touch with that journalist, but not in a ‘pestery’ way, and with stuff that’s really relevant and useful to them. And you mentioned about relationships, and I know that’s really key and it is actually what puts a lot of people off, starting doing press and PR because they think I don’t have the relationships with the journalists, but obviously you’ve got to start somewhere. And a lot of people sort of hear about press people and publicists taking journalists out to lunch and all this type of thing. So the one question I wanted to ask you about is, have you got any tips about developing relationships with journalists?
PJ: Well I think it is good if you get a good relationship with a journalist. It’s sort of organic really. What I’ve found is that if you work on one thing with a journalist and that goes well, and they know, a lot of it is about trust, so if they know they can come to you and they will get a good story and they will get good content, that sort of sets you up to a certain extent in terms of your future with them because they know that they can come back to you again. And I think what I try and do is, I try to keep people regularly up to date with the work that I’m doing with different organisations, but if there’s something where I think, actually, that needs a bit more explaining then I do try to meet up with people. A lot of the time I’m aware that people haven’t got a lot of time to meet up, so if you’re able to do things by email or ‘phone, that’s easier. But sometimes it just does help for you to sit down. I mean, from my point of view, because I’m often talking about the work of a few different organisations at the same time, so it’s actually easier for me to do that in one go, and sit down with somebody and you know have a cup of tea and just talk through them with them, and then we’re able to look at deadlines and what they want from that and what I can help with. But I think, you know, you sort of gauge it really with individuals. Sometimes people are more keen to meet up and have those conversations whereas with other people it might be just pop me an email or can we have a quick chat on the ‘phone and we’ll take it forward from there.
The other thing that you can do is invite journalists to see something that you’re doing, or if there’s a workshop, or something like that. They may not come, but I think the more that you do that, you know, the better, because even if they haven’t been they’re aware that that is happening. Just that fact that you’ve sent that invitation means that they know that event or workshop or whatever is taking place. So it’s better to do that, than do nothing at all.
AH: That’s a really good point. And in terms of relationships, what would you advise about exclusives? Because you hear about people having a particular relationship with a journalist and offering them a story but not anybody else.
PJ: Yeah, I think to a certain extent that’s up to you. If your aim is to get a story told as widely as possible then actually you’re limiting yourself by doing that. But if, for you, actually getting a particular story in a particular place really opens a lot of doors for you and is really what you want, then an exclusive is perfect. I mean, in some cases I think probably exclusives apply to nationals slightly more, in that quite often a national newspaper for example, or national TV, if they know that somebody else has already run with that story they’re less likely to take it. But I’d say more locally, unless you’ve really hooked up with one particular media to sort of be the key one, I would say in most cases you don’t have to have exclusives. It’s more about getting the message across different types of media.
AH: This is so fascinating, but I think we’re coming towards the end of our interview now, unfortunately, so one thing I did want to ask you before I ask about some final top tips is, a lot of the people listening to this show will be people in the educational community department of a larger arts organisation and it’s often this kind of Cinderella department where marketing and PR is concerned, so they tend not to get a look-in or call on the communications team because the communications teams might be more focussed more on audience development etc. What would be your advice to them to get more support from their PR team?
PJ: OK, what I would say, actually, in a lot of cases the other work, so other than performances or, as you say, audience-based work, is often one of the key things that journalists are the most interested in, because it makes it different, you’re reaching different people, the impact can be different, so I think in terms of internally trying to sell that to your communications team – the human element of the work that any organisation does – is often of far more interest. So it’s trying to get that across to them really.
And also if you can show that you’re documenting the process along the way and thinking in terms of how you can help them, it also helps that team because quite often, I know this, and you know this Anita from when we worked together, that your own time is dragged in many different directions, and you’re trying to cover everything and do well for everybody, whereas if you can help by saying, ‘Look, we’ll make sure we’ve got images that you can use, and we can always be telling you who the people are working on this particular project, that would be good to be interviewed, and these are the key things that are impactful about this project, or this particular work that we’re doing, and we’re going into schools and we know, for example, that there will be children there we can permission to speak to, or interview, and would be happy to talk about the impact it’s having on them then that makes your communications team’s work better and they can also know where they can place it and get success. So I think again it’s that making things easier and the point that we talked about with journalists.
AH: So it sounds like you’d take exactly the same approach as you would with a journalist with your PR team. You just create your package and sell it to them. That’s brilliant.
PJ: You do. I think the other thing I would say is that people quite often talk about the ‘news’ element of their story but they don’t think about the ‘human’ element enough. I mean, so I for example have talked to people about a particular project and they’ll tell me all about the project, and then the meeting is sort of almost over and then as I’m going out of the room, they’ll say, ‘Oh, and of course the person working on it is also interested in X, Y, Z’, and actually that’s the thing that might get them the story. So it’s trying to get people to think about the human elements or the personalities involved with their projects as well as just what you’re doing.
AH: Yeah, that’s really interesting, that’s where you can get really creative isn’t it. So finally, what would be your three practical tips that people could put into action straight away to get their first piece of media coverage?
PJ: OK. The first thing is, think really carefully about what you’re trying to say. What are we trying to say about the company here?, or is it a particular project and the impact of that? Really nail that down. And then what do you want to do to get that story heard? So it’s, who can tell it for you? What are the key points you want to get across? And then who can I use? Or what information do I need in order to do that. So is it people, is it facts and figures? Will images really help there or film? Just really nail down those points really.
AH: That’s fantastic. I’ve got so many questions I could ask you, but we don’t have time. So I’m really sorry but that is the end of the show. It’s been really great to be able to pick your brains about press coverage. I’m sure other listeners will find it very helpful too, so thank you very much.
PJ: No problem at all, good to speak to you.
AH: And if you want to read more about getting coverage through the press or you’d like to contact Penny, as always there will be links in the show notes, and so thank you very much for listening.