The December 2012 issue of Vogue is an unlikely source to prompt a blog post about storytelling and media relations, but if you read ahead, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Arwa Damon – the 35-year-old Syrian-American CNN reporter who broke the story about finding the personal diary of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and who has covered every aspect of Iraq and all theaters of war in the Middle East since she was 25 years old – provided a glimpse to public relations practitioners about what makes a story her story.The coolest thing about this example is that Damon had no clue she was acting like a PR professional when she had to pitch her story to superiors and convince them of its importance. Let me back pedal for you with this quote:
“Arwa Damon’s fearless reporting from the Middle East has made her a star at CNN. What she uncovered in Libya sparked a national furor.
And in 2007, Damon pushed to do a segment on a five-year-old Iraqi boy who had been badly burned in a raid. It was a small story, but the piece led to an enormous outpouring of support from viewers. Ultimately, CNN allowed Damon to find the boy medical care in the states and then to follow the story for four years.
Permitting such a level of engagement between a reporter, a subject, and her audience was something of a first for the network, and it made Damon a popular figure, both inside CNN headquarters and out,” Vogue, December 2012.
Think about this for a minute; I’ll ponder with you:
- A millennial reporter who jets around the world into dangerous settings to do her job finds a 5-year-old injured in wartime.
- She wants to do this story in the worst way and begs her superiors to make it happen. They acquiesce.
- The reporter also begs to locate medical care and then reports on happenings for four years!
What would make a producer say yes to a story about an Iraqi toddler when U.S. troops are getting maimed and dying every day? It had to be how she presented the story, her conviction about drawing attention to babies and children as victims of war, and her passion to use her position to affect an outcry of support. Don’t forget this small fact – CNN had never done a story of this nature where the reporters became a seamless part of story for four years (not to mention earning the child free U.S. medical care).
What do you think? Are you tracking with me about how Damon had to put on the hat of a PR professional (although she didn’t know it) and pitch the heck out of that story until her producers said, “OK already!”
The clue for we in PR is this: each time we pitch a reporter, that gatekeeper has to – in turn – pitch it to editors or producers. It’s more challenging than ever for media relations professionals to sell news in one pitch.
Elements of A Successful Pitch
Anyone reading this is likely to be extremely knowledgeable about elements of a solid national or global story, but let’s recap for those who may not be:
- Mass audience appeal. A story about children and especially 5 year olds is going to tug at all heart strings without language barrier.
- Medical attention. When someone is injured as a result of war, that’s a natural story hook or news angle.
- Consumers or victims of war. National stories always require a consumer/people angle. Have you ever pitched national network TV? The consumer angle is an absolute.
- Call to action. We’re not sure about the call to action in Damon’s story; however, when the article suggests an “enormous outpouring of support from viewers,” we know how much ratings are driven by consumer sentiment and stories like these. While call to action is more of a marketing tactic, media relations professionals need to think about what the outcome of a story should be. How do you want the story to be regarded? Can you push for someone to open a wallet and donate funds to something? That inadvertent influence of earned media becomes so critical at the end of the day.
- Data/Statistics/Big Data. This story in Vogue didn’t include statistics; however, we are fully aware of the importance of empirical evidence to support a story’s proof points.
I remember after Hurricane Katrina when Anderson Cooper launched a story segment called, “Keeping Them Honest” on CNN. He and his team returned to New Orleans to follow-up on officials’ plans to ensure the re-build was happening as it should. Each time I caught that segment, I said “good for you, Anderson,” as he provided everyone with a bird’s eye vantage about post-crisis Katrina.
While marketers need to be the consummate storytellers, media relations professionals need to craft the story with all the elements and more prior to pitching it anywhere. Put all the elements on the table, and if anything is missing, then hit the drawing board and dog the details. Imagine the tough sell Arwa Damon had to make to her producers to become personally involved in a story they didn’t even want to produce. All you need to do is let her be your inspiration.