Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How to hack the media

With the release of my book and the Alan Turing apology campaign I've spent quite a bit of time dealing with the media, both old and social. Here's the distillation of what I've learnt.

1. Learn to write

If you can't communicate your message clearly and concisely then you are going to have a hard time dealing with any media. In both old and social media there's an attention problem: people haven't got time to read long-winded explanations that don't get to the point. That's precisely why press releases are a total waste of time: they are too long.

If you haven't read Strunk and White or On writing well then do so... now. Then practice writing with a space limit.

Just yesterday someone from The Times asked me for "100 words by Friday" on Plan 28. Try describing your business, idea or plan in 100 words. And then make sure those words are interesting enough to appear in a newspaper.

One reason to know how to write is that you might find yourself writing about what you are promoting. For example, when The Geek Atlas was released I wrote to all the major papers trying to get reviews. For example, I emailed the Travel Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle:


I thought you might be interested in my forthcoming book, The Geek Atlas. It's a travel book for people interested in science, technology and mathematics and features 128 destinations around the world (many of which are in the US and many of the US ones are in Silicon Valley). If you are interested in a review copy I will arrange with the publisher.


She replied:

I have a better idea. We have a little feature called "5 places" - we do offbeat things like, "5 places to have bed, breakfast and bordello" (former bordellos now turned lodging), or "5 places to smell your coffee and the ocean too" (beachfront hotels) and we're also doing things like biker bars and factory tours. Why don't you do 5places to release your inner geek? We pay XX (you should submit at least 2 handout photos for us too) and you can mention your book in your lead-in. If you are interested I will send you a couple of samples.


And you can read the resulting article Unleash your inner geek without spending a cent. The same thing happened with The Sunday Times in the UK (read The top 10 geeky holiday spots). And it's not just my book, I wrote about the Alan Turing apology campaign for New Scientist (The real Turing Test: learning to say sorry).

You won't get to do this for the hard news sections of newspapers, but the supplements and special sections are good places if your story fits into one of those sections.

2. Read newspapers and use social media

If you want a newspaper to write about your idea then you need to know what the newspaper writes about and who at the newspaper writes about your subject. The only way you are going to find that out is by reading newspapers. Similarly, if you plan to get your story on social media it's worth hanging out on the social media sites and getting a feel for the sorts of stories that interest the population on the site.

For old media, once you've figured out which paper(s) to target and which journalists to target you need to write to them. Most papers have either direct email addresses for journalists, or emails for the editors of sections. Use those addresses, but also Google journalists. Many journalists have personal web sites with contact information. Go straight to the writer with a short targeted email about your story (see my email to the San Francisco Chronicle above).

Also, many newspapers now have blogs. It's often easier to get to journalists through these blogs because they accept comments, or because the blogs are actively looking for feedback from readers. Many blogs are linked with Twitter accounts that are read by the journalists themselves. For example, I managed to get The Economist to mention my book via a tweet I sent.

You can also get an idea of what journalists are interested in by signing up for Help A Reporter Out. Read through the stories people are working on and contact them if you having something useful to add.

3. Journalists are human

Sometimes, from the outside, this doesn't appear to be the case. And every journalist has their particular foibles, and you need to work with them. It's important to put yourself in the journalist's shoes when pitching your idea. They want to know a few important things about your story: is this new? what's the hook? is this relevant to me?

Newness is important. Many journalists want to get in ahead of anyone else with a story. Make sure that they are aware of the newness of your story (or some aspect of the story). For example, when dealing with the Alan Turing campaign I would tell journalists about famous people who were newly supporting the campaign. That gave them the ability to write something like "Richard Dawkins backs blah blah blah" ahead of their cohorts.

The hook. This is the idea that the whole story hangs on. This is the idea that gets you, the reader, into the story quickly and makes you want to read it. In the story One of the great inventions that never was – until now? the hook is my quest to build the Analytical Engine. In Dawkins calls for official apology for Turing the hook is Richard Dawkins' involvement.

Relevance. If you've done your job correctly this shouldn't come up because you will have targeted the right journalists for your story. But it's still worth framing your story in a way that makes it relevant to the writer. You may need to tell them why it's relevant. Here's an email that I sent to a product at The Colbert Report about my book. I specifically used the word 'nerds' and mentioned basements as a way of framing the humorous aspects of the book.

I'm writing to you to suggest my own book, The Geek Atlas, as something that Stephen Colbert might get a kick out of. It's a travel book for nerds (or at least for people who are interested in science, technology and mathematics); it might even get some of them out of their parents' basements :-) If that seems like something of interest I'll happily organize a review copy for you.


I had a reply within hours.

Make sure that once you have a relationship with a journalist that you cultivate it. Thank them for what they've written and feed them other interesting stories (even stories totally unrelated to what you want to promote). You may well be aware of something well ahead of a journalist (for example, I told Newsnight in the UK about "Climategate" within hours of the email hack).

4. Old media matters... a lot

Just when you think it's dead, it turns out that it matters enormously. Take a look at this chart showing the number of signatories on the Alan Turing apology petition:

Notice how the BBC article kicked the signatures up massively in a single day. Up until then it had been written about in a few newspapers and I'd campaigned extensively using social media.

5. Social media is a conversation

If old media is all about getting a journalist interested in your story, social media is all about getting a population interested. And the biggest part of that is the conversation with the population. This is brilliantly handled in the Old Spice viral campaign where the brand communicated directly with people using social media.

On a smaller level you need to be aware of where your idea is being talked about and I'd recommend using real-time analytics (such as chartbeat) so that you can immediately know where your pages are being linked from and participate.

You also need to stay on top of Twitter with search alerts, and use Google Alerts for general media alerting (set to send immediately rather than a daily batch). The other day a story about Plan 28 peaked on Reddit and I was able to quickly jump in and answer people's questions.

You should also think about tailoring messages for different communities. Three places I've spent a lot of time are reddit, Digg and Hacker News. These all have different populations and then same message is unllikely to work for all of them. Painting broadly: Hacker News readers are looking for insights and intelligent conversation, reddit readers are looking for social activism and humor, and Digg readers are more celebrity and silliness oriented (note that Digg is changing, so this will change).

Related Hacker News discussion

1 comment:

j said...

"science, technology and mathematics"


Math is not a science?

My worst fears have been confirmed.


Jose Simoes