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Wednesday, 8th March 2023

The news is always moving. Catch it if you can.

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Over a twenty-year career at the BBC, Channel 4 News and Times Radio, I learned a thing or two about the news agenda. One is that, however important an issue might be, and however carefully you’ve framed it, no story is ever sacred.

Take the days, weeks and months of commemoration we set aside to raise awareness of a Very Important Thing – like today, International Women’s Day. It’s the exception that proves the rule – because largely, it works. 

IWD gets coverage. It gives a platform to vital work being done by women’s organisations. On its own, it’s little more than an empty gesture. But we’ve chosen to do what human beings do best – we’ve given it meaning, and insisted it make a difference.

For other such days, the outlook isn’t so positive. Most of the time, they don’t work – and the main reason is the media cycle.

It’s not hard to see why. Why would any editor ask their team to cover, say, International Women Judges Day (that’s tomorrow, for all the ‘Her Honours’ out there) when there are earthquakes, wars, strikes, fuel poverty, evictions, tenants dying from fatal mould, migrant crossings and WhatsApp WhatsApp WhatsApp WhatsApp WhatsApp and, unbelievably, still more WhatsApp messages that will change communications forever. 

The problem isn’t that we don’t care about women judges. The problem is that the emergent stories which are always bound to dominate our attention are simply impossible to plan for.

That puts communications professionals in a difficult position (something they’re not always inclined to admit to their clients). Those clients expect a plan – a calendar showing all the different, creative ways we’re going to raise their profiles and bend the ear of influential journalists. The really classy spreadsheets are colour-coded and built around themes, sectors to target and events, including those all-important days and weeks of awareness. They’re ambitious, creative and brilliant – which makes it all the more mortifying that they can so easily be undone.

“For other such days, the outlook isn’t so positive. Most of the time, they don’t work – and the main reason is the media cycle.”

In the newsroom, I got used to wearily, often grumpily and very quickly ripping up my best laid plans. 

Producers had to learn to recut the top picture, rewrite the end story, cancel big-name guests, rebook brand new ones and drop the whole package they’d spent the day putting together, with seconds to go – all just to make the news, well, news.

Sometimes the sheer speed of it, the adrenaline rush, and the superhuman calm it could induce made it all the more magical. Half an hour to air? How quickly can you write? Thatcher’s died? How many phone calls can you make? Another terrible stabbing …How strong is your nerve? How solid your belief that you can fill that dead air with voices and thoughts and questions and not fall off? And when it all comes good, how do you come down from that high and get to sleep… And do it all again tomorrow?

Damn right too – this stuff matters. The verdict in that seismic class action lawsuit came back and it changed things for women everywhere. The UN has finally agreed, this minute, to save the high seas and everything in them after decades of talking. Oh and that minister who was up to no good has finally – finally – resigned. Just now. Literally just now. Go!  

This this this is more important than that that that. Sorry everyone. Reorder, re-write, rebook. Get over yourself.

Knowing that this is going on in newsrooms around the world, what do we as communications professionals do? At Woburn Partners we’ve become experts at running our own kind of newsroom, mirroring theirs. Energy’s big and trending? Tell producers you’ve got the energy expert they need. Tell them early, tell them what she’ll say, and tell them she’s free. Private tenants are being evicted and ripped off like never before? We’ve got some, and they’re desperate to speak to you. Let’s get them on air.

“What we’ve also learned is that you have to think hard and deeply about what the newsroom you’re pitching to cares about.”

Think about the issues they return to again and again, and make sure you have people ready to talk.

This, of course, is where the best laid plans come into their own. Get up, read the papers and listen to the radio from 6 AM. Spot what’s breaking on Twitter and tee up experts for the breakfast shows the next day. Know what commissioning editors like to see in their papers and how they want them written. And make sure you know how to craft the perfect, punchy pitch that seamlessly fits their agenda.

That’s it really. That’s all you can do. The rest is news – and it’s always moving. Catch it if you can.