Five things comms people can learn from newspapers

For over a century, newspapers have depended on their ability to communicate clearly and to engage their readers.

This means there is a lot that those of us working in charity communications can learn from newspapers, and so I thought it would be useful to highlight five quotes from journalism history that have lessons for us today.

“If a dog bites a man, that isn’t news. If a man bites a dog, that is news.”
Charles Dana, New York Tribune
Charles Dana

One of the most famous quotes about journalism (it’s even inspired the name of a PR agency), this gets across the message that you are more likely to make an impression if your communications is surprising or counter-intuitive.

It means that being a bit more like the man biting the dog can give you more cut-through with the media, politicians, or even your own supporters.

But if your messages are mostly the kind of thing you’d expect a charity like yours to say, getting cut-through can be tougher. You might be right when you say your charity’s cause should get more funding or attention, but it may be difficult to get people to sit up and take notice.

“Always, always tell the news through people.”
Arthur Christiansen, Daily Express
Arthur Christiansen

The lesson from Arthur Christiansen’s famous quote is simple: that you should put people at the heart of your communications.

This means that as well as explaining the issue, you should tell the story of its impact on people.

And use real people. There will always be exceptions (children’s charities, for example), but most of the time it’s best to use real names, real photos, and real stories.

Doing this is often less straightforward and can take longer than using models and generic stories, but it’s worth it. We know ourselves that pictures posed by models in newspapers have less resonance than photos of real people. So why do we often use models or actors in communications that are trying to move people emotionally?

Also, it’s worth taking the time to get across a sense of the person rather just explaining what has happened to them. And it is often the little details that are most effective in giving a story its emotional power.

“News is what someone, somewhere doesn’t want you to know. The rest is advertising.”

There will often be people who disagree with or are inconvenienced by your communications. So it’s worth trying to see your messaging through their eyes as well as your own and trying to anticipate their response. It will then enable you to make your own communications more persuasive, or at least less open to criticism.

And the reference to advertising is a good reminder that something isn’t necessarily going to interest your audience just because you want it to.

You have to put yourself in the shoes of your audience and not just unthinkingly communicate everything you think is important. Good communications is about focusing on the areas where what you think is important and what they’re interested in intersect.

“The point when a newspaper begins to tire of a campaign is the point when readers are just beginning to notice it.”
Horace Greely, New York Tribune

If a charity campaign doesn’t have the initial impact you might have hoped for, it’s easy to feel disappointed or for heads to drop. People often start questioning whether it’s worth carrying on with.

Sometimes, of course, stopping a campaign can be the right decision. You don’t want to throw good resources after bad.

But it’s also worth remembering that when you’re talking about a campaign in all your communications and getting regular media coverage for it, it’s easy to lose perspective and think your audience has been more exposed to it than is actually the case.

Actually, we’re bombarded with thousands of marketing messages a day, and so it is really difficult to get your messages to stick.

So take comfort that most campaigners – in charities and newspapers – go through a stage of self-doubt.

This is why tenacity is as important as creativity. It can take a long time to change minds and sometimes decision-makers only start thinking seriously about your campaign when you are able to convince them that you’re not going to go away.

“You must always be overhauling and improving your organisation… the fatal thing for a newspaper is to settle down and say, ‘Now we are all right.’”
Lord Northcliffe, founder of Daily Mail and Daily Mirror


Lord Northcliffe

Northcliffe understood that the world changes quickly and his advice applies as much to organisations generally as it does to communicators.

When you’re doing really well, it can be tempting to limit your ambition to keeping a good thing going. But the risk is that you become complacent and fail to keep up with how technology is changing the way we communicate.

Following Northcliffe’s advice means:

  • staying focused on the needs of your audience
  • regularly trying new things and constantly questioning whether there might be a better way of doing things
  • being interested in new technology and in what other communicators, in the charity sector and beyond, are doing

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus understood, “everything changes and nothing stands still”. If you don’t understand it, too, you risk being left behind.

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