Media relations insights from a global WWF communicator

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Media relations insights from a global WWF communicator

An interview with Gemma Parkes



1. What are 3 ingredients for a successful media strategy?

First, a robust media strategy needs to be audience-driven. Take a few steps back: What are you ultimately trying to achieve through the media? Whose ideas or behaviours do you need to change in order to achieve that? What do those people care about? Where do they get their news and how do they stay informed? The answers to these questions will define the steps you need to take and how to target the media.

Second, present the whole story. Yes, most prominently you will be promoting a particular idea or cause, with your own strong and well trained (right?) spokespeople to put out there, but be as balanced and complete as possible. If you can succinctly provide the context, the potted history, some of the other voices in the mix, then the reporter will see a more colourful and complete picture – and how what you are offering fits into that.

Third, offer multimedia material as far as you can – not just a solid and compelling package of information (usually still as a Press Release and backgrounders) and selective calls/outreach, but also be ready to provide appropriate photos, video if possible (or at least suggestions for what would make good visuals), links, infographics, hashtags that tap into trending topics. Make the journalist’s job as easy as possible – the likelihood is that a traditional print journalist will also now be compiling a multimedia web story and social media collateral.

It’s also essential (OK so this is a fourth ingredient but it kind of runs through and underpins everything else) to be disciplined about taking the temperature from time to time. Is this strategy working? If so, how and in which ways, and why? What has been the impact? Quantify it but also qualify it. Name it.

If results aren’t as good as you’d like, what can be done better? This is important on so many levels – to build your own satisfaction and motivation, to calibrate the campaign flow, but also to justify what you’ve done and what you want to do next. It facilitates the whole ‘I need more budget’ conversation, too – whether with a boss or a client.

2. Why did you choose a career in communication?

In essence, I love telling stories – especially stories that really matter, stories that can make a positive difference to the world, whether great or small.

By training I am a generalist, having studied languages and international politics, and almost came into media communications by accident. Having worked variously as a teacher, writer, information manager and guide, I was looking to do an internship at the European Commission in Brussels – and found myself by chance in the press office. I totally loved it.

Never looked back, though I do use all of my original training – communications is infinitely political, especially in the campaigning world, and most of my work is global.

I love connecting people with ideas, translating important concepts and information into language and messages that will be understood by their intended audience – whether that’s sharing news about an innovation or spreading the word about a vital campaign that needs supporters and people to apply pressure or change their behaviour. Without effective communication, these things can’t happen.

And there is so much potential – so many urgent causes and important information – that just need a piece of strong communications work to get out into the mainstream and have its impact. Some kinds of stories are harder to tell than others – though often these are the ones that need telling the most.

The best kind of communication acts as a catalyst towards positive change or deeper understanding for the better; it connects people; it inspires people to act; it builds a sense of community and empowerment. I love doing this for a living.

3. How do you sell a story to the media?

I would say, more than anything, that you need to be convinced of the story yourself. Believe it, immerse yourself in it, love telling it. If you don’t, that comes across. Busy journalists, who are always against a deadline, will easily lose interest and check out of the conversation. Respect their time and be ready to tell the story short and straight – but make that brief pitch as compelling and interesting as possible to pique curiosity.

Think from the reporter’s point of view and ask yourself: Why will this story convince an editor that it’s worth column inches? How does it tap into the current news agenda? How is this of interest to these particular readers?

Also, offering an exclusive is more likely to snag media interest in covering your story – so work out which one single title is your top target, and go for it. Picking a news agency will have the added potential of hitting many publications globally when the article is (hopefully) picked up.

4. How did you see stakeholder outreach and engagement change throughout the years?

Since I started in the business a decade and a half ago, the whole media and communications landscape has dramatically evolved. We used to count press clippings and paste them in actual paper press books, for the record or to show a client, and engage in direct in-person lobbying of targeted decision-makers and change-instigators.

Those things still happen (perhaps without the full press clippings scrap book) but transformed by today’s dynamic, connected, interactive information scene. Social and digital media and mobile communications mean audiences are only a click, a scroll or a like away. Now it’s all about integrated media strategies – no longer PR in one box and online comms in another.

Likewise with the distinction between private and public, personal and professional. The lines are all getting blurred. Mass outreach through Facebook and Twitter, especially, has made communications a two-way thing: more a conversation than a one-way broadcast. And where do blogs and vlogs fit into the mix? The truth is, they cut across silos.

There has also been a surge in online activism, where the average citizen feels truly empowered to add their voice to causes that matter and to actually make a difference. This brings great potential – and puts politicians and business chiefs on their guard, which is a very good thing. They may not flinch at small fry, but they will be forced to sit up and listen if their constituents or customers are expressing discontent and demanding change in big numbers.

There is also a more universal and large-scale sense of peer pressure and community, where people are inclined and more able than ever before to choose to do what their friends do, like what their friends like, give the thumbs up or down accordingly.

Shareability is the new currency – we always need to ask: Is this cool or original or beautiful or clever or breathtakingly haunting or inspiring or making me stop and think? Would I share this with my own friends? The bar has been raised quite significantly, and going viral is today’s communications nirvana.

Attention spans are shorter, too – so the window of opportunity (to catch someone’s attention) is ever shrinking. We are all so much more distractible. All of this keeps us on our toes – and has inspired the start-up of some fantastic creative agencies who make it their business to tap into the latest seams of cool.

Being a digital immigrant, as I am, actually feels like a strength – it makes me more questioning, more analytical perhaps, more observant of trends and behaviours, though I can follow my instincts when I need to. And I love the fact that a front-page splash in the print edition of the Financial Times (or equivalent depending on market, audience, objectives) remains the most exciting hit in terms of media success. Some things never change.

Still, the planet now is much faster, more reactive – and always switched on. We are all on our smartphones pretty much 24/7, and that naturally has a phenomenal impact on how effective communication needs to happen. Sleep? Meh.

It’s an exciting world out there – and I’m super curious to see what happens next.

Gemma Parkes is Executive Communications Manager at WWF International. She loves words, pictures, people and the planet, and can often be spotted on stage in Geneva. Follow her on Twitter @gemissima. This interview was originally published on the blog of Montis, the international communications and leadership consultancy, under the title ‘Precious tips from fellow communication professionals’.

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