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Stop press! A manager’s guide to getting coverage


Why do EFL managers believe that PR stands for Press Releases? Melanie Butler explains the protocol behind proper Press Relations

The English language industry has recently discovered PR. But in this case PR stands not for Press Relations, still less for Public Relations, but for Press Releases. Google News is awash with internet press releases informing us that the Bloggins school of English is offering English lessons or that www.BlogginsEnglish.net is a website. The Gazette email inbox is replete with press releases about the Bloggins English chain opening a new school in Timbuctoo and, rather more strangely, the St Bloggins primary school’s annual Christmas fair.

As a newspaper editor, I know nothing whatsoever about public relations, but I do know about press relations and, on the whole, with the possible exception of the exam boards, I think most of the EFL industry needs to do more of it. Which does not mean that it needs to churn out ever more press releases.

The first rule of press relations is to decide which press you need to have a relationship with. Language providers outside the English-speaking world need to talk to their local audience, which means building a relationship with the local press. Language providers within the English-speaking world need to build relationships with the press in their target markets. From time to time, especially if you want to talk to the industry as a whole, you will need to talk to the trade press. We are perfectly happy to hear from people – but 32 press releases a year do not a relationship make.

The second rule of press relations is that it implies there is a relationship. And building a relationship takes time. Whether you are aiming for coverage in your local paper, in the China Daily or in the EL Gazette, your best bet is to build a relationship with an individual journalist rather than the entire editorial department. Introduce yourself and your organisation when you send your first email. Seek your pet journalist out at conferences or industry events. Phone them up when you have a good piece of gossip (though make sure you tell them it is off the record first). Invite them to your party – even if they cannot come, they like to be asked. As I told a major British publisher when it asked why I hadn’t covered a splendid bash they had held at London’s elite Groucho Club, as a matter of principle I never cover a party I wasn’t asked to.

Remember that relationships with the press are a two-way street. Journalists need sources, which means they want you to answer their questions and give them quotable quotes when they ask for them – just as you want them to print your quotable quotes and information when you want to place a story.

And quotes really need to be quotable. Short, succinct and eye catching. The average Gazette news story is 250 words long. The average quote we get sent has 150 words, most of which appear to have been written by a committee heavily addicted to obscurantist management jargon. Journalists also like quotes from your top people, not from some anonymous ‘spokesperson’, especially when the top people give good copy. In terms of the Gazette we can single out for praise Rod Jones of Navitas, Andrew Colin of Into and Tony Millns of English UK – with a special mention, for being senior staff of examinations bodies who know to speak in simple English, to Dr Mike Milanovic of Cambridge Esol and Professor John de Jong. Oh, and most of the population of the island of Ireland.

Finally, on the quotation front, if you or your organisation are in some kind of trouble, don’t rely on a reply of ‘no comment’ to get you out of trouble. It doesn’t go down well with people who read newspapers.

Apart from good quotes and a regular supply of party invitations, the other thing that journalists love, at least those in the trade or local press, is a really good picture. Not just high resolution but fun and eye catching. A hundred-word press release about your newly published English course is much more likely to sneak into the news pages if accompanied by a photo of your staff dressed up as cartoon characters from the book. After you have done all, or at least most, of the stuff listed you can start sending your pet journalist some of your press releases. Since you now have a relationship with your pet journalist they are likely to at least read it – and they may even use it as the basis of a story.

Always remember, however, that the very best press release, full of the most quotable of quotes and the most eye catching of pictures, will have to fight for space with whatever else is happening in your target industry, town or foreign market. However much your pet journalist loves you, they are not always going to be able to get you onto the front page. And, all things being equal, the editor will always opt for a good story from a regular advertiser first.

Recently I got an email from a PR company with which we have always had excellent relations and which acts for a leading language school chain. The writer, who I had never heard of before and who didn’t introduce herself, demanded to know why we hadn’t printed their story about the chain’s newest school which had recently opened in Blogginsville. The answer? The news that month featured students dying in the Christchurch earthquake, the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami, teachers being airlifted out of Egypt and Libya, the British government’s latest dramatic changes to the student visa system and language school accreditation. Somehow a new school in Blogginsville paled into insignificance.