The pathway to news coverage has widened — have your pitches?

For public information officers, pitching newsworthy STEM stories to the media is an important part of the job. While the traditional definition of newsworthiness remains, there’s a new pathway to earning coverage in some of the most respected media outlets: going viral.

Evolution of news

Traditionally, a newsworthy story might feature recently published peer-reviewed research, the latest scientific breakthrough, or the awarding of major research funding and honors. But the way people consume news has changed, and the media industry is quickly adapting to keep the public’s attention.

The wide appeal of a story has always been a consideration for reporters and editors. While news used to go “viral” after publication in major outlets, nowadays, coverage in major outlets may follow something going viral because the story has proven to have wide appeal – and some of these stories have STEM angles. Remember the blue-or-gold-dress debate of 2015? It provided opportunities for scientists to explain neuroscience and vision science (topics that might have otherwise been difficult to approach or be deemed newsworthy) to an already curious and engaged public. Throughout 2018 we’ve seen more media outlets featuring stories that are predominantly trending topics than breaking news. The need for content will also increase, which provides new possibilities for PIOs to integrate this type of content and expand your audience.

Non-traditional news topics

Non-traditional news topics are showing up in traditional news outlets by way of overwhelming public interest – from teens eating Tide Pods to health enthusiasts eating activated charcoal. Speaking of diets, you may have recently heard about the ketogenic diet, which even Kourtney Kardashian raved about. But it actually began in the 1920s, when the diet was developed to treat epilepsy. Interest of social influencers like Kardashian made keto relevant again, and legitimate media outlets such as U.S. News and World Report, Time, NBC and many others covered it.

Another recent news story that originated in something going viral is a Harvard professor calling coconut oil “pure poison” in a lecture. But the buzz around this topic actually started in 2003, from a misinterpreted medical study conducted by Marie-Pierre St-Onge. Her claims that 100% medium-chain fatty acids, like the small amount found in coconut oil, helped people burn fat were soon hijacked by the health industry and beauty gurus everywhere.

As the supposed “benefits” of coconut oil began to spread, celebrities and bloggers helped to spread the word about coconut’s “miraculous” abilities. Before long, the word “coconut” was found on everything from cookie recipes to hair masks. Between 2011 and 2016, there was a 318% increase in the number of products released with coconut. The enthusiasm for coconut oil has since been met with skepticism and criticism from the medical community, but reached a fever pitch with the recent viral video, resulting in a new round of coverage from The New York Times, CNN and USA Today.

Tips on riding the viral wave 

How can PIOs take advantage of the public and media interest in viral stories to showcase the expertise and research in their organizations? As the president of a content-focused PR agency, my team and I know that pitching has become more competitive than ever, and that we need a variety of tactics to capture journalists’ attention and interest. Here are some of our favorite tips: 

  1. Broaden your definition of “news.” Pay attention to what’s hot. Just like you monitor national news organizations, start a system to monitor social news and lifestyle sites like Buzzfeed. Keep an eye out for trending stories on social media on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit or other similar sites. Look for ways to “newsjack” trending topics and connect your scientists’ expertise and latest discoveries to them.
  1. Pitch with a shareability strategy. Coconut oil, the keto diet and other recent viral sensations achieved major coverage because consumers were sharing it. As you create pitches, include content that’s shareable and point out its shareability to reporters and producers. Today’s journalists look for content that leads to shares, clicks and views along with the typical media requirements that content should boost ratings while attracting audience and advertisers.
  1. Offer to share the media’s story and use your resources. If your organization has a strong social media presence, let the journalist know and offer to share their final story on your channels. Once it’s shared, be sure to touch base with the journalist regarding appropriate analytics. This follow-up gives you another opportunity to build a relationship with the journalist. But even with existing relationships, it’s important to use your available resources to amplify earned coverage.
  1. Use visuals. Have you seen a recent trending topic or viral story without visuals? Probably not. That’s why you should create video, photos or graphics as part of your content. This can be a traditional type of visual or, if appropriate, a meme or gif. If your organization created the multimedia elements, let journalists know that they are original and available to them for free and unrestricted use. If you did not create the visuals, include links and be transparent about where the visuals originated, as many media outlets require journalists to include copyright information when they use multimedia.

Have you created a viral sensation with original content from your organization, or capitalized on a trending story to showcase your scientists? What worked – or didn’t work – for you? Join us on the EurekAlert! PIO Forum for more discussions.