Politician talking into reporters' microphonesWith nearly five PR people for every reporter (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics), journalists are getting more and more inundated from organizations pushing their story ideas. One national reporter shared with me that she receives about 100 story pitches a day! And with fewer and fewer journalists around, those left standing have more responsibilities and shorter timelines to produce their stories.

So what are PR pros’ best options to break through the clutter and tell their organizations’ stories? I posed this question to my colleagues who are former journalists and who are some of our top media relations counselors. A repeated response from all them was that organizations need to start their storytelling approach by thinking about why the audience is going to care. The story is not about their organization itself – it’s about the impact on the media outlet’s audience. Here are the pros and what they have to say:


Paige Calhoun

Spent several years as a TV reporter in Minnesota and production support at a Minnesota lifestyle TV program.

ELLISBrian Ellis

Spent 10 years as an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter, anchor and producer in Georgia, Virginia and Florida and contributed to national networks including CNN, CBS and ABC.

mcnaneyBob McNaney

24 years of investigative reporting at TV stations in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Las Vegas and Mason City, Iowa, and a national Emmy-Award winner for investigative journalism.

PATROWKris Patrow

20-year TV journalist working as a reporter, anchor and producer with CNBC, Discovery Channel, and TV network affiliates in Minneapolis/St. Paul and Green Bay.

PRIEBEKatie Priebe

Spent several years as an anchor, multimedia TV journalist and content producer in Madison, and contributed to a “Best Morning Newscast” distinction within Wisconsin.

How do you think organizations can become better storytellers?

  • Ellis It’s a matter of perspective – start thinking of the story from the consumers’ point of view – it’s about the audience, not the company. 
  • Patrow Organizations can become better storytellers by focusing on the human impact of what they do. People relate to people, not products, services or boilerplates.
  • Priebe When organizations can build an emotional connection to the consumer – then they can target an audience through storytelling.

What do you think is the biggest change impacting journalism today, since your time as a reporter?

  • Calhoun Social media has made the business of “breaking news” even more competitive. Media outlets want to be the first to report, but that can also mean that accuracy takes a back seat. With that, many stories lack depth. At the same time, social media has become a vehicle for reporters to monitor trending topics and find story ideas and sources, so there are positives and negatives.
  • McNaney Time, budgets and reduced staffing. They are asked to do more in less time, and thus the depth of reporting is no longer there.

What do you think are the most common mistakes organizations’ spokespeople make?

  • Priebe They think the story is all about them and their company/organization. It’s not. A company spokesperson is a source for a larger story. They should take control of the interview conversation and insert themselves into the overarching story by truly understanding what it is and how their company can make a positive impact. This can be practiced and understood through media training.
  • Patrow 1) Forgetting to include the human aspect of their organization’s work/product/service. 2) Using jargon or complex words (to sound smarter). 3) Seeing the journalist as “the enemy,” being defensive from the get-go (not a way to “win”). 4) Thinking they don’t need to prepare because they’re the experts in their field.

What skills have you brought from your journalism background to benefit your work as a communications counselor?

  • McNaney Deep understanding of how “the game is played” in newsrooms, how stories get picked, and most importantly in a negative situation – I know how the journalist will view the story, not how the client may view the story. What might not be a big deal to the client may be a string for the journalist to pull on the way to uncovering a bigger story.
  • Ellis A good understanding of how to tell a good story, how the media will respond to the story of issue, how to frame a story to make it more appealing, and how to create content to fit the need of the journalist. 

What’s an organization you admire in its storytelling strategy?

  • Calhoun I love Apple’s “Shot with an iPhone6.” Creating stories with images that average people have taken with their iPhones shows consumers the high-quality images that people like them can take with the product instead of Apple telling them. They let the images speak for themselves.
  • Ellis Brands built without advertising, like Starbucks, LL Bean and Google.
  • Patrow Hands down – Mayo Clinic’s (a client) compelling human interest stories. Plus they’re undergoing an enterprise-wide shift from using language focusing on what Mayo does to focusing on what the patient needs and how Mayo addresses that.

Other former journalists, current reporters and media relations gurus, please share your thoughts below!