Conflict + solution = story

July 10, 2013

I worked for a decade as a journalist before jumping ship into the world of PR and media strategy. Ironically, considering it’s a big part of what I do now, the one thing I really loathed about the job was the calls I would get from PR professionals trying to get me to write about their bright shiny object or their kumbaya event.

“Hi, this is Chip from … We just sent over a fax [yes, that dates me] and I wanted to make sure you knew about this really cool, super-important thing we’re … ”

Bite me, Chip!

Looking back, I probably didn’t have to be such an ass. But then again, I don’t have a whole lot of regret either, for two reasons.

First, whatever it was that Chip was “selling” me, it almost never had the conflict or problems that, like it or not, are the heart of most journalism. That’s not a critique of the media and reporting. It’s human nature. Good stories start with a conflict.

Chip didn’t usually get that. He usually went straight to wonderful, happy, the fix to all the world’s woes.

Now, in the world in which Resource Media works, the reverse is often the case. There is no shortage of conflict. Think communities poisoned by pollution from coal-burning plants or the waste ash blowing off ponds and piles, or water contaminated by drilling and an industry that often runs roughshod over the rights of home and landowners.

Conservation advocates, however, need more than the conflict in their quivers – otherwise they become the Chicken Littles of the world, complaining loudly that the sky is falling without a fix to the problem. Those folks are just as annoying to listen to as Chip.

The key to telling stories in a powerful way that can help induce change is to wed conflict with solution.

Take, for example, work done over the past few years in Nevada to move the state and its biggest utility away from coal. The Reid Gardner coal plant northeast of Las Vegas has been operating for years, all the while dumping its pollution on the small Moapa band of Paiutes whose community sits literally in the shadow of its smokestacks.

Their plight certainly generated media attention, but the woes of the plant can only be told so many times in the media without becoming stale. The Moapa closed the door on this tale by weaving together a story about the plant’s many pollution problems with a solution: building a new 350-megawatt solar plant on their reservation.

While it’s impossible to say that media attention alone drove the decision to finally shut the plant down, it certainly didn’t hurt to have the story line extended, and for the denouement to include the powerful imagery of the Moapa tackling the problem themselves and showing the utility the way forward.

The second reason I directed so much surliness at Chip and his ilk has less to do with content and more to do with delivery. Cold-calling reporters with a story is, unfortunately, an occasional part of the PR game, and to the extent possible, presenting the full story – conflict AND solution – makes the medicine less bitter to swallow.

By and large, though, the cold-calling-a-massive-media-list approach is completely contrary to how we go about our work at Resource Media. And completely contrary to what really works. Getting a story into the news isn’t about “selling” anything – unless you’re Chip.

Rather, getting news out into the media world is about building relationships – with bloggers, with newspaper reporters, with opinion page editors, with producers and news directors. It takes a lot of time and effort, and more importantly a lot of good content, but in the end, picking up the phone to call a reporter you’ve talked to a dozen times and hearing, “Hey Eric, how’s it going …” is one of the most effective ways to make the news.

When the person on the other end trusts you and the fact that what you’re about to tell them is valuable, that it’s newsworthy and that you’ve done the homework to provide them with background, possible sources, documents, etc., no amount of slick salesmanship can replace that.

Sorry, Chip.

Prior to joining Resource Media seven years ago, Eric Frankowski worked as both reporter and editor for a decade, covering government and environmental issues. His reporting won several state and national awards. He and Chip are no longer on speaking terms.