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Media Interview with The Media Insider Podcast’s Helen Croydon

Helen Croydon

From writing for every UK national paper from the Metro to the Times, to working in broadcast journalism at ITN and in radio too, Helen Croydon has a wide variety of experience in the media industry. She has also found the time to author three books during her nearly 20-year career.

In January 2019, Helen decided to leave journalism to set up her own PR company, Thought Leadership PR, to use her experience of the media to get others into it and in July last year started the The Media Insider Podcast. Each episode features a commissioning editor from across print, digital and broadcast journalism and has featured the likes of Charlie Lindlar from HuffPost and ITV News head of planning Richard Pollins. It helps journalists and PRs understand how these publications work in terms of commissioning pieces and the best time and way to pitch.

What were your reasons for wanting to start the podcast?

As a former journalist, what makes a story has been engrained in me. I can scan a long email or listen to a complicated concept and can (usually!) quickly get a feel for how best it can be used, for example as a news story or feature, etc. Making the transition from journalism to PR, I realised how much I take this for granted.

Even after a 15-year career as an author and journalist, I still find the planning process at many publications or programmes an enigma. I’ve worked across all forms of media, but I have no idea when long-lead printed magazines plan their stories, how commissioning timetables have changed for digital-only publications or how trade publications work. The only true way to understand the planning process of different platforms is to speak to the editors who put it together.

My podcast is as much a learning tool for myself as it is for my listener base of PRs, entrepreneurs and freelance journalists.

How do you go about selecting guests to get a balance of roles from different media platforms?

The main criteria is that guests are in a commissioning role so they can explain the different pages/sections/formats of the publication or programme and how the planning works. There are many industry podcasts with high-profile media personalities giving perfectly insightful observations about topical PR stories and media trends. However, I didn’t want this to be another podcast with anecdotal discussion. I wanted it to deliver practical advice on the things that the public and PR need to know to pitch to the media: What are the editors looking for? What are the story formats? When and how can you pitch relevant stuff to them?

My long-term aim is for my podcast library to serve as a publication-by-publication advice manual.

Do journalists and PRs have a better understanding of each other than ever before? How can things improve?

No, it’s worse! PRs’ main remit used to be pitching to the press. But now this so-called ‘media relations’ is just one pillar of a company or individual’s publicity strategy. This means that the professional roles of ‘marketing’ and ‘PR’ have blurred. Many small businesses assign one employee to do both. And even PR professionals at agencies are now often hybrids of content creators or social media managers. When I was a freelance journalist it was not uncommon to get an email from a young enthusiastic comms/marketing/PR pro pitching their company’s blog post ‘to run in my publication’ because they think that’s what ‘content creation’ is.

How big an affect has digital media had in the way journalists and PRs interact?

It’s made it more difficult for PRs to build a picture of the media landscape. The digital media has become a blurred web of online magazines, blogs, advice sites, podcasts, and even branded journalism platforms or influencer YouTube channels. It is impossible to keep track of the main platforms; how reputable they are or whether they follow any patterns. Pre-digital age, PRs knew that The Daily Mail had a lifestyle section on a Thursday called Femail or that BBC Business uses topical commentators (etc., etc.). The list was long, but at least it was exhaustive. Now there is a plethora of low-tier blog-come-magazine websites, the sorts of places that publish clickbait, and it is these titles that welcome contributor-authored articles and are more receptive to PRs pitching editorially questionable content.

Even some traditional top-tier publications have contributor programmes where non-journalists write things, and daily newspapers have ever more sponsored content. Whether this is good or bad is a separate debate, but what this means is that for PRs and the general public it’s more unclear what is media-worthy and what the difference is between a reputable news article that a qualified journalist has written and has been legally checked, to some business advice article, ghost-written by a PR team.

How can we all work to improve diversity in journalism?

I’m not an expert on diversity strategies. However, two things to say on this: in the newsrooms I worked in, there were always lots of female managers. When I speak to friends in other industries, it seems that the media is more progressive in having females in senior roles.

Secondly, the bigger diversity issue affecting journalism, in my opinion, is not gender-gap or race-gap but pay-gap. Journalists are terribly paid and highly stretched. That’s the reason I left the profession and set up a PR agency. In broadcast, there are many junior roles, and a few editorial roles but very little in between. So you get 22-year-olds fresh from a journalism degree, doing the same work, at similar rates, as frustrated but very talented 40-somethings. I freelanced at a national newsroom in 2011 and went back eight years later to find the pay rate was the same.

The pace of work is intense – small mistakes are serious when your audience is tens of thousands and when you make them you get yelled at. Then you get super-star presenters, or super-star columnists, on six figures. That’s the bigger diversity issue which the industry needs to sort.

Listen to The Media Insider Podcast here, follow Helen on Twitter @helen_croydon and find out more about Thought Leadership PR on the website.

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