Left to themselves, the press, radio and TV periodically help to propagate myths and stereotypes of ringers. They do that out of ignorance not malice, so we should work with them to help spread greater realism and awareness about ringing. Occasionally there are opportunities to do that nationally, but there are many more opportunities locally, so try to work with your local media. They have a much bigger audience than you will be able to address any other way.
The most important thing to remember is that journalists aren’t interested in your peal, restoration project, or recruitment drive for its own sake. They are interested in stories that will help to sell the newspaper or enhance the station’s ratings. So when dealing with them, try to think like a reporter and tell them things that will interest their readers or listeners. Does your peal commemorate a historical event? Does it feature a very young or very old ringer? Has your project uncovered some history? Is your recruitment drive doing something unusual?
There are several ways to work with local media:
- Respond to their requests for stories, comment or information when you are asked
- Offer them stories and news when you have something of interest
- Try to develop a longer term relationship with them
Responding to requests
Journalists often pick up a story, and then want to know more. If it is a national story, they may look for a local angle. If it involves ringing, they will try to find a ringer. If you are a tower captain, or your name appears on a ringing website, or if you are known locally to be a ringer, then you could well be the person they contact.
Such out-of-the-blue requests are likely to be about general topics, and may well be slightly negative (noise complaints, shortage of ringers, accidents, and so on). The story may be exaggerated or inaccurate, so try to inject some factual balance.
Other misconceptions about ringing might be lurking in the back of the reporter’s mind, so try to correct them. Remember that the reporter’s job is to make the story exciting. If you don’t correct misconceptions, you might find them in the story, associated with you. You might find the list of ringing myths helpful.
Such enquiries also come when they pick up on a national story, like ringing for the Queen’s Jubilee, and want to know what is happening locally. If you don’t know of any local plans, you might be able to pass them to someone who would know. If you haven’t made any plans yet, be positive – explain how far ahead ringing is normally planned, and offer to get in touch with an update later.
Offering stories and news
You can be more pro-active. Make your own news, and raise the profile of ringing in your area. Many ringing events can make good stories if properly presented, but think like a reporter, and focus on what other people will find interesting, not just what you are doing.
Contact your local press, television or radio stations. They are often seeking general interest stories and if you can offer them something that’s a special occasion, such as an older or younger ringer’s birthday, a romance leading to a ringers’ wedding or a major fund raising project, you might find the cameras at your event.
You can offer a story in two ways: you can issue a press release or you can contact a reporter to discuss what you have in mind. A press release allows you to put over a well defined set of information. It is appropriate when the story is more or less cut and dried, and when you are reasonably sure the press will be interested. You can send it to several media at the same time.
If you are not sure of the level of interest, it may be better to contact a particular organisation, say your local paper, to discuss the story and how best to present it. You can explore different ways the story might be covered, and you can answer questions immediately. If you want to make sure the facts are correct, you can still send a brief with the key facts by e-mail afterwards.
Finding suitable contacts
Start by listing newspapers and radio stations that cover your area. There may be several, even if one is the dominant. Then find names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of suitable people at each.
You can just send information to ‘the editor’ (or ring the main phone number) but it is better to try to contact a suitable individual, for example the reporter who deals with your village or district. Newspapers should include a list of key individuals in the ‘masthead’ (the bit where they give legal information including address and ownership) but not all do – they might just give a single phone number and an e-mail address like <firstname.lastname@example.org>. If there is a “what’s on” page with notices grouped by village or district, the relevant reporter’s name and phone number might be given, so look there as well. If that fails, the paper’s website will probably be more helpful. Look for the contacts page (the link might be right at the bottom of the home page).
Developing a relationship
If you can do it, it’s worth trying to develop a relationship with a suitable individual (see above) who will be your main contact in each organisation. It will help them to know where to come for any information about bells and ringing, and it will help you to have someone who you know as a first port of call. With a local paper, it will normally be the reporter who handles local news in your area, and with a radio station it might be someone who looks after church affairs. When talking to newspaper staff about anything non-urgent, always bear in mind that they are under most pressure just before the paper has been ‘put to bed’ (usually a day or so before publication) and under least pressure just afterwards.
Find out how your contact likes to work. Most local papers run general interest stories about the communities they serve, as well as the latest ‘news’, and they may plan these some time ahead. Find out how far ahead your contact would like to know about upcoming stories. Say if there is a list of forthcoming events on your website.
A press release is pseudo-news story, written in the third person, that seeks to demonstrate to an editor or reporter that the event, person or product you want to publicise, or the message you want to put over, is newsworthy. Write the main story clearly and objectively. Make it obvious where the main story ends (preferably by putting [ENDS] after it) and add any supplementary information after that. Include a link to your website if relevant, and include your name and contact details (phone and e-mail), together with those of anyone else who you may wish to answer questions (for example your tower captain).
The following selection of sample press releases has been created by the CC Public Relations Committee for you to use freely. They are examples of how local and national events can be used to give your chosen message about ringing to the public: one where ringing is promoted as a skilled activity, interesting, sometimes exciting, challenging, involving people of all ages and connecting with the community.
Copy one of them, insert your own local names and details, change anything else as necessary, then send to your local newspaper or radio station:
- Local children ring church bells for Christmas
- St George’s Day bell celebration
- Local bellringers mark 300th anniversary of historic peal
- Local bellringers use simulator to practice for Easter
- Ride and stride public challenge
- Unique tribute to 1st World War bellringer
- Local bellringers mark Magna Carta anniversary
Here is also an example of a national press release.
Use your website
If you have a comprehensive website, it is really useful when talking to journalists or others over the phone, because you can refer to it while you talk. Explaining some things can be much easier when the person you are talking to can see what you are talking about, rather than having to try to imagine it. Even if you don’t refer to it while talking, give them the address to look at later. If there is something they didn’t quite understand, they are more likely to check on the web than to ring you and ask.
Reporters have a difficult job to do, so when talking to them, try to put yourself in their shoes. Time is short – they may have to get to another assignment. They almost certainly know nothing about ringing, though they may well have some misconceptions. They have been told to get a story, possibly with a particular angle. They ask what they think are reasonable questions, and scribble down notes of what they think your answer meant. When they get back to the office they have to make a story out of what they have got.
So try to make your answers clear. If a question seems a bit oblique, try to clarify it. Feel free to say more than just the bare answer, but make sure it is understood. Try not to throw in casual asides that may be only half understood. If you suspect that they have got the wrong end of the stick, ask them to confirm what they think you have said. Do it in a helpful way and it shouldn’t be resented. After all, they don’t want to get the story wrong.
Try to use lay language, and if you do use a technical term, explain what it means. For example if you needed to refer to a stay breaking, explain that the stay is a wooden rod used to rest the bell when it is upside down, but that it is designed to be the first thing that breaks if something goes wrong, like a fuse blowing. Ideally show them a model or a picture. Without that level of understanding you might find the story includes something bizarre like one of the supports holding the bells up in the tower collapsed, causing one of the bells to come crashing down.
Offer pictures if you have good ones, but don’t be surprised if the local paper prefers to send its own photographer. Most of them do, so sooner or later you will have to deal with a press photographer.
He knows his job, but is unlikely to know anything about ringing, or the constraints of working in a tower. On arrival, he will be looking for what is possible – suitable positions, backgrounds and angles. If there are several places the picture could be taken, show him what is possible. If he wants to take action shots, explain how far the ropes move, and the need to keep clear of them.
Some photographers use lighting and/or a tripod, so you need to work with him to position things that will achieve the result he needs while not causing a hazard. TV cameras carried on the shoulder need particular care. They are designed to allow the cameraman to move around, and while he is looking through the viewfinder, he might not be fully aware of how close the front of the camera is to the ropes (or the back if he is in the middle of the rope circle). In all cases make sure the cameraman understands the constraints, while trying to help him to get the pictures that he wants.
Being interviewed, either in person or over the phone, can be a bit daunting because of the fear that you will trip up and say the wrong thing or that you won’t know the answer to a question. That is especially true when the interview is live on air. With a pre-recorded interview any fumbles might be edited out, but on the other hand so might things that you consider important, which could alter the story.
Normally you will be told in advance what the interview is about, and a researcher may talk you through the sort of questions you will be asked. This isn’t just for your benefit – it helps them to plan the interview. You may be able to influence the eventual interview in this preliminary session. If you have been contacted to respond to something negative, make a point of emphasising related positive aspects that your interviewer might not be aware of. That way you are likely to get a more balanced mix of questions when it comes to the interview. Remember that the journalist’s main interest is to produce something interesting to listeners. Whether you come over positive or negative is secondary. So try to make the positive aspects interesting.
If you do find yourself being asked questions about something negative try to keep you answers low key and factual. Don’t get drawn into emotional arguments, and try to steer the discussion back onto positive things.
Your area may be served by one or more lifestyle publications – glossy magazines that feature people and local groups, usually with lots of pictures. They include various county life magazines (Berkshire Life, Yorkshire Life, etc) and the Totally magazines (eg Totally Henley). From time to time they include features about ringers. You may need to do a bit of research to find the ones in your area.
What finally gets published or broadcast is determined by the journalist, not by you. You can’t control the result, though you can only influence it by providing good material, by being helpful, and if relevant by trying to win over the journalist to your point of view.
When you hear or read the final result, try not to be over-critical. It may well miss some bits out, and it is quite likely to contain some errors of detail or terminology (for example ringers ‘playing’ bells rather than ‘ringing’ them). Ringers sometimes get upset over such things, but what really matters is the message that comes over to the non-ringing members of the public. They are the target audience, not us. If the overall message is positive, try not to worry too much about minor details.
If you know of other useful sources of guidance for working with the media, please let us know.