The New Gatekeepers: Algorithms, Engagement, And You

On the way to the ball (Arthur Rackham, circa 1919)
A Cinderella Story

Back in the 20th century, when I was studying journalism at college, we spoke frequently about the “gatekeepers” who stand between the story and the general public: the journalists, the editors, the corporate entities who owned that media, and so on.

These days, PR people working for nonprofits have to pass those gatekeepers to get the word out on their good work. Whether you're aiming at a feature in your local newspaper or a viral video, you need to understand how gatekeepers work in today's media world.

Being a huge fan of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, I always pictured the gatekeeper as being in charge of an actual gate that swung open to allow the story to ride up to the public ball in the classic carriage and six white horses. Upon arriving at the ball, the story would be greeted with a fanfare of trumpets, an amazing announcement of name and purpose from the butler, and then be swept into the center of the spotlight by the princes of media, otherwise known as the anchors of the national nightly news.

Now, as Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters learned, simply getting through the gate and sent up the driveway does not necessarily mean your story will waltz into being the hot news of the day.  It is as likely the story will end up being directed to the back entrance and put to scrubbing pots, or simply be run off the grounds by an angry housekeeper who can’t think what that drunken gatekeeper was doing.

Or, as Cinderella learned, your story will be turned into yesterday’s tattered news at midnight and trudge back down the drive, only to have mud splashed in its starry eyes by the next carriage and six white horses galloping by.

The same fate for stories still occurs in the media today. Once past that mythical gate, they may become the belles of the ball—possibly featured on the nightly news or, in Internet terms of fame, going viral around the world, winning millions of fans for your organization. Or they may experience all this and still end up trudging back down the drive at an even faster rate than days of yore. Or they may simply languish at the edge of the dance floor hoping somebody will notice them.

So what does this have to do with you and your stories? With mathematical formulas? With an engagement that has nothing to do with a diamond ring?


Let’s start with the math. The new gatekeeper in search engines and many social media sites is not a human being. It is a computer that picks and chooses what stories to display based on mathematical formulas.

The algorithm exists to deliver selected stories (or links to stories) to users of a search engine or social media page. And it is not just any story: it is their own personally relevant content, the best Cinderella for their Prince.

If your website, wall post, blog content, or other versions of your story don’t fit that formula, nobody sees it. If the press is searching for experts on a topic or the "top ten" in your field, and your copy fails to pop high (first page) in search engines, they won't contact you. Your organization is left locked outside the gate and their awareness.

So how do you open this gate? Understanding algorithms and how they operate is important. With luck, you’ll be working with good webmasters and social media managers who spend way too much of their time reading the constant reporting on how Google is changing up its formulas or Facebook is driving everyone into a tizzy with a new system of displaying wall posts. You will be the PR manager with the smarts to listen to these gurus when they say to you: “We need to do this because the algorithm changed again.”

Also be the PR manager with the smarts to stop sending your story into the world with the same old ballgown because it looked great and attracted the Prince last quarter or last year. You probably don't mail or fax releases any more. If the press in your arena tell you that they mostly read their email on their smartphones, then make sure your emailed releases are readable on a smartphone. This means that you have a subject line and a first paragraph that can convey the hook of your story even if all they are doing is scrolling down a list of messages. 

And here’s the kicker. Whether it is web search algorithms or other gatekeepers, none of them will age gracefully in place. Because there’s a whole mob of faux Cinderellas and wicked fairy godmothers constantly trying to trick their way into the media ball.

So the creators of the algorithms keep the formulas secret, change them often, and do not care about the screams echoing from the wilderness, such as “What is Zuckerberg doing with Facebook Fan Pages now!”  Press people stop checking their over-full email box and decide only pitches on Twitter can be scanned quickly enough. Some even see Twitter pitches or trending stories on Facebook as  more valid than email queries (yes, I did hear a member of a national news organization say that was how she now weeds the material coming to her).

Any tip I give you on how to improve your chances of your story being the favorite Cinderella will probably work today, may work tomorrow, and most likely won’t work in six months. So, when you are hearing my tips or suggestions from other experts in the field, be aware that the gatekeepers are already changing and waiting too long to implement those changes in your communication strategies may only get you up the drive to scrub the pots.


While the exact formula behind most of these algorithms remains secret, most people who struggle daily with them find that the best matches come from the most honest approach: engagement.

No, you do not have to go on bended knee and offer up diamonds. You do need to form a relationship with your audience, be they on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blog, or your own webpage. This means creating copy so intriguing and alluring that they immediately want to whisk your story around the room and show it off to their friends. To paraphrase the wise words of Oscar Hammerstein, your story will become lovely because they love it.

How do you make your story so alluring that everyone will want to waltz it around the Internet? Think about what you are inclined to share. Probably the stories that you post on your Facebook page are short, pithy, and, most likely, have a very good photo accompanying them.

Words are important, but pictures are still worth 1,000 words and well-edited video even more. Especially when these pieces are posted in a way that others can share them very easily: that Facebook button, Digg It, Tweet, or other piece right there, prominently displayed, right next to the story.

What engages your audience is something that you can discover by watching how they share your stories. If some stories are shared more frequently than others, analyze why. Was it the headline? The copy? The picture? The trend of the moment?

There’s a variety of analytic tools to measure engagement. Smart PR managers learn to use them (or read the reports of others who do). These can be as simple as free tools offered by Google Analytics or the reports on HootSuite. If your career, or your nonprofit’s bottom line, rides on web traffic created by your readers’ engagement, you may want to investigate more formal paid services.

Like algorithms, what creates the best engagement will change. Today it might be pinning photos on Pinterest and tomorrow it may be the second coming of MySpace and the sharing of MP3 files. Social media constantly changes and you may find something new tomorrow that is undreamed of today.  If you are one of the first to use it well, you may find yourself a very big story very quickly.

“But, wait,” you cry, “my prince is and forever will be the traditional media. Why do I care about Pinterest, Google analytics, algorithms, Facebook pages, and all the rest? All I want to do is see my picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone!”

Because these days, the people who control the cover of the Rolling Stone, and the rest of corporate media, are as concerned with the algorithms as everyone else. They instruct their editors and reporters to look for trending hashtags, what is getting shared frequently, what is inciting comment, and so on. Because that's how they can demonstrate the engagement of their audience to the people who pay the bills (the advertisers).

In recent Market The Arts Task Force meeting, one reporter noted that when a story is picked up and shared, her editors notice. So it benefited arts organization to go beyond just sending the story idea to her.  After she writes and publishes the story, she suggested that they share and encourage others to share as much as possible.  This helps her win the argument with the editors that people want more arts coverage by demonstrating their engagement with it.

You Are Your Own Gatekeeper

You probably thought you were Cinderella or Cinderfella (yes, he exists too). You thought this was about getting you to the ball. Not hardly. You, the smart PR manager, are not the story. You are the story’s fairy godparent. It is your job to sprinkle your tale with the proper fairydust, shine the glass slippers, arrange for a few dancing lessons on the side, and put that story in the fastest carriage to the media ball that you can conjure up.

Which means you have to be the wise judge of the best use of your magical powers to make stuff happen. Don't chase every trending hashtag or whim of the moment, but do look at them. Is there something that naturally fits with your organization?  Exploit it!

Read the coverage of the nonprofit sector that you are in. Learn what the writers in your area are writing about, what engages them, and use that knowledge to pitch that story. Today many writers have their own Twitter or Facebook pages. Follow them if they are a primary gatekeeper in your sector. Use the access that social media gives you to help build your relationship -- some reporters are  even want "tweet pitches."  If that works for them, make it work for you. When they do write about your group, share it out in ways that get back to them (cite them in the hashtag, etc).

Do the same with other organizations in your field. What works on their websites and social media pages? What seems to make them engaging to their audience? If they seem to be getting a lot of play on their YouTube channel and you don't do YouTube, it may be time to rethink your communications strategy. On the other hand, if you see that their YouTube doesn't get much play and neither does yours, then this may not be the social media space for your constituency.

Let the press gatekeepers know that stories about your organization drives readers to their content and those readers in turn share that content. This has been the justification for huge sports sections for years -- fans of teams share stories about teams, buy newspapers, buy products advertised in those sections, and so on. If fans of nonprofits can demonstrate that they are an equally large audience, you will see more nonprofit reporting.

Continue to spend time and care upon the basics.  Your press releases, no matter what form they take, should contain all the necessary information for the press:  who, what, why, when, and where. And most importantly how to contact you. Share that information in many places, many obvious places, so press who are complete strangers can find you.

Track the way that people find your stories.  Are they coming to you through Facebook, your blog, or your email blast? More you know what works, the better you can manage your time and not try to do everything for everyone.

Finally, remember that you can reach your audience directly as well as through the press. For your public facing material (blog posts, YouTube videos, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and all the rest), work with all those involved to make the material engaging and shareable, so people keep sharing. Trust me, if you become a trending topic, the media gatekeepers will seek you out.

Look at all the new ways of telling your story online and try something different at least once a quarter. At the same time, recognize when something has flashed through its lifespan and be ready to abandon it, even though it was truly fabulous last month or last year.

Respond and respond quickly to the requests that come to you from all different types of content purveyors. They want to tell your story and you want them to tell it. Make as much material as possible freely available on your website and easily seen by search engines -- that way, even if the clock is striking midnight and you are in bed, they can be waltzing your story through through the ball without you.

Finally, remember that no story lives forever. After the clock has tolled for your story, don't say “That’s not fair. Nobody danced with this Cinderella.”  Take what you learned, share the information with others in your organization so they can craft better stories too, and start working on sending your next story to the ball.

If you consume the news and see the trends in the world that connect your stories to the larger media, are ready with your lists of contacts to let them know that your story is the Cinderella to their Prince, and can mix the best of the old and the most effective of the new, then you will be one of those  fairy godpeople who make stuff happen.

In short, you will be the gatekeeper who opens the first gate and sends the story successfully out into the world, humming my favorite verse from Oscar Hammerstein:

The world is full of zanies and fools who don't believe in sensible rules
and won't believe what sensible people say...
and because these daft and dewey eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes
impossible things are happening every day!

Based on remarks to a Seattle University class for future arts administrators and revised following PRSA/Seattle and Market the Arts Task Force meetings in 2013 and 2014. Please feel free to share but please credit the author. All material © 2014 Rosemary Jones.
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