The viral news explainer is a relatively new style of content that is proving increasingly popular. Journalist and news presenter Ros Atkins has pioneered the concept at the BBC where many of his explainers have gone viral with millions of views, not just in the UK, but worldwide. These 10 viral news explainer tips for PR and communications professionals are inspired by how Ros and the BBC create their viral news videos.
1) Have a purpose
The purpose of the BBC’s explainer videos is to work out the facts of story and distil them into the simplest, most understandable and consumable form. These are presented in a way that allows people to see those facts and understand the context. The purpose is to explain a complex issue in the clearest way possible.
2) Tell a story
The explainer videos are created to be stories that enage people and tell a story that people want to hear more of.
3) Assemble the facts
Ros and the BBC team start by assembling what they think to be all the relevant facts into a single shared document. Once all the elements are assembled then think about how you can tell a story from the very beginning to the end… or if it’s an ongoing one to where it is now.
4) People, not brands
The clue is in the name… social media. The viral news explainer videos are as much associated with Ros Atkins as they are the powerful BBC brand. Don’t be afraid of putting your people front and centre as audiences and communities relate to people more than they do brands.
5) Tone and rhythm
There is a conscious effort to get the rhythm of the story right. This means every news clip used is ruthlessly edited to see if eight seconds provides a better rhythm that 12 seconds. The scripts also have a rhythm and use a technique where they constantly hook back to throw onto the next point. Quite often this means repeating a word or phrase.
6) Practice makes perfect
The explainer videos are not only perfecly planned they are also ruthlessly rehearsed. The rehearsal is also an opportunity to edit and change the script and clips to ensure the rhythm is right.
7) Less is more
Be utterly ruthless in paring the story back to its essential elements. Remember the objective is to explain a complex issue in the clearest way possible by telling a story that people want to hear more of.
8) Check and double check
It’s critical that every fact is checked and double checked. In the BBC this means checking with the expert on a specialist desk or beat. Sometimes it needs more than one expert to check different facts. PR and communications people need to be just as rigorous and don’t accept what just one person or source tells you is a fact. Remember the adage:
“If your mother says she loves, check it out”.
9) Understand the platform
Content is not king. It needs to be distributed. Look at the digital distribution systems and understand each one. Listen to experts on each platform and learn from them to improve what you are doing. I think the explainer videos would work well on TikTok, but the reason Ros isn’t using it yet is he wants to make sure that when they do, they get it right.
10) Patience is a virtue
It takes time to build an engaged audience. If you expect overnight success then you’re either doomed to failure or have to be extremely lucky. It took Ros and the BBC team 18-24 months to get where they are today.
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford
These are all tips inspired by this excellent ‘The art of the viral news explainer’ webinar that Ros did for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. It’s worth 60 minutes of your time to watch the video or if you’re short of time you can read the AI-generated transcript.