Month: April 2013

When “Telephone” Isn’t A PR Person’s Best Friend

ImageShow of hands. Who remembers the game telephone? You know, a group of people whisper in the ear of the person next to them whatever a different person whispered in their ear. Invariably, by the time the last person repeats – out loud – what the first person said, it is very wrong.

Whether the saying was difficult to remember, someone heard it wrong, intentionally said it wrong or wasn’t paying that much attention to begin with, the message started with ends up very different from what the last person said. The game was always good for a few laughs.

There is an adult version of telephone going on these days, however I don’t think it is very funny. This version features many more people and the ramifications for getting it wrong are no laughing matter.

In this game, when news happens some less than “calling it down the middle” is happening:

  •  More and more commentators are reporting the news without true training and – sometimes – with a preconceived bias are getting the facts wrong, ignoring them or putting their slant on things.
  •  Television news teases – wanting to draw viewers into a story coming up after break and put together by someone other than the reporter we worked with – could be somewhat inaccurate/dramatic.
  •  A headline, written by someone other than the reporter we worked with, would be sensational so the reader would…well, read on.

Now, for the most part, I don’t think the media tries to get it wrong – – it only hurts them in the long run – – but the result  becomes magnified in this social world.  The real audience who may not be paying full attention/not read the full story/etc., are tweeting, blogging, posting, etc., the story as gospel.

The reality is technology is facilitating the journalists who “need” to be first in reporting “facts” for a myriad of reasons and the non-journalists (you and me) who “need” to be first in letting their friends/acquaintances know that they are in the know.

The good news is technology also helps people like me. People like me whose job – in part – is to control the message.  We can:

  • Monitor posts to see what is being said, who is saying it and who is listening.
  •  Respond, when appropriate, to those who are getting “it” wrong with the facts and a link to relevant information/data/etc. that substantiates your point.
  • Determine who the big voices are and who should be contacted.
  • Create blogs/post with relevant content telling your side of the story.

While technology has many upsides, don’t forget to go to the source if they’ve gotten it wrong. There have been several times where I’ve reached out to the media when a headline wasn’t accurate or a tease a bit misleading. The key is to always deal with facts.

While responding to everyone may not be practical, reaching key people is certainly viable. Like anything else, we aren’t going to be able to reach everyone, but technology will allow us to establish our side.

The “New” in the News Release

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A little over a month ago I wrote a blog called The Days of Major Media Using Your Release Verbatim are Over (Not That They Were Ever Under). My premise was pretty simple (for those who have been reading my blogs, know I excel in simple) – – major media aren’t waiting for a news release to come over the wire so they can just “copy and paste” onto their outlet.

Responses I received were at times passionate and always thoughtful. First off, what do I mean by major media?  Second, U.S. media is different from media across the world. Some outlets will use parts of a release verbatim – – government, medical, sports, etc. The goal of the release is to illustrate what a possible story could look like. And on and on and on…

Awesome feedback. Couple of things that I took from the comments and, in some instances, ensuing back and forth:

Doesn’t matter if the release gets used verbatim. What matters is getting the attention of the reporter by providing her/him with a compelling story for her/his readers/listeners/viewers (who are your real audience).

How you write the story does matter. It is everything. Yes, AP Style. Of course, proper grammar. But what is going to make or break you is creating a story that is written for the media, not your client. This means thinking like a reporter and not worrying if your client’s name is in the first sentence or first paragraph when it doesn’t fit. It means using a quote only when it truly moves your story forward, otherwise not using it all.

This is not always going to be easy, and there will be instances when you shouldn’t fall on your sword over this, but for those times when mentioning “Company X” right away doesn’t make sense – – stick to your guns.

When would this occur? Lots of examples:

Perhaps a technology release where you are going to talk the benefits of the innovation first and follow that with what made it possible.

Maybe for the anniversary of a restaurant, you want to start with a story of a couple who were engaged at the eatery 50 years ago.

I think you get the idea. Bottom line is we are the experts in how to best secure coverage and how to best utilize the news release which, by the way, does not and should not just be used for going to the media. Blogs and social media are great venues for news releases/stories. And just like the media (who are taking your story to your real audience), those individuals who are reading your blog and social pages don’t want to get hit over the head with repeated corporate plugs.

The Evolution of the Placement: Taking “Crawl, Walk, Run” Up a Few Notches

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I coined a phrase many years ago, describing a strategy for building a successful media relations campaign. Wasn’t relevant for every situation, but I thought it sound, and a good way of managing expectations.

The idea was “Crawl. Walk. Run.” Pretty self-explanatory and an easy way of illustrating the process.

Crawling would take place when you secured a trade placement. Calling a trade placement crawling was not intended to diminish the placement. Trade media and analysts covering a particular industry can be critical in the foundation of coverage.

Walking would occur when you took that trade placement to an outlet like a beat reporter at a daily newspaper. The thinking was, the beat reporter would be familiar with the trade outlet and your pitch would hold more credence. A couple of daily hits and well, you are now walking.

We would be running when national media – – broadcast, print, magazine, etc. – – would do a story based, in part, on those daily newspaper placements.

While I still believe the strategy to still hold true, new times and technologies have added opportunities as has a more sophisticated way at looking at your real audience.

Today, the savvy public relations professional doesn’t and shouldn’t solely rely on the media to reach his/her audience. Blogging, creating relevant videos, posting appropriate content socially, helps create a direct line to the people you want to reach. In most instances, less total people – initially – than a huge media placement, but – if done correctly – just as much impact because you are hitting the right people.

What you lose in third-party credibility, you gain in controlling the messages and interacting directly with your consumers. That said, creating content is not as simple as talking about your latest and greatest product or service.

Sure, individuals who follow your company, product, service, etc. do want to receive some information/coupons/offers, etc. specific to your company, but they want more. It is about providing relevant, compelling content that will keep your real audience interested and coming back for more.

For example, the smarter/better retail companies are probably blogging about their given expertise and posting it on Facebook (along with coupons, etc.). To be clear, the content is not a commercial. You are telling an interesting story without bombarding your real audience with your company name, product, service.

The great thing for PR folks is, that content (and it could be a blog, video, etc.) can and should be used as possible pitches for media. Producers, reporters get a good idea of what the story could be and if your content spurs comments, more the better.

More and more, the media are covering what is happening socially. During a talk at Vanderbilt, a student asks Billy Joel if he can play New York State of Mind on the piano. Many YouTube views later, the student ends up talking on TODAY and appearing on other media outlets. As PR professionals we should be doing the same thing – – asking Billy Joel if you can play piano for him… No, not that, but we should be building relevant content and using that content as a tool for pitching the media.

One of our responsibilities is establishing positive relationships between our client and their real audience. Building great content that the real audience can use directly and the media can use to create new content to a broader (if done correctly) real audience comes down to a Matter of Trust (see what I did there, used another Billy Joel song to reinforce my point, I know a bit cheesy, but what can I tell you, I’m a fan).

Controlling the Controllables (or the Time I was Confused for Olympic Gold Medalist, Michael Johnson….No, Really)

JOHNSONOn more than one occasion, I’ve been told I can be intense at work. Not the “I’m a teepee, I’m a wigwam, I’m a teepee, I’m a wigwam” intense, but the “get out of his way when he’s coming down the hall” intense.

Whether it is my “game-day” face, the New Yorker in me or “get it done” mentality, I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m being intense. I would say, I’m controlling the controllables.

So, what does that really mean? Well, one of the aspects of public relations and media relations that I enjoy the most is the art form (yes, I believe it to be an art form) of creating the news and seeing/hearing it online, on the radio, television, print. For me the fun is in as much the journey as it is in the end result. It’s great to see/hear the reporter encounter the “Oprah Ah-hah Moment” and reap the rewards of that third-party credibility.

After all, in so many ways, that is the name of the game – – third-party credibility. It is one thing to have me tell you how compelling/important/awesome something is, but it is so much better else to have Robin Roberts, Katie Couric, your favorite reporter/columnist, the morning radio host, etc., say so.

However, one of the inherit challenges that goes along with this, is a little thing I like to refer to as Breaking News.

We all have tales of our stories being bumped, preempted, postponed because of breaking news. Our stories, events, news conferences, etc. compete with the real word and sometimes, the real word happens. And try as we may, the real world isn’t controllable. Therefore it is incumbent on us to control the controllables.

Below are some thought on how to do so. For the sake of this discussion, I’ve included thoughts when dealing with an event, news conference or story.

  • Be vigilant – If you are planning a media event or news conference, the real work starts days/weeks/months before the event. Is it the right story? Is an event or news conference the best way of getting your message across? How accessible is the event/conference to the media? What type of media are we targeting? Don’t rely on lists. Have actual one-on-one interaction with the media. Can materials be developed in case the media get called away day of the event? Spelling counts in whatever we do as does Associated Press style.
  • Ask questions of the media – Our work doesn’t end when the media say yes to our pitch. The more information we can get the better. Participate in the process of developing the story. How is the client plug going to be included? Is this going to be a roundup story or a feature? Interviewing other people? Will a reporter be attending the event or a camera person alone?
  • Update your client/manage their expectations – It is one thing for us to know that Breaking News happens. It’s another to make sure our clients understand it too. The more relevant information you can provide, the better.
  • Never say never – Now, just because breaking news bumps your story, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are finished. Consider producing your own b-roll of your event. Can a photo be used online? Can you do the interview a different time? Can you blog about your story? Post video or pictures on your company Facebook  Page and Twitter Feed?

So, when was this slow, not shall I say “cut” man (that would be me) confused for Olympic Gold Medalist, Michael Johnson? And how does it relate to controlling the controllables? Prior to the Sydney Olympics, my client at the time was hosting a press event in Atlanta with spokesman, Michael Johnson. We had area kids at the press conference and Michael was going to introduce my client’s program that would feature Olympic hopefuls.

We had worked long and hard on the event. Two junior staff members (who I’m very proud/happy to say are now anything but junior; both are well-respected and quite successful) and I had spent the better part of a month developing the logistics behind the conference and worked the phones in making sure the media were well aware of the details.

As “luck” would have it, disgraced Major Leaguer, John Rocker, chose the same time as our event to call a news conference to discuss some “controversial” comments he had made. I received the call in the car service from my teammates who told me the news. I could hear from their voice that they were not only disappointed but a bit apprehensive as to what my reaction would be – – in retrospect, I guess I had my “game day” face on for a couple of weeks.

I believe – much to their surprise – I was calm. I knew we had controlled everything we could, and both the client and Michael were well-briefed on what we had done to prepare.

The news conference ended up going well and we had good media coverage (I guess Rocker really didn’t have all that much to say). As I was wrangling the press and letting Michael speak with different reporters, one woman came up to me with her son and asked me for an autograph.

I looked curiously at her and asked why she would want an autograph from me.

“You are Michael Johnson,” she asked.

No ma’am. The athletic looking gentleman in the Olympic sweat shirt, flanked with all sorts of media, THAT would be Michael Johnson.   Me, I’m just a PR guy who, like James Cagney, is a song and dance man (even though I can’t sing or dance) at heart.

Five PR Pet Peeves: Rolodex, Spaghetti, Spin, No Such Thing, and Taken Out of Context

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I thought it might be fun or at the least a little cathartic to write about some of my “favorite” pet peeves regarding my given profession.

So, without further ado, I present to you – in no particular order – five of my all-time “please don’t say that” pet peeves:

#5: Client or prospect says, “I want to hire someone that has a good Rolodex” insinuating that the relationship we have precludes the story we are pitching.

Not so. This is a business and it is about creating the compelling story for the appropriate audience. The story is going to determine who we contact. These days with email, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, the phone, etc. it is easier than ever to reach the media. But reaching the media is one thing, providing them with a great story is something else. And that is how you build a relationship. Doesn’t matter how big my Rolodex is, if I don’t have the right story and the good PR person isn’t going to reach out to a reporter/producer just to reach out to them.  This leads me to another peeve of pets –

#4: Those who want to send the pitch out to everyone and see who picks it up.

Now this can be a client, account executive or anyone who isn’t interacting with the media. I call this the spaghetti theory (throw it on the wall and see what sticks) and it is one of the worst things you can do. The media get bombarded with pitches. It is our job to act as a gatekeeper for them in determining what pitch makes sense to the right media. Consistently sending out the wrong pitch to the wrong media will alienate your client and your credibility. I understand saying “no” to a client can be difficult, but managing expectations and explaining your rationale comes with the territory.

#3: Let’s spin that. Put a positive spin on that. Go do some PR on that.

Spinning something to me sounds like we aren’t telling the entire truth; holding something back. I hope that’s not what we do – – not sure I’d be able to look at myself in the mirror. Public relations is about getting all sides of the story out. You may not always agree, but a good public relations pro will illuminate a situation. We don’t lie, hold information or mislead.

#2: There’s no such thing as bad PR.

No. No. No. No. Not true. There is such a thing as news cycles and it has been shown that many societies can be forgiving (or somewhat forgetting). Really rather not be in a situation where how I react to something will dictate someone’s future. I could not disagree more with this. Or this –

#1: I didn’t say that. The reporter took what I said out of context.

Actually, odds are you did say that and the reporter just included what you said. Reporters don’t want to be called out for getting something wrong, not good career moves for them since they rely on being reputable. More often than not, those who have been “quoted out of context” did say it, but did not plan out what they were going to say. Before any interview, everyone should go through some form of media training, or – as I was taught – a Strategy For Answering Questions. Doing so will “amazingly” stop those “I didn’t say that” moments.

Surely you have your pet peeves (and don’t call me Shirley). What are yours? You agree with mine?