If you’ve had anything to do, even remotely, with the public relations function you’ve seen this. You may have even been a part of it, but it’s not your fault. It’s bigger than you…way bigger.
It’s called square-peg-round-hold syndrome after the famous psychological experiment where the subject is given a square wooden peg and asked to insert it into a round hole. The purpose is to find out how long it will take for the subject to figure out that no matter what, the square peg won’t fit into the round hole.
Now, apply this to media relations. How many times has someone in your organization decided what a news story angle would be and then gave direction that this is this is the only angle to pitch to the media on a given topic?
Keep in mind, this is not a media relations issue. It’s an organizational culture issue. The challenge is to try to tweak the culture just enough to get better media relations results.
Story Angles that Can’t Be Modified
To be sure, some story angles are more adaptable than others. If you are charged with pitching a story about the launch of a new product, a new operation, or the hiring of a new heavy-hitter in your senior management team, you have less flexibility. But don’t interpret this as zero flexibility. In fact, it’s exactly when the story seems pre-set that you must analyze it further. Do more research, investigate, try to uncover the hidden gem or characteristic that can be used to give the story greater news value and urgency.
Was that person who was just promoted to senior management one of the first female cadets at the Air Force Academy? Is she a trailblazer? What societal problems does that new product address, and how many of those problems are timely right now?
Of course, this is what we do in public relations. But what if someone at a senior level decides, no, you’ll take the story as we’ve envisioned it, and you will pitch it exactly that way.
What they’re essentially saying is, “We think the news media should be interested in the story as we see it and no other way. It’s important to us, therefore it should be important to them.”
A Trade Industry Case
I once worked as part of a larger team of people and public relations firms that served a major manufacturing industry trade association. Because of the bureaucracy involved, it seemed to take forever to arrive at PR strategies, messaging and direction. Getting approvals on routine things like story angles to pitch took weeks.
The people in charge were so focused on controlling what they could control, they made it very difficult to give the news media what it wanted when it wanted it.
After weeks and weeks of conducting media relations outreach to reporters and identifying quite a few really good interview opportunities, only to be frustrated by inability for the client to adjust and respond in time to seize the opportunity, I had the first of several heart-to-heart conversations with the client.
“What can we do to help the organization become more nimble in situations like this?,” I asked.
The client said, “This program is a message-driven program. We have decided what we want to talk about, the way we want to talk about it, and that’s all we will talk about.”
Keep in mind, the client was not saying these are the core messages that will drive our media relations program. He was saying, these are the stories we want to see in the press. Anything else is not acceptable.
Were we successful? By the client’s standard, yes. We did earn our share of media coverage that the client found acceptable, but it was a struggle every step of the way.
All the client had to do was come to the understanding that in public relations you don’t control the news media, and the media relations results would have been much better. What you think is a good story may not be of interest to the media at all, at least not the way you see it.
This is not to say you should let the media come up with the story angle. It just means don’t be so hell-bent on pitching one story angle at the exclusion of all others and still expect the same results.
Don’t turn your story angle into a square peg and force your PR team to have to shove it into a round hole. No matter how good they are or how hard they try, it just isn’t going to work. The sooner you realize this the better off your public relations program will be.
What’s the Solution?
Sticking with the metaphor, find a way to turn your square peg into a round peg and then make it fit.
As mentioned, this is more a cultural issue than a media relations one. It’s critical to find a way to educate decision-makers on the need to be results-driven by being a little more flexible, talking to the media, listening to the media, monitoring news media and other trends, anticipate needs. Allow the PR team to factor all of this into their analysis of the story angle.
Then give it some hard analysis. Put the story angle to the test before you even pitch it. See how you can modify it just enough to fit the current and urgent needs of the media.
If this is something that interests you, get in touch. I’d love to talk about it.