The Most Potent Word in Journalism

It’s one of the most potent words a headline writer or a reporter can use, and if it’s used to describe you or your organization, it’s clear what the writer thinks, but more importantly what that writer wants the reader to think. You’re guilty.

The word is, “Denies.”  As in, “The company denies wrongdoing.”

Let’s put this proposition to the test. Let’s say a headline writer wants to make you look bad for not walking on Mars. Yeah, the planet that no one from earth has ever visited. All he has to do it feature the headline, “Sarah Doe Denies Walking on Mars.”

The word itself suggests that the accusation is truth and that you are denying the truth. If you are described as denying anything, this frames you as defensive, guarded, trying to hide something, and therefore, guilty in the court of public opinion.

When you are described as a denier of something, it’s designed to put you in a bad light.

On the other hand, if a headline writer or reporter does not want you to look so bad, they may substitute the word “denies” with the words, “accused of.” As in, “Sarah Doe Accused of Walking on Mars.”

That would give you just enough wiggle room not to come across so negatively. In this case, the seeds of doubt are planted in the credibility of the accuser and not in the culpability of the accused.

These words suggest that the accuser could be making it up, using false allegations on which to frame you or your organization, and possibly that you should be given the benefit of the doubt.

So, what do you do when a headline writer frames you as denying something?

The first rule of thumb would be, don’t make it any worse, and this can happen very easily. Once you or your organization has been described as denying an accusation, you can’t do anything preventative. The accusation and characterization are already in the public domain, and they are already working to shape perceptions.

What you can do, however, is avoid playing into the hands of your accusers by engaging according to the ground rules they have already set by creating a narrative designed to work against you.

If you “double down” or try to explain away or dismiss something that you cannot prove, you can reinforce the negative narrative that is already unfolding, whether that narrative is fair or not.

This happens in the court of law all of the time. How can a defendant prove that he did not do something if he did not do it? For this reason, the justice system itself places the burden of proof on the accuser, not the accused.

In the court of public opinion, the rules are completely the opposite. This “court” usually places the burden of proof on the accused.

What you have to know going in is that you are not obligated to accept the premise of the accusations. The decision not to accept that premise and not to engage as your critics expect may be your first and most effective course of action. You don’t have to accept their premise or their “facts” associated with the accusations.

Once you know your messaging, craft them and deliver them according to your perceptions of the situation and not those of your critics.

Take the high road.

The worst thing you can do is try to split hairs on which accusations have merit or have some element of truth, and which ones do not. Once you do that, you have committed to the narrative your critics have already created, and you very well could be endorsing it. And by then, you are likely so far down the rabbit hole of that narrative that it will be very difficult to change course, and even more difficult to change perceptions.

It’s better to create your own narrative. If that narrative finds certain common ground with other points of view, so be it. But it’s very important to make it clear that your narrative is the right one and it’s yours, not the baseless one created by your critics.

One other thing, if you find that you or your organization are accused in this way, don’t be in such hurry to respond that you risk creating more problems. There is a big difference between a timely response and a hasty one. A thoughtful, careful response is much more effective than a kneejerk one.

Media of the Mind: The Podcast

My first love when it came to media was radio. It was the music, the personalities, the sounds, the voices, the unexpected, even the commercials. All of it. This was before formulaic formats and research-driven audio.

Soon, I found myself working in any number of studios at all hours of the day, and in the field, talking to listeners, talking to sources, working control boards, writing, planning, editing, producing, using microphones to capture voice and sound.

While it wasn’t long before my career path took me away from those studios, my love for radio never died. But those formats became more and more restrictive, more programmed over the years. It became so that even in my work in public relations, there were fewer and fewer opportunities to tap the power of the media with which I felt closest.

Why?

Long ago, early radio dramas were described as “theater of the mind,” but that faded away as the theater aspect gave way to mostly music formats with just enough human interaction to break up sets of playlists.

All of this changed in October 2001 when Apple introduced its iPod music player. It wouldn’t be long before people realized the iPod could do more than store and play music. In 2004, a new term emerged that combined “iPod” with “broadcast” to become “podcast.”

Since then a steady number of podcasts have come and gone, but so many have stayed and grown. And more launch every day. The topics and approach have varied with producers and hosts, and I found myself listening to the best and the worst with the same fascination.

Media of the Mind

iTunes put podcasts on the map, making non-music content available to millions of iTunes subscribers, and as new podcasts caught on, so did this re-birth of the theater or the mind, but it actually became much more than that. It became media of the mind.

Perhaps the most disruptive development in this evolution was the emergence of the iPhone and then other smart phones. People no longer had to be at a computer to listen to a podcast. They could listen wherever they were to whatever they wanted. The listener now has absolute control over the process.

The podcast infrastructure has aimed to please.

With the price of entry being relatively inexpensive, podcasters could develop, create and introduce their audio visions to the masses, and if they were good, the masses would respond.

Today’s podcast genres are as varied as anything you can think up, from information and education, to entertainment, or just how-to. If you can think of it, there is probably a podcast about it. And it’s right there in your pocket, on your smart phone, waiting for you to listen.

What’s the appeal?

Outside of the accessibility of podcasts and the variety of choices, there is something about audio media that may give it more compelling appeal than all other media, and this is what attracted me to radio in the first place.

Audio media is as intimate as any media.  It comes as close to connecting with us cerebrally like nothing else. Thanks to ear plugs and headphones, it is as physically close to the mind as it gets. There is nothing but sound  and your thoughts and almost nothing in between. You don’t need to work to be informed or entertained. All you need to do is close your eyes and listen. No reading, no watching, no stopping what your doing to give the medium your undivided attention.

It’s the best media that you can use while involved in something else like working out, doing work around the house or driving. Because podcast genres are so much more varied than radio formats, you can close your eyes and escape in an instant to take a mental tour of the Florida Keys, or hear someone talk about what it was like to win the Nobel Prize and never actually leave where you are.  Your imagination is the scenery.

Not coincidentally, theater of the mind has made a comeback. Those old radio dramas that audiences loved so much in back in the day have made a comeback in current form as people have discovered for the first time just how colorful and entertaining a fresh audio drama can be.

And it’s not just drama. True crime, history, business, science, medicine, politics, Americana, communication, music, society and culture, and so much more.

Earlier this year, I launched a podcast of my own that resides at the intersection of history, communication and society. It is an interview format where we talk to one guest who is close to the subject. It’s called Shaping Opinion, which is about people, events and things that have shaped the way we think. It’s gained a steadily increasing following from people who like interesting stories – stories that oftentimes reveal something new or a perspective haven’t heard before. That is the beauty of podcasts.

If you’re not a podcast fan yet, I’d be glad to give you some recommendations on some good ones. Just get in touch. And if you want to check out the Shaping Opinion podcast, just go to iTunes, or see some of these other great ways to listen.

Where do I start when writing a speech for my boss? Should I ask a newspaper to print a correction?

This is the second installment in what’s becoming a series of responses to reader questions.  The two questions selected for this blog are ones I’ve received over the years.

Question #1:   My CEO wants me to write a speech for him to give to an industry group. I’ve never written a speech before. Where do I start?

– Ashley M.

Response:  The best place to start is to have a meeting with your CEO if possible. At that meeting, come armed with as many questions as possible.  In order to do that, you need to do your homework first.  Find out when the speech will be, how long is it expected to take, who is the audience, the format (speech, keynote, panel, formal or informal, etc.), if visual aids are expected or required, if your speaker likes to read from a script or note cards, and what guidelines the host has provided in terms of speech topics and themes.

If other speakers will be at the event, find out who they are and what they will be speaking about.  The more you know about the venue and the context, the more you can hone in on your approach.

In your initial meeting with the CEO, work to determine what areas of focus should form the substance of the speech draft.  Play the role of reporter, asking questions and posing scenarios to get the CEO’s input.  It’s best to have a recorder with you so that you can gather the information most efficiently and better focus on covering all of your questions.  Later on playback, you can study the speaking style and word choice that comes most naturally to the CEO.

The next step is one not every speechwriter follows, but I do. I like to personally transcribe the recording from the meeting. It’s tedious work but for me it helps me truly immerse myself in the subject matter and better pick up on the tone and feel of the speech from the start.  Usually by the time I’m done with this task, I have a feel for how I’d like to approach the speech creatively.

Other tip is to study any videos of your CEO from other speeches.

Next, start writing.  Create an outline and develop that into a first draft. Don’t let the lack of certain details keep you from writing as complete a first draft as possible.  Just bookmark spots where you think data, statistics, stories and anecdotes may better fill out and humanize the speech at that point.

This is your “Swiss cheese draft,” which will not be ready for review until you’ve gone back and done the necessary research and thinking to fill in those holes.  From there, you will need to go through an arduous editing process, until you are most comfortable with the feel of it. Keep in mind, you are writing for the ear and the eyes of the audience.  Keep your words short, direct and active.  Create visuals through active verbs and strong imagery.  And above all, humanize the speech with stories the tie directly to the speech’s theme.

That’s an overview.  If you have any specific questions on this, feel free to let me know off line and I’ll be glad to respond.

Question #2: A newspaper recently ran a story based on an interview one of their reporters did with a senior manager at our organization.  The published story seemed to infer that a comparably sized competitor of ours is bigger than us.  My boss wants me to request a correction in the newspaper.  Will they run it?

– Michelle D.

Response: Probably not, and even if they would, the correction itself is not likely to be seen by many of those who saw the original article, making little difference.

At the same time, the one group of people who will notice this gesture are a few editors and reporters in the newsroom, who may react in different ways.  One or two may respond the way your organization hopes and realize the story may not have been as accurate as it could be. But others may not react as constructively.

Any time you interact with the media, the best approach is to think of the long term.  Determine how “egregious” the immediate story may be, and then decide if it’s worth adding any tension to the relationship between your organization and the news organization involved.  Just as we constantly work to build positive relationships with the media, some organizations have a tendency to undermine that when they become unnecessarily demanding or critical of certain news organizations.

In cases where the error is truly damaging to the organization, such as alleging or implying unethical behavior on the part of senior management with no substantiation, then you may be obligated to demand corrective action from the news organization.  But in this case, the nature of the offense does not seem to warrant spoiling the waters of your relationship with the news organization.

If you have a question you’re like to discuss one-on-one or see addressed in this space, please get in touch.

Wish You Were Here: The Media Panel Luncheon in 3 Minutes

lets-talk-about-youIf you’re on any of the lists I’m on, chances are you get an invitation every couple of months to some public relations event where the featured speaker is actually a panel of reporters and editors. The premise of the event is usually for the public relations professionals in the room to get some tough love from journalists so they can do better at their jobs.

This idea has tremendous potential, but in the time I’ve spent in both the news and public relations business, I can’t remember anyone hosting an event where a group of journalists sat in the audience so that a panel of public relations pros could bash them, but that’s beside the point.

Rather, the focus here is on the public relations industry’s tradition of hosting these kinds of events and how unfortunately predictable they can be. I had written about the “dreaded media luncheon” years ago and continue to contend that PR people endure this sort of thing mostly because they want to ingratiate themselves with the journalists in the room.  My main reason for believing this is if you are already in PR, you have countless opportunities in your day to talk to reporters and learn first-hand what reporters want and need from us.

If you’ve never been to one of these events, here’s what to expect:

  • The majority in the audience will be public relations pros with five years’ experience or less, with most having never stepped foot in an actual news room, and not that many who actually consume substantive news content for pleasure. Many in the audience typically view the media panel at the front of the room as a curiosity.
  • Some PR professionals only attend to use the post-remarks period to walk up to individual reporters to pitch stories or commence relationships to serve as the foundation for pitching future stories. These attendees often don’t listen to a word during the formal discussion.  You can spot them with their heads pointed down toward their smart phones.
  • The reporters who participate usually do so because they really want to impart words of wisdom on the PR profession, or they may just be flattered for the invitation to speak, or they know their news organizations could downsize any day and this is a good way to network if a quick transition into public relations is necessary.

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Once the discussion starts, you may well hear journalists say:

  • “You people in public relations don’t know our beats, our deadlines and you don’t even read our content or study our work before you email, text, tweet, and on rare occasions call.”
  • “We really don’t need you for story ideas, we just need the subject matter experts you provide.”
  • “Don’t call me in the morning, evening on weekends, or during the work day when I am on deadline.”
  • “That said, you need to make sure you’re there when I call in the morning, evening, on weekends or during the work day.”
  • “Make sure your press releases are newsworthy, have reliable information, and are accurate.”

Do the journalists have a point? In a sense they do, but in a larger sense, there is much about public relations they don’t understand and that can make some of what they say sound very one-dimensional and sometimes misguided.

Reporters are too often right when it’s obvious to them some PR person doesn’t even know what the reporter covers. This has as much to do with the PR industry’s pattern of assigning recent college graduates to media relations duties with little training.

But the one thing many of these reporters underestimate is how much they rely already on public relations professionals, not only as direct sources for information, but even indirectly in story formation. The casual conversations we have with reporters, our pitches, and many of the things we do behind the scenes on our end (i.e. spokesperson training and coaching) usually work to give the reporter a better product in ways they don’t even see.

I would never discourage anyone from attending a media panel luncheon, but if you go, take what you hear with a grain of salt.

The one thing too many public relations practitioners check at the door is the understanding that if reporters base their perceptions of PR only on their interactions with us, they’re not getting the full story.  We can’t lose sight that many journalists assume public relations exists to serve the media and nothing more. This means some media panelists likely only know a fraction of what we do and how our profession functions.

The trick is to listen to everything that’s said with a critical ear and not to accept everything discussed on face value.

If you’d like to discuss this, just let me know.

Reputation Savers: 8 Incredibly Simple Questions to Answer Before Every Communication

think-before-you-clickIt doesn’t matter whether it’s a multi-million-dollar communications campaign or a single tweet, a professional communicator should know the answers to these 8 questions before touching that keyboard, mouse or computer screen:

#1. Why are we doing this?

If you don’t know why you are communicating, there is a good chance you will miss the mark in any number of ways. Know why you are communicating. Know what in the world can be made better through your communication and how that communication will make a difference. Otherwise, you’re probably talking to yourself.

#2. What are we trying to achieve?

What are the specific goals and objectives of the communication? For any communication to be effective, it must have an objective. All communication is designed to inform or educate, entertain, or persuade. But it should go deeper than that. You should know specifically why you are trying to connect with someone, and why that targeted audience matters.

 #3. Who are we trying to reach?

In the communications business, we often call them our targeted audiences or stakeholders. They are the people with whom we are trying to reach, connect with, educate or inform, entertain or persuade. All real communication is two-way, and as such, knowing as much as we can about who we are trying to reach and why is critical.

#4. What do we want them to do or think?

Whether the goal is to educate, inform or persuade, we should have a clear vision of how we want the targeted audience to react to the communication. Knowing this from the outset helps shape the message and helps determine the best way to time and deliver that message. Without a clear idea of the desired effect of communication it will fall flat.

#5.  Is it right or responsible that we are doing this?

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Ethics. Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing it the right way? Do we have the appropriate credibility on the issue? These are just a few of the sub-questions that only we can answer before communicating. Since each case can be so unique, the key is to have a guiding set of values, principles and a code of ethics, not to mention a set of best practices. Not having any one of these things can lead to crises of credibility and not only a failure of the communications effort, but ultimately damage to your reputation and that of the organization.

#6. Is the information we receive accurate?

In today’s digital environment, it’s extremely common for many to receive un-vetted information and to share it without verification or to comment on it as though it’s fact. Very often, this information is inaccurate, misleading or wrong. It’s the equivalent of spreading rumors and gossip. Accepting the premise on face value of the information we receive is quite often the first major step towards disaster. Even if it’s “just” a social media share or post, make sure that the information or claims you are required to address are accurate and credible before you base any of your own presumptions and communication on it.  In other words, check it out before accepting it as fact.

#7. Is the information we are sending accurate?

Honesty isn’t just telling the truth. To borrow from a common term used in courtrooms, it’s “telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” More to the point, it’s assumed that in any human interaction you have a good faith obligation to be honest. This is often based on the accuracy of the information you share. When you engage in partial truths or untruths, you lay an unstable foundation and risk alienation of those most important to you. This is not to say anyone has an obligation to share proprietary or confidential information, or that others have a right to know everything about a particular person or organization. Without question, everyone should expect a certain right to privacy. This must be balanced against the need for accountability. When organizations communicate, accuracy goes beyond literal meanings and into intentions, which should be forthright.

#8.  Is this the right time?

“Timing is everything,” we all know, right? But when it comes to communications that’s an understatement. You can say all the right things to all the right people, but poor timing can create perceptions of insincerity or even callousness.  For example, you may have a great idea to boost employee morale after a round of layoffs, but the day after the downsizing is not the right time to announce much of anything.  That’s a mourning period, believe it or not, and no time to have a pep rally.

Or, let’s say a beloved celebrity died last night.  It’s probably not a good idea to flood your Twitter feed with gratuitous “tributes” that come off as thinly veiled marketing tactics.  Choose your timing carefully.

Anyone can think through these 8 questions in a very short span before engaging in every communications activity, from a simple social media post to the process to plan and implement a major communication initiative.

If you would like to receive future newsletters, articles and updates from O’Brien Communications, or  go over some questions of your own one-on-one, please let me know.

 

Every Press Conference Disaster Has a Point of No Return

preventing-a-pr-disasterAnyone who has run public relations for an organization will tell you that there is always a point of no return for any press conference disaster. Usually it happens sometime in advance of the actual day of the press conference.  That point of no return is what immediately comes to mind when you are five minutes from the start and in front of you is a room full of empty seats.

Call it a flashback if you will, but you stand there and your mind replays the moment of clarity when you were given every possible warning that this just wasn’t going to work out.

Perhaps the most common example goes something like this. You’re going about the business of providing excellent public relations support for your organization, and you are called into a management meeting.

Your boss tells you that you’re going to organize a press conference – not asks you if a press conference is the right approach, but more like, “We’ve got this new thing and we’re having a press conference.  It’s going to be on this day, because that’s when I get back from the West Coast.  Go over the details with Pete here, I’ve got another meeting to attend.”

Yes, the good old point of no return. Your press conference disaster awaits.  Had the head honcho asked you for your opinion before making his decision you might have gone over some of these questions:

  • Is the subject of this news conference newsworthy outside of our organization?
  • What makes it new, interesting, relevant and timely?
  • Is this a broadcast story? Meaning, is it visual, is it something the general broadcast audience cares about? Or is it more of a business story? (Read: We can do this just as well by phone.)
  • Can we get the same results without a press conference?
  • Does this story absolutely require that a reporter sacrifice a half-day or more just to attend the press conference, and then the rest of the day to write the story?

Of course, there are many other questions to cover, but they all point to the fundamental issue of whether a press conference is warranted.

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The challenge for most public relations chiefs is not to appear as a naysayer when the organization wants to have a news conference. Usually, when the organization gets behind a media relations initiative, that’s inspiration in itself.  But this kind of enthusiasm needs to be managed, to be sure.

The right balance involves not automatically rejecting the idea of a press conference, while trying to engage in a dialogue on whether the PR tactic is the most effective approach.

Two of the more common myths around press conferences is that they in-and-of-themselves generate news. They don’t.  Or that the media prefers to get its information in large-group settings.  Usually they don’t.

Here are some realities the organization needs to understand about the media:

  • Newsrooms are shrinking. That means there are fewer and fewer reporters to go around. Most news organizations require journalists to work on two or more stories per day, which means losing just one reporter to attend a press conference will likely going to drain the newsroom of a valuable resource. Unless you’re coming out with the next iteration of the iPhone, don’t assume the media will make that reporter available.
  • That said, technology does help lean newsroom staffs to gather news more productively. They can conduct interviews by phone, by email, and by video conference. For live press conferences they may prefer to listen from their desks via dial-in access. If you have a press event planned, don’t forget to provide live remote access, which can include audio and video.
  • Still, the optics of empty seats are never good. The best way to assure attendance at your news conference is to consider the following:
    • What visuals can we provide? Do we have any products to show or demonstrate? Can we go on location with the story? Will the background provide a visual to help tell the story?
    • Can we get all of our expert resources in one place at one time?
    • Would it make sense to have the press conference in a location where the media is already on hand like an industry event or trade show?

When There’s Still Time to Change Plans

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If, by chance, you have not yet reached that point of no return, here are some other questions to consider going over with top decision-makers:

  • Is the news we’re announcing something already likely to generate a good deal of media interest without a news conference? If so, the chances of media attendance go up significantly.
  • Logistically, will we have trouble responding to reporters on a one-on-one basis? This suggests demand is inherent and attendance is likely.
  • How accessible are our subject matter experts or spokespersons? The unusual nature of having all SMEs together could be a draw, but it’s important to be realistic about whether this is newsworthy.

If the answers to these questions suggest that having a press conference is not required and there could be a better way, keep these alternatives at the ready:

  • Of course, the standard tools of the media relations trade are press releases and telephone interviews. This is assumed, but usually only a starting point.
  • Depending on the nature of the news, you can offer “test-drives” of the new product, technology or service. Some journalists actually prefer immersive reporting.
  • Consider informal media briefings or site tours, which can be one-on-one or with small groups. Instead of a formal press conference, your spokesperson could meets in a round-table format with selected reporters.

Regardless of whether the decision to have a press conference is within or beyond your control, the one thing you can do is manage expectations. From the very beginning, take care not to over-promise or guarantee media attendance or outcomes.  Keep the focus on your process for giving the organization its best chance at coverage.   And then make it clear that you and your team are doing everything possible to assure the most positive outcome.

If you have any questions about media relations, or any additional thoughts to add, let me know.

Why Do They Keep Picking on the Good Old Press Release?

What did he ever do? He ain’t hurt nobody.

public relations, pittsburghYou have to feel bad for the good old press release. Here he was, minding his own business, spreading news about new products, acquisitions and new hires, and then out of nowhere a steady stream of people, relatively new to and not completely familiar with public relations, started to attack him.

Let me explain. This is usually how the attacks on the news release typically come about.

Someone who bills himself as a digital marketing guru graduates from college and spends a year or two working for someone else. Before long, he sets out on his own and starts his own digital marketing business.  He quickly learns that “digital marketing” is a limited niche and since there is enough cross-over with PR, and in order to grow his business, he must establish himself as a public relations expert, too.

By this point, he’s learned about the effective use of keywords, and to how to generate traffic with social media and blogs.

On the subject of PR, he is a bit more foggy. To him, PR is publicity, and publicity is part of marketing. PR is simply press releases on wire services. When he realizes there has to be something more, he decides to go beyond press releases, and that’s when he assumes he’s inventing something new.

Of course, that’s not all digital experts. Some know that the field of PR is quite practiced in strategies and tactics that go beyond issuance of press releases. But still, to differentiate and market their own services, some digital gurus feel the need to create the perception that what they’re selling is something no one has ever seen before.

So, in order to do that, they must tear down the profession’s symbols and proven practices and solutions.  This all falls under the iconoclastic banner: “This is not your father’s PR, anymore.”

That’s why our little friend the press release is such a frequent target of these digital bullies. Ironically, the solutions digital experts usually offer are in fact things that have been PR staples for more than a few decades. Things like calling reporters, sending them customized pitches, building personal relationships and finding creative ways to get attention through events or mailers.

The one thing that has changed is we can do everything we’ve been doing and more with new digital tools.

While I have to admit it’s rather silly to engage in a debate over the merits of the press release, our old buddy deserves more respect than he’s been getting of late. With this in mind, I’d like to debunk a few myths that have some PR pretenders have spun to try to create a niche for themselves:

Myth #1 – Press releases are only for major news media.

Myth debunked: Press releases are master documents distributed publicly to media, analysts, regulators and others to notify them of some event of development they should know about. The news media is an audience, but it is not always the only audience. They are written in journalistic style for ease-of-use by reporters.  Good ones are credible, timely and relevant.

Myth #2 – Press releases aren’t for building relationships.

Myth debunked: As source documents, press releases are effective at helping to build relationships because they provide, in one place, all of the key details of a particular development. This is a solid document on which to base further discussions, follow-up, meetings and interviews.  Press releases are effective tools for triggering new relationship-building processes or re-igniting old ones.

Myth #3 – No one wants to read news releases. They are boring.

Myth debunked: Because press releases are usually written in journalistic style and most often tied to some new development, they must meet the “newsworthiness” test.  For the same reason that readers read news, viewers watch news and website visitors click on articles, a news release should be and often is timely, relevant and newsworthy.  Not all are designed for the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Every news release has its own audience and its own purpose.  Keep in mind, just about every (non-crime or disaster) news story you see, at some point, was derived at least in part from a news release.

Myth #4 – Press releases are the only PR tactic companies use to draw media attention.

Myth debunked: Even a PR intern knows that public relations involves more than news releases to attract media attention.  As mentioned, we meet with reporters formally and informally, we have events, press conferences, briefings and tours.  We line up spokespersons for interviews, not to mention providing video, product samples and test drives.  We have done and will do whatever it takes to help connect reporters to the information and experiences they need to do their jobs better.

Myth #5 – Press releases are mutually exclusive from other PR tactics.

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Myth debunked: When we do all of the other non-press release activities, we often include press releases as part of the information package. Sometimes, when it makes sense, we don’t.  Often as not, we don’t rely on the press release to do all of the heavy lifting.

Myth #6 – News releases are only about the issuer.

Myth debunked: When digital marketers attack the press release, they usually point to the self-promotional tone of some releases.  Some may be quite self-promotional, but good ones are not.  A good press release centers on relevant information while issued by a credible source. So, for example, if a company involved in conserving part of the Alaskan wilderness issues a news release on that topic, chances are, the news release will be more about the problems being addressed and how they are being addressed.  The company serves as a credible source. The news release is not all about the company, but the company is part of the story.

Myth #7 – PR people never call reporters or send customized correspondence.

Myth debunked: Yes, I think we’ve covered this, but it’s worth specifically saying, most everyone who handles publicity in PR has made his or her share of calls to reporters and are quite good at it.

Myth #8 – Press releases are not timed right.

Myth debunked: This gets at the notion that the media only finds out about news from PR people after the fact.  The truth is, unless you’re talking about a publicly traded firm that must adhere to strict Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) disclosure regulations, PR people have long used ample flexibility in reaching out to reporters prior to the official announcement of everything from a new product to a major acquisition.  The common terms for this are “embargo,” “exclusive,” and just plain outreach to give reporters a heads up.

Moral of the Story

The next time someone tells you all of the proven PR rules and proven PR practices, such as press releases, no longer apply, consider the source.   And consider the possibility that you are talking to someone light on public relations experience and with little historical PR knowledge.  Buyer beware.

How to Answer the Media Question: “Do you have anything to add?”

Public Relations, PittsburghSo, you’ve just finished a grueling media interview. Some of the questions were easy, some were tough, really tough.  Like the one about expectations for the next fiscal year, and whether rising costs will affect customer service.

But you were ready, and overall, you feel you handled the interview well. The reporter across from you seems to feel the same way.

“Thank you for your time,” she says. Then she asks, “Do you have anything to add?”

This is a fork-in-the-road question for a lot of people. You wonder:

  • “Shouldn’t I just be glad the interview is over and say nothing?”
  • “If I do add anything, will that open the door to a new line of questions for which I’m not prepared?”
  • “Should I try to clarify a point or two that I might not have nailed?”

The answer to each of these questions is, “no,” “possibly,” and “no.”

When a reporter asks that question at the end, the interview is not yet over. You still have an opportunity to deliver your message.

To the second question, yes, your instincts aren’t betraying you. When a reporter asks this question at the end of an interview, she knows that whatever you say could open the door to some additional areas she may not have considered.

And to the third question, the reason you don’t want to spend your final remarks clarifying previous points is that you already know that those weren’t your best moments during the interview. When you revisit them, you’re just re-starting at a low point and could make it worse.  Your attempts at clarification could come across as defensive, flagging the earlier comments for more attention when the reporter begins to write the story.

Reporters typically ask if you have anything to add at the end of an interview to leave no stone unturned, while affording the interviewee (you) the courtesy of getting everything you want on the record. Remember, everything is on the record, including your chit chat as you escort the reporter and her crew to the elevator.

The best way to answer the question is to revisit your key messages. Recap your messages in a narrative form. Tell your story one more time in a way that suits you. Don’t worry about being redundant. Just quickly recap your story and then stop.

If there are some issues that may need clarification, you can incorporate those into your closing comments, but be sure to do that in a positive way, and not in a way that could create the impression you’re looking for a do-over.

Be strong, confident and to-the-point. Think of this question as an opportunity to make your closing arguments to a jury in a court room. Speak to the reader or viewer of the final piece, and not to the journalist herself.  And then close on a decisive end note.

If you’d like to discuss media relations or any communications topic, please feel free to get in touch.

CrowdParenting & Digital Shaming: Lessons for PR

teenager in hoodieIt’s no longer that unusual to see a parent, at wit’s end, turn to the Internet or social media to make a point to a child. The latest is a case where a Florida father put his son’s car for sale on Craigslist after the father discovered his son was missing work and smoking pot in the car.

While not completely unheard of, stories like this are still rare enough to garner national headlines and go viral on social media. The narrative here is pretty predictable.  Thousands of fellow parents cheer on the dad for “taking a stand.”

On the flip side, the son is likely to have his own interpretation of events, and so will the boy’s friends, his wider social circle and others in his world.

From a parenting point of view, it’s valid to wonder whether such an extreme measure will have the desired effect or if it will backfire. In today’s social media climate, it’s feasible for a teenager to find himself at the center of a storm like this and come out with more notoriety and respect among his peers (more emboldened, not less) than before.

At the same time, events like this can have a long-term effect on the father-son relationship.

It’s these considerations that provide communications lessons for those of us who make a living in the business of public relations.

Any experienced and even semi-reasonable manager knows that public shaming can bring with it serious consequences. It can have a lasting effect on the employee or employees directly involved.  It can send a message to other employees that could create barriers to relationship-building.  Should this management style become known outside of the workplace, customers, vendors and others could make value judgements that are not to the benefit of the company.  Not to mention exposure to possible litigation.

That’s why we rarely see an employee made a spectacle in so obvious a fashion. That’s not to say shaming doesn’t happen in less obvious ways.

Let’s go with the concept of crowdsourcing. In the workplace, crowdsourcing is often used to spread work and responsibility across a larger swath of the work force to accomplish a task. The concept may not be new, but the trendiness of the term suggests the increased popularity of tapping an undefined “crowd” instead of trusting the individual or smaller team trained and assigned the specific responsibility to tackle a particular kind of challenge.

To be sure, crowdsourcing can be used very effectively under the right circumstances. Thanks to newer technologies and management tools, the concept of “two heads are better than one” can be scaled in power and effectiveness to unprecedented levels.  But as with anything, crowdsourcing can be a crutch for some managers.

Imagine a military commander telling a Special Forces unit to stand down in preparation for a critical search and rescue operation while they all wait for the results of a crowdsourcing effort before making any decisions.

In other words, when some managers turn to “the crowd,” they risk disenfranchising the very specialists or experts they’ve originally tabbed to maintain ongoing responsibility for dealing with certain issues.

The lesson for internal communicators and PR pros is not to automatically assume that the current trend towards asking the crowd to solve certain problems will not have lingering effects.

Just like the father who uses the Internet to make a point, a manager who instinctively turns to the crowd is likely to have work to do in mending some very important one-on-one relationships.

8 Spokesperson Critical Success Factors

shutterstock_116176801You’ve been tasked with speaking on behalf of your organization to the public. Maybe it’s the media, or maybe you’re going to speak at a community event or town hall-style meeting.

Regardless, there are two things you know: first, that there are so many uncontrollable variables that you never really know what you may be asked; second, once it starts, there is good potential that word-of-mouth, social media and possibly professional reporters in the audience will amplify and extend the life of your words.

With this in mind, the best way to eliminate or minimize the impact of factors beyond your control is to prepare. The following are eight critical success factors for powerful spokespersons:

  1. Media/audience analysis – Good preparation is always the starting point. Prepare an analysis that includes a profile of the reporter, publication or group of reporters that may be covering you. If it’s a public meeting, generate as best as possible, a profile of the audience and people who will be in attendance, what they care about, why they may be interested in listening to you, and most importantly, what they may want to tell you once they get there. This can be the basis for the other planning you will do.
  2. Anticipate the questions – Once you have a sense of what people in the room care about most, you can begin to anticipate the kinds of questions they may ask. Start by listing the questions you’d rather not have to answer, and then develop responses. Be thorough, plan for the worst and work toward the best. You may find that the reporter or audience may only ask a fraction of your questions, and they may ask a question or two that you didn’t consider, but this kind of preparation will go a long way towards giving you the confidence and comfort level you need.
  3. Develop key messages – The major difference between anticipating Q&A and your key messages is mostly one of size and focus. Your key messages must be more focused and condensed than a long list of all the questions you could receive. These key messages are the core themes and points you want to make in order to pre-emptively address the things your audience cares about. They should follow your larger communications strategy, helping you to achieve your communications objectives.
  4. Dress for success – Think about the venue, the time of day, the location, the audience’s culture, and the non-verbal message you want to send with your appearance. If you’re going to a county fair, don’t wear a suit, try jeans instead. But even in jeans, look sharp. If you will be at a Downtown club for a luncheon event, think about what the audience will be wearing. By working to blend you are eliminating a non-verbal barrier to communication. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes it’s necessary to make a statement that calls for a different appearance.   I remember a few analyst meetings I attended where the Harley Davidson senior management team wore leather jackets and some rather upscale casual clothes as they addressed a group of Wall Street execs in suits. Imagine a hotel ballroom filled with analysts in suits, sitting behind tables set-up classroom style. Then the speakers ride onto the platform in full chrome-plated volume on their Harleys. They made their point even before they began to speak.
  5. Don’t forget your voice – Too many average spokespersons don’t pay enough attention to how they sound when speaking to reporters or in the public.   By “voice” in this larger context, we also mean your words. Speak loud enough to be heard. If you have a microphone, use it and don’t turn away from it while you look to the side at your presentation screen and continue to speak. And avoid jargon and excessive use of acronyms in your comments. Keep it simple, relatable, and look at the people to whom you are speaking when you speak.
  6. Keep it short – While your larger remarks or interview may take some time, avoid rambling on specific points or topics. Broadcasters would characterize this as speaking in sound bites. These are 30- to 40-second comments or responses that have a clear beginning, middle and end, structured to deliver a key message and then stop. The best sound bites do not include qualifier words or long words. Simple words and memorable messages that get to the point.
  7. Be compassionate – This does not mean to fake it. Just the opposite. It means not to leave your human compassion and your own emotional investment in the topic at the doorstep. Incorporate your genuine interest in the issue, the audience and the subjects that are raised by reminding the reporter or your audience that everything you are discussing is very important to you on a personal and professional level.
  8. Rehearse – Never think you will be that effective if your plan is to “wing it.” I’ve seen some spokespersons say things like, “I’m always better if I improvise.” Or, “I sound fresher, more genuine and more spontaneous if I don’t rehearse.” They’re wrong.  The rehearsal process is not a memorization process. The goal of rehearsal is not to create a robotic spokesperson who never strays from script. The goal of rehearsing is to allow the spokesperson to truly master the subject matter, to internalize it, so that when the speaker gets in front of the media or the public, he or she can be more comfortable, flexible and spontaneous. A rehearsed speaker can better stay on message, not be surprised by certain questions that come up, and stay in the moment.

These critical success factors for powerful spokespersons, which represent a good deal of planning and preparation, can serve as a model for you to make sure you provide your audience with content that effectively addresses their most important issues and concerns.