Only the crassest, most opportunistic PR practitioner would consider exploiting a disaster, such as super-storm Sandy, by using it as a springboard for pitches, correct? Think again: if your pitch is appropriate and genuinely helpful to the outlet’s audience, opportunities abound.
Who decides what’s appropriate and what isn’t? Most reporters and editors have no trouble distinguishing between the suitable and the tasteless. “I welcome story and product pitches that help my readers navigate the emergency, but I set the bar high,” says Joanna Prisco, editor of Carroll Gardens Patch, a popular hyper-local website in Brooklyn, NY. “I may be receptive to an insurance company’s publicist offering his expert’s comment on obtaining the most from a flood insurance policy. But not from a paper company’s rep pitching me on their new line of super-absorbent towels.”
Public relations practitioners can follow these principles in pitching during—and after—an emergency:
• Have a back-up pitch: The best-laid plans go awry. Many New York City hospital PR practitioners quickly invited the media to write about or visit their facilities, particularly if they were weathering the hurricane well and continuing to provide service to the community. However, the de facto hospital story of the hurricane became the flooding and complete evacuation of NYU Medical Center, one of New York’s premier healthcare facilities. Fast-moving events out of your control can quickly render your original pitch obsolete. Prepare a Plan B for this eventuality.
• You wrote it, you own it: Be a resource to reporters, who are busier than ever during emergencies. If your client is a restaurant chain, don’t just pitch a story about food safety following a power outage, write five specific and helpful tips on the topic—quoting your expert—and offer it to reporters with permission for it to be freely edited and reproduced. It will likely find a media home. As no exclusivity was asked for or granted, you can send your list to many different outlets, thus increasing your coverage.
• High risk, high reward: Although few practitioners would consider a crisis the ideal time to take a risk, it can provide an opportunity to score a placement of extensive magnitude and considerable prestige.
The highly regarded New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) requested permission from Beth Israel Medical Center (BIMC) in New York City to embed a physician/reporter for several days to cover the way in which Beth Israel was handling the extraordinary challenge of being the only functioning hospital post-Sandy in densely populated lower Manhattan. BIMC decided to take the chance and grant complete access. “Given the situation, we knew we would be unable to filter, shield or defer anything the reporter was going to see,” explains Jim Mandler, VP of public affairs for Continuum Health Partners, Beth Israel’s corporate parent. But the risk paid off. Unlimited access provided the physician/reporter with sufficient material to focus his overwhelmingly positive article exclusively on Beth Israel.
• Human interest, today and tomorrow: From heroic saves by first responders to ordinary citizens performing extraordinary acts of courage and bravery, super-storm Sandy provided a trove of human interest stories for the pitching. While some people appreciate the opportunity of sharing their personal experiences in the immediate aftermath of the situation, the PR pro should make sure the subject is aware the emotion of the moment will be captured forever.
Six months from now, the source may not appreciate 50,000 YouTube views of his tearful outburst. Proceed with caution and empathy.
• Think one step ahead: Don’t wait until after the emergency to plan your follow-up stories. Prepare them now so you can be first out of the gate. If your client is a construction firm, pitch rebuilding. If your client is a hospital, pitch post-traumatic stress. If your client is a school district, pitch public benefit classes.
Pitching during a crisis requires sensitivity as well as a good sense of timing. You have a job to do for your client or employer, but you also have a responsibility to the public at large, and to your profession.
Always take an extra moment to consider the people behind each and every story. Looking back, you’ll want your pitching during the crisis to be a boon to your reputation, not a blot. PRN
Zipporah Dvash is the assistant VP of Public Affairs at Downstate Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.