Many aspects of public relations have changed over the more than 30 years (almost 25 at Burson-Marsteller) since I gave up journalism for public relations. One of the most negative changes in my opinion is that in place of experienced journalists the vast number of PR staffers are graduates of communications schools that turn them out like a production line, often stifling the out-of-the box approaches of years ago, when creativity and nonconformist thinking was valued.
So here is some abridged contrarian thinking about how to approach important aspects of PR that most likely weren’t included in school textbooks:
1. Crisis Communications: The way crisis communications is handled is at the top of my list for hackneyed thinking, especially the “let’s get it out fast” response to a crisis.
While many PR specialists still practice rushing out crisis statements ASAP, I’ve always believed doing so can cause exceedingly more harm than good to a client.
Until the facts are analyzed internally, press inquiries should be answered with statements like, “We are investigating the situation and have no further details to share with you at this time. We will definitely keep you informed as new facts emerge.” Rushing out a statement can put your client in a defensive position when new information is discovered that refutes the earlier rushed statement.
Why are there so many adherences to the ancient “let’s get it out fast” rule that was conceived by a mere mortal many decades ago? PR is not a science, so why accept its tenets as such?
Lesson to Remember: Rushing statements can be detrimental to your client. Also, each crisis deserves original thinking. There is no such thing as a crisis plan that fits all sizes.
2. Media Training: Media training is important, but its value is nil when the same formula is used for all clients. Account handlers, whose agencies have media trainers, should not accept the one-size-fits-all formula, and insist that the sessions should be tailored to each client’s specific needs.
Lesson to Remember: Account handlers know more about their clients than support staff, like media trainers, and should insist that they have input and final approval of the training session plan and also be part of the implementation.
3. Media Contact: The quickest ways to become disliked by the media is to suggest stories that have no relevance to a reporter’s beat or publication, pitch stories with no news or feature possibilities and suggest stories that the reporter has recently covered. That shows the reporter that you don’t keep up with the publication or what’s in the news. Reporters like stories that can be approached in different ways.
Lesson to Remember: Educate yourself about reporters and the subject matter before pitching a story. Never pitch a story that is devoid of news or feature value. Don’t pitch a story unless you can suggest different ways of approaching it, unless it is a fast-breaking hard news story with immediate news value.
4. Photography: An almost certain way to get your photo rejected by a wire service is to write a short, cute caption and attach it to the image.
Lesson to Remember: A caption is meant to explain what the image depicts. Send along detailed information with the image and let the caption writer decide what information is necessary to explain the picture.
5. Pitching: Keeping your pitch very short, no more than a line or two, has become a tenet when pitching journalists. Unless you’re pitching a well-know celebrity, ditch this rule ASAP.
Lesson to Remember: As a former journalist, I find it baffling how anyone can know the value of a pitch from a line or two. My pitches always read like a short story and I’ve never had a journalist say they were too long. If you write a lede that catches the journalist’s attention, the second graph will be read, etc. The trick is to write a pitch that can be used as a news or feature story, emphasizes several different ways that the story can be used and demonstrates that you understand the reporter’s and publication’s needs.
6. Client Contact: Good work is not a sure way of receiving client approval. The best way to ensure a good review is to make the client look good. That is accomplished by doing more than what has been approved in the program. Ever since I entered the public relations business I looked for ways to show the client that I really cared.
Lesson to Remember: One method that always received praise from clients was to read the major newspapers each morning and inform the client very early in the day about stories that might affect his company. Another way is to tell the client that I am available for phone discussions at home after working hours and that if I am not at home I check for messages every hour. This always worked to my advantage.
And finally, make certain that the higher-ups in your agency know of the good work you did. If you don’t take credit for your work, someone else will.
Arthur Solomon was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles on national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations and sports business publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.