It’s not everyday that PR is taken to task for sending unsolicited emails to reporters. Oh, wait – it is every day that this happens. And sometimes the magnifying glass is placed directly over the Public Relations trade, as is the case this week with an unflattering article by The New York Times’ Haggler (Pulitzer Prize winning reporter David Segal) that took to task emails the columnist received and persistently tracked back to an industry vendor’s media database. It doesn’t help that the headline is”Swatting at a Storm of Public Relations Spam.”
Whether fair or not, this sort of coverage sets us up for the defensive. Even with fantastic media databases, dedicated PR reps tracking down the right beat reporters, and guerilla PR efforts targeted by time, day, demo and topic, no media relations effort is perfect. And to blame a database for an incorrect email campaign is akin to blaming the tools, not the carpenter, for shoddy construction. But we can all agree that a bad PR pitch is a bad PR pitch in whatever form, format or formality it’s received.
Email remains the “killer app” for communicating with our stakeholders. By “killer” it can also mean relationship killer. The result of targeting the wrong reporter too many times, or the right reporter with the wrong pitch, usually is one of nonchalance — of just ignoring, deleting, opting out. The Haggler is an extreme version of one recipient revolting, perhaps for the sake of writing a column about it.
At the PR News Writing Bootcamp last week in Chicago, a panel of reporters reviewed mock email pitches from an audience of PR pros and implored the audience to keep their email pitches simple, short and crafted with an obvious reason for the reporter to care. The journalists on this panel — from Chicago newspapers and a mommy blog — were characteristically cynical. They are inundated with email pitches daily, and as with press releases, you have 7 seconds, at most, to get their attention. The panelists advised to think of an email pitch like it’s a movie trailer: grab the viewer’s attention but don’t give away the plot.
Assuming you have a story to tell, you still need to give the reporter something. Here are a few somethings to consider:
- An exclusive interview with the CEO or top executive
- An interesting infographic or chart/graphic
- New research or data to bolster the proposed article
- A video clip
- An invitation to a press-only event
- Links (not attachments) to information that will help the reporter do her job better
- If not an exclusive interview, a commitment to an executive interview at the reporter’s convenience
Before you send out your next email pitch, make sure “the give” is in there. Media Relations is the art and science of give and take.
- Diane Schwartz
PS: I’ll be at the PR NewsMedia Relations Conference on Dec 12 at the National Press Club. If you’re attending, DM on Twitter so we can set up a time to chat in person.
Earlier in my career I worked with an editor for a media magazine who moved into PR after the magazine went defunct. We’ve kept in touch, him pitching stories to me for media-company clients, and me always trusting his judgment and willing to take a call.
Why was I so willing? Because he’s a thoughtful PR guy who helps connect me to interesting people and to stories my audience wants to read.
I was thinking about that guy the other day and my thought process then extended to stereotypes—of PR people and reporters.
I’ve learned a lot of things in 12 months covering the PR business, and my experiences have proven many of those common stereotypes wrong. I thought I’d outline a few of the stereotypes and take a look at how perception differs from reality for both reporters and PR people.
How reporters see themselves
• Journalists see themselves iconoclasts—but not Quixotic ones.
• Reporters think they’re fundamentally moral—in the words of the old expression, “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
• They view themselves as wise and hard-boiled.
• They identify with skepticism—they would never accept gullibility.
• They see themselves as real and down-to-earth, unpretentious, even in fashion. Journalists invented business casual as a dress code.
How reporters see PR people
• Sometimes reporters call PR people flacks, and it’s not meant as a compliment.
• The columnist Mike Lupica (among many other journalists) calls PR people “mouthpieces.”
• Reporters see PR people as mostly blocking access, not providing it.
• Reporters think PR people cause their sources to speak in “talking points,” not provide real information.
• Reporters very often see PR people as bossy, officious and shallow in their most benign incarnation, and sometimes obnoxious or worse.
Some stereotype-busting things I’ve learned
• PR is one of the most intensive practice-oriented professions I’ve been associated with. Like law and other professions, PR pros split their skills into various practices—crisis management, media relations, corporate social responsibility and more, and they’re incredibly conscientious about education and advancing their skills.
• PR people (at our PR News events, at any rate) are engaging, courteous, smart and intensely focused on improving their skills.
• Reporters, in fact, can be amazingly gullible. Recently, word got back to me that some industry executive said all you had to do to get good press from us was to take one of our people out to dinner. I don’t believe that’s true at all, but I know from first-hand observation that in lots of other cases, it is.
• Journalistic skepticism sometimes morphs into raw cynicism.
• Reporters are rarely fashionable. In fact, it’s usually the opposite, truth be told.
As I write this I’m watching a report on MSNBC criticizing the apology issued by 60 Minutes for a report last month about the attack on the embassy in Benghazi.
The apology, by correspondent Lara Logan, was not enough—that was the consensus.
“It was not nearly satisfying,” said guest David Brock. “I thought it was 60 Minutes, not 60 Seconds.” The show is all about holding sources accountable, Brock said, and 60 Minutes should do the same for itself.
This has been a big week for apologies. President Obama apologized for the bumpy rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Home Depot apologized for a racist tweet.
And 60 Minutes still hasn’t been able to contain the damage.
Public apologies by organizations almost always fall to the communications team, the PR pros. And there’s plenty of scholarship on how to do apologies best, and put unfortunate mistakes behind your company or organization. Among those things are to act immediately and to commit to an investigation.
But I sometimes think the only way to really handle apologies is to not make mistakes in the first place. Seriously. Think about it. In politics and business, if you make a mistake, apologies are demanded. The volume gets higher and higher, and the demands more hysterical. It’s rare indeed that you can tough things out, although that sometimes does happen.
In politics, there’s an “apology game,” where one side demands an apology for some perceived transgression, whether there’s an actual offense or not.
And then there’s the apology trap—whatever the offense, no apology ever clears the record. Even when apologies are accepted, mistakes are never forgotten. Years—decades—later, whatever the initial incident was, it morphs into a “scandal.” It will remain on your record forever, dredged up in the media whenever it suites the story.
So if you’re a PR pro, what to do? Here’s my advice: Don’t apologize as a way to placate others. Don’t expect absolution, because it won’t come. Apologize because you know you (or your organization) messed up and that it’s the right thing to do. Period.
I’ve been thinking lately about how media is moving increasingly toward a greater technology dependence. I’ve read about how investment dollars, especially in Silicon Valley, where so much media-related innovation is occurring, steer towards technology solutions for media consumers. New utilities—new ways to interact with content—seems to be more important than the content itself.
Think about the major social media and many of the new online-only media businesses like TripAdvisor and Yelp. User interfaces, tools, analytics and more are the difference-makers. They create no content on their own, really, but they have massive audiences. Google commands more ad dollars than the whole magazine and newspaper industries combined.
Which for me (and for PR communicators) raises an interesting question: Should media companies—and the PR departments and firms that create brand content and provide content to the media—be technology companies first and content companies second? Has some paradigm shifted in the media world?
Now, before you dismiss what I’m saying as just simplistic nonsense, consider that not only is Google an advertising giant, but so is Facebook. So is YouTube. Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and others will rise in ad spend, and they all depend on users for their content. They pay no content creators, but they create extraordinary technology-based environments for people to post their own content.
And if you’re looking for consistency in the argument, consider that most media companies acknowledge freely that the one-way form of communication is dead. The old-school model of, ‘we-create-content-and-you-consume-it” is simply incomprehensible to modern media users. They take cellphone photos and videos, and share them easily. Even media companies say that they want to create a platform for community interaction.
In that context, then, should we be focused on content—or technologies that enable the sharing of content? It’s a fascinating question.
There are those who say that without content, there’s nothing. No Google and no Facebook. Which is true. But that doesn’t really address the question of who’s doing the creating.
Amid all the noise surrounding Barneys New York and its alleged racial profiling, and whether the rap mogul Jay-Z should back out of his partnership with the luxury retailer, came this little noticed fact: Only 25 percent of the proceeds from the partnership, where sales are intended to benefit Jay-Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation, will actually go to the foundation.
And no doubt, only a fraction of that 25 percent will go to the ultimate objective, scholarships for economically challenged students.
And therein lies a significant issue inherent in all CSR efforts—trust. When people hear about a non-profit entity serving a worthy cause, the first thing many people think is, ‘how much of the proceeds are actually going to the cause?’
It’s a common question people ask themselves before they take out their checkbooks, and it’s legit. For example, Business Insider reported earlier this month that “a shockingly small amount of money from NFL pink merchandise goes to breast cancer research.”
How small? Business Insider said that for every $100 in pink merchandise sold, $12.50 goes to the NFL. Of that, $11.25 goes to the American Cancer Society and the NFL keeps the rest.
What these reports do is dampen charitable giving because people have images of well-paid executive directors, lavish staff salaries and benefits and rich expense accounts.
And so, from a communications perspective, PR pros who manage CSR and charitable giving need to know at least one thing: The actual percentages of funds going to a charity or cause needs to become part of CSR messaging, because the media is going to report on it anyway and it’s better to be ahead of the story.
And by mastering this one thing, you can avoid the reaction that ‘oh, well, it’s just another non-profit enriching itself before doing accomplishing social good.’
Butterflies in your stomach. Dry mouth. Fantasy of escaping through the back door. It’s inevitable: at some point in your career, you’ll need to speak in front of an audience. Whether at a small meeting, a conference, a general session, on a panel, or on your own. For most of us, it’s about getting out of our comfort zone. If it’s any consolation, the number-one fear of Americans is Public Speaking. Death is the number-2 fear. So you are not alone (until you die). Based on my own experiences and interviews with countless public speakers over the past year, I offer these nines tips to help you get through your next speaking gig with flying colors:
1. Research your audience: why are they there, what are their job responsibilities, how knowledgeable are they of the topic you’ll be speaking about? If possible, ask the event producer to survey the audience in advance w/a few questions that will help you tailor your presentation.
2. Avoid death by PowerPoint. Put another way, don’t talk them to sleep. Slides are important but they should be springboards to your speech and not littered with words and cheesy clip art. Large point size, consistent style and about half the slide blank are the rules. Show some video if you can – but not of cute puppies or kittens, unless you’re speaking to an animal rights group.
3. Master your content:. a corollary to tip #1, speak of what you know. You’ll be more relaxed and confident if you know your material. If you’re asked to speak about a topic that is complicated and not in your wheelhouse, decline the invite.
4. Interact with your audience. Build a quick community with the attendees and encourage questions.
5. Limit talking about yourself. You know the speaker bio provided to the audience in advance? They already know who you are. Make it about them.
6. Wear your storytelling hat. There’s nothing better than a story to illustrate your point. That is what the audience will remember. Bring one great story to your speech – not 3 mediocre ones – and you will connect with your audience.
7. Own your content. I was listening to a speaker recently whose entire presentation was about quoting other authors and experts and not sharing an original thought. Find something unique and original to say to your audience. There’s a reason you were asked to take the stage.
8. Remember social media. Be careful what you say and how you say it. One off-color quote can go viral on social media and affect your reputation and your organization’s.
9. Don’t picture your audience naked. This is an old bit of advice predicated on the notion that the naked attendee is more vulnerable than you and so you have the upper hand. This advice doesn’t hold true — better to picture your audience thinking positive thoughts about you, and cheering you on. The crowd wants you to succeed, they are rooting for you. That‘s the naked truth.
What tips would you add to this list?
– Diane Schwartz
Last week, I read a well-done blog from a writer and social-media consultant named Paul Gillin lamenting the death of BtoB Magazine, which Crain Communications said it is folding into Ad Age as of the first of next year.
What especially caught my eye was this observation:
“The advertising market for business publications is in free fall, and since most of the magazine’s advertisers are themselves B2B media companies, BtoB has suffered along with everybody else.”
Being a student of the media industry, and a content specialist on PR News, I wanted to know why. On the PR side in particular, I would argue that a decline in advertising—in media covering media certainly, but in a lot of print media as well—portends serious challenges for the PR profession.
Consider that as newspapers decline, and advertising in traditional print brands shrinks, the space available for news will also decline. That, of course, means the space available for you to tell your stories via journalists shrinks as well. That’s a dilemma worth preparing for. And I’d argue that media relations is the most important function in PR.
Consider too that as traditional print media declines fewer journalists will be called to the industry, and those who are might well be less capable. Again, a challenge for PR pros who need to rely on reporters who know their beats and get things right.
What’s more, as traditional print brands decline, their influence declines with them, meaning that you, as PR pros, need to find the new kinds of influencers. That’s not always obvious, and it means you’re going to have to balance the old with the new for a long time into the future.
So why is all this happening? I have a few theories, and I like to test them out on other smart people. Sometimes they agree, and other times I suspect they think I’m way wrong.
So I wrote a comment to Gillin’s blog that asked him what he thinks is driving that free fall. Specifically, I asked:
• Is it that print advertising has become an inefficient way to deliver brand messages?
• Is it because software products have emerged in the media industry that render third-party suppliers—advertisers—less essential? In other words, is it a case of, ‘we can build, so we don’t need to buy?’
• And also, do we buy less? For example, online, we don’t need a printer in a continuous relationship, we need a Web development firm just once every few years.
• Is advertising in free fall too because new channels and technologies have emerged—such as Facebook, Google and database-management tools—that allow marketers to more effectively identify and communicate with prospects?
• And if that’s the case, does that mean that the audiences that media companies have traditionally aggregated are less valuable and less compelling to marketers?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t even know if they’re the right questions to ask. But something is driving the decline in advertising, not just in media on media, not just in b-to-b media, but in many print publications. My friend Jim Elliott says that advertising will come roaring back. It always has in the past. We shall see. What’s new is the volume of alternative media now available, and the ways in which people consume media.
PR execs are not supposed to parrot the boss. At least on paper.
Despite the tremendous changes throughout the PR field, one thing remains a constant: The ability of PR managers to take an alternative (if not contrarian) view of the party line and say to the top brass, “That may not be the best idea.”
For C-level execs who understand the role of PR, getting a difference of opinion from PR reps about, say, a potential marketing strategy or crisis management plan can’t be underestimated. It prevents execs from operating in a parallel universe in which everything those execs say or do is considered gold, and the rest of his or her staff nod in agreement. Too many top executives live in splendid intellectual isolation.
The best types of comments posted on companies’ websites, social channels and other media vehicles are those that take the brand to task and offer legitimate criticism.
That’s why Google’s recently announced move to change how YouTube uploaders manage comments on their videos may not do PR pros any favors.
The new system, which last week began rolling out to a limited number of uploaders, “favors relevancy over recency and introduces enhanced moderation tools,” according to Cnet.
The moderation tools for uploaders and channel owners include the ability to review comments before they’re posted, blacklisting certain words and whitelisting specific commenters so their posts will always be approved, Cnet said.
For brands looking for some unvarnished truths about their products and services the new moderation tools could be akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Doesn’t social media foster enough conformity? Do we really need to inspire more? When I was in college a journalism professor told me that compliments are like kryptonite; they make you weak and prevent you from improving your writing or interviewing skills.
Same deal for PR folks. To get a better a sense of whether their campaigns (or YouTube videos) are resonating with the target audience they need to embrace all opinions, not least any vituperative comments that at the same time make valid points.
The vote here is to check out Google’s new moderation tools regarding YouTube, but be selective with them lest you end up whitewashing every last comment.
Sure, some comments posted online have all the charm of a dock strike. Sometimes I feel like taking a shower after reading the nastiest of them.
But cutting off communication, however unsettling, won’t do any good. It’ll just get you comments saying how wonderful your brand is. And how boring is that?
PR people are in the business of embracing communication, no matter how crude, not shutting it out.
Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
What is it about CEOs? How can so many of them be so smart and so accomplished, and yet still say so many bad or dumb things?
It’s enough to keep a communications team up at night—and if they get to sleep, they have anxiety-driven nightmares.
Just this week, Guido Barilla, the CEO of one of the leading pasta makers in the world, brought a boycott down on his company for remarks that were viewed as homophobic. Within a few hours of the news, according to the guardian.com, the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending on Twitter.
“For us, the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company,” Barilla said in a radio interview when asked whether he’d use gay people in advertising. “I would not do it, but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others. I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family.”
This all comes just months after Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy renewed an old controversy he created in 2012 by tweeting his dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.
Also this year, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries brought negative attention on himself and his company when older comments surfaced where he said he only wants good looking people to buy his clothes.
And American Apparel CEO Dov Charney seems to be just minutes away at any given time from another lawsuit.
I think CEOs are smart, for sure—but they’re also human. And once people get to the top of their profession, they’re a) accustomed to thinking they’re always right, and b) used to subordinates telling them they’re always right. That leads very quickly to hubris and arrogance for most people, excepting only those who are really disciplined and have a very solid sense of self.
What’s a communicator to do? Here are a few options:
• Engage the executives in your company in media training. Not in sporadic episodes, but sustained programs. Don’t do it yourself. Bring in experts.
• Challenge the boss. Oftentimes, you’ll be putting your job at risk, but heck, it can’t be good for you or your company if you merely go along and get along.
• Know your executives. Know what their personal perspectives are. Respect those views, but help them understand that those views and the company’s marketing messaging are two different things.
• Offer yourself as a sounding board to flippant top executives—have them bounce their public statements off you first. And if they reject that idea, then it might be time to think about your own reputation and find an environment that is more receptive to good PR counsel.
I was quoted in the newspaper the other day. The quote was technically inaccurate—I didn’t say what the reporter wrote that I said. But it was correct in the substance. In effect, the reporter understood my meaning, and got it right, but wasn’t writing down or transcribing my words verbatim. The quote was an approximation, rebuilt by the writer.
Was it okay? All’s well that ends well? No, not really. It can’t be. My view from years of work in journalism is that if you use a direct quote, it has to be what the person said. As a reporter and editor, I’ve cleaned up quotes, and taken out repeated words, and eliminated sentence fragments that come up when people speak extemporaneously and change their direction as they go. I’ve even clarified quotes, inserting nouns when the speaker used pronouns.
But that’s different from “reconstructing” a quote because you didn’t write it down—or you weren’t listening carefully.
Which leads me to my point. In journalism or PR—indeed all communications—listening is a technique. In PR, it could be about understanding the context and underlying objective of a campaign, not just what the client’s RFP said, or what the CEO indicated at the Monday meeting. It is something close to intuition, even if that can be tricky. There is a skill to training your ear to listen, even as you’re taking notes.
The process is fascinating, really. I remember early on, when I’d have one of those old-style reporter’s notebooks, furiously scribbling, standing up, as the mayor (or whomever) rattled off a comment. I got so good at it that I could listen, and engage critically, responding to what was said, and not just merely transcribing. And at the same time, I could sense in real time when a quote was good enough to take it down verbatim.
And that’s the crux. As a communications professional, great engagement and great results can only come from truly listening—call it critical listening—and being able to separate the fluff from the substance. On the fly.
An example: Just last week, I attended a conference, but spent more time than I should have tending to matters back at the office. When it came time to write a cohesive report on the event, I kind of surprised myself, because all the while I had been doing critical listening. I was tuned to the speakers and the comments that mattered the most. The report wasn’t half bad.