I was at a PR News Conference a couple of weeks ago, and during a Q&A with a panel critiquing press inquiries, the question came up of when and how to follow-up with a non-responsive reporter.
I was the moderator of the panel, and I counseled persistence. I’ve found in my career as a journalist that it’s best to try and produce a response. It’s a fine line. If you’re too pushy, you increase the likelihood that you’ll get a response but diminish the chance that it will be a positive one.
If you’re too passive, you stand little or no chance of getting what you want, which is engagement—in the form of a response and accessibility if you’re a reporter, and engagement and a story if you’re in PR.
So the trick is to give the person with whom you’re corresponding time to consider your pitch, and friendly and professional reminders. This timeframe is dependent on the objective. If you need an answer on deadline, you have to follow-up immediately, even a few times in a single day. If you’re working on a longer-term project, every few days is better.
So at the event, I suggested that approach to the panel—get your source to respond. But one of the panelists, a reporter for USA Today, said that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t work. He said he gets dozens of pitches every day, and that he selects 20 or more at a time and deletes them in bulk. Even persistent PR outreach can’t overcome that.
He has a point, for sure. But my approach will produce a second look and a second chance, provided you’re doing a few things right. And if you are, you avoid getting your release “Snapchatted”—that is, deleted and gone forever within a few minutes of hitting an inbox. Here are some things to keep in mind.
• Think like a reporter. So we know that reporters are very busy, and need to make instant decisions about what to publish today, and what deserves to be worked on as a longer-term piece. So your release—from the subject line, to your brief written intro, to the text itself, must solve those two things for the reporter: Is it immediate news that needs to be published today? Or is it worthy of inclusion in a thought-leadership item, a trend piece?
• Think like a reporter circa 2013. This is really important. There are many more news outlets, and many of them are non traditional, so you have lots more opportunities to get something out into the news stream. But most traditional-media reporters are in organizations whose teams have been dramatically reduced. They’re much more harried. They’re in some cases less knowledgeable about the beats they cover. Your job is to solve their problems.
• Address their challenge, not your brand’s news. This is in some ways obvious, but in others, counter-intuitive. The point is, your news isn’t what a reporter is going to respond to, unless it’s a really major development. If your reporter covers tech, for example, and her specialty is the tech economy, then your press release about a personnel move needs to be framed in a way that makes it clear to the reporter that there’s a connection to the broader tech economy. You’d be surprised how often you can legitimately make a connection like that.
• Know your subject, but don’t patronize. Reporters can be cynical. They don’t like compliments that come off as fake. However, if you’re following the coverage your target reporter does, then you see all kinds of useful things—the types of stories, the points of emphasis that crop up repeatedly, the sources she uses, even favorite words and phrases. Play to those things—but do it implicitly, so the reporter senses his or her objectives are being met.
• If you’ve followed up several times, through e-mail and voicemail, do a quick reminder along the lines of, “Hey Jane—I know you’re really busy. Just wanted to check in on my release. It’s relevant to your audience because of X, Y, and Z. I hope you use it. I’m standing by to be of assistance. But let me know either way. If it’s a “no,” that’s okay, maybe next time.”
Let’s assume that your press release landed in the right in-box, meaning the reporter is the right target for your message. For anyone in public relations, just getting to this point is a major achievement. But don’t get all cocky, because what comes next is critical. As a reporter by trade and one who still receives roughly 25 press releases per day in my in-box, I can tell you that a great press release is hard to find.
Reporters do not have a love-hate relationship with press releases. They have a “meh” relationship with them. Most of the press releases reporters receive are not going to rock their world. But they will be read and used by a reporter if they contain a news hook that is relevant to the reporter’s beat. Once hooked at least on the topic, a great press release will contain:
1. An attention-grabbing headline.
2. A “nut graph” to kill for: the first paragraph with 2 to 3 sentences must be succinct and newsworthy. Much like a reporter’s own article.
3. Multimedia: photos, video and the like – a must-have for multimedia journalists, which most reporters are, whether they like it or not.
4. Good contact information – not just contact information, but the contacts of people who will answer the phone and respond within the hour to your email query.
5. A great quote - The art of press release quote-writing involves giving the end reader the impression that the reporter got the quote directly from the source, not from the press release.
6. Statistics and other data – reporters love numbers, which make their stories more credible and interesting, and which impresses their editors.
7. A compelling story (more on that in a second).
You’ve heard countless advice on words to avoid in press releases, such as “leading”, “ground-breaking” and “best.” A Reporter’s Bullshit Meter will ring loudly at the sight of these words, and there’s no doubt your press release will be diminished. I won’t belabor the point. But I encourage anyone who writes a press release to get real about who’s reading your prose and how credible your words are. You’d be surprised how many reporters stop reading a press release if there are too many superlatives.
At PR News’ PR Writing Workshop this week in San Francisco, there was agreement that a press release has roughly 7 seconds to grab a reporter’s attention. Seven seconds is widely touted as the time it takes to make a first impression. So, next time you go about writing your press release, apply the 7 second principle.
Then, consider, what would come next? Does your press release have the qualities that will entice the reporter to email or call you? And are you ready to take the story that was the crux of your press release, and continue telling that story?
While it’s always great to see your press release “covered” by the media in the fullest sense of the word – the press release is essentially re-run as editorial or portions cut and pasted — it is much better to create a connection and entice the reporter to hear more of your story. If the press release is your first impression, then the follow-up call or email is your opportunity to tell your story. The press release is an under-rated story-telling vehicle and you are in the driver’s seat.
– Diane Schwartz
New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, also known as Carlos Danger in the sexting world, issued an apology this week after more salacious text messages surfaced between him and a twenty-something Indiana woman. The messages were exchanged after he resigned from Congress in 2011 amid a sexting scandal, promising to rehabilitate. At his press conference this week, he and his wife Huma Abedin sought forgiveness and understanding. Meanwhile, the Web site on which the latest texts were revealed, TheDirty.com, is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame and women’s groups are at odds over whether his wife should stand by her man, or at least encourage him to drop out of the mayoral race.
Many have noted that Weiner has a “PR problem.” Surely, a crisis such as this requires a public relations strategy. And we know that Weiner’s camp is pretty good at PR, considering he rose from the ashes of the original sexting scandal two years ago to run for mayor of New York – and the polls had him to neck and neck with his competitors just a few days ago.
Tuesday’s press conference, however creepy it might have seemed to some, was a smart step forward for someone who refuses to quit the race. (I emphasize: it was a good media relations play for someone who’s still in the race.) His demeanor during the press conference was on the mark, as he was deferential to his wife, contrite and even-keeled. And the public is extremely forgiving, so Weiner has that going for him. Plus, as most media trainers would advise, he stayed on (his) message, noting: “This is not about me, this is about the fact that the middle class has people struggling to make it in this city.”
A good PR counselor would work hard to get the public to see him in a new light – that of a loyal but flawed husband, a doting father and a hard-working civil servant who will fight for New Yorkers.
But wouldn’t it be interesting if a PR counselor could advise someone like Weiner to do what’s right for the person (and arguably for the city of New York) and take the public relations strategy of no relations with the public? My advice to Weiner is to:
> Get help for his behavior — not for the after-effects
> Step away from the podium– forget about being mayor for now
> Become self-aware and learn to shun the spotlight
Lastly – putting it all in perspective, Weiner is not a criminal. He is a man with questionable character and integrity. He doesn’t have a PR problem. He has a personal issue that shouldn’t be the public’s problem.
– Diane Schwartz
(I say ‘wait for it’ because anyone who knows BuzzFeed’s editorial approach knows its love for lists.)
It was a sponsored story—paid advertising—posted on behalf of Hostess, whose Twinkies and other brands are back after the production ceased and the company downsized nearly out of existence last year.
But the comebacks listed in the BuzzFeed story never once mentioned Hostess. It was all about other stuff.
It was actually a pretty good list, and pretty funny, too, despite small errors and its ‘intern-pulled-the-factoids-off-Wikipedia’ feel. So were the comments, not all of which were complimentary. “Uh, Arrested Development was canceled in Feb 2006, and the new season, specifically for Netflix, had 15 episodes. It really isn’t hard to check up on simple facts before submitting an ‘article,’” went one.
That’s an awesome description, for native or traditional forms. But with native, there are new ways to create superior value for an advertiser (and reader/user) and also new ways to mess things up.
Check out QZ.com for a clean, elegant way to do in-stream native advertising. Consider that the advertising is in the form of storytelling. Not a marketing pitch. Think too about the value provided to an advertiser to be fully integrated into a site’s content stream—where you see the ad as you scroll, and the ad’s content comes up in a search. That’s incredible advertising value.
But then there’s the flip side: Done poorly, native advertising in a content stream can seem spammy. It can disrupt the flow of content, not enhance it. It can make your page look like a dissonant cacophony, and put your credibility at risk when people open a page and see yellow-tinted ads where you think they shouldn’t be.
It’s a double-edged sword, and I admit that I’m not sure I like everything BuzzFeed is doing. That might be, though, that their formulaic approach kind of gets old quick. The fun of media consumption, and of PR, is in being surprised, and even delighted, in unexpected ways.
Whether you’re a Harry Potter fan or not, you know who J.K. Rowling is. I bet you never heard of Robert Galbraith or “The Cuckoo’s Calling” until it was revealed on Monday that Robert is Rowling and that “Cuckoo” is about….
Forget what the book is about – the news here is that Rowling penned the book under a male pseudonym and a reporter for the London Sunday Times revealed this past week that she was the author. The second of Rowling’s adult novels, this one was well received by critics but sold only 1,500 copies since its April release. That is about 450 million less copies than her Harry Potter books. Unsurprisingly, since the big reveal, sales of “Cuckoo’s Calling” have increased 500% and it’s near the top of Amazon’s best-seller list.
Rowling told The Times of London that the experience was worthwhile: “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
The skeptic in me (and it’s a big part of me) says this was magnificently orchestrated by Rowling and her publisher. After basking in the glow of every single Harry Potter book, then writing adult fiction (“The Casual Vacancy” that can best be described as “meh”) what’s a famous author to do other than test a new genre and gauge public reaction without exposing her true identity? She knew that a good number of Muggles would gravitate to a crime mystery “Cuckoo’s Calling” written by a certain J.K. Rowling.
These shenanigans got me thinking about whether I would go incognito to test a wild idea, start down a new career path or pen a ground-breaking manifesto. Let’s assume I’m a well-known person with a tremendous following (neither is true). And I am sick and tired of the “hype” and “expectation.” Would I have the courage of my conviction and let the chips fall where they may? Or would I come up with a new pen name (just as Rowling, and Stephen King, Anne Rice and others before them) and time the unmasking and glorious hype just so?
I’d like to think I’d use my real identity. But it’s hard to imagine the kind of success that allows the freedom to choose and the preordained acceptance of that choice.
What would you do?
- Diane Schwartz
On Twitter: @dianeschwartz
The ugly story of Aaron Hernandez raises again the issue of perception challenges in big-time sports, both on the professional and collegiate levels, and it’s worth some time thinking about how we got here.
We’re a sports-obsessed culture. Always have been. It goes way back in the country’s psyche. I recently read a book called “Crazy ‘08: How a Cast of Boneheads, Rogues and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History.”
You might think it was about 2008, and Alex Rodriguez, Brian Wilson (the San Francisco Giants closer with the long dyed-black beard), and George Steinbrenner.
But it was really about the 1908 season, when America was equally baseball crazy.
Then there’s the long history of idolizing college football players like Red Grange, George Gipp (Ronald Reagan made Knute Rockne’s phrase “Win one for the Gipper” famous) and Notre Dame’s 1924 “Four Horsemen.”
Going back even further than that, baseball became a national sport during the Civil War, when soldiers from all over the country were introduced to it and in the years after the war spread it to the four corners of the nation.
This explains why we revere sports institutions and athletes. But we give them a pass way too often. We create a hothouse environment where a sense of entitlement reigns, where cheaters are celebrated, where criminals are excused, where the money is huge, and where institutions like the Penn State football program end up driving university policy, not the other way around.
In what other context would someone like Ray Lewis, recently retired from the Baltimore Ravens, be considered the face of a business?
Big-time sports are popular, but also tarnished. And they have the power, when they run amok, to tarnish other brands, like the universities that lend their names to sports programs. After Hernandez’s arrest last month for murder, new light was cast on his time at the University of Florida, when 25 players were arrested a total of 31 times during the tenure of coach Urban Meyer, a period when the team won two national championships.
Are championships worth more than character and reputation? It appears so, and while Hernandez and others must face the consequences for their alleged actions, the system collectively really is to blame. Here are some suggestions on how to fix things.
1. Make use of performance-enhancing drugs a career ender. Baseball, especially, has a huge problem, mostly because it turned a two-decade-long blind eye on the problem while gladly raking in the revenue generated during the steroid era.
2. Pay college athletes. This will go a long way toward eliminating the mostly false notion of the “student athlete.” If the athlete is selected based on raw economics, overlooking character will be less likely.
3. Do a much better job to acknowledge and explain the role athletics plays in college finances. This will mitigate the excessive influence that boosters play, and also help schools from a public relations standpoint. Incredibly, in 40 of the 50 states, the highest paid state employee is either the football or basketball coach. That made major headlines a few months ago. The reaction was largely indignation. Put aside questions about terribly misplaced priorities, however, and you really can justify those salaries based on the economics—who brings more revenue to a school (and thus helps fund important academic initiatives) than the coach of a successful sports program?
4. Don’t play the victim, as Bob Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots, did when he recently said that the team was “duped,” by Aaron Hernandez. Own the mistake. And communicate to the public how you’re going to do everything possible to avoid the same mistake in the future.
Tony Silber: @tonysilber
OK, I stole the idea for this headline from Abbie Hoffman, author of “Steal This Book.” But let’s call it an homage instead of outright theft.
My headline was inspired by WFMU radio host Tom Scharpling, who was, in his show last night, making fun of headlines that are naked ploys to get you to click on them, such as “Why I Hate the San Antonio Spurs” or “Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Call Your Doctor Right Now.” Scharpling also admitted to using the same tactics for his own online pieces.
The fact is, if you are a professional communicator, headlines are everything. Until the time comes when text finally fades away and we transmit ideas solely with still and video images, you’ll need to study the past masters at the New York Post and the current masters at BuzzFeed and learn the craft of writing clickable headlines. Your job as a headline writer is to bypass cognitive thought and create an instant cause and effect between the reader’s eyes and clicking finger.
Think beyond the literal headlines on press releases and blog posts. A tweet is a headline; so is a Facebook post. A subject line in an email is a headline. A meta description for a Web page that shows up in Google searches is a headline. A text message is most definitely a headline. And each of these headlines is battling millions upon millions of other headlines to win the almighty clicks.
The headline is the gateway to all digital communications, and if you can’t write headlines that force people to click—almost against their will—then you’re not really communicating.
- Steve Goldstein
There are countless communications takeaways from the recent celebrity gaffes. Whether it’s Paula Deen dealing with allegations of being a racist and then dropped like a buttered sweet potato by every brand partner, or Jennifer Lopez singing “Happy Birthday” to Turkmenistan’s authoritarian ruler for his 56th birthday last Saturday night, one thing is for sure: another day, another blunder by a celebrity or public figure.
Is the PR team to blame for either of these crises — or is it to be sympathized with? After all, wrangling bosses with high stature and over-sized egos to do and say what you advise is not kid’s play. You win some, you lose some. In the Paula Deen and J.Lo cases, I take the side that PR could have done a better job of doing their job. Public Relations is not just about pitching stories to the media (which is what most of the public thinks) – it’s about improving or maintaining reputations, shaping messages, avoiding crises, moving a brand forward, managing expectations, and so much more.
PR could have shined in both these crises – resulting in another needed feather in the PR cap. (Notably, there are hundreds of crises every day that never see the light of media because PR is in fact doing its job.)
Because too much has already been written and said about Paula Deen, I will keep this one simple: PR counselors can’t make their clients less racist, but a strategic and strong PR counsel can guide their client to take the right steps to mitigate crisis, to apologize, to articulate how he or she will make amends. Instead, we hear Deen utter: “I is what I is” and we hear her challenging people to throw stones at her head if they weren’t guilty as well of saying mean things. Even before getting into crisis management mode, shouldn’t Deen’s PR team have seen this coming? Did they have a seat at any of Deen’s many tables, guiding her on public perception, listening to what her employees were saying and feeling? It was a public secret that Deen used the “N-word” often.
From Savannah to the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan we have another situation that will predictably be less of a long-term problem for the celebrity. J.Lo was the guest of a China National Petroleum Corp. event in Turkmenistan when she was asked to sing “Happy Birthday” to that country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. J.Lo’s spokesman, Mark Young, told the New York Post: “Had there been knowledge of human-rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended” the birthday party. Um, Google or Bing “Turkmenistan” and you’ll find that Human Rights Watch lists it “among the most repressive” countries in the world. As my PR News colleague Lucia Davis writes on prnewsonline, this crisis, too, could have been avoided.
The whole situation was made worse by J.Lo’s team members’ enthusiasm for being at this event, with her choreographer cluelessly tweeting: “The Turkmenistan breeze feels amazing at night, kidz! I wonder where all my Turkmenistan followers are!? Hit me up!” Perhaps the people of this land can’t follow him on Tweeter because, according to Human Rights Watch, “The Turkmen government exercises total control of public life.”
In my 18 years in the PR space, one of the most basic pieces of advice volleyed between media and PR people has been to “do your homework.” PR people shouldn’t pitch stories to reporters without knowing what and whom they cover. And reporters should respect PR’s role in the ecosystem, whether it’s a political, entertainment, business or nonprofit story, and should come into the interview knowing a thing or two about their subject. Had J.Lo’s team done its homework, it would have easily discovered that even showing up for an event honoring a repressive world leader is ill-advised. Singing “Happy Birthday” was just icing on the stinking cake. Had Paula Deen’s PR team done a listening tour of the people closest to her empire – such as her employees – they could have put measures in place to avoid the downward spiral.
Summer’s here, school is out, but we will always have our homework to do.
- Diane Schwartz
My son Max tells very long stories that veer in curious directions. By the time he’s nearing the point, he forgets the ending. It’s rather cute and endearing – he is, after all, only 12 years old. He will sometimes exclaim frustratingly: “I forgot what I was going to say!” Can we admit that often it’s as if a 12-year-old is telling a story about his brand? And we aren’t as forgiving, are we?
Storytelling in PR comes in many forms: press releases, emails, memos, phone calls, meetings, press conferences, interviews. Our stakeholders have short attention spans and are less charitable about seeing through the foggy messages. They are not our parents, who will listen to our stories and love us even more for the muddled storytelling. No, stakeholders will send you on your merry way, and latch on to a better story.
Like you and me, our audiences like a story that has heart, that makes us think and moves us in some way. A few days ago, I heard about Pedigree’s partnership with “Annie” on Broadway and the search for a shelter dog to play Sandy. The story is heart-warming and memorable, and makes me want to buy Pedigree dog food and see Annie for the umpteenth time. The story had emotion.
It’s the communicator’s role to find the compelling story in the message and then make it stick. At PR News’ Content Marketing Boot Camp on Tuesday, one speaker noted that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” That’s a catchy reminder, but even in the age of social media and attention deficits, your story must be authentic, true to your brand’s story line and characters.
The best stories spread, then stick and, most importantly, result in a positive action or reaction. In other words, sticky can sometimes be stinky. Which leads me to my last point: know what to leave out of a story. Every brand and company is filled with stories. Not all of those stories should be told. Curate your stories, identify the narrative and figure out what’s better left unsaid. Not every story is worth repeating. Unless it’s about your kids.
- Diane Schwartz
If you’re an immigrant from Krypton living in the U.S.—or in any spot on Earth—then flying without the benefit of a wingspan or jet propulsion and hearing the flutter of a butterfly in Ensenada while you’re leaping over the Empire State Building in a single bound is old hat. Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel, the new Superman reboot, is no cause for celebration for you either—it’ll just flush out the anti-immigrant wingnuts who’ll once again terrorize you and your relatives with Kryptonite hockey pucks.
You didn’t ask for superpowers—you just needed to find a more hospitable planet. Your superpowers make you feel like a freak and, if you work in PR, cause no end of frustration. Using your superpowers for your own professional ends feels too much like cheating—your old-school Kryptonian parents certainly wouldn’t approve—and so you toil away like just another Clark Kent.
I’m telling you now to embrace your true, Kryptonian self—own your inner Superman or Superwoman, put your powers to use as a PR pro. Let’s face it—part of the reason you deny your superpowers is you’re afraid that they might not be so super after all. And that’s just not logical.
Here are just three suggestions to get you started:
- If your brand is in crisis because of, say, an oil spill or because of a cruise ship that’s run aground, fly around the Earth really fast to reverse its rotation around the axis. This will take you back in time so you can prevent the oil rig from exploding or the cruise ship captain from carousing.
- Make your brand a CSR leader by using your super breath power to re-freeze the melting polar ice cap.
- Use your blinding speed to respond to every tweet that mentions your brand’s name—in real time! And, as a bonus, using this speed you’ll finally be able to clear out all those unopened emails.