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.
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
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.
I picked up a sound piece of advice the other night, during a college admissions event my daughter and I attended. Among the questions the prospective students asked of the alumni panel was whether the class sizes are so big that you can’t see, hear and learn in them. The very articulate Class of 2010 alumnus responded with a great piece of advice that was applicable to me — and you, I imagine. She said: “Just sit in the front of the room.” (Ah, if only it were that easy. Especially in college, when you really aren’t sure if you’ll be staying for the whole class, and what about your friends who wouldn’t dare sit in the front row?)
The high school senior who asked the question nodded affirmatively, but you could see that the sound advice flowed right over her head. I believe she was hoping for a literal answer, such as “Yes, it sucks, but you deal with it.”
The takeaway for me was an affirmation that just changing where you sit changes your perspective, improves your visibility, eliminates distractions, and gets you noticed. To take the advice further, instead of sitting in the back of the room (or being anonymous in your organization, or among your customers), move yourself to get closer, to be seen, and to hear things more clearly. By sitting (or getting closer), you’ll pick up on details that could make a big difference in your viewpoint. Our marketplaces are bigger than any college classroom; if you’re in the way, way back then you’re missing out on the conversation.
I didn’t expect to learn much from this college event – it was really for my daughter, not me. Which shows you can learn some life lessons from unexpected places and times. Just sit closer, and listen.
When I started out in journalism—in daily newspapers—every so often you’d have a colleague opt out of the reporter’s life and move into PR instead. It always seemed like a loss, because some of those colleagues were the most capable among us.
But journalism’s loss was PR’s gain. Today, in 2013, that’s perhaps more true than ever, because of the disruption of the traditional media world. Let’s be honest with what’s happening: The newspaper industry—the industry dedicated to putting news on a paper product, which is printed and distributed every morning—is dying. Print newspapers probably will be gone in a generation or less. The print-magazine industry is less challenged than newspapers, but the trend is clear. Think about what’s happened.
• It’s not just that new technologies have massively changed media-consumption patterns and expectations.
• It’s not just that the Internet has destroyed many forms of revenue-producing classified advertising, which once was a staple of newspaper businesses.
• It’s not just that it’s become an extraordinary challenge to invest resources in highly qualified journalists to produce news, when that news is then redistributed online for free within minutes. How do you make money in that environment?
• It’s not just that newspapers have become an inefficient and outdated vehicle for local advertising. Local ad revenue is soaring, but it’s online, and going to contextual and ROI-oriented technology companies like Facebook and Google.
• And it’s not just that paid reader circulation—an essential part of the revenue model for newspapers and magazines—is unpredictable, at best, online.
It’s all those things, combined. And the pace of change is accelerating. One outcome has been a wave of downsizings in the newspaper and magazine worlds, with more journalists moving into PR. And ironically, what many of them are doing now is—wait for it—creating journalism! They’re just doing it for all different kinds of brands, not just media brands. They’re serving brand communities, not geographic or industry-specific communities.
As media has changed, so has marketing and communications. The most significant change currently in brand communications is content marketing, where brands engage audiences through traditional journalism techniques—they tell interesting and relevant stories that readers like. This storytelling doesn’t work if it’s product pitching in disguise. It’s more sophisticated than that. And usually, it’s the PR staff that handles content marketing.
Is content marketing a threat to journalism? No. No more so than the bottom-feeder media companies that for 100 years neglected journalism and viewed content as “the space between the ads.”
What is happening is this: As marketers increasingly engage in content marketing—online, on social media, in video—they make PR stronger. They become a new source of competition for traditional media companies. And they also provide a new source of employment for those professional journalists who’ve found that career opportunities, good incomes and professional growth are no longer as plentiful in traditional media.
Maybe those folks who went into PR when I was starting out were just a bit ahead of the trend line.
When UPS wanted to make the public aware of its sustainability and energy-saving practices, the PR team knew it needed to tell an interesting story to showcase its efforts. It has always stuck with me that UPS drivers don’t make left turns (or at least, 95% of the time, they don’t turn left). By turning right and not idling, UPS has been able to cut CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons and has saved 10 million gallons of fuel since 2004. The media loves stories like these, and I bet every company has a story to tell that’s illustrative and memorable. The hard part, it turns out, is not in identifying your story but in telling it smartly to the media. There are so many things that can go wrong on the road to positive coverage.
Jerry Doyle of CommCore Consulting Group spends most of his days training C-suite execs and PR pros on how to talk to the media, how to tell a story that resonates and how to stay on message. At a PR News Media Training Workshop in NY on Sept 10, he reiterated the importance of sticking to your message while respecting the reporter’s time and intelligence. He asked the workshop attendees: “What do you do when a reporter asks you a question?” So many times, the interviewee changes the topic, or veers in another direction instead of actually answering the question. When you don’t answer the question, says Doyle, “it’s a tell” – in other words, skeptical journalists get more skeptical and the questions harden.
In preparing for your next media interview, keep these tips in mind:
- Always be tuned into WIIFM: “what’s in it for me” (the reporter and his/her audience): make your comments relevant to the interview and compelling to the audience.
- Pick a message/point and state it 3 times during the interview: any less or any more than that and your message will get lost.
- Research the reporter before the interview: who is she, what does she cover, what were her last 3 stories?
- Google yourself and your company: that’s what the reporter is doing before the interview, so don’t be caught off-guard by recent coverage of your company (or you).
- Assume you’ll be asked difficult questions: be prepared to answer them.
- Tell a story or provide an analogy: nothing’s better than a short, interesting story to illustrate your point, and for complicated issues a simple analogy is much appreciated by the reporter.
- Always answer the question: Better to say “I will look into that” than “no comment”.
- Have a bridging strategy: at times, you’ll need to bridge the conversation to get to your point. Practice bridging.
- Make sure your last words are good ones: often the last question is the reporter’s lead, the sound bite on TV or the most memorable answer, so make sure you end the interview on your high note.
A reporter is usually not trying to stump you, but no reporter worth his salt is going to throw softballs throughout the interview. If you can master the 9 tips above, you and your brand won’t suffer a black eye.
- Diane Schwartz, @dianeschwartz
In an episode of “Family Guy,” Stewie is hobnobbing at a party when he announces that “you’re going to love this” as a prelude to a politically incorrect joke.
But before he says anything, he goes outside the door to see if the coast is clear. Then he runs out to the street to see if anybody is listening. Ditto at the beach and, for good measure, cow pasture.
Convinced he’s well out of earshot, Stewie scurries back to the party and says, “So these two black guys walk into a bar…” Of course, the instant he starts to tell the joke a black man pops out of a potted plant nearby and asks, “Hey, what are you guys talking about?”
I was reminded of the episode when I saw the picture of Senator John McCain playing poker on his iPhone during the Senate committee hearing on foreign relations discussing the potential use of force against Syria.
The picture, which was reportedly taken by a Washington Post photographer, is yet another indication of how we’re all just a click (or tweet) away from living in our own personal “Truman Show.”
McCain probably thought he could squeeze in a few hands of online poker during the hearing and nobody would be the wiser.
McCain, who tried to make light of the situation with a less-than-funny tweet, is probably still wiping the egg off his face. One of the most vocal supporters for the U.S. to take action against Syria, McCain’s gaffe during the hearing could cost him some credibility.
Call it a cautionary tale for communicators and the people they represent.
We’ve all heard the expression, “The Mic Is Always Hot.”
Now PR execs can deposit another aphorism into the memory bank: “The Camera Is Always On.”
As hand-held devices get more and more sophisticated and micro cameras become ubiquitous, PR pros need to be metaphysically aware of the growing potential of embarrassing themselves, their brands or their clients—and all of it being caught on camera or video.
As we adjust to an increasingly digital age, the only place that a PR pro (or senior executive) can speak freely is probably a hermetically sealed tank, and even that may be questionable.
The point here is not for communicators (and their clients) to play mum when they’re out in public or not be themselves; that wouldn’t come off too well with constituents. Plus, it would be bad for business.
But, unlike, say, five years ago, communicators can no longer take for granted that if they’re in a sealed-off environment their actions (like playing with their iPhone during an important meeting or making vituperative comments) will not somehow get recorded for the masses to misconstrue and/or ridicule.
Privacy may be going the way of the Edsel, of course, but you’re still in control of your actions. When you’re in the public domain, focus on the work at hand and don’t slide into behavior that would embarrass your mother. Don’t let the cameras win.
Follow Mathew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
Women are being told to “lean in” to advance their careers; others are encouraged to lean out. I’ve got some advice that’s gender-neutral and is in response to a troublesome trend permeating society, from business meetings to social gatherings, from conference rooms to concert halls, from boardrooms to, um, bedrooms. The advice? Look Up! Move your focus from your phone to your physical environment and you’ll be pleased with the meaningful connections you can make in real-time.
This is not a lecture to stop texting, emailing, posting or pinning. Rather, it’s a reminder to be in the moment. To embrace the conversation in front of you without the distraction of the cloud. Without the addictive need to upload a photo, tweet a thought or respond to an email that really can wait. Sometimes you must look down and away, sending out an important message or just taking a break from the real world. It’s forgivable.
I am sometimes guilty of Looking Down and I try to catch myself – before I either walk into a wall or become so disoriented with what’s being discussed in the room that I’m scrambling to come up with something smart to say to prove I was listening. But those of us who regularly Look Down are not fooling anyone. Over time, you become “that person” who is always on her phone, that person who has better things to do than Look Up and engage. That person who thinks sending a Selfie in the middle of a meal with colleagues will keep you in the loop, in the know. Don’t be that person.
In the business of communications, it is imperative that we listen and engage. We are storytellers, and the cumulative effect of always Looking Down is we miss the story. For those in management or mentoring positions, modeling the Look Up behavior will go a long way toward creating knowledgeable and focused apprentices who will not only learn to Look Up and listen, but will inevitably look up to you as a shining example of restraint and engagement in a noisy, digital world.
– Diane Schwartz
When I was a child, my mother always corrected me when I used the word “uh” and “like,” as in the sentence, “Uh, I am not sure, like I really want to do this but I don’t know how.” I have made up that sentence for great effect (hopefully) to illustrate how uneducated one can sound when using unnecessary, filler words. Kids can get away with “um” and “like” and “you know” – then one day, kids become directors, managers, account executives, spokespeople, and colleagues in a professional environment. What you say and how you say it starts to matter. Whereas a mother would implore her child to not use “uh” and the child will roll his eyes and still say it, it’s unlikely your boss or your colleague will correct your language. It would just seem rude and make you feel bad. So you are left to your own devices, to self-correct. How many times in a given day do you think you fill your dialogue with these words:
- You Know
- Ta (a mangled variation of “to”)
- Honestly (as in “Honestly, what I think you need to do)
- I mean
The last word I’d like to bring to your attention is “but”. It’s a fine word and grammatically acceptable. But it’s ripe with nuance. Try, for a day, to replace the word “but” with “and”. I bet you will come across as kinder and less contrary. Consider these possibly familiar exchanges:
“I just read your report and found it very interesting. It’s well-written and thought-out. But you are missing a key idea.”
An alternative without “but”:
“I just read your report and found it very interesting. It’s well-written and thought-out and if we were to add a few more sentences on (fill in the blank), it would be ready to distribute.”
Response: “Great! Thank you!”
“How does this outfit look on me?”
Response: “It looks nice, but you might want to loosen the belt.”
An alternative without “but”:
“How does this outfit look on me?”
Response: “It looks nice, and I like the shoes, too!”
Try replacing the word “but” with “and”. It may do wonders for your relationships, you know?
Are there are other “filler” words that should be added to this list? Please chime in.
- Diane Schwartz