[This is a continuation of Mr. Solomon's previous article gleaning lessons from 2016 headlines.]
Situation: The lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree took place during rainy weather.
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: When planning an event, always take the weather into consideration. Unless your event is truly exceptional, don’t expect media to cover in inclement weather. Indoor events are preferable. If the event calls for an outdoor venue, always have a rain date planned.
Situation: Major League Baseball rescinds the rule that gave World Series home field advantage to a team from the league that won the All-Star Game.
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: When crafting a program, PR people should never be afraid of discarding long-held tenets that they believe are faulty or outdated. New thinking should be the rule, because the “new” is a better way to achieve media acceptance than the “old.”
Situation: On Dec. 2, The New York Times published a story about the opposition to making Rep. Keith Ellison chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and The Wall Street Journal ran a story about former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s failed 2013 New York City mayoral bid.
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: Both stories delved into the background of the candidates, in Ellison’s case his past political stance, in Weiner’s his lewd photos. PR people should realize that when representing an individual or company, journalists will often do their own research after you contact them with a story proposal. Always be prepared for negative information to be included in a story so a response to the story can be made in a timely manner.
Situation: Fake news becomes a hot media topic.
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: Some PR people I’ve worked with have exaggerated the news content—sometimes adding false information—during their conversations with journalists to secure an interview for a client. This is never acceptable. The competent PR person should be able to develop interesting storylines without resorting to falsehoods. Being caught providing false information can put the offender on a “do not work with” list and can hurt the journalist’s relationships with others at the agency.
Situation: Trump fills out his team with people who had been critical of him, like Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump's nominee as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: People who work for PR firms are aggressive individuals. Some of your closest colleagues are also your competitors. When you’re in a position to create an account team, do not automatically eliminate your competitors if they are the best qualified individuals. Remember, PR agencies are not gigantic businesses with thousands of employees to choose from. And a successful account team will benefit all—theoretically.
Situation: Pakistani prime minister releases text of phone call with Trump.
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: Never tell a reporter anything that you don’t want made public, and always advise clients not to do so. My Rule: Never assume that just because you tell a journalist that “this is off the record,” the journalist will agree. Remember the WW2 slogan: "Loose lips sink ships.”
Situation: Bob Dylan does not attend the ceremony in Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature because of previous commitments.
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: When I was senior vice president, sports marketing, at Burson-Marsteller, I always suggested using retired well-known athletes without flawed pasts (who were natural fits for programs) for publicity efforts. To me the reason was obvious: Nostalgia is a big part of sports; retired athletes provide a large window for scheduling appearances; current athletes do not because of training and game scheduling and are already available to beat reporters; many current athletes have endorsement arrangements with brands, making it difficult for reporters to include commercial affiliations in stories. The Dylan scheduling conflict is a lesson to be remembered by people in our business when choosing spokespersons for any type of account: A spokesperson’s availability to meet the PR publicity schedule is more important than any individual.
Situation: The Dec. 5-11 issue of SportsBusiness Journal, the Bible of sports marketing, had a major takeout regarding athletes speaking out about political and social issues.
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: The days of athletes keeping quiet about issues that sponsors find controversial are fast disappearing. PR people should warn clients that athlete endorsers are increasingly taking public stances, which could be troublesome for some clients.
Situation: Trump announced a press conference about his financial holdings and then cancelled it.
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: Press conferences are a dangerous tool, exposing clients to all sorts of reporters and to questions they would rather not answer. They should be used rarely and only to announce major news. (One-on-ones or small roundtable discussions with carefully selected reporters are preferable.) Announcing a presser and than canceling it should never happen. It gives the impression of client disarray. It also can upset journalists who planned to attend, resulting in low turnout if the event is rescheduled.
Situation: Hillary Clinton said, “…the press is finally catching up to the facts, which we desperately tried to present to them during the last months of the campaign.”
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: Young PRers should know that the facts they present to journalists will often not be included in coverage. One method of combating this is to give an “exclusive” to a prominent journalist. Other reporters will often follow up on the initial story. This is especially true with the cable TV networks, whose main source of news is cannibalizing the print media. Also, the initial story could be packaged as background material when pitching other reporters, but be certain to include some new information. Caveat: Some reporters will welcome other journalist’s stories; some will not. It’s important to know reporters' or editors' preferences. That means no shotgunning.
Situation: In its Dec. 18 issue, USA Today featured a story about Secretary of State designee Rex Tillerson with a subhead that said, “Exxon statements on climate, accounting disclosures might figure in Senate hearings.”
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: When crafting a program, a client’s history must always be considered. The same is also true when selecting a spokesperson. PR people should avoid any aspects that position the client or spokesperson in a hypercritical manner. If the media pounces on past wrongdoings, the response should not be defensive. It should be something like, “That’s a sorry history of our past, which we regret. We are now concentrating on the present and the future,” and hope the media accepts it. The worst thing to do is try to defend past wrongdoings by a client or spokesperson. Doing so will result in negative media coverage.
Situation: DeVry University agrees to $100 million settlement with the FTC for using deceptive ads and false statistics to increase enrollment.
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: The FTC also can enforce limits on PR activities. Young PR people should know that they can be subject to legal punishment if they help promote a client’s illegal actions. There are many situations in which the FTC can bring actions against PR firms and their employees. PR people should familiarize themselves with what is permissible and what isn’t in external and internal news releases and other types of communications vehicles.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at email@example.com.