Options, Education and Good Delivery: Making the Difficult Media Relations Conversation Easier

You could say there are two kinds of PR pros. Those who respond “yes” whenever the people or company they represent request a press release, thought leadership essay or other form of press coverage.

The other sort of PR pro examines the request for coverage, evaluates where/if it fits in the company’s communication strategy and whether or not it will attract media attention. Very carefully, this second type of PR pro offers honest, strategic counsel about the request’s viability.

Let’s use a request for a press release as an example. When a PR pro receives a release request that contains:

  • timely information useful for many readers
  • a clear, succinct story and
  • relevant data and quotes from top executives

the PR pro likely will accept that it’s got a chance for coverage. She’ll probably seek additional clarity, add links for more information and begin writing.

This Won't Work

The month’s how-to deals with those times the conscientious PR pro described above is handed a flat pitch. In that case, how does the PR pro tell an executive her proposal lacks a good chance at success?

Everyone knows about letting someone down gently, particularly when the person(s) on the other side of the table pays your salary. But how do you actually let them down gently? Do PR pros have best practices they use during difficult and delicate conversations?

These are far from theoretical questions, we discovered. PR pros had no trouble citing examples of such conversations for this story. “I have them every day,” one communicator tells us.

So, let’s state the table stakes and expand on them with takeaways and tactics:

  • The need for a mix of honesty and kindness during these conversations seems clear.

  • And, if at all possible, hold the conversation in person (if Covid allows) or on the phone if you know the executive well, not via text or email.

“You want to lean on transparency,” says Hollie Boodram, PR strategist and manager at Otter Public Relations. Adds Jenny Wang, VP, Clyde Group, “honesty leads to trust. You’re not doing an executive a favor if you don’t tell them the truth.”

However, mixing honesty and kindness sometimes is the tricky part. “You always want to be kind and respectful,” Boodram says, adding quickly, “but brutal honesty can be valuable, because even if [the executive] is a little offended, in that moment they'll appreciate you,” Boodram says.

However, Boodram admits appreciation may come later, “when [the executive] realizes you’ve saved them from [pitching] an article that has no ROI.” Adds Wang, “you want to be known as someone who will be straight” with executives.

  • A key part of delivering a negative media relations message is in the delivery.

All the PR pros we interviewed offered a version of the approach Andy Gilman, founder and president, CommCore Consulting Group, uses when discussing media relations issues. “I’m a big believer in positive reinforcement, even when you have to” deliver a message that an executive’s idea will garner little press coverage.

Boodram’s approach includes asking an executive why she thinks the provided pitch will make a good story. “Go into their background, their childhood even…there’s usually a deep-seated reason they think something is news.”

This approach shows you’re interested in the person’s thinking and can soften the conversation’s tone. In addition, it provides an opening for the communicator to offer a bit of media relations education.

Come with Options

Another key, the communicators agree, is arriving at such conversations armed with pitch alternatives.

“Avoid the hard ‘no’,” Wang advises. Instead, “get creative…strategize with [executives] about other ways to obtain coverage.” Once you think they’ve accepted other approaches, “get them excited about these options,” she adds.

Boodram terms her own approach “meeting them halfway,” or finding parts of an executive’s or company’s pitch that are useable.

For example, the remit is obtaining media coverage for an executive’s award, a brand’s redesigned web site or a just-released white paper. These examples elicited varying degrees of groans from our PR pros. An avalanche of recent examples came forth.

“Very few journalists are going to care about [an award announcement], especially if they’re at a rival outlet,” Wang says. Adds Gilman, an app or new site “is news to you [inside your company], but not to anyone else. There’s no hook for it.”

New Products

There are more difficult situations, Gilman and Boodram agree. That’s when a company wants coverage of a new app or product. “A story about a new app, unless you’re a major company, is too promotional,” Gilman says. “There’s no useful trend or connection to what’s going on in the news.”

Instead, an approach all our PR pros advocate is finding a trend or another piece of useful news that can carry the company’s story with it.

Says Gilman, the “coaching principle here is, ‘OK, we have a story that we want to get out. We have to find a good vector for it.’”

He recommends looking at what a reporter has written and her publication has covered. “Look for an angle, an update or a continuing trend that can make the story more relevant.”

The Award Story

For instance, say XYZ magazine has named Sami Smith Sustainable Executive of the Year. Wang suggests holding that news until you can bundle it with something that’s more interesting to readers outside of Smith’s company.

For example, let’s say Smith’s outfit is opening 44 sustainability centers nationwide next month. “Then, you issue a release with” the 44 centers “as the lead and slip in the part about Smith’s award as supporting material,” Wang says.

Another tactic, Gilman and Wang agree, is encouraging Smith to write a thought-leadership essay on a trend related to her award.

The essay could center on observations she’s had about sustainability as “an award-winning sustainability executive,” Wang says.

Or, the essay could concentrate on Smith’s sustainability approach at her company. Make Smith’s essay more useful by adding data showing ESG is gaining influence with investors, Wang says.

Another thought-leadership approach is offering Smith as an expert source for sustainability stories and mentioning the award as a credential, Wang says.

The example of a white paper a company insists on getting coverage for “is a hard one,” Gilman says. Sometimes white papers can come off as “too promotional.”

Briefing for the Future

The tactic there is setting up interviews where company executives can brief reporters about the white paper’s contents. The goal is appearing in future stories about issues contained in the white paper. Admittedly, this tactic requires explaining, to executives and media, why immediate coverage is not the goal.

In addition, make certain you’ve explained that the media landscape puts “a lot of tools at our disposal,” Gilman says. Use them. The award example “sounds like it would make a good social post” or an item for an internal newsletter or company Intranet, he adds. A way to frame it on social, Wang says, is “‘We are so proud of Ms. Smith for winning….’”

Similarly, Smith’s thought-leadership essay, which should also mention current sustainability-related news, could post on LinkedIn, Gilman suggests.

And don’t forget influencers, Wang and Gilman agree. Some stories won’t attract earned media, but could work as paid or owned.

  • Education is critical in explaining these conversations.

Media relations pros must explain how reporters and editors work, the news ecosystem and why your pitch might not attract attention. “This is one of the reasons it’s important to have a person on your staff with media experience,” Gilman says.

He adds that a news-related explanation “in some ways is the easiest” conversation. “You explain there’s too much other news and [your story] just can’t break through.” Examples include global crises like Covid and Ukraine or national issues like the baby-formula shortage.

Recently, a company Gilman works with had an important story, but the reporter was pulled off it to work on baby- formula news. So, in-person interviews were cancelled in favor of an email Q&A.

Other reasons for media-education discussions with executives include stories that are too late in the news cycle to be relevant. It’s also important for executives to understand stories often have to make it past a reporter and an editor. “Both of them need to be interested,” Gilman says.

Easy Does It

Adds Wang, when educating you want to avoid coming off as too educational. Again, the delivery is key. “Avoid saying, ‘This story won’t work because…’ instead say ‘You might want to try XYZ approach instead. What do you think?’”

For Boodram, the education conversation mixes with other issues. “Obviously, if it's someone higher than you, there's a degree of respect and approaching [education] in a way that signals, ‘I think explaining the process’ is important."

Despite Gilman’s view that education conversations are the easiest, he admits they don’t always work. “Sometimes you have a senior executive who says, ‘Hey, this is really important. Let’s get this out.’”

In such cases diplomacy and relationships are helpful. Another tip: prepare a mock story based on the information you’ve received. Once an executive reads it, they may agree that the story has little chance of getting covered.