It happens. You’ve created a media relations strategy and crafted story ideas that will fulfill your company’s business goals. The pitches are sent and targeted journalists accept. You set up interviews between executives and media members weeks in advance. All good.
But the date arrives and the promised executive can’t be found. In another scenario, minutes prior to the interview, the executive’s admin informs you the boss is unavailable. ‘She’s in a meeting with the board. She sends her regrets,’ the admin says. (On the bright side, the executive sent an apology and had a legitimate excuse.)
A final scenario: A reporter on deadline needs a response or statement from an executive or the company for a story. You’ve promised that she’ll get it before 5pm. Hours pass, the deadline is approaching and, for whatever reason, there’s nothing for the reporter.
Or, weeks ago you promised an editor a thought-leadership story for today.
As the liaison with media members in these scenarios, it's your job to handle the situation. In addition, you have a relationship at stake.
'Think Like a Journalist'
The consensus among the communicators we interviewed for this story is that the media relations maxim, ‘Think like a journalist,’ and a few crisis communication tactics can help.
With shrinking newsrooms, journalists are pressed for time. As such, Jennifer Polito, CEO of Hawaii-based Jenerate PR, counsels, “Be respectful and conscious of the journalist’s time” when making your authentic apology. “That can go a long way.”
As such, consider the time element for deadline-driven journalists. “You want to move quickly to contact the journalist to reschedule the opportunity as soon as you receive news the interview" or other deliverable, such as a thought-leadership essay, is postponed, Polito says.
Similarly, Jenny Wang, VP at Clyde Group in Washington, D.C., recommends “being aggressive” about contacting the journalist. “An email [notification] is not enough," she says. "Journalists get hundreds of emails, they might miss it…you have to call too.” In addition, send a text, Wang recommends.
Adds Colby Walton, chairman and CEO of Cooksey Communications in Dallas, “Bend over backward to contact the journalist as soon as possible" and in advance of the due date if possible. "You’re protecting relationships” between you and the media member as well as you and the executive.
Indeed, making contact ASAP is paramount, says D.C.-based Daniel Rene, kGlobal’s managing director. “Ghosting is not OK in PR,” he says.
Think Beyond Your Office
Another part of thinking like a journalist is understanding that when an interview’s canceled or postponed last minute, “the journalist may be staring at dead air, an empty page and, probably, an angry editor,” Rene adds.
This is why Walton likes to “go back to the reporter with a solution, not a problem.” He adds, “Do your best to help the reporter come up with a win…and salvage the story.” Rene asks the journalist, ‘How can I work with you to make this better?’
Similarly, Wang says she goes into “problem-solving mode” when an interview or request is postponed or cancelled.
Sometimes the solution is an interview with another executive from the same company. And in certain situations, some PR pros will move outside their client base to help reporters.
For example, if a media member needs a quote about an industry issue, Walton and Wang sometimes suggest executives from companies they don’t represent. In such cases, Walton says, he’ll “make a warm introduction” to a communicator who can help the reporter find another interviewee whose company is not a direct competitor to one he represents.
A solution for a missed interview could be an exclusive on another story “down the road,” Rene says. Depending on the situation, Wang may promise an early look at an embargoed release or a heads-up about a future story.
Walton admits when the story is a profile and the subject postpones last-minute, it's more of a problem to find a palatable solution.
A Valuable Make-Good
When considering a solution, continue to think like a journalist. While your substitute proposal might not be as valuable as the original interview, whatever you offer should be worthwhile. “Remember, what you think is an important piece of news may not be so wonderful for the journalist,” Rene says.
And Wang adds a cautionary note about make-goods: never offer something to a journalist unless you’re completely sure it’s doable.
Wang, Polito and Meredith L. Eaton, who heads N. America operations for Red Lorry Yellow Lorry in Boston, recommend offering alternate times and dates as soon as you contact the journalist. “This can soften the blow and hopefully save the opportunity,” Eaton says. Polito adds that proposing alternative times and dates immediately “shows the journalist [that the interview] is important and you are looking to make it happen.”
And while postponements or cancellations aren’t fun, “journalists know everyone’s busy and, especially with executives, these things happen,” Wang says. Adds Eaton, “Journalists likely are used to it…and…understand how sometimes unavoidable things come up.” Journalists are more likely to understand a postponement or cancellation when you can provide a solution, Walton says.
Transparency or ?
All the PR pros had similar takes about whether or not communicators should reveal why an opportunity was cancelled or postponed.
“Sometimes the reason is legitimate, and there are times when you can’t tell the journalist why the executive cancelled,” Rene says. “Otherwise,” says Eaton, “being as transparent as possible is key. If there’s a reason you can share…that’s often appreciated. But, the sad fact is that cancelations and rescheduling happen all the time for reasons we can’t disclose.”
In addition, Rene believes it’s the PR pro’s obligation to make sure the executive(s) understands how cancelling an interview can damage relationships. “Your word is the only asset you have in PR."