PR People: Think Like A Reporter for Ideation, But Avoid Constant Newsjacking

the friday news dump

One of my titles during my time at Burson-Marsteller was SVP/senior counselor. That meant in addition to managing my own accounts, I could be called upon to troubleshoot any other account in the agency.

In this capacity, I noticed many accounts needed my help because the account staffers believed that creating a program to in tangent to recent news headlines would engender major media publicity results.

Sometime the suggested programs were funnier than the skits on "Saturday Night Live." One included the great soccer star Pele, who became the star of the moment as soccer emerged in the United States. He was suggested to be the publicity spokesman for a major client.

In less than a New York minute, I saw a major flaw in the program. Pele’s role, as suggested, was to appear at client functions in various cities and also do print, TV and radio interviews while there. The big problem? He couldn’t speak more than a few words in English. And thus, the program idea was dropped. (Ironically, I did work on a publicity project for Pele when he originally signed a contract endorsing a soccer ball for another client, but it did not require him to do multiple interviews in the English language.)

The Pele program is an example of why many campaigns never have a chance of achieving the desired results—account staffers think that just tying into current happenings will make a program more media friendly.

Media Placements as One Night Stands

Occasionally, when the CEO of a major company speaks out on current events it results in a "placement.” But can be the equivalent of a one night stand. Programs tied into what the accounts handlers are seeing in the current media are usually doomed to failure.

Here are seven reasons why:

  • By the time a program is crafted and approved by the client, the big news of the moment is usually passed.
  • Other agencies might have had the same idea and already bombarded the media with interview requests.
  • The media has covered the subject from all angles.
  • TV and radio producers do not have time for a PR person to contact a client during a breaking news event and wait for an answer.
  • There are dozens of people editors and producers can call upon for opinions that are always immediately available.
  • During interviews, clients are not apt to make statements that will generate headlines, except, maybe, in trade books.
  • Most breaking news stories that have a long shelve life are about political happenings, or other controversial topics, which corporate clients do not want to comment on. Editors and producers are aware of that.

The Ticking Clock

When I promoted a client that manufactured federally-approved RX health products, I found myself sitting next to a prominent radio health reporter at a symposium. I asked him why he would never interview my client during his broadcasts.

“I specialize in breaking news,” he said. “You call me and ask if I would interview your client. If I agree to, you have to call your client and find out if the person is willing to be interviewed. Than you call me back and tell me “yes” or “no.” I can’t wait that long. I have a list of experts who have given me their private contact information. I can call them directly and they always get back to me immediately. I know that my contacting a client directly means that a PR person can’t take credit for arranging the interview. It’s not that I’m anti-PR people, it’s just that I can’t wait that long.”  (I knew what his answer would be before he said it, because when I was a reporter assigned to a breaking news story, my colleagues and I would operate the same way.)

So while PR people should follow the news to make certain that they don’t include elements in programs that have already received significant media coverage, or pitch a story to a reporter or producer that they have recently covered, they should avoid the trap of crafting a program based only on current news happenings.

"Think like a reporter when crafting a program," is an oft advised phrase given to PR people. To me, that means being able to develop original ideas that are not client-centric, but are equally appealing to both the client and the media. And remember, an idea does not have to be completely original. Often adding a new creative element to an old idea will do the trick, as long as the finished product is newsworthy.

Arthur Solomon was a journalist and SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller who worked in sports and other sectors. Contact him: [email protected]