Sometimes the Best PR Successes Never See the Light of Day

Organizations that make mistakes and are quick to apologize will find that most people are quick to forgive. (Of course the apology must be sincere to be effective, and an apology without corrective action will ring hollow and likely be counterproductive.)

On the other hand, digging in and refusing to acknowledge a mistake—hoping that people won’t notice or care—generally makes matters worse. One of my career mentors gave me a piece of PR advice I’ve always remembered: “Never deny the obvious.”

It’s amazing, though, how many companies and individuals do that very thing. Sometimes people see a problem coming long before it actually hits and could be easily corrected. The situation can become a “smoldering” crisis, which is a potentially damaging condition that’s known to one or more individuals.

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Most crises start out as smoldering issues that could have been anticipated and minimized—or averted altogether—had appropriate action been taken in the early stages before the problem gets out of hand and wreaks havoc.

Some of my best PR successes are those that never saw the light of day—they had potential to turn into a crisis but were averted by dealing with them in the smoldering stage.

Such “saves” don’t show up in the PR “stats sheet,” but they can save a client or an employer millions of dollars in bad publicity and untold damage to a brand.

If something is smoldering at your organization, deal with it now because chances are it won’t go away or improve through neglect. More often than not, the smoldering crisis will turn into a consuming fire, devouring valuable time and resources and impeding your organization’s ability to function.

One of the best ways to identify potential smoldering situations in advance—and help you maintain control and minimize damage if a crisis strikes—is to have a flexible crisis management plan in place.

The plan should:

  • Contemplate the types of crises that could occur
  • Set forth policies and procedures to deal with them
  • Identify all audiences and the best ways to communicate with them
  • Have a pre-selected crisis management team in place
  • Establish a system for communicating accurate information quickly and effectively

The only thing worse than not having a crisis plan is having one that is not communicated, reviewed or tested by those who ultimately will have to implement it. That’s about as effective as having a fire extinguisher that’s hidden away and no one knows how to use if they manage to find it.

If a crisis strikes, you’ll be glad you took the time to plan ahead and prepare for the worst—and that others know what to do as well.

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Is Subsidizing the Newspaper Industry a Good Idea?

Charlotte business coach Steve Gatter is on a laudable mission to save journalism.

A mutual friend put Mr. Gatter in touch with me recently to discuss his idea of creating a foundation to raise money to subsidize newspapers. The concept, as I understand it, is to supplement their lack of subscription and advertising revenue with what essentially would be a bailout so that newspapers in need of financial help won’t go under.

Bundle of newspapers

He was inspired by a July 15 editorial from Leonard Pitts Jr., a national opinion columnist with the Miami Herald, titled, “What will we do without newspapers?”

In an email explaining his efforts, Mr. Gatter invited readers to share their thoughts and ideas as to whether newspapers should be financially supported.

No doubt about it, newspapers have taken a huge hit with massive layoffs throughout the nation and many of them going out of business. They have traditionally played an important role in American society, though for quite a few media outlets that role has shifted from reporting to advocating.

Citing a 2018 report that found the U.S. has lost nearly 1,800 newspapers since 2004, Mr. Pitts lamented what he called a “devastating” impact on the coverage of local events.

“Decide quickly,” he warned, “because that future is being born right before our eyes, thanks to shifting economic realities and the rise of social media.”

Note where Mr. Pitts places blame for the industry’s decline: “shifting economic realities” and “the rise of social media.”

This is an excellent example of the type of thinking that has put so many papers in a bind: Playing the victim card and blaming external elements rather than trying to understand why this is happening and finding ways to reverse the trend.

Question mark

Instead of asking “What will we do without newspapers?” here are three other questions I think would be much more productive for Mr. Pitts to ponder:

Why are so many people abandoning their local papers?

Is journalism, in its current state, worth saving?

If so, how will providing additional funds improve the situation?

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors made the point that newspapers are first and foremost in business to make a profit.

Markets tend to be efficient, and if a business isn’t meeting a need—or doing so sufficiently to satisfy its customers—chances are that business will simply not survive in the long run.

Blaming others for lack of sales and interest is a sure-fire way to expedite an entity’s extinction.

Perhaps if journalism adapted to the new realities and became more market-driven, the industry wouldn’t be in decline. But that would mean quite a few journalists would have to get to know and understand their readers better.

As a starting point, how about some focus groups to see what readers want from their local paper, and make adjustments to the content and areas of coverage accordingly?

Many journalists and editors also would have to set aside their bias and re-orientate their reporting to inform the public about what actually happened (i.e. the facts), not what they want the public to think about what happened.

The media bias problem extends beyond newspapers, as evidenced by a new study that found a whopping 95% of Americans are “troubled” by the current state of the media, with more than half citing “reports on fake news” as a concern.

  • Wow. Now that’s what I call devastating.

Pollster Frank Luntz points out that the media has the lowest level of credibility in more than half a century–which is when polls first started asking about that issue.

Noting that “judgmental journalists” now include their own political bias in their accounts—especially in their coverage of President Trump—a Washington Times article quotes Mr. Luntz as saying such hostility toward Mr. Trump is “turning people off against the media.”

“That’s not their job. Their job in not to label. Their job in not to condemn or criticize,” Mr. Luntz said. “Their responsibility is to present the language as it is used.”

Mr. Luntz is not the only one noticing this bias. The Times article cited a recent Pew Research Center survey that found “68% of Americans say the press is both politically biased and covers up its mistakes, while 58% said news organizations ‘do not understand people like them.’”

“Gallup, meanwhile, found that 69% of Americans say their trust in the media has fallen in the past decade.”

No wonder so many media outlets are losing readers, listeners and viewers. When reporters no longer have credibility, the game is pretty much over because no amount of money can buy trust.
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Someone has defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. My concern about giving money to newspapers to ensure they survive, without making some fundamental changes to how they approach their work, would only reward the biased reporting and agenda-driven behavior that causes increasing levels of distrust and disgust among the public.

Today there are numerous online news sources that give readers more choices than ever. Some even specialize in local news, so the idea that local coverage is headed for doom if the community newspaper vanishes is simply not borne out by reality.

I sincerely wish Mr. Gatter well in his efforts to help save America’s newspapers. As a former reporter, I believe they have an important function in informing the public, providing accountability in a democratic society and offering a forum for diverse opinions on the editorial pages.

Unfortunately, so many of them have lost their way and seem unable or unwilling to make the kinds of changes that are needed to respond to market demand and restore trust.

Until those issues are addressed and corrected, I suspect we’ll continue to see newspaper layoffs and closures in the years to come.

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Keeping Your Agency in the News: The Drip, Drip, Drip Approach

My first job in public relations was with an international nonprofit organization. I was blessed to have a terrific mentor, a former newspaper editor who took me under his wing and really helped me understand the news business. He taught me how to think and write like a reporter, and how work with them successfully on stories about our organization.

We had a small staff and typically were overwhelmed with requests and things to do. All too often, we were putting out fires. We did very little proactive media work to generate publicity, except for some of the large events we held.

At the time, my idea of media relations was when the phone rang we answered it, and if it was a reporter calling we did our best to be helpful.

When I went to work for a large PR firm years later, I was immediately introduced to the concept of generating publicity for our clients by coming up with ideas and angles for what would hopefully be positive coverage.

And, by the way, the clients expected ongoing coverage, so we had to be persistent and sometimes creative in coming up with story ideas and new angles.

Consistency is an important part of an effective PR program, and finding ways to keep your agency front and center is vital to a program’s overall success.

  • Think of it as the drip, drip, drip approach to keeping you in the news.

News

One of the most galling things for agency principals is to watch from the sidelines as competitors are quoted and featured in the news media. Even worse, agencies that were not part of the story may actually have more experience and expertise than the agency that received the coverage. Of course, the impression people get is that the folks quoted are the cream of the crop in their profession, which may or may not be true.

It’s no accident that some agencies get more ink and air time than others. It’s because they have an intentional, ongoing, strategic effort to get their names in the marketplace, and they have made PR a priority.

With that in mind, here are some publicity topics to help keep your agency in the news:

  • Commentary about marketing trends/current issues
  • Sponsorships
  • Community involvement
  • Events
  • New clients, employees, awards, publications
  • New services, office expansion, etc.
  • Mentoring programs
  • Pro bono work
  • Guest columns in the local paper or business journal
  • Articles in relevant industry publications
  • Human interest stories about employees (unusual hobbies, their community involvement, humanitarian work, etc.)

The effort is worth it. A consistent PR program can help agencies not only get more exposure to important audiences and build their brands, but also compliment their new business efforts.

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Content Marketing: A Strategic Way to Build Your Brand and Convert Prospects into Customers

Aerial view a woman using a retro typewriter

Content marketing—the creation and sharing of information so that it attracts and retains customers—is a powerful branding tool. The emphasis is on using high quality, engaging content to market a brand, acquire customers and develop their trust rather than using aggressive sales and advertising tactics that can annoy or disrupt them.

Content marketing takes many forms—including blogs, websites, case studies, white papers, videos, infographics, etc., —but regardless of the form, the material must be compelling, relevant and useful to be effective.

As more and more companies engage in content marketing, the challenges to being heard above the noise are increasing as well.

One of the best ways I’ve found to produce high-quality, engaging content that resonates with targeted segments is through storytelling. You may forget facts and statistics, but a good story stays with you.

The reason storytelling is so powerful is because it enables us to communicate with specific audiences in a way that piques their interest and connects emotionally with them.

According to Statista, a statistics portal, nearly three-quarters of social media users have followed brands on social media because they are interested in their products/service. More than half (51.3%) do so because they’re entertaining. No wonder so many marketers turn to storytelling to inform and entertain users, while also differentiating their companies from the rest of the pack.

By telling (as opposed to selling), writers can craft stories that resonate with customers and prospects without coming across as disguised advertisements or pushy sales tactics.

Whether or not storytelling is part of your content toolbox, an effective content strategy really comes down to focusing on a well-defined target market; having interesting, useful things to say to them; and providing regularly updated content that is meaningful and substantive.

Of course, you also want to make it easy for them to communicate with you and have a system in place to monitor results.

If done properly and consistently, your content strategy will gain your agency a loyal following, enhance its brand and provide new business opportunities that might otherwise be missed.

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How to Maximize Your Agency’s Opportunities for Publicity

photo credit Richard Masoner Cyclelicious via photopinccHaving worked with reporters and editors throughout the world during the course of my career—as well as being on the other side of journalism as a correspondent and editor—I’ve made and received my share of media pitches.

I’ve seen what works, what doesn’t work and what downright annoys reporters no matter where on the globe they reside. I’ve also experienced first-hand how publicity can help small- and mid-sized agencies and other businesses—even one-person operations—level the playing field with larger competitors.

The beauty of publicity is that it not only generates awareness and extends your agency’s reach at no cost, but it also gives you something no other marketing tool can replicate: credibility.

That’s because publicity allows a secondary source–the news media or bloggers–to tell your story to the people you most want to hear it.

However, before contacting a reporter with a story idea, it’s important to understand how the news media operate and what they want.

Here are eight publicity tips to consider before making a call or hitting the “send” button with your story idea:

#1: Define your media focus.

Limit your pitches to only those outlets that directly serve your target audience. The more you can demonstrate you understand the reporter’s audience and the better you can explain why your story idea would appeal to them, the greater your chances are of being considered. When I was on the editorial side of a healthcare magazine, I never ceased to be amazed at some of the obviously inappropriate pitches PR people sent my way. It was pretty easy to tell who had taken time to read our magazine and understand our audience and the types of stories we covered, and who had taken a shotgun approach in hopes of hitting something somewhere.

#2: Get to the right person at each media outlet.

Whether you’re dealing with your local paper or The Wall Street Journal, it’s important to take the time to find out which person covers the particular area you are interested in targeting. For example, don’t pitch a manufacturing story to a business reporter who covers healthcare or retail. It’s surprising how often this happens because people don’t take the time to do their homework.

#3: Research a reporter’s previous stories before making contact.

Now that you’ve found the right person to contact, learn all you can about what that reporter covers, his or her interests and reporting style. Media directories are very helpful resources for getting such information, as is the Internet. In addition to having reporters’ names and contact information, the more detailed directories have helpful contact notes such as:

  • Works from home, but prefers all materials be sent to the paper.
  • Prefers to be contacted by e-mail and hates follow up calls.
  • She is interested in the ideas behind technology, not the products.

#4: Know what makes a good news story.

Reporters are busy people who work under constant pressure and deadlines. When pitching a story, get right to the point. The most important things you can tell a reporter about your story are who will care about it and why. Your pitch has to pass the “so-what” factor, as well as be timely and relevant to their audience. Put yourself in the reporter’s shoes and ask: “Would this story be interesting to my audience?” If you can’t honestly answer yes, you need to rethink your pitch.

 #5: Respect their deadlines.

When contacting a reporter by phone, I suggest first asking if this is a good time to talk briefly. If not, ask when would be a convenient time to share a story idea. (Be prepared to be asked to send your idea in an email, though some reporters will give you a minute or two to hear your pitch if they’re not on deadline.) If you’re contacted by a reporter on deadline, do everything you can to respond within that timeframe; otherwise, you may miss out on a golden opportunity. Even worse, if you don’t respond promptly, the reporter may contact and quote a competitor.

#6: Think, write and speak like a reporter.

When the time comes to make your pitch, be sure you not only think like a reporter, but that you write and speak like one as well. For example, don’t advertise or editorialize your story idea (reporters are very sensitive to disguised advertising). Whether you write your pitch or give it verbally, be as objective as possible by emphasizing the news or human interest aspect, or your expertise to comment and provide insights.

#7: Make their jobs easier.

The more you can provide reporters with relevant, factual information that is meaningful and targeted to their audience, the more likely they are to take you seriously and provide coverage. Plus, if they know that you know their audience, area of coverage and deadlines, when they see a pitch from you in the future, they’ll realize you’re credible and will be more likely to give you serious consideration.

#8: Customize your pitch to fit their audience.

When I first started my agency, I had a female client who was launching a residential steel framing business, which was a new concept for our area. While the basic story was the same—the benefits of steel framing for residential homes—I segmented my pitches:

  • To our local business journal, I emphasized the entrepreneurial side of her business.
  • To our local daily paper, I got a front-page feature story that was part of a broader article about alternative materials in housing.
  • To women’s publications, I focused on a female entering the construction business, which traditionally has been dominated by men.
  • To her hometown paper (which ran a front-page story), I pitched a “local lady” angle and tied it to an award she had recently won.

One final thought: Consider giving the place you’d most like to receive coverage the first shot at a story whenever possible. Reporters like to be the first break a story, and not just report the same news that others have. This is a very competitive business and like any other profession, reporters enjoy getting recognition and praise for their stories, especially when they are the first to report them.

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Why off-the-Record Conversations Should be off Limits for Agencies

One of the things I stress when doing media training is the importance of not speaking off the record in interviews.

There may be exceptions–such as if you really know and trust the reporter–but generally it’s not a good idea to tell a news media person anything about your agency or clients that you wouldn’t want repeated on radio or TV, in a publication or on the Internet.

Some news media outlets have policies forbidding off-the-record conversations. That’s a good, ethical policy, but unfortunately not all adhere to it.

There are lots of examples of why talking off the record is so risky, but I’ve yet to find one that drives home the point better than this headline titled “India’s nuclear identify unclear.”

Check out the subhead: “‘Off the record, we are totally unprepared’ says one of its top military strategists.”

Off the Record Newspaper Comment

Wow. This subhead makes a pretty clear statement beyond the quote: Don’t trust us because we won’t keep an off-the-record remark confidential. Need I say more?

The best practice is to assume everything an agency spokesperson says in an interview is on the record and may be used.

Understanding the different levels of speaking with reporters is important for PR success in agencies as well as other organizations. A number of years ago, a reporter for The Tennessean newspaper described these levels in a column. They provide helpful guidance to anyone preparing for a media interview:

Off the record:  “To have an off-the-record conversation means that the information will not be used in any way in a story.  Many editors, including mine, don’t allow reporters to have off-the-record conversations.”

On background:  “To have an on-background conversation means that the information may be used in a story, but the person who is talking will not be named in connection with the information that is ‘on background.’”

On the record:  “This is the standard conversation with reporters.  However, reporters should identify themselves as working on an article before beginning an interview…once a statement has been made on the record, it cannot be taken off-record.”

Is Truth Still the Most Important Factor in a News Story?

A number of years ago, the senior editor for our local newspaper authored a column about the paper’s policy for using anonymous sources and its commitment to accurate reporting.

“The most important factor for us in using an anonymous source is that the information given us by the source is true,” she wrote.

“It’s too easy for people to hide behind anonymity, planting information with no accountability. And when you’re not accountable, isn’t it easier to stretch the truth?”

She wrote this column in 2009. A decade later, we’ve witnessed an amazing decline among numerous news media outlets when it comes to accurate reporting and vetting sources. All too many of them are just fine with stretching the truth—or outright misrepresenting it—to advance their agendas.

The latest example is BuzzFeed News’ reporting that Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former attorney, told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors that the president directed Mr. Cohen to lie about a potential Trump Tower deal with Russia.

jon-tyson-628533-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

A spokesman for Mr. Mueller disputed the lie allegation, hurling BuzzFeed’s “Russian bombshell” report into a fiery grave.

As reported by Reuters: “‘BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate,’ Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, said in the special counsel’s first comment on a media report since its probe started 20 months ago.”

The Daily Caller noted “CNN and MSNBC collectively used the word ‘impeach’ nearly 200 times on Friday” before the special counsel’s office discredited the BuzzFeed story.

The damage such irresponsible and speculative reporting does to the media’s credibility can hardly be overstated. While there still are a lot of honest, reputable journalists around who care about truth and fairness, the trend is not encouraging.

Sloppy reporting, lack of accountability and the pressure to be first to break a story are all contributing factors in the decline of journalism and its eroding trust among Americans. But surpassing all these is the willingness among an increasing number of reporters and editors to run with stories that have no basis in reality, and to not really be concerned about it because it appears that in their minds the ends justify the means.