Inaccurate Story? It May Not Be the Reporter’s Fault

Last week an online news site did a story that mentioned one of my clients. Unfortunately, there was a major error in it. When I talked with the reporter about the inaccurate information, he quickly corrected it and explained that the error occurred during the editing process. Of course, since the article had his byline, people assumed it was his fault. I can relate to his dilemma.

During my time as a correspondent for a daily paper, I vividly remember one occasion where I fell victim to the editorial process. I was covering a local meeting of city officials and took great care to accurately report what took place during the meeting and the outcome.

The next day, I picked up the paper and saw my story had been changed to state the exact opposite of what I wrote about the officials’ decision on a particular matter.

I immediately called my editor, explained the error to him and said I didn’t understand how what I wrote could have been revised so drastically.

“I changed it because I could tell they were just BSing around,” he said nonchalantly.

 “Well, we’re going to have some problems with this article,” I replied, somewhat stunned by his cavalier attitude. He shrugged it off as no big deal. And to him, it may not have been, but it sure was to me.

My name was on the article, and it wasn’t accurate. In fact, it was the exact opposite of the truth. Would people who were at that meeting ever trust me again, I wondered.

Headlines can burn a reporter (and client) as well. Once a story is turned in for editing, a person other than the reporter writes headlines to make them fit within certain parameters while also using a handful of words to attract attention and give readers the gist of the story. There’s quite an art to headline writing, and sometimes under the pressure of deadlines, mistakes are made. Sometimes big ones.

Mistakes Agencies Often Make with Reporters 16185149128_a4db78e711

Early in my career I worked for a nonprofit organization in Southern California that owned some property where the organization was planning to build a facility. Things didn’t go as planned, and the property went into foreclosure. The reporter from our local paper, who I knew pretty well, did an article about it and accurately reported what had transpired.

The headline, however, declared our entire organization—which employed thousands of people—as being in foreclosure. It all got straightened out and corrected, but not before causing lots of excitement for us from panicked vendors, employees, community leaders and other Los Angeles-area news media outlets.

Certainly there are times when the reporter is at fault for inaccuracies, and all too often news stories seem to be slanted to fit a particular agenda. There also are times when a PR representative provides the reporter with incorrect information or misstates something that comes back to haunt the organization when the misinformation shows up in print or on air.

The moral of these stories is this: If you are charged with handling ad agency PR and find yourself needing to contact a reporter for a correction, give him or her the benefit of the doubt. Be careful not to overreact or arrive at conclusions before gathering all the facts, and keep in mind that it may have been an honest mistake or misunderstanding.

Finding out how a mistake was made and who is at fault is less important than getting it correctly promptly. Always keep the long-term in mind, because how you handle errors with a reporter can make or break the relationship—and affect how your client or agency is covered—for years to come.

photo credit: Mistakes Home Sellers Make via photopin (license)

Ad Agencies: Your Client’s Smoldering PR Issue May be an Opportunity in Disguise

One of the best ways an ad agency’s PR team can earn its keep (and impress clients) is by identifying issues that could have an adverse effect on an organization and then getting in front of them with a proactive plan of action.

These situations are sometimes referred to as a “smoldering” crisis, meaning that a potentially damaging condition is known to one or more individuals. Most crises start out as smoldering issues that could have been anticipated and minimized—or headed off altogether—had appropriate action been taken in the early stages. Smoldering Issues Mgt Blog Post 5073940305_aa2ab32fc7_n

For example, if you have alligators roaming around parts of a theme park in areas frequented by guests, as was the case with Disney, you can foresee the potential for problems and do something preventative before tragedy strikes.

“A problem ignored is a crisis invited,” as Henry Kissinger once put it.

A crisis not only can damage an organization’s image, but also impede its ability to function because so many resources get diverted to dealing with the crisis. Issues management is the best solution because it proactively addresses a problem before it 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 PR “saves” don’t show up in an agency’s “stats sheet,” but they can save a client millions of dollars in bad publicity and untold damage to a brand.

Sometimes, they can open the door to new opportunities and revenue for a company.

A number of years ago one of my clients—a regional energy company in the northeast called Agway Energy Products—was facing a smoldering issue, as was its competitors. High energy prices had been one of the most significant events in the news the previous winter, with the wholesale cost of natural gas having risen more than 400% in the past year.

Through a series of carefully timed news releases and media contacts, we were able to turn the negative issue of rising energy costs into a positive story for consumers by (1) explaining why these costs were rising so dramatically and (2) providing tips on ways to save on their energy bills without making great sacrifices to their comfort.

By taking the initiative to address this issue head-on, the company gained credibility and goodwill—and, likely lots of new customers. In just eight months we generated more than 200 interviews, appearances and information sessions with print, TV and radio media.

As far as I know, none of the company’s competitors made a similar effort to address rising energy costs in the region.Michael Meath AEP Photo - Copy

Commenting on the PR campaign, the company’s spokesman wrote, “In almost every instance, we were able to turn any negative angle around to a positive story which would help consumers find ways to increase the efficiency of their energy equipment, reduce the amount of energy they used, and focus on how they could increase their comfort by expanding their relationship with Agway.”

If something is smoldering at your agency or with one of your clients, deal with it now because chances are it won’t go away or improve through neglect. You’ll not only keep the situation from getting worse, but you may also find there’s an opportunity to turn those lemons into lemonade.

photo credit: 2008 08 18 – 3353 – Bila Tserkva – Shashlyk via photopin (license)

Three Mistakes Agencies Often Make with Reporters

Having three decades of combined agency, journalism and corporation communications experience has enabled me to see public relations in action from a variety of perspectives. One of the lessons I’ve learned from interacting with reporters throughout the world is that making the right pitch to the right person at the right time is vital to publicity success.

It’s also important to know how the news media operate and have a good grasp of what constitutes a newsworthy story if you want to have effective working relationships with reporters.

Public relations and advertising are very different, and failing to understand these differences can be fatal to an agency’s publicity efforts.

Mistakes Agencies Often Make with Reporters 16185149128_a4db78e711

The following are three mistakes advertising, digital and media agencies often make when dealing with reporters:

#1. Failing to do adequate research.

Whether you’re dealing with your local paper, an industry publication or The Wall Street Journal, you need to take the time to find out which person covers the particular area you are interested in pursuing. Sending media materials generically to “Editor” or “Producer” isn’t good protocol and probably won’t get you very far.

Finding the right person is an important first step, but it’s equally important to research the reporter’s previous stories. Learn all you can about what the reporter covers, his or her interests and reporting style, and follow the reporter on social media before making contact. The more you can demonstrate that you understand a reporter’s audience and story preferences—and how he or she wants to be approached with ideas—the better your chances of success.

#2. Wasting reporters’ time with irrelevant pitches.

In a major survey of journalists, nearly 60% said the relevance of the materials they receive comes up short, citing it as their top problem with PR. Reporters are busy people who work under constant pressure and deadlines; don’t waste their time with pitches that aren’t appropriate.

When presenting a story idea, the most important things you can tell a reporter are who will care about it and why. Get to the point right away because media people don’t have time to hunt through your pitch to get to the news. Be clear and concise, including all the necessary information but nothing more.  Here’s a simple test to determine if your pitch passes the “so-what” factor: Put yourself in the reporter’s shoes and ask, “Would this story be interesting to my audience?”

A good story, from a reporter’s perspective, is one that:

  • Is timely
  • Fits the media outlet’s demographics and psychographics
  • Ties in with a current issue or trend
  • Is controversial or novel, or takes a contrarian perspective to conventional wisdom
  • Has a local angle (if pitching a local reporter)

#3. Writing like an advertising executive instead of like a reporter.

Trying to get earned media by sending disguised advertising or editorializing your story idea is the quickest way I can think of to get your information trashed and lose credibility with the news media. In fact, in the survey of journalists cited above, their biggest concern was that the information they receive is written like advertising, not journalism.

Craft your pitch as objectively as possible emphasizing its news or human interest aspect, or your expertise to comment and provide insights. If you’ve done your homework, you will know the reporter’s audience and area(s) of coverage so you can customize your pitch accordingly.

The more you can provide reporters with relevant, factual information that is timely, meaningful and targeted to their audiences, the more likely they are to take you seriously and provide positive coverage that enhances your agency’s credibility and builds its presence in the marketplace.

photo credit: Mistakes Home Sellers Make via photopin (license)

Ad Agency PR: Can It Guarantee Publicity for Your Agency or Client?

NewsChannel 5 Truck

One of the biggest challenges in ad agency PR is managing expectations for publicity. If you work in the PR industry long enough, there’s a good chance that sooner or later you’ll be asked if you can guarantee news media coverage of a new product, service or event.

Better yet, someone in your agency will say or imply that you can get coverage in an effort to impress a client or win a new piece of business.

Generally speaking, no one working in PR can guarantee coverage in a legitimate publication or program.

I’ve seen exceptions—such as a small newspaper, radio station or trade publication offering coverage in exchange for advertising—but the higher one goes in the news media chain, the less likely it is that such an exchange will take place. In fact, most media outlets would be downright insulted if approached that way.

What can be promised is that the PR practitioner will devote his or her best efforts to success; explore a variety of possible angles; utilize knowledge and experience (such as understanding how news media operate and what constitutes a good story from their perspective); and leverage existing relationships with reporters in a good-faith effort to generate positive coverage.

Still, there’s always the possibility of striking out. And that can sometimes be hard for advertising executives or clients to understand because they think the story idea is great and everyone should be interested in it.

Maybe it really is a great story, but the timing isn’t right because the targeted media outlet recently did a similar story; perhaps there are other earth-shattering events taking place that have crowded your story out of the running. Or, possibly, gatekeepers have made it impossible for you to reach the right people.

There are days when a career in advertising sounds pretty good compared to a career in PR with all its uncertainties. While advertising and PR should both base their strategies and messaging on research, advertising has the distinct advantage of being able to control the message, determine where it runs and when.

With publicity, you have no real control over the message—though you can influence it—and you have no control over where a story runs, when it runs or even if it runs—not to mention that the publicity may backfire by being negative.

Despite these drawbacks, PR has an advantage that no other marketing tool can replicate, and that is giving your agency or client credibility.

That’s because publicity allows an objective secondary source–the news media or bloggers–to tell your story to the people you want to reach. Best of all, publicity does so at no cost, (other than what one might be paying a PR person to do the story crafting and pitching).

It’s this high risk/high reward carrot that makes PR so energizing and addictive. Win or lose a particular publicity battle, it’s worth the challenge. I guarantee it.

photo credit: Pensacola Beach Oil Spill Craziness via photopin (license)

PR Implications for the Growing Trend of Automation in Newsrooms

Close up of robot head

If you thought it was tough selling a story idea to a skeptical reporter, try making your next pitch to a heartless, steely-eyed robot journalist.

In a March 2014 Wired article titled, “Robots have mastered news writing. Goodbye journalism,” a study involving undergraduate students found a generative software news article held its own with one written by a real-life journalist. In fact, the automated story scored higher in areas such as trustworthy, objective and more accurate.

This obviously is not good news to the human reporters who have managed to survive the deep cuts made in recent years, particularly at newspapers.

“…when it comes to implication for the future of journalism we should keep in mind that the algorithms are getting better and better” says Christer Clerwall, assistant professor of media and communications at Karlstad University in Sweden.

He’s the guy who had students make the comparison. While not exactly a scientific study, it is interesting to consider the possibilities and implications of the growing trend toward automation in the newsroom.

  • Recently The Associated Press hired an automation editor, and a number of newsrooms are now using algorithms to help them with stories. Automating certain aspects of reporting is supposed to reduce the workload of reporters – AP estimates it saves 20% of the business desk’s time – and it provides them with new data resources, which in theory help human reporters do a better job of identifying and telling important stories.

As is the case with other industries, automation in the newsroom also means fewer human employees are needed. In fact, journalism is one of the nine professions singled out as being in jeopardy by the rising use of robots.

But loss of jobs isn’t the only concern. Automation “is raising new questions about what it means to encode news judgment in algorithms, how to customize stories to target specific audiences without making ethical missteps, and how to communicate these new efforts to audiences,” according to a Sept. 1, 2015, article about automation in the newsroom by NiemanReports.

The author, Celeste LeCompte, points out one benefit of automation is that it can actually help connect audiences more directly: “In June, journalists at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) rolled out a news app to accompany a series on earthquake preparedness in the state. The app, called Aftershock, provides a personalized report about the likely impacts of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake on any user’s location within the state, based on a combination of data sets.” That’s really getting local and personal.

Training the automated software brings challenges of its own, such as providing appropriate guidance in which metrics and data are most important for a particular story, and learning to navigate through a panoply of variables. (Think of the data and variables involved in GPS giving the quickest route from point A to B.)

At least one person in the comments section of the NiemanReports’ article was not impressed, writing, “Big deal. A vast majority of journalists were programmed by the left long ago.”

What are the implications for public relations professionals? Some of this could actually work in our favor. For example, I’ve seen reporters either refuse to do stories or do terribly one-sided coverage because of what I suspected was their personal bias on the subject matter. No such problem when dealing with a machine, unless bias is programmed into it.

Another benefit is that we wouldn’t have to be concerned about dealing with the occasional reporter with an enormous ego or one who is emotionally fragile and unloads on people when they call at the wrong time. If a story is a “logical” fit, pitching it to an objective robot could be a real plus.

Of course, if the robots get fed up enough with PR pitches, they may resort to their own automation: “To submit a story idea, press 1 and record at the beep; to share a news tip in 30 seconds or less, press 2; to request a correction, press 3….”

photo credit: Corpo Automi Robot via photopin (license)

Ad Agencies: Here’s a Way to Strengthen Relationships with Reporters Who Cover Your Clients

Media looking at car at Nissan facility

One of my most memorable experiences was the time I spent in Guatemala on a mission trip, where I was part of a team that helped build a school for kids living in extreme poverty. The school was going up next to the church that was spearheading its construction, and today there are about 700 students who attend. They are receiving an education that is much more than a competitive edge; it is a ticket that will help them escape poverty.

I had been to other parts of the world and seen some poor places, but nothing I experienced was quite like this. The church complex was built on a hill that overlooked a valley, and as far as I could see in any direction there were shacks built of cinder block, corrugated tin, pieces of plywood—and whatever else the residents could cobble together for a dwelling. The houses lacked running water and had dirt floors. No one knew for sure how many people lived in this valley, but the government estimated the population to be in the hundreds of thousands.

The majority of people who attended the church came from this valley. They were some of the warmest, most loving, friendly and joyful individuals I’d ever met. During the weekdays when we were engaged in construction, a number of mothers were working with us, using shovels, picks or even their bare hands to help out. They knew what this school would mean to their children, and they were determined to do their part to build it. I also got to spend some time in the valley visiting a child my family and I were sponsoring.

You can see pictures of poverty, but there’s no substitute for experiencing it in person and getting to know real people, by name, who are trapped in it. My time there certainly gave me a new perspective on the blessing we enjoy in America, and I look forward to returning to Guatemala someday, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

Vision trips for news media and major donors have been used very successful by some of the world’s largest nonprofit ministries and humanitarian relief organizations precisely because such visits help them see the work being done first hand. They enable those who go to experience a situation personally in a way that words and images simply cannot convey adequately. Such trips also are great for getting news media and donors acquainted with people in areas affected by disasters, extreme poverty, etc.

While onsite trips to less exciting places, such as manufacturing plants, have much less emotional impact, they still can be used very effectively by ad agencies to build or solidify relationships with reporters who cover a particular industry.

Bringing a small group of journalists to a client’s facility for a day or overnight trip gives them an opportunity to meet top management; get briefed on new developments, plans and trends; and see for themselves the client’s operations in action. They should also have plenty of opportunities to ask questions and engage in discussion with management.

Here are two examples of such media trips that I was involved with personally. The first was an agency client that was a global supplier of hot-metal machines and solutions. You might be surprised at how many trade journalists there were at the time covering the adhesives industry, so we had a good pool of prospects from which to draw. Bringing news media onsite was a first for this company, and it resulted in about half a dozen very positive industry-specific stories running in the months that followed the trip.

The second example is when Saturn introduced its cars in Japan. Saturn invited several top Japanese auto journalists to Spring Hill, Tennessee, to test out its vehicles in a day-long ride-and drive event. And believe me, they did a thorough job of testing them, including seeing how well they could handle fast-paced curves in the Middle Tennessee countryside. (It’s also where I saw a memorable sign in a small-town grocery store we passed through that proudly proclaimed: “We sell Kroger ice cream.”)

The Japanese journalists got to meet with Saturn senior management and engineers; tour the plant; attend a briefing with short presentations about what’s going on with the company; and participate in group Q&As and even one-on-one meetings, if desired.

Both of these events generated post-event coverage, but even if media trips don’t produce immediate results, they are still important because they strengthen relationships with reporters who cover your client’s industry, giving them in-person access to senior management and the opportunity to be onsite. The dividends from such trips will unfold over time.

photo credit: chuckoutrearseats via photopin cc

Seeking to Duck Controversy, A&E Becomes Duck Soup

I support Phil Robertson and his right to express his faith and his beliefs.As I wrote in a Tennessean op-ed column several years ago, whether you believe the Bible teaches that the practice of homosexuality is wrong or that condemning it is the greater offense, you have to admire the masterful public relations machine employed by the gay-rights community.

With great patience and PR skill, GBLT advocates have made incremental gains over the years by consistently advancing their cause as alternative lifestyles. As with any PR initiative that aims to change public opinion, they recognized early on the importance of winning over opinion leaders in Hollywood, the news media, government and education, and they proceeded to do so with great success.

In textbook style, gay-rights advocates have consistently positioned themselves as loving victims and repositioned those who disagree with them as hateful, ignorant bigots, similar to the way Scope so effectively cast Listerine as “medicine breath.”

Every once in a while, though, the T&T (Talk & Thought) Police go too far and there’s a backlash. Such was the case with last year’s Chick-fil-A controversy, which I wrote about from a PR perspective in a Baptist Press article.

Now another backlash is brewing, this one over remarks made by Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame. What did Robertson say that got folks so riled? He had the audacity to warn people not to be deceived about what the Bible calls sin, citing I Corinthians 6:9-10. Talk publicly about the Bible and sin, and feathers will fly every time.

Robertson, like many millions of Christians (including me), refuses to conform his religious convictions to accommodate those who seek to legitimize a lifestyle he believes the Bible teaches is wrong. Speak truth and presto, we have instant “hate speech.”

Referencing the controversy, CNN’s Piers Morgan tweeted, “Just as the 2nd Amendment shouldn’t protect assault rifle devotees, so the 1st Amendment shouldn’t protect vile bigots.”

Morgan apparently believes that free speech should apply only to those who agree with him, and that he should be among the ones judging what is appropriate to say. Anyone who disagrees is, well, a vile bigot. Robertson was a bit crude in some of his language, but he’s not vile or a bigot.

If you want to see real bigotry and hate, read some of the things that have been said and written about Sarah Palin.

Agree or disagree with him, at least Robertson has a standard – the Bible. What standard would Morgan use to determine right and wrong? His own wisdom and insight? God help us . . .

As a society, we moved from adherence to traditional Judeo-Christian values to an obsession with tolerance and political correctness. Now we’re seeing a rising movement away from tolerance to suppression of speech and ideas that are unpopular with a large segment of liberal influencers.

People of faith have rights, too, and many are fed up with the clear teachings of the Bible being labeled as hate speech by individuals who either refuse to engage in conversation or lack the capacity to substantively discuss such issues, preferring instead to simply shut down expressions of alternative points of view.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is already feeling the heat in what is being called the biggest backlash in years.

The biggest loser, though, will be A&E. The network’s knee-jerk response to suspend Robertson lit a fire under his fans and scores of others who believe in free speech.

A&E could have simply issued a statement saying that Robertson’s views are his own, and that they do not reflect the views of the network. That’s PR 101, and it would have put an end to this thing pretty quickly.

My friend and PR colleague Chris Turner has written a post on his blog about the controversy titled, “Three interview tips you can learn from Phil Robertson.” I intentionally waited to read it until I finished writing this post so that it didn’t influence my thinking. Chris makes some great points about working with places like GQ. I previously wrote a similar post about ways to counter media bias, including my advice to avoid media outlets you know aren’t going to give you a fair shake.

In Robertson’s case, though, I’m not so sure he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. Look at how much conversation there has been about sin, morality and the Bible the last few days – which as a Christian is conversation he welcomes.