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.

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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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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.

Avoid These News Release Mistakes for Agency PR Success

Avoid These News Rel Mistakes 17353990342_d6ee53041e (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A common complaint among journalists is the lack of relevance of the materials they receive from corporate communications and PR professionals.

Much of this information, they lament, is written like advertising, not journalism.

As a former reporter and editor, I can attest that is a sure-fired way to have your news release discarded.

Here are 6 key mistakes to avoid when writing a news release:

  1. Crafting a “no news” news release. This is where you’re trying to get your agency or client some media coverage but without a real news hook. It’s better to hold off on issuing a release until you have an appropriate angle to justify contacting a reporter.
  2. Using puffery, vague generalities and exaggerated descriptions of people, events, products or services—followed by lots of exclamation marks!!!!!! Nothing screams amateur quite like that.
  3.  Being verbose. It’s usually harder to write short, concise copy than long copy, but journalism is all about being succinct and to the point.
  4.  Writing about “pseudo” events that are contrived to get attention but have no real news value.
  5.  Presenting statements that are subjective and opinion-based as facts. If you want to include a statement that involves an opinion or judgment, turn it into a quote and attribute the statement to someone.
  6.  Writing like an advertising copywriter instead of a journalist. To be considered credible by the news media, you have to write your release as objectively as possible, emphasizing its news value, connection to a trend or its human interest aspect. Use third-person pronouns and the active rather than passive voice.

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Ad Agencies: Three Ways to Prepare an Inexperienced Leader for Media Interviews

In an age of sound bite communication, companies need articulate spokespeople who are prepared to deal with the unexpected and can deliver clear, concise and consistent messages to a variety of audiences. After all, how well a leader communicates, and the degree of credibility he or she maintains with important audiences, will likely affect your agency’s or your clients’ image for a long time.

Trouble is, leaders who are inexperienced in doing media interviews can easily fall into traps and say something they later regret. They can go off message, start rambling or fidgeting, freeze up when the camera light comes on or give out inaccurate information—any one of which can create a giant headache for the organization.

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Having done media training for 20+ years, here are three ways I’ve found to help prepare inexperienced leaders for interviews, build their confidence and give them the tools they need to be successful:

1. Demystify the news media for them.

I think of this as a “News Media 101” overview of how the media work and the criteria they use to determine a potential story’s news value. For example, leaders need to understand that reporters are looking for high impact stories which will capture attention. They especially like a local angle for a national or regional topic, trend stories, controversy and a contrarian point of view. And they are always looking for articulate, expert commentary on current issues. It’s also important to make sure that inexperienced interviewees have a good handle on the differences they will experience in a print interview vs. a radio interview vs. a TV interview.

2. Have a goal for each interview.

Leaders need to realize that if they don’t control what they say to the news media, the media will control them. They need to have a clear idea of what they want to get across and accomplish with each interview. Stress the importance of preparation because “winging it” can lead to disaster. One of the best ways to prepare is to develop key messages—also known as talking points—to help your leader communicate effectively

Practice asking questions you think the leader could be asked, and then counsel your leader to use the questions to bridge to what he/she wants to talk about (i.e. your interview goal, using the talking points to achieve it). Leaders possess valuable expertise, and in most cases they are going to know much more about the subject matter than the person doing the interview.

3. Teach them how to take control of an interview

This usually doesn’t come naturally, even for leaders who have excellent communications skills. However, it’s vital that interviewees learn the art of taking control of interviews and dealing appropriately with difficult questions. Here are some practical tips to share to make sure your leader stays on point and doesn’t get off in the weeds:

Answer only within the scope of your authority and responsibility.  If you don’t know something, say so—and then offer to get back to the interviewer later with an answer.

Look for opportunities to use transition phrases, such as “The real issue is…” or “What I can tell you about XYZ is . . .” or “What I’m here to discuss today is…” or “What’s important to know about XYZ is….”

Identify ways to turn negatives into positives. For example, in a layoff situation, stress how many jobs were saved by taking this action. It won’t put a happy face on a negative situation, but it can provide the audience with much-needed perspective.

Be aware that your body language often will speak louder than your words. Remember to smile and have energy during the interview. Don’t lose your temper no matter how provocative or loaded a question you are asked.

If you’re on camera, look at the person conducting the interview, not into the camera (unless you are specifically asked to do so).

Avoid industry jargon, and never say “no comment,” which equals guilt in most people’s minds.  If you can’t discuss something, explain why (e.g. confidentiality, proprietary information, pending litigation, timing because you’re still gathering all the facts, etc.).

When you’ve made your point, stop talking. This may be the most important point of all, because more times than not people make their best points in the first sentence or two they give in response to a question. When they elaborate too much and get “off message,” they typically end up in the swamp and say something they later regret.

TV Leaders Interview Tips 26554989678_ff03a10665_n Media training can make the difference between a successful interview and a disastrous one.

With proper coaching, the right messaging and some practice responding to challenging questions, leaders will have the tools they need for a successful interview and the confidence to pull it off.

If the interview is a high profile one, or you have concerns that it may be hostile, or the leader seems to be having difficulty delivering key messages and you sense he/she is not ready for the interview, you may want to consider retaining a media training expert from outside the organization to help.

One final thought: Now days even a local interview in a small market, or an Internet radio interview with a tiny audience, can go viral. Social media has been a game-changer and can broadcast mistakes all over the world instantly. Small doesn’t necessarily mean safe when it comes to interviews, so the best approach is to devote the time and resources needed to make sure leaders doing interviews are prepared, confident and effective.

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For Ad Agency PR Success, Avoid These Mistakes When Writing a News Release

Bundle of newspapers

One of the most important roles of ad agency PR is to disseminate agency news to reporters and bloggers. There are, however, some pitfalls to avoid when seeking publicity, especially when it comes to writing a news release. Here are four mistakes journalists often gripe about when receiving releases from agencies and other sources:

1. Attempting to disguise advertising to make it look like a news story. One of my more memorable academic experiences was the day a college professor returned a paper I submitted with “SJ” at the top instead of a grade. When I asked what SJ meant, he replied “snow job.” Trying to put one over my professor didn’t work in college, and it rarely, if ever, works with reporters. A news release needs to be about news, and it should be written objectively using Associated Press style. Write the release with third-person pronouns and the active rather than passive voice (e.g. John shot Mary, not Mary was shot by John).

2. Stating things that are subjective and opinion-based as facts. If you want to include a statement that involves an opinion or judgment, turn it into a quote and attribute the statement to someone. Otherwise, stick to the facts and let them stand on their own merit.

3. Using puffery and exaggerated descriptions of people, events, products or servicesfollowed by lots of exclamation marks!!!!!! Nothing screams amateur quite like that. Ditto for platitudes and vague generalities. Be as concise as possible. Mark Twain said he would have written a shorter letter, but he didn’t have time to do so. It usually takes longer to write short, concise copy than long copy, but journalism is all about being succinct and to the point. Don’t fall in Twain’s trap; less is more in a news release.

4. Failing to be relevant to a reporter’s area of coverage. You may have some great news to share, but if you haven’t invested the time to understand a reporter’s beat, audience and interests, you may very well reach the wrong person. There are times when a considerate reporter will email you back and say that he/she has forwarded your release to someone else who might be interested, but don’t count on that happening. It’s far better to take the time to make sure you reach the right person the first time.

If you learn to think and write like a journalist, and understand their criteria for judging the value of news, you’ll have a much easier time getting them to pay attention to your releases and take you seriously as a useful source. And that will improve your chances of getting publicity for your agency and your firm’s clients.

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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.

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