Flickr Creative Commons photo by ComedyNose
Within the space of five business days, a certain unsuspecting freelance writer recently received no fewer than 47 e-mail pitches. PR professionals from firms large, medium and small approached said writer touting pretty much everything under the sun.
- Serious stuff such as a new bioscience magazine, a camp for grandparents and grandchildren, a study about diabetes and a service that offers to connect seniors online.
- Somewhat silly stuff such as pet products (doggie raincoats, anyone?), back-to-school greeting cards, National Spa Week and a new Facebook craze called “owling” (feel free to look it up).
- In-between stuff such as books, movies, TV programs, art studios, a comedy club benefit for animal welfare, a wine-tasting event in San Francisco and an off-Broadway show about being buried alive
Just one little problem here. All 47 of those e-mail pitches were delivered to the wrong target.
I know, because that freelance writer happened to be me.
Yes, I contribute occasionally to major newspapers and magazines. But all I’ve written for the last seven years are personal essays and opinion pieces, often about my family and friends and my neighborhood and issues close to my heart. I’ve long since stopped covering health, seldom addressed the arts and have never expressed even the faintest interest in doggie raincoats, much less “owling.”
In short, my name wound up on all kinds of distribution lists I have no business being on. Such mistakes are classic, of course – it happens in PR all the time – but that’s no excuse.
Multiply this experience a million times and you can begin to imagine how a beat reporter at the New York Times or an editor at In Style or a producer at “Good Morning America” feels getting pelted by such misguided pitches. One could grow irritable. One could view PR without any particular fondness.
Now, nobody’s looking to castigate anyone here. But all too often, PR firms take the assembly-line approach to developing media lists. They rely on Cision or Factiva – such services, however valuable if harnessed right, are decidedly imperfect.
And that’s your big problem right there.
That’s why our agency, on behalf of our clients, promotes the practice of what you might call pinpoint PR. We vet our media lists. We scrub away the wrong targets and zero in on the right ones. We conduct independent research, such as checking the publication history of the reporter we plan to pitch before we fire off that e-mail.
Such an approach should be axiomatic across the board, and with us it is.
Clients are our key constituents, but make no mistake: so, too are the media. Just as we serve as strategic communicators to the organizations we represent, so do we cater to reporters, editors, producers, correspondents and bloggers alike.
That’s why our agency makes a practice of meeting regularly with media for deskside briefings. The purpose is seldom to pitch a particular story, though. Rather, it is to identify our clients memorably. We describe who they are, what they do and why they’re important. We also listen to reporters about what they need. We inquire about everything from pending assignments and new editorial shifts in the offing to topics they’re likely to address. We look to gauge common interests and find potential synergies.
So it was, then, that we recently held such briefings with healthcare policy reporters and editors at USA Today, NPR, Kaiser News Service and Health Affairs.
In each of these one-on-one sessions, we presented an overview of our agency – its history, its specialties – and, more particularly, of some of our healthcare clients.
It was a lot like speed-dating (or so we imagine).
We introduced eight clients in all. Our “elevator” speeches – no more than a few sentences here and there (unless asked for further details) – indicated where and how these clients fit into the current healthcare landscape. We outlined the role they play, the issues they face and the trends they’re noticing. We also emphasized what these clients are doing that might be different or even singular, and what they may know that perhaps no one else knows.
The briefings yielded a high return. In general, all the reporters expressed interest in hearing more about those eight clients, particularly any new research. All plan to keep those clients in mind as sources, preferably available – on short notice if need be – to offer insight, context and all-around expertise on the news of the day. Better still, one of our clients has already held highly productive background briefings with three of the reporters.
As one reporter later told us, “We’re always looking to discover new voices.”
“Perfect,” we said. “We’re always looking for reporters ready to lend an ear.”
Last week brought us the spectacle of the much-debated, long-heralded Great Compromise. Democrats and Republicans agreed to agree on the federal budget. A government shutdown was prevented, at least for now.
The event echoed another compromise some months back. That’s when the Obama administration extended the Bush tax cuts, doing so largely in exchange for extending unemployment benefits. Call it a rare instance of bipartisanship in action.
Media relations is likewise often about striking compromises. The relationship between clients and media is inherently rife with a certain tension. On one side of the aisle is the story a client wants to tell. On the other side, though, is the story a reporter wants to hear.
We who practice media relations every day thus tiptoe along a certain tightrope. We wish both constituencies to go home happy. Sometimes we get lucky.
Consider, for example, the client who hired us to tell feel-good stories about a certain industry. Given the current media landscape, we advised said client to talk policy instead. Only with some hesitation did the client consent. Result: major positive media coverage.
On the flip side, another client wanted to talk policy, until – again based on the prevailing media environment – we counseled going with feel-good stories. Once more favorable top-tier media results ensued.
In the happiest of scenarios, the reporter by and large tells the story the client wants told. The twain meet. You give something in order to get something – what D.C. insiders used to call horse-trading.
Ultimately, of course, we in public relations are staunch partisans, always siding with the client. The key, in our encounters with media, is to wear that partisanship lightly. We drink the Kool-Aid, but without getting drunk on it.
In some quarters, of course, compromise is considered a dirty word, a last-ditch option. But virtually everything in life is negotiable – votes, money, influence – a matter of balancing competing interests. Just ask someone who’s married. And in media relations in particular, compromise is usually just good business.
If we are to learn any single lesson about human nature from reaction to the announcement that the New York Times will now charge for online access, it might be this: give us something valuable for free long enough and we’ll forever after expect it to stay free. In short, we’re easily spoiled.
So suggests the latest PoliPulse findings about the controversial move. Online chatter trended heavily negative, with 18 percent complaining the paper is charging too much for online access, 17 percent unsure how the new process works, 15 percent citing too many loopholes and about 20 percent focused on sharing tips for getting stories online without paying. Only 8 percent favored the paywall. (PoliPulse is Powell Tate’s new online monitoring tool for analyzing social media conversations. Visit www.polipulse.com for more information.)
In one sense, nothing much has changed here. The New York Times remains the New York Times. Hallowed, indispensable, call it what you will. Most clients still court its reporters and covet its coverage – favorable, if you please – and most likely long will. And of course business is business. How can you make a living giving your work away?
But in another sense, the new paywall has implications that extend like tentacles throughout the print journalism universe. For starters, it runs the risk of cutting off numerous loyal New York Times readers now either unwilling or unable to pony up, rendering the paper ever-more exclusive. Consider all those college students out there who depend on it as a lifeline for term papers and doctoral theses! It may also finally embolden other major national newspapers – the Washington Post comes most readily to mind – to follow suit.
Any switch to limit access, while perfectly understandable as a financial model, also has an unwelcome byproduct. It rarifies an experience now enjoyed by all, turning a prized reading habit from a democratic right into an elitist privilege. Just when most choices for news sources are expanding exponentially, it turns out, others are starting to disappear.
Over the years, I've media-trained all sorts of clients, including CEOs, celebrities, physicians, lawyers and soldiers.
When the Fox News Channel invited me on its network last month to talk about my blog, it gave me a chance to test how well I practice what I preach about being interviewed on TV. Would I follow my own advice?
The answer turned out to be yes. For starters, I prepared myself. I decided on my key messages. I anticipated the questions likely to be asked. I jotted down notes about the story I wished to get across. Then I boiled it all down, and then boiled it down some more, as if trying to reduce a fine sauce to its essence.
I also ran through my lines in my head. I rehearsed several times with my notes in front of me, the day before the interview, then several times without, on the big day.
Throughout the process, I reminded myself of the very pointers I often give to clients: You’re an expert — that’s why they’re interviewing you. Talk as if to just one person rather than imagine an audience of a million people watching you. Take a deep breath before you go on. Above all, be exactly who you are, nothing more, nothing less.
I came away from my experience on national television with a few key lessons under my belt.
Prepare just enough. Stop before you overdo it. A broadcast interview should appear spontaneous. You also have less time to say what you want to say in a live TV interview than you think you do. I had more than four minutes, a lot by TV standards, and believe me, it went by in a blink.
I have only one regret: I definitely should have smiled a little more. If the topic at hand is suitable, it’s advisable to smile. After all, I went before the cameras mainly to talk about my kids.
But why take my word for how the interview went? Here’s the clip. You tell me.
If I had to pick the most vexing conundrum we routinely face in dealing with the media, it is the situation in which a client has been criticized and turns to us for advice on how aggressively to respond. Amid all the variables, the black-and-white situations are generally easy to deal with. Huge mistakes, especially when they involve factual errors in major outlets, get the Full Monty.
Minor errors, especially by minor outlets, are often wise to ignore.
But what about the many gray areas: the situations of debatable harm and visibility in which you have to decide whether to give a story oxygen or let it quickly burn itself out by ignoring it? These are tough calls, especially in an era where the blogosphere is ready to pick up and run with anything, anytime and anywhere.
We’re getting a live-fire example of the dangers of over-reaction in the way Redskins owner Dan Snyder has responded to a critical article in the City Paper.
Never heard of the article? Of course not. It was written in November and near as I can tell no one outside the Snyder family knew anything about it. Then this week Mr. Snyder let it be known he wanted the reporter fired and, for good measure, he sued the paper. An article previously ignored generated two news stories by Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi and a devastatingly funny column by the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten.
A story that few had read is now the subject of conversation that few can resist. Dan Snyder’s image has undoubtedly suffered more from the reaction to the lawsuit than to the story itself.
I’m not saying Mr. Snyder didn’t have reason to be angry. After all, the City Paper piece was critical. It may have contained lots of incorrect facts. It may have even been defamatory. To him, it might well have been one of those black-and-white situations. But he gave the story enough oxygen (for accuracy I should say hydrogen, but you get the picture) to float the Hindenberg.
To me, firing off a furious letter to the editor and then firing it into the wastepaper basket would have been the better reaction. He would have felt much better, and he wouldn’t have done further damage to his image.
Update: Feb. 7, 12:25 p.m.
Chris Cillizza's column in the Washington Post yesterday gave Dan Snyder its "Worst Week in Washington" award. Cillizza reported that interest in what is now simply called "the story" was so great that the City's Paper's server crashed Wednesday afternoon.
And just for good measure, today's media column by David Carr in The New York Times focused on the piece and the difficulty for Mr. Snyder of winning his lawsuit.
Let’s say a healthcare client is seeking a briefing with a prominent newspaper editorial board. Ultimately, the client would like to see an editorial come out that reflects its views. In the best of scenarios, that’s exactly what happens.
Sometimes, though, a healthcare client goes to a briefing improperly prepared – either underprepared, overprepared or just plain poorly prepared. Luckily, Joe Rago, a senior editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, recently shared some insights with us about how clients can fare well in such briefings. Joe, who writes all the healthcare editorials in the Journal, conducts such briefings regularly.
The timing of this advice is fortuitous. With the debate over healthcare reform flaring white-hot over the last 18 months, more than a few health care clients have asked us to set up editorial board meetings (in many cases, we’ve suggested the idea ourselves). The controversy over the Affordable Care Act will most likely continue unabated in 2011.
Here, courtesy of Joe Rago, are the top 10 tips for editorial board briefings:
1. Establish the issue in play. Define it explicitly – its implications, its potential consequences. Overregulation, perhaps?
2. Zero in on a highly specific problem. Pinpoint a particular piece of legislation, say.
3. Present a conflict. Every issue has at least two sides. Demonstrate dramatic tension.
4. Show a trend. Changes already afoot or still in the offing are automatically interesting. Document the dynamics.
5. Convey a clear-cut point of view. Forgo fence straddling, never mind the on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that syndrome. You’re there to take a stand.
6. Propose a solution. Expressing a grievance – about federal policies that hamper technological innovation, for example – is only half the ballgame. Lay out your answer with authority.
7. Deliver a narrative with a theme. Everyone loves a story well told. Follow a sequence that creates suspense. “We make medical devices. Some say they’re too expensive. We say they save both lives and money. Just ask Patient ‘A.’”
8. Provide facts in abundance. Bring in a big binder. Toss out copies of letters you’ve sent to Congress.
9. Go broad. Think beyond your own company, even beyond your own industry. Show you recognize how healthcare itself might be at stake.
10. Avoid being overtly self-serving. See “9.”
Follow these criteria and chances are good you’ll get to have your say – and better still, eventually see it expressed in an editorial.
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