Tag Archives: media coverage

PR’s “Big Lie” is Alive and Well

whack a moleNearly 5 years ago, I wrote a LinkedIn blog post (The PR Industry’s Dirty Little Secret) that called out PR practitioners who use their “close relationships” with journalists – along with the implication that those relationships will generate media coverage – to sell their services to prospective clients.

The “Big Lie” in this sales pitch is that no journalist will ever cover a topic because they know your PR rep.  Further, any PR rep who pitches stories to journalists based relationships is unlikely to have those relationships for very long.

I had not run into the Big Lie for some time, and believed it had become a remnant of old school PR; that clients had finally caught on, and were showing the door to PR practitioners who claimed their media relationships are for sale.

But in Whack-a-Mole fashion, the Big Lie popped up again last week in a discussion with a prospective client, which went like this:

Prospect:        Do you have relationships with influential reporters that can help us get coverage?

Me:                 I’ve worked with lots of reporters, but I would never pitch them a story simply because they know me.

Prospect:        What do you mean?

Me:                 I would only pitch a reporter if I had a story that was worthy of their consideration. That’s my value proposition. I know what journalists want, and I know how to present it to them in a way that increases the likelihood that they will be interested.

Prospect:        But if they already know you, won’t that help our chances of getting the story published?

Me:                 Not necessarily. Have you worked with a PR firm before?

Prospect:        Yes. And I hired them because they had strong media contacts.

Me:                 How well did they perform?

Prospect:        I got absolutely nothing from them. That’s why I’m talking to you.

So apparently…the Big Lie is alive and well in PR Land. And companies are still being played.

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Should PRSA Sanction Public Relations Practitioners?

In his bi-weekly column on customer service, “The Haggler,” New York Times writer David Segal addressed a long-standing and well-founded gripe that many journalists have against public relations practitioners who send out press releases and other solicitations in wholesale fashion; regardless of the content’s relevance or likely interest to the journalists they’re pitching. According to Segal, hundreds of thousands of these unsolicited pitches – or “P.R. Spam,” as he calls it – “belly flop into the email systems of journalists every day.”

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals has always been contentious. Reporters claim PR people block their access to sources, and sometimes to the truth. PR counters that journalists often don’t care about facts, or twist them to suit their editorial agenda. But because the press can deliver exposure and credibility that PR craves, journalists have always been in a more powerful position. As a result, effective public relations involves pushing a company’s or client’s agenda (or products and services) without being a pest, and ideally, by being helpful to reporters who are in a position to reciprocate with media coverage. It’s a dance that both sides understand.

Over the past decade, three developments have upset the already rocky relationship between PR and the press:

  • Email, and “blast email” in particular, has become PR’s most frequently used communication device. Standard PR procedure at most firms and agencies is based on “shotgun” tactics designed to reach as many media sources as possible, relevance or interest notwithstanding.
  • Database companies, notably Cision and Vocus, empower PR people to create enormous lists of journalists in a matter of minutes. What was once a painstaking research process now involves a few keystrokes.
  • The internet and a fundamental shift in how news is reported have greatly reduced the number of journalists. Conversely, more schools are pumping out graduates with PR degrees. So there are now significantly more PR people chasing a much smaller number of journalists. And many newly minted PR people have not been taught the unwritten rules of effective media relations.

Why should serious PR practitioners care about the behavior of the growing number of people within their profession who display no regard for fundamental media relations protocol?

In his column, New York Times’ David Segal reports that he has removed his contact information from the 5 leading media database companies. Calling on other reporters who also seek fewer unsolicited intrusions in their mailboxes, Segal provides detailed instructions on how they can delete their listings from those databases.

But it matters very little whether Segal is the canary in the coal mine for this issue, foreshadowing mass defections of journalists from online databases; thereby making those tools useless. In fact, PR may also be better served without them.

What does matter is that this sloppy, lazy, abusive practice of media harassment by so many PR people increasingly harms the stature of the profession, and makes it even more difficult for serious practitioners to work effectively with the press.

Public relations has fought for decades to be recognized as a bona fide profession, similar to medicine, law or accounting. But until the profession is in a position to self-regulate – to reprimand or sanction, in transparent fashion, individual practitioners or organizations that harm the reputation and effectiveness of the discipline – PR can never be considered a legitimate profession. It will remain a business function, nothing more.

If the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), in its role as the industry’s trade association, has serious interest in protecting the reputation and collective interests of the nation’s public relations franchise, the issue highlighted by David Segal provides an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership by reversing a troubling trend. An online “complaint box” for journalists to identify abuse, combined with a “Wall of Shame” to call out repeat offenders – both featured on the PRSA website – might be an effective first step in changing industry behavior.

Any other ideas?

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PR / Media Pros Should Stand Firm on Requiring Quote Approvals

Quote Approvals Lower the Risk of Media Burn

The practice of requiring journalists to submit on-the-record quotes for approval by a source in advance of publication has long been a sore point between the media and the PR profession. A new spotlight has been cast on the issue, with writer Michael Lewis’ acknowledgment that he’d agreed to quote approval for his Vanity Fair profile on Barack Obama, and the new policy issued by the New York Times, which forbids their reporters from agreeing to “after-the-fact quote approval by sources and their press aides.”

Notwithstanding the New York Times’ effort to protect the integrity of the Fourth Estate, there are at least 3 reasons why it makes good sense for companies and organizations to stand firm on stipulating that reporters obtain quote approval as a pre-condition for granting an interview:

  1. Reporters Are Human. They often don’t bring the depth of knowledge that’s required to cover the assignments they’re handed…so they will make mistakes. They also bring their own points of view…so they will be selective in how they quote sources. And sometimes, they don’t always play by the rules. This blogger was told by a New York Times reporter that if I pressed for a correction to an error he had made regarding one of my clients, that he would never feature any of my clients in his column.
  2. The Spoken Word and Written Word are Very Different. A comment or offhand remark that’s expressed during an interview can cast a false or unfair impression when taken out of context, and when it is read rather than heard. Very few individuals have the ability to envision…as they are speaking…how their spoken words will look in print and to know what message those words will convey. Mark Twain recognized that “talk in print” results in “confusion to the reader, not instruction.”
  3. Journalism Is a Cat and Mouse Game. Reporters are frequently looking for a “gotcha” quote that can juice up their coverage, or support a point they’re seeking to make. Their questions can be contrived, or their approach designed to wear down a source. This blogger learned that lesson the hard way, when a Chicago Tribune reporter twisted a fact-based comment in a very long conversation that enabled him to write a story entitled, “Amex Official Admits CBOE Superiority.”

If you’re willing to participate in media interviews without the safety net of quote approval….here are some guidelines that will lower your risk of being burned:

  • You Can Never Be “Media Trained” – Regardless of whatever training, practice sessions or actual interviews you’ve had, believing that you are “media trained” provides a dangerous and false sense of security. Every reporter is different, every interview is a unique opportunity, and you need to be properly prepared every time.
  • Don’t Lead Lambs to Slaughter – For a host of reasons, and regardless of their org chart position or years of experience, some people are media disasters. If your senior manager or client has a track record of interviews that did not go well, avoid putting them in harm’s way. If a heart-to-heart conversation regarding their poor interviewing skills is not an option, at least ensure that they are equipped for interviews with tightly scripted talking points.
  • Tape Record all Interviews – When there’s a recorded version of an interview, a reporter is likely to be more careful in quoting a source, and you have something more credible than written notes, if there is any controversy. It’s good form to let the reporter know upfront that you will be tape recording an interview. If the reporter objects, and you still agree to conduct the interview, then your organization deserves whatever misquotes or misrepresentation may occur.

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No-Cost, Cornball Marketing Can Drive B2B Top-of-Mind Awareness

LtoR: Heather Fuller, Andrew Crisp, Percy, Gary Thompson, Mickie Kennedy. Missing: Nimmi, the acrobatic dog.

eReleases competes with dozens of electronic news distribution services, all seeking to charge companies and PR agencies hefty fees to put their press releases in front of journalists, in hopes of capturing the media’s attention and coverage.

After some polite online badgering by eReleases, Highlander Consulting gave that upstart firm a shot last week; tasking them to distribute a press release for one of its clients, CAP Index Inc. – a leading provider of  crime forecasting data and risk analytics.  eReleases’ results were as good as, or better than, any of its larger, better-known competitors.

But what impressed us more than the quality of their service, was the no-cost, cornball guerilla (included in photo) marketing tactic that eReleases applied to thank us for our business.

A whacky whiteboard “eReleases Welcomes…” photo, personalized by name, sent by editorial director Heather Fuller, was embedded with this note:

“We just wanted to take the opportunity to personally welcome you as a valued eReleases customer and let you know we’re not just a website in some guy’s basement. 🙂

If you ever have any questions or concerns, pick up the phone and call us. All of our editors pick up the phone. No pushy salesperson or operator standing between you and us.”

So….what service provider will Highlander think of FIRST the next time we need to distribute a press release online?

Marketing Lesson: Cheap, clever and memorable can beat costly and sophisticated when it comes to driving top-of-mind awareness with targeted B2B audiences.

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