When PR Pros Pitch Media: Do This, Not That

With apologies to the popular Men’s Health “Eat This, Not That” column, here are some tried and true strategies to employ when pitching a story on behalf of your latest B2B, tech or consumer PR client.

Pitch in private, not in public. In other words, by email, text, or phone, not Twitter or Linked In. However, you can use those to start a relationship based on favoriting a tweet or commenting on a blog post.

Pitch facts, not fiction. Now, this is not to say that you shouldn’t embellish a pitch to make it interesting, but don’t oversell or unrealistically hype what you have. When a good journalist digs into your pitch, the curtain will get pulled back and it may not be pretty!

Draft a personal note, not a mass-produced missive.  Not always doable, we know, but when you want to get through to a journalist with an overflowing email box, anything you can do that shows care and attention to detail may see your pitch rise to the top.

Pitch less, communicate more. As you build a relationship with a media contact, find ways to reach out that have nothing to do with a client. Compliment a writer’s story or provide a contact with information on a subject that you know is of interest. Simple gestures like that can create a better working relationship all around.

Be persistent, but not a pest. If your angle is good and you know the perfect person to do the story, be politely persistent. Tweak the angle and re-send if you don’t get an initial response, but let the contact know that you crafted this pitch with her in mind and what a great story you think she could produce. Then be a terrific resource providing not only your client, but other SMEs and content as well.

Support good journalism. Once a piece has posted or a segment has aired, thank the journalist and do your part to spread the news – share, comment, link, blog – whatever you can do to promote. This benefits everyone – your client, your contact and you!

The Art and Science Of A PR Plan

In creating a sound, results-driven plan for a B2B or consumer PR client, start by thinking strategically about initiatives and programs that you can deliver on tactically.

Planning, while not as sexy or exciting as execution, is vital to delivery of client communication goals and objectives. Working from the same plan also smoothes client and team relationships, diminishing hiccups. Everyone should, literally, be on the same page. And while the process may be tedious, the result of a group signoff is freeing! Now you and your team can make things happen.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Take a deep breath, bring on the caffeine and start the planning process.

Hunt and gather. Begin by amassing all available research on your client and the industry. Look at what has worked for them and others in similar businesses and what has not. Analyze competitive marketing communications. Scour previous plans for good ideas that “got away.”  Review your onboarding notes for nuggets of client wisdom that can help.

Dig deeper. Chances are your client has troves of data that the PR firm can use for setting objectives and strategies. Even “old” data such as a U&A study can be helpful. If there’s little or no budget for customized research, consider low-cost tactics like online surveys and informal focus groups of users and/or stakeholders.

Change up the typical brainstorm. Find ways to eliminate the intimidation of having to bring a great idea to a table of your peers. Get out of the office. Brainstorm in pairs rather than a large group. It can be daunting, but a carefully choreographed creative session with your client can also pay dividends.

Settle on the best format.   A client recently told me that once he discovered the CEO’s preferred presentation format, he achieved much more success with his recommendations! Find out how decision-makers need to get information and square it with the way your team is most comfortable to help determine the ideal format for agency and client.

Tweak, tweak, visit and re-visit. One of the keys to a successful PR plan is built-in flexibility. Make sure certain recommendations are “tiered” or “piloted” ahead of full implementation and and that all elements have goals and measurement built in.

Gain buy-in ahead of presenting. Keep your direct report in the loop by collaborating and vetting ideas ahead of time to assure certain agreement before you present the plan. This practice helps strengthen your agency-client bond in the process.

Lessons From The NYPD’s Twitter PR Backlash

The latest Twitter campaign to backfire was probably as predictable as a taxi shortage at rush hour. Considering that NYC recently elected a new mayor largely on his rejection of controversial “stop-and-frisk” police tactics, it’s hard to imagine what the New York Police Department was thinking when it dreamed up its recent Twitter campaign.

By inviting locals to post photos of its experiences with the men in blue with the hashtag #mynypd, the department seemed to be expecting warm fuzzies. Instead, it was slapped with a social media backlash and a harsh dose of its own alleged “in your face” tactics. In a New York minute, the whole campaign turned into a Twitter photo contest about questionable police tactics and worse. Overall, not the finest hour for New York’s Finest.

The public bodyslam is reminiscent of the McDonald’s Twitter campaign meant to celebrate farmers, which was swiftly hijacked by critics of McD’s. Or JP Morgan’s scheduled Twitter chat hashtagged #AskJPM, which was canceled before it started due to social media outrage. (What is that makes some brands or groups lack self-awareness?)

For other companies or groups who may be subject to the same type of organizational myopia, here are some social media lessons that might help avoid the kind of backlash experienced by NYPD.

Communications is a two-way street. This is where the role of the chief communications officer needs to go beyond messaging and outbound PR announcements. If the organization is ignorant of its public perception, there should be some internal education. If it thinks it can control the response, that’s a separate – but equally serious – problem that the in-house communications experts need to address.

Know the medium. Twitter moves at lightning speed, hashtag hijacking is very common, and there are no filters. It’s simply not the best platform for a controversial organization or unpopular category.

Prepare for the unexpected. But all social platforms are by definition two-way channels, so any group that opens itself to a social mob should understand that. If you don’t have a plan to deal with a negative or critical response, you shouldn’t go social.

Line up allies. Maybe NYPD seeded the campaign with some innocuous photos to start, but if it did, it wasn’t enough. As veterans of many Twitter chats, we’ve found it useful to tap followers, advocates, and fans for social promotions. It pays to have socially savvy community members at the ready, although in this case they would likely have been outgunned by the critics.

Acknowledge missteps. Here’s where NYPD might have an opportunity to undertake a real community campaign, one that acknowledges past mistakes, public perception, and the role community policing plays in everyday life and public safety. It’s not too late.

PR Pros "Celebrate" Stress Awareness Month

Of course many of us are observing Passover and Easter this week, but did you know that April is also “Stress Awareness Month”? With public relations a perennial “top-of-the-list” candidate for stressful careers, we thought we would examine some of the stressors PR pros bemoan.

A client “goes dark” for more than a few days, without warning. In our experience, this can mean one of three things. Internal changes, possibly resulting in a client transition. Internal discussions, possibly culminating in an agency transition.  Or…nothing! Try to remain calm and keep contacting – email, call, text, so that your attempts to move business forward are documented, regardless of the outcome.

A reporter tells you your client’s story will run “exclusively in the print edition” and you say “that’s great!” Except that, it isn’t anymore, save for some old-school clients. PR practitioners want coverage in print, but we really want it online where it will drive search and live forever (or close to it). So, don’t despair, disseminate! Post links to all SM platforms and find ways to re-purpose to an online audience.

A new business prospect sends an RFP due a week from now with a holiday weekend in between. Cruel and unusual punishment? Nah, the norm for the PR biz. Determine you have the resources and experience to win, then take deep breaths, work backwards from the deadline and you may enjoy some of that weekend.

A reporter calls the client to cancel an interview.  There is so much that is stressful in that scenario! Reporter contacting  the client instead of PR reps; cancelling an interview on the day of.  If you let your client know that this is a rare exception to the reporter rule and insert yourself back in that conversation pronto, it is totally salvageable.

A client “takes a little while” to review and edit materials while a golden media opportunity slips awayPR people want to scream and tear their hair out over missed opportunities, particularly ones they deem completely avoidable. Set some boundaries at the beginning of the relationship; earn your client’s trust and soon you should be able to tame that situation (until the next one arises!)

Now, go home and enjoy the holiday weekend, and try not to look at your phone (too much!)

7 PR And Media Relations Rules You Might Want To Break

Most disciplines have unwritten rules or principles that professionals live by, and the practice of public relations is no exception.  But none of the PR or media relations “laws” are ironclad. There are times when you just might need to break the rules, or at least shake up PR industry convention when it comes to dealing with the press.  Here’s my list.

Rule #1:  Never say, “No comment.”  Of course, we tell clients never to say this, and the words have become such a cliché that any PR person would cringe to see them in print.  But most know that there are times when the only response to a media inquiry is none at all. For example, pundits always advise “getting out in front of the story” in a crisis situation, but we don’t always have all the facts during the roughly four-hour window available for responding. And when you don’t have the facts, you probably shouldn’t be speaking to the press.

Rule #2:  Don’t bother media unless you have news.  This doesn’t always hold up because someone else’s news can also be your story…if you have a colorful quote or interesting point of view.  In fact, “newsjacking,” which we used to call “newssurfing”—or hijacking a breaking news story or trend with your client’s comment—is a time-honored way to be featured.  Just don’t expect to be the main story.

Rule #3:  To be mediaworthy, your product/service/story must be unique.  Not really, and few are (And that overused and hyberbolic descriptor probably won’t get you far.)  Yet, as we like to say in the biz, one product is just a product, but two is a category.  Your news might meet with a stronger reception and make more of an impact as part of a broader category story or a classic “marketing wars” face-off.

Rule #4:  Cast your net widely when pitching a story.  Not always.  A better way to assess media potential and promote the story to maximum advantage may be to offer first crack, or “exclusive” access, to a single, highly influential outlet and then go wide.  Yes, sometimes you can have it both ways.

Rule #5:  Media training your client or spokesperson will guarantee message delivery. This one’s debatable, but I think media prep is overrated.  It won’t typically transform a reluctant or meandering speaker into a great interview. When it’s overdone, it can result in a flat or overly commercial interaction which can kill the chances for future interviews. There are even times when it’s best to find a third-party expert, or restrict the client to taped and print interviews.

Rule #6:  The PR person stays behind the scenes.  In many situations, it’s tricky for a PR rep to be quoted or to outshine a client, and most traditional agency people are more comfortable behind the scenes.  But there are plenty of communications specialists who take an active role in a client interview, and not just for preparation.  It’s particularly vital for advocacy campaigns where misinformation can abound and opinions and conclusions are hotly debated.

Rule #7:  When in doubt, have a press conference.  This is a bit of a cheat because few PR professionals would agree, but some clients think a new product or service launch deserves a fancy press briefing and that the media will come running.  Chances are they won’t, and it may not serve the client well.  A strategic media approach beats an expensive event nine times out of ten.

An earlier version of this appeared April 2 on MENGBlend.

5 Reasons Not To Ditch Your PR Agency And Go In-House

On the premiere episode of the final season of “Mad Men,” the ever-resourceful Joan tries to salvage the Butler Shoe account when she learns a new marketing head is bent on taking the advertising in-house, for reasons having more to do with his own ego than real business needs.

Realizing she’s in over her head, Joan meets with a university professor for a crash course on marketing and comes away with some effective arguments that help forestall the move.

Wouldn’t it be great for life to imitate art when a company is weighing that same decision – for less-than-sound reasons – with a PR account?  To save you the time of meeting with a  professor, here are five reasons why (sometimes) clients shouldn’t ditch their PR agency to go in-house.

PR agencies usually have the media relationships. Building trusting relationships with journalists takes time and effort and no one person can “own” all the beats. In an agency, many of the PR pros already have longstanding relationships are constantly building new ones. This doesn’t mean 100% guaranteed coverage, but it does cut through a lot of media red tape to get quicker responses and more meaningful feedback.

The PR firm can change as your account does. Agencies can allocate and re-allocate resources with the account requirements. Depending on the size of the campaign, there may be lots of legwork required. That means more staff and greater overhead. But when you hire an agency, they already have, or can muster, the manpower to carry out all the necessary tasks. Additionally, if a client has an insurmountable issue with an in-house hire, it could mean termination and starting over. In a good agency partnership, a personality conflict can be managed by changing the staff rotation.

A PR team is (relatively) objective. In a large, bureaucratic organization, it’s easy to get caught up in the corporate convention of doing things a given way because that’s how it’s always been done. Even in a smaller company, like a technology start-up, you can suffer from drinking too much of the corporate Kool-Aid. An objective point of view about the market opportunity, the company’s reputation, and its PR potential is very valuable.

PR agencies won’t stick to “safe” ideas. And when it comes to creative product, you don’t want them to! A good PR partner will push for risky ideas or strategies that may fly in the face of convention, or that in-house staffers might be too timid or reluctant to broach – yet, often with strong results.

PR agencies make the internal folks look good. Again, it is the nature of PR firms to constantly think of ways to delight their clients and also find ways to make the client the hero in the process. Make a good match with a firm and expect to reap benefits beyond great PR work.

PR Isn’t Dead, But It Should Be Reincarnated

Some prominent members of the PR industry were up in arms recently over a story in the Financial Times about companies who reject the traditional PR agency relationship and choose to handle their own public relations. “Publicity is Free With No PRs” featured such luminaries as Warren Buffet and Elon Musk and their propensity for interacting directly with key constituencies. (Which is puzzling, since Tesla just hired a senior director of communications who presumably has nothing to do.)

But the FT story didn’t bother me, because it basically highlighted the outliers. Though less colorful, it was reminiscent of Mark Cuban’s famous advice to startups. Sandwiched between “Never buy swag” (he particularly hates branded t-shirts) and “make the job fun for employees” is the pearl, “Never hire a PR firm.”  Cuban claims that most journalists he’s met prefer to speak to him directly, not through a PR professional, and I’m sure he’s right.

But there are a few problems with that advice: it reduces PR’s role to that of a go-between in a media relations campaign, and it assumes that most CEOs are like Mark Cuban. It’s not, and they’re not.

What’s far more interesting, and likely more substantive, is a book in progress by Robert Phillips, former head of Edelman EMEA. “Trust Me, PR Is Dead” is the title. The book’s not yet published, but Phillips recently penned a tantalizing preview of his call-to-arms. Here’s a sample.

PR is dead. Its business model, dominated on the consultancy side by bloated networks selling bureaucracy over transformation and generalists over deep expertise, is broken. Its philosophy – rooted in selling stuff to consumers, rather than addressing societal needs – is exhausted. A transparent world exposes the tired deceits of message management and spin.

Tough stuff, but there’s a germ of truth there. And unlike the selective reporting of the FT journalist, this indictment comes from an insider. It’s too soon to know what Phillips has up his sleeve, but it calls for nothing less than a reengineering of the traditional PR agency model.

And that’s the problem I have with the “PR Is Dead. Long Live PR” posts that pepper the PR blogosphere. It’s true that our industry has failed to set a new bar for creativity. I agree that we need to master the use of data and analytics, as well as tackle the holy grail of PR metrics. And I’ve long believed – perhaps due to personal bias – that the big-agency model doesn’t always serve clients well.

But most PR professionals, particularly on the agency side, worry about what to call ourselves and how to define the term. They worry about “better PR for PR”, as opposed to how we should truly reinvent ourselves in a world that’s changed pretty drastically over the last five years.

The paradox of the “PR is Dead” warnings is this: until public relations is disrupted in the way that the advertising industry has been, until we actually are threatened with the death of the business, our industry is unlikely to make the changes necessary to ensure the long-term health of the industry.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In one way, I almost wish those alarmist headlines were true.

How Strategic PR Makes A Milestone Work Harder

This month our client Edible Arrangements, the originator and category leader of artfully designed fresh fruit bouquets, celebrates its 15th birthday. From humble beginnings – one store in New Haven, opened by founder Tariq Farid, a Pakistani immigrant – to over 1,200 stores worldwide, the operation has grown phenomenally, achieving $500 million in sales in 2013.

Having such a strong story certainly helps, but knowing how to package your story to target media is the key to having it “bear fruit.” Here are some pointers to make your next mediaworthy company milestone work even harder.

Fresh content means great stories. Work with your team to find the stories behind the story. Who contributed to the milestone in an unsung way? What are the company’s next steps following up on this achievement? Find as many angles as you can.

The past informs the present. Conduct a thorough search for reporters who have covered the company and industry favorably in the past. Give them an opportunity to get an updated story. If they covered less than favorably and you have vetted, pitch them for a chance to get a “new view.”

Offer “first looks” to top journalists. We gave the “first look” to Forbes in print and Fox Business in broadcast and strategically carved up the rest of the media universe after those stories broke. Research on your part will help determine where your “first looks” would work best.

Press release or pitch? If you have hard news along with your anniversary or other milestone – financials, new product offerings, hiring data – craft a release. If your story is lighter, find the nuggets of news and call those out for relevant reporters.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”   Benjamin Franklin said this, and it falls to the PR firm to make sure you have identified who can speak with the press.  If spokesperson/s need training, provide it well in advance of media activity. Don’t leave this to the last minute.

Merchandise the occasion internally. No company reaches a milestone without the heavy lifting of employees and partners. Stakeholders deserve to get the news in a special and very personalized way, and they should be included in the celebration of external PR around the occasion.

Public Relations And The Boycott Culture

Software community Mozilla lost its CEO recently, due to poor PR handling of a red-hot issue, or because said CEO was railroaded for unpopular views. Perhaps both. But, contrast the Mozilla mess with the sugar-coated response by a humble graham cracker to critics of its message about marriage. Each says something about the power of PR-driven “boycotts” and how companies should respond.

Things heated up for Mozilla when news broke that in 2008, cofounder and newly installed CEO Brendan Eich had donated $1,000 to support Prop 8, the controversial measure to ban same-sex marriage in California.

The flames were fanned when dating service OkCupid led a Mozilla boycott, even blocking the browser from its website. (This is ironic, given that OkCupid CEO Sam Yagan donated to at least two congressional candidates opposed to marriage equality.) But there was no love lost once Mozilla’s own employees jumped into the fray, and the controversy culminated in Eich’s resignation, leaving pundits to ponder whether Silicon Valley is enlightened or just hypocritical.

It’s not perfectly equivalent, but consider the example set by Honey Maid, the graham cracker brand, when it was faced with a boycott by opponents of marriage equality. Honey Maid debuted a commercial themed, “This Is Wholesome,” featuring different kinds of families, including – of course – biracial and gay couples and their adorable children. A page from the Cheerios playbook, yes.

Almost immediately, the online comments were toxic. The conservative group One Million Moms (which has considerably less than a million members, as Ellen will tell you) called for Christians to reject Honey Maid, describing the spot as “an attempt to normalize sin.”

Ouch. Now, being on the “correct” (read: inclusive) side of the issue made Honey Maid’s dilemma arguably easier to manage than Mozilla’s. And internet trolls are overlooked more readily than employees or partners. Plus, the brand had to know that it would attract those trolls, based on the Cheerios experience. They were probably prepared.

But any type of boycott brings real risks to brand reputation and possibly to the business itself. Plenty of companies have been caught in the now-familiar “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” cycle of not wanting to anger any constituency. Remember Chick Fil-A’s roasting over its CEO’s views? It probably didn’t hurt the chain’s business; in fact, you could argue it marketed to its core customers, but it was a huge distraction. Or Lowe’s sponsorship of a reality show about American Muslims? The chain pulled its ads when criticized by a fringe group, only to enrage those who saw the move as promoting intolerance.

We live in a boycott culture. Bloggers and journalists are quick to cover controversy. Social media can turn a brushfire into an inferno in an hour.

The lesson here is: stick to your guns, but with a soft touch. Honey Maid’s response to the ugly protests against its ad was wonderful. It basically killed off its critics with kindness, releasing a second spot where two artists arrange all the negative comments, printed on rolled-up paper, into a kind of sculpture that spells out “Love.” The response was all the sweeter because of the old-fashioned, Midwestern flavor of its brand character. (Never mind that it’s part of Mondelez International.)

Honey Maid’s Love Sculpture has garnered millions of free views, lots of water-cooler chat, and buckets of major media coverage, capped off with a New Yorker piece about the brilliance of its marketing response.

Responding to public criticism or the threat of a boycott is never simple, but Honey Maid made it seem almost easy. There’s a lesson here for other brands and businesses. Sometimes, all you need is love.