PR Lessons From Twitter

In this blog, we often dispense practical media relations or PR advice based on years of experience in the trenches of tech PR. However, no one can advise PRs better on how and what to pitch reporters than… reporters. Journalists love to take to Twitter to offer up best practices or, more likely, let off steam about the terrible pitches that clog their inboxes on a daily basis. Their style is sometimes brutal, but the advice is priceless. So, we monitored some recent tweets from frustrated journalists and were both amused and a little embarrassed by what we saw. Here’s a reminder for those just starting out in media relations.

Note to PRs: It’s still about relevance

It’s probably the most fundamental rule of pitching media, but it needs repeating. PRs have to research the beats, reporting style, and preferences of those they approach in order to avoid irrelevant pitches that are more likely to end up as a mean tweet or on Muck Rack’s bad pitch roundup than as a published story. Take it from BuzzFeed’s David Mack and Tampa Bay Times’ Kathryn Varn (to pick just two): what seems difficult and time-consuming at the outset will save pain in the long run.

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Don’t be overly familiar

Media pitching shouldn’t be a vehicle for false intimacy, hints of quid-pro-quo, or – the worst – clickbait-style subject lines. Those are presumptuous at best, unprofessional at worst. There’s another way to get in good with reporters — help them do their job well. See this post for real ways to build stronger media relationships.

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Breaking: Journalists want to report news

Nicole Perlroth makes a good point in a tweet today about her “PR Wasteland” inbox. The bar for relevance in certain categories, like her beat of cybersecurity, is high. Funding alone isn’t necessarily newsworthy to an IT security journalist. (Try TechCrunch or VentureBeat for those.) It pays to remember that what’s newsy to a client, like a product launch, exciting new campaign, or corporate reshuffling, may not be enough for an article. Our job is to help a journalist connect the dots for a story about a larger trend or happening.

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Respect ethical lines: PR’s not bribery

This one’s dangerous. Occasionally an inexperienced or unscrupulous PR pro goes beyond carelessness into ethically questionable territory. It’s possible that the person described here confused Dan Goodin with an influencer who accepts payment for social posts or branded content, but if so, that compounds the error. Any good media relations professional understands that no reputable journalist accepts money or gifts, and calling it “compensation for their time” is an insult to both parties.

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Don’t be a bully

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s also the example noted here — a completely unacceptable attempt by an executive to spike an already published story. While it’s good practice to ask for any mistakes to be corrected, an attempt to bully a publication in the absence of factual errors is doomed to fail, and it will do nothing for the company’s reputation. See our earlier post for more tips on maintaining media relationships under pressure.

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bad pr pitches

C’mon, PR pros! There’s no excuse for these careless flubs 

Finally, from the dark files of PR pros need to get it together come some real gems. Everybody makes mistakes, but these three episodes show a need for remedial education — and possibly better email software.

10 Reasons Your PR Might Be Failing

The success or failure of a PR program can hinge on many factors, most of which are within our control. Still, when you’re too close to the work, it’s difficult to determine what gears might be hampering a machine’s performance. Here are 10 possible reasons for PR outcomes that miss the mark.

There’s no buy-in at the top 

If a company’s leadership isn’t willing to commit to a PR program, it may be challenged from the start. Senior executives who don’t get involved in internal PR reviews, or who don’t participate as corporate spokespersons where needed are sending a message that the program isn’t a priority. That can hamstring the PR team’s efforts.

It’s not working well with others

If a PR team or agency doesn’t work in collaboration with marketing, it may be spinning its wheels — or worse, working in opposition to company business objectives. Since PR and marketing are increasingly blurring their functions, sharing goals, data, and messages, the absence of collaboration is a lost opportunity.

The silver-bullet theory

It may be tempting to think that a great PR program is the magic ingredient for a critical product launch or the sole solution to a decline in brand reputation. But it isn’t usually quite so simple. PR is not a band-aid in times of crisis, nor is it a quick study or one-off tactic. While a strategic PR campaign can yield powerful results in the form of earned media, it typically generates influence over time. The molding of public opinion, raising of awareness, or bolstering of reputation are time-consuming endeavors requiring discipline and patience. And they’re worth it.

Aiming too high to start

Top-tier earned media articles are terrific, and they’re often a highlight of the research, relationships and media strategy that goes into a good media relations campaign. But it doesn’t pay to narrow your targets to an unrealistic handful of marquee outlets. If leadership insists that only splashy features in Fast Company or The Wall Street Journal will do, it will miss many opportunities. As we preach here often, well-targeted trade and niche publications are the less glamorous but effective workhorse of PR.

It’s underfunded 

An inadequate budget can lead to an underachieving PR program. Businesses that lack experience in public relations may believe that a sliver of the marketing budget can be repurposed for an annual PR and influencer campaign. Or they may think they’ll give it six months to change a brand image. The reality is usually different, however. Strategic PR takes a long-term commitment by an experienced team, and that comes at a cost. See our earlier article on how PR agencies set budgets and billing.

No measure of success

It’s important to have a clear definition of success at the outset. In the current environment, there’s a world of data available to help inform program strategy and measure success. Vague outcomes like “increased visibility” may work as a goal but will never suffice as a metric. A PR team must set forth a specific set of metrics from placements, to leads generated, to social mentions for any and all PR initiatives — and allocate budget for such measurement.

Look what I did!

If a company’s media pitches, blog posts, and press releases read like the accomplishments section of a resume, they are probably just as fun to read — meaning, not at all. Public relations is about making great content that engages, educates, and entertains. And it shouldn’t always be about your brand. If your PR program is festooned with self-promotional pablum, you’ve missed the point, the value, and the power of great storytelling.

Ignore SEO at your peril

The lines between PR and marketing are blurring. If a PR team isn’t optimizing its considerable online deliverables, then it’s leaving increased authority, visibility, and credibility on the table. SEO and PR can influence search ranking and increase site traffic. More importantly, SEO and PR build strong brand associations and drive market authority, helping reach customers at every point in the sales journey.

DIY PR doesn’t deliver

But there can be no DIY in public relations, no matter how tempting it can be for a startup. That doesn’t mean you have to hire a PR agency, but it does mean an experienced professional should lead the program. We’ve seen some businesses relegate PR to an afterthought, defining it as responding to media inquiries and assigning an intern to it. Yikes. We advise early-stage companies to hire seasoned PR pros as soon as they are ready and able. See this earlier post for some compelling reasons why DIY PR so often falls short.

No creative spark  

It’s easy for an initiative to be drowned out in the torrent of social and traditional media noise. In today’s atmosphere of continuous communications from a multitude of channels, PR people (and their marketing peers) must choose their channels well and review programming each quarter for original approaches to storytelling. See this earlier post for more on the power of PR creativity.

What We Learn From Famous PR Failures

Later this year, The Museum of Failure will open in Sweden. Those in public relations will notice the product flops it reportedly features, like Colgate beef lasagna, Harley Davidson perfume, and, of course, new Coke. But we like the museum for the lesson behind it, which is that even the biggest brands and most successful companies are capable of failure.

It also inspired us to look at famous (and infamous) PR “fails” over the decades as examples that even big brands can mess up.

Can You Head Off PR Failures?

In PR a failure could be characterized as a campaign that never caught fire, a pitch that fizzled or a relationship that went badly off course. So, we can’t prevent them, and those day-to-day missteps probably prevent other, larger flops. When a truly whopping mistake happens, — well, sometimes it takes time and perspective. Consider these “historic” PR failures.

The giant (melting) Snapple popsicle

NBC News called it “disaster on a stick.” And we’ll never forget it because the 2005 stunt by Snapple happened just a few blocks from our office. The 25-foot icepop caper was the brand’s attempt to break the Guinness record for the world’s largest popsicle in order to promote a new beverage flavor. It wasn’t a bad idea — visual stunts can be mediaworthy, and reaching for the record presumably gave the giant pop an extra reason for being.  But the whole thing melted down as the brand tried and failed to have a crane lift the rapidly softening giant pop upright, and Snapple called off the stunt amid rivers of sticky pink water gushing down 17th Street. The Snapple ice pop will live in PR infamy, yet it probably raised more awareness of the brand (and arguably for its new flavor) than an ordinary event would have.

Urban Outfitters’ “Holocaust chic”

It could have been a simple product mistake; Urban Outfitters launched a short-lived tapestry featuring gray stripes and a pink star that many thought was reminiscent of the striped pajamas that concentration camp prisoners were forced to wear during the Holocaust. We tend to think the retailer was being intentionally provocative, given its history of controversial products (see: Kent State splattered sweatshirt), so we give it a failing grade on this one. Unfortunately, Urban Outfitters isn’t the only retailer to launch a product that reminded some of Nazi Germany. Zara was forced to pull a yellow-star-emblazoned striped t-shirt off the market after similar concerns were expressed by the Anti-Defamation league. The commonsense lesson: stay far away from Hitler references or holocaust imagery, unless you want to be seen as exploiting a historic tragedy to make a sale.

The “Iron Man 3” fake attack

Compared to the giant ice pop, this one was just a local promotion, but it was far more alarming. Only a year after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting that killed 12 people, a Missouri theater owner staged a fake attack to promote a screening of “Iron Man 3.” He sent a costumed character carrying a fake gun into the theater, prompting several audience members to call the cops. Luckily, no shots were fired, but the performance may go down as the stupidest — and most dangerous – PR stunt in history.

Justine Sacco’s careless tweet

The storm set off by a flippant tweet from a young PR executive three years ago seems a lot less shocking in the age of Trump. But Sacco’s experience was an object lesson in how ruthless the social mob can be, and how quickly things can turn when you don’t, or can’t, address a mistake right away. Just before leaving on a flight to her native South Africa for Christmas in 2013, Sacco, a smart and presumably social-media-savvy employee of IAC, posted a racially-charged tweet about AIDS. It was an attempt at snarky humor, but when she landed 11 hours later, thousands of angry tweets greeted her, including one from her employer. Sacco lost her job, her reputation, and probably her personal bearings as she grappled with the consequences of that single tweet. Today, she’s a poster child for internet shaming, and her experience is a personal branding lesson that everyone should heed.

Starbucks “Race Together”

This one had good intentions, and we give Starbucks points for its 2015 initiative designed not to promote a new drink, but to start an important national conversation. The idea was for Starbucks baristas to write “Race Together” on cups and to actually engage customers in a dialogue about race relations. Even beyond the practical considerations (who has time to start a heavy conversation on their way to work?), “Race Together” became late-night joke material and died a quick death.  Yet, as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz later explained, “The irony is, we did create a national conversation — not how we intended, but you learn from mistakes.” Well said.

“Don’t let your failures define you–let them teach you”

Barack Obama said this, perhaps to Hillary Clinton, who has known some failure in life, or maybe just to anyone who has experienced a setback, which means everyone.

Mistakes happen, and their lessons begin when we take responsibility for the part we own, then forgive ourselves. So, we should remember failures, because they keep us humble, honest, and hungry for success. I had a colleague who kept a hard copy of a very negative story from a past media relations campaign. She said she needed to know that despite her best efforts, things could still go south. It’s not an incentive that would work for me, but for her it was a reminder to do her best work. For most of us, that motivation just might be a walk down the halls of the Museum of Failure.