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When PR People Should Step Out Of Line

Can PR people do right by doing wrong? Or at least by breaking with convention?

In any business there are rules — spoken and unspoken. Yet, sometimes, if you muster the nerve to color outside the lines, you can achieve more than you thought. Here are some examples of times when I broke the PR or media relations “rules” and was rewarded. The common thread here is about being human instead of robotic.

Rule #1: The shorter the pitch, the better.

Brevity is generally a good idea. If you’re on the receiving end of thousands of daily pitches, you need to skim fast, or ignore most of your email. But sometimes we need to tell a story. A well-written narrative can draw a producer or a reporter in. Check each sentence to make sure it builds your case. Is it compelling? Does it make you want to read further? Then go with it, even it it’s more than a paragraph.

Rule #2: Never follow up with media. And certainly don’t do it by phone.

No one wants to talk anymore. I hear that all the time, and I see it. In fact, at our office we still have desk phones, but when I once asked to transfer a call, no one knew how. Many people rely on a high-quality conference setup and their mobile phones for text and social media communication. But has that producer even seen your email?  Since no one else is calling, you actually may stand out. Hone your elevator pitch and, for goodness sake, if someone answers, be personal. It’s your moment. Don’t blow it.

Rule #3:  Never say “no comment.”

A literal response of “no comment” isn’t a good idea, because it has become a cliché of media stonewalling. Yet there are times when a simple, “I don’t have any information to share” is the best recourse. These include crisis situations where a company simply doesn’t have all the facts, or one where legal liability is an issue. Yet this kind of situation can also be an opportunity to weigh in on background with information that a reporter can use if she can verify it through other sources. If it can serves the client as well as the relationship with the journalist, that’s a good thing.

Rule #4: Don’t get emotional at work.

PR people, like all business people, want to maintain a professional demeanor. But sometimes, being human can bring you closer or build mutual respect. A colleague shared a story of a tough conference call involving a long-ago client with an anger management problem. The client was openly berating her, in front of her full team (some of whom had privately thought her standoffish and cold.) As the irate client raged, the boss’s eyes filled with tears, and she struggled to maintain composure. A staffer reached over and placed her arm around her boss. The incident brought the whole team together, and they bonded for years. (The client in question was later fired for abusive language with an internal colleague.)

Rule #5: Focus on the decision-maker.

This is particularly relevant to new business development and competitive pitch contests among agencies, and for good reason. The agency review process can be confusing and time-consuming, and it helps to focus on the single individual or handful of executives with real decision-making power. Yet, today’s intern might be tomorrow’s communications director. The same is true in media relations. The broadcast network receptionist could be an assistant producer by next year. Everyone starts somewhere. Even the lowest person on the org chart may have greater access to the people you want to reach than you do. Yesterday a newsroom intern ran my message over the a morning producer, who then called me back. It pays to make friends and contacts with everyone along the way.

Rule #6: Scale your pitch.

In public relations, and especially in my area of media relations, we need to cover a lot of bases. There’s not usually time for a highly personalized pitch beyond a well-written email. Yet a hand-crafted and delivered pitch can be very powerful. I once worked on a campaign to promote a new pink women’s razor. A certain TV personality happened to make a comment about how much she hated to shave her legs. Her comment dovetailed with our 10-city contest and pink Cadillac giveaway to celebrate summer. We rushed over a pitch attached to a sand pail filled with a Barbie dolls’ bare legs entwined around a pink toy car. It was pretty nifty to hear Oprah speak our copy aloud when she awarded the winner her new car.

As they say, each according to its needs. Don’t be robotic. Be human. Be creative. Sometimes, you should step out of line.

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