PR Must Play on Both Sides of the Chessboard

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As a chess player, I study the games of grandmasters to understand exactly what they are doing to win. One of the things that jumps out at me is they often play on both sides of the chessboard.

They may be attacking on the kingside (where the castled king is hiding in safety), but just when the pressure is greatest, switch to the other side of the board where there are no defenders.

In public relations, we should do the same. We must have a sound strategy and if the plan is to be active on the traditional media side of the board, we should be willing and able to play on the digital/social media side, too. Modern PR campaigns increasingly must be able to both influence content produced by the mainstream press and create their own content to be distributed via digital and social means.

To create a campaign or program that only utilizes one side of the board is like walking out of the house with only one shoe. You’ll probably get where you’re going, but it will take longer and you may end up with a broken toe…

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Easy Interview Prep for Public Relations

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It’s all about the interview.

The secret to good PR, after coming up with a solid story idea and getting reporters interested, is executing the interview well. Interview preparation for public relations is a highly critical skill.

Unfortunately, it is also a highly neglected endeavor. For a variety of reasons, executives often find themselves in the midst of interviews for which they are poorly prepared. This can lead to a number of negative outcomes such as losing the story entirely and, even worse, having the story turn negative for your company.

These disasters can be avoided with some solid interview prep. Below is a step-by-step guide to making interview prep for public relations quick and easy.

Easy Interview Prep for Public Relations

  • Have your talking points ready. This can be as simple as jotting down a handful of bullet points, or, if you prefer, writing a detailed document with facts and figures. The key is to have your messaging — what you want to get across in the interview — at your fingertips. If you’re going live on TV or meeting in person with a reporter, you’ll, of course, need to memorize your talking points. They key is knowing your messaging before you sit down to be interviewed.
  • Research your reporter/outlet. You don’t want to be surprised by your reporter’s questions when your interview begins, so you should be aware of your reporter and news outlet’s background and approach before you begin. Your publicist should do this for you. But if not, you’ll need to conduct a little research. Is the reporter an investigative journalist or a feature writer? Does the reporter’s beat suggest a high level of subject knowledge or is he or she a generalist? What kind of story is the outlet looking for?
  • Practice your questions & answers. Publicists call this Q&A and it typically begins with a document that lists the toughest questions you expect and bullet points on how to answer them. Importantly, creating the document is only Part 1. It’s critical to practice with these questions — 15 or 20 minutes may do just fine — to develop a level of comfort in handling them. Your publicist can “play” the reporter and you can work back and forth in a mock interview.
  • Determine your ground rules. This creates the playing field and you should know how you want to proceed before you ever sit down to answer questions. For example, it can be very helpful to set a time limit, say 15 minutes, for the entire interview. This can help keep the reporter focused and let you know much time you need to spend on the hot seat. Also, determine in advance whether the whole interview is on the record or not. If not, make sure you and the reporter agree on what can and cannot be used.
  • Make sure you’re available on pitch day. It sounds obvious, I know, but once all the other prep is done, make sure you’re actually going to be available on pitch day. Available means being ready to take reporters’ calls and, if necessary, traveling to TV studios on short notice. If you’re got a 6 hour board meeting in the middle of announcement day, you’re not truly available. Likewise, if you’re not dressed appropriately for TV interviews, you’re not available. A successful pitch can be totally undermined if the interview subject is not ready to go.

Are there other things you can do to be ready for interviews? Sure. If you’ve never done press interviews before, you might consider some professional media training. We use video cameras so clients can not only practice, but see and hear how they conduct interviews.

You can also get involved in the initial development of your company’s story pitches so you know what’s coming and can make sure the messaging you’ll be called on to deliver is comfortable for you.

However, if time is short, just follow the steps above for easy interview prep for public relations. You’ll be well ahead of the game.

Devil’s in the Details When Working with the Media

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They got it wrong. Very, very wrong.

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the individual mandate in President Obama’s healthcare law is constitutional, a big win for the president. But that didn’t stop major media organizations CNN and Fox News from mistakenly reporting that it had been struck down.

Fox and CNN are two big news organizations with lots of resources. Getting it wrong was a huge embarrassment. Something that should never, ever happen. Yet, it did.

You might be tempted to write this off as an inside-baseball media story. But, it’s not. Everyone who does public relations for a living ought to pay close attention, because it can happen to you. In fact, if you’re in this business long enough, it will.

Make Sure the Media Get Your Story Right

The main point is that the media can and do get it wrong. Working with complicated stories under deadline pressure and with limited resources, mistakes happen. In a high-profile situation like an anticipated Supreme Court ruling, the situation is quickly remedied when other news organizations point out the error.

But what about a lower-profile story on your company? What if one news organization’s error gets picked up by another and the mistaken information snowballs? What if you can’t ever get the story back on track?

This can be an unmitigated disaster. It can take a positive story for your company and turn it negative. Or, it can exacerbate a crisis you’re trying to manage.

While we have limited control of stories once the media get them, there are some steps we can take to avoid major errors in making complicated announcements. Following these rules can help avoid mistakes and allow you to address them quickly when they occur.

9 Tips for Avoiding Media Errors

  1. Write your press releases simply and without jargon. It’s less important to be pithy than accurate.
  2. Don’t try to slip in details subtly. Reporters may miss them. If it’s important to the story, make it explicit.
  3. Do not put important facts exclusively in quotes. Make sure they reside elsewhere in the release.
  4. Use bullets to highlight key information. They can serve as a fact check within your releases.
  5. Consider embargoed releases to avoid deadline pressure. Time pressure was a big reason for CNN and Fox getting it wrong.
  6. If your strategy allows, consider letting a few key reporters who follow you closely break complex stories. They’re most likely to get them right.
  7. Follow up aggressively with reporters and offer them help understanding the news. They’ll appreciate this.
  8. Monitor coverage carefully. Read and watch every story. You need to know that it’s getting out correctly.
  9. Address inaccuracies immediately. Don’t let mistakes spread.

Even with a great deal of care, the media are going to get some of your stories wrong. They don’t like it. And you don’t like it. So, do the best you can to make your news clear and correct errors quickly. Everyone will be better off.

Find Your PR Sweet Spot

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There’s never been a better time to do public relations.

Organizations of all sizes and in all industries can mount successful PR campaigns, efforts that yield real results. These PR programs can be used to bolster reputation, fill your sales pipeline, react to crises and a host of other business-critical goals.

But there’s a catch. In order to be successful, you must pick those PR activities that work for your particular organization. This is where most companies veer off course.

The problem is context. Most businesspeople think of PR in a one-dimensional way: traditional media relations. This is understandable, since for many years reaching out to newspapers, magazines, TV and radio with press releases was the bulk of what PR had to offer. If you got clips for your outreach, success! If not, failure.

Fortunately, the game has changed. Today, PR does not have to rely upon traditional media relations. We can create our own content and make it available through a variety of channels, some of which we create ourselves. We can tap into social media networks with audiences so large they easily outstrip the reach of the traditional media. In other words, we have options. The key is selecting the right ones.

Traditional Media Relations. Let’s start with the most well-known first. Here, we are in the realm of reaching out to reporters and producers with stories of our own creation, hoping to get quoted or interviewed. This tends to work best for certain kinds of organizations:

  • Well-known companies/individuals with established brands and reputations.
  • Companies operating in industries with a lot of media attention, such as financial services.
  • Organizations with a “celebrity” CEO or founder.
  • Local companies serving a distinct geography.

There are lots of organizations that fall outside these categories, though. Successful, innovative companies in industries that don’t get much of a following in the traditional media, for example, can have a very difficult time winning traditional media attention. Midsize companies in an industry full of giants can also have difficulty breaking through. Technology startups, likewise, can have a hard time with the mainstream press. You get the idea.

Content-Based PR. This is an exciting area where companies literally create the stories, videos and audio interviews that the traditional media would have done instead. Importantly, when you create your own, there’s no reporter or editor to get in the way of your message. Tis definitely the season for this type of approach, as the tools and talent needed to pursue such a strategy are available in abundance.

For example, a company that wants to announce new service offering could create a YouTube video interviewing its CEO and then email the link to prospective clients, existing customers and other influencers. The video could also be posted to social networks and the company’s website/blog. This won’t reach as many people as, say, appearing on CNBC. But it will reach the right ones.

In fact, in terms of hitting the right audiences, content-based PR may be significantly more effective. It works for organizations of all sizes and in all industries.

Social Network Outreach. Here I am referring to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like. Social networks today are huge, reaching millions upon millions of users. They are a direct line to your customers and influencers in a way that has never before been possible.

Creating a following on these networks does take a bit of work, but the payoff is pure PR gold. You can put your content — produced just as you wish — directly in front of a large and targeted audience.

There are two keys to being successful in this area. First, you must spend the time to build a following, whether friends, followers or contacts. Second, you must have something interesting to say to these individuals. Exactly what this is depends a great deal on what your business is all about and what kind of content you are able to produce. Obviously, social network outreach works hand-in-hand with content-based PR.

Again, social networking works for organizations of all sizes and in all industries. The key is to just stick with it.

OK, so what’s the next step?

Let’s say you have a midsize company that is national in scope but in an industry that is relatively obscure, without a lot of media coverage. Be honest in assessing this. An industry story every six months in The Wall Street Journal is not a big-time media focus.

In this case, traditional media relations probably won’t move the needle. It’s perhaps worth some effort, but it should not be a major focus of your PR efforts. You need something that can consistently create value. What should that be? A content-based program might be a good fit. You could start a podcast, newsletter or video series. Create stories that will add value to your audience and highlight your expertise.

Then, add a social media component by creating a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Engage with your new audience and share the content you’ve created in these networks. Continue to build your following over time and the value of your content-based PR will expand exponentially.

This won’t be the perfect strategy for every organization — as each should do its own analysis — and there are details and approaches that I’ve skipped over for brevity.

However, the overall concept holds true no matter who you are and what you are doing. Assess your organization and industry environment honestly and then create a PR program whose components are the best possible match. Stick with your program and watch the results accrue over time.

The Three A’s of Media Interviews: Availability, Availability, Availability

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When I first started thinking about this post, I was going to list the key attributes of a good interview. After all, being interviewed is a key component of effective public relations. Why not do it well?

Then, it struck me that many folks never get to the stage of actually being interviewed. They miss out because they’re simply too slow in reacting.

So here are the three A’s of media interviews, much like the three L’s of real estate:

  1. availability
  2. availability
  3. availability

That’s the key. If you’re going to seek our reporters to discuss the good ideas you have, then you need to be available when they call. Whenever that is.

This seems obvious, but I can’t begin to recount the number of times when, as a reporter, I called sources — even those who had been pitched to me — only to have them call back well after my deadline had passed, sometimes the next day. This doesn’t even begin to work. It tells the reporter that the source, or his or her PR folks, simply don’t understand the reporter’s needs.

Journalists who have daily deadlines or shorter — include here newspaper, wire service, online, and daily broadcast reporters — need to conduct their interviews as quickly as possible. And as early in the day as they can.

For example, a reporter might call at 10 a.m. and say he or she is working on a story about Topic A and has a deadline of 4 p.m. (If they don’t give you the deadline, always ask.)

This doesn’t mean you have 6 hours to consult with your PR folks, decide you want to do the interview, confirm with the reporter, have your folks research the issue, have them write up talking points, review the talking points … and then do the interview. The reporter is going to want to have his or her interviews done quickly, leaving enough time to write or produce the story, run it by an editor and then have some additional time to self-edit the piece.

When I was on a tight deadline as an AP reporter, I’d start calling down my source list until I had completed enough interviews to satisfy myself I had the story nailed. Then, no more interviews. I was done. The rest of the time was for thinking and crafting the story.

If someone called back after I’d completed my interviews, I had to politely decline.

The moral of the post is this: If a reporter comes calling, react quickly. Make a decision, get your thinking in order — and do the interview. Do it as soon as you can.

A mediocre source available immediately is far, far better than a great source who’s not available. The story needs to go out. If you can help make that happen, then you’ll become a valuable source to the reporter both in that instance and in the future. And the reporter will know you “get it.”