Taking Notes: Press Releases

Following up on my post about taking notes on how interviews are structured, I now bring you a prime example of why public relations professionals should do the same with press releases.

The example I'm linking to confirms that untimely death of a professional hockey player in the middle of his career. In the hockey world, this type of press release might be written a few times a decade. In sports in general, it will probably be written 10-20 times a year. So even if you're not in hockey PR, but lets say in baseball PR, you can still find reviewing this press release useful.

Now I know this example is a depressing example, but tough news is always harder to deal with emotionally and mentally then others. Tactfulness and compassion are paramount and time is often short at best. That's why reviewing bad news examples are more important because they have a sense to be more "on the money".

Again, review it, take notes, and stash it away in a folder labeled "Just In Case - PR". Sooner or later, you'll be looking at this folder for one reason or another and it's always better to be prepared with examples that you have previously found to be a great that look over.

And remember, topics you want to look out for can be about anything - good or bad.

Taking Notes: Interview Preparation

One important responsibility of a good PR department is preparing a subject before an interview. This isn't something that's taught in school and they more you do it, the better you get at it. But that doesn't mean you, as a PR professional, need to actually prepare an interview subject to gain valuable experience.

One exercise that I like to do to watch interviews about important, controversial or breaking news. I try to study the interview process to see how the journalist is shaping the interview, how the questions progress, what types of questions are being asked, etc. I do this so I can have a better understanding of what to expect if I ever have to prepare one of my clients or supervisors for an interview about a similar subject. (I do the same with reviewing press conferences, press and media releases, website/social media coverage.)

"60 Minutes" reporter Steve Croft recently interviewed President Barack Obama about the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound and spoke to Poynter about how he structured his interview that the entire world would be watching.

While I will probably never have to prepare the President of the United States for any type of interview, being able to get into the head of a veteran journalist like Steve Croft holds invaluable lessons that every PR professional should take note of.

Crisis Communication & Social Media

I previously wrote about using social media as part of a crisis communication plan. About a month ago, Tonya Garcia of PRNewser tackled this topic using General Electric as an example of how not to use Twitter to deceive the public. More importantly, Ms. Garcia detailed three steps that will help turn a negative PR event into a one that will not sting as much.

The article focused on using Twitter to help set the record straight, but in my opinion other social media platforms can be used just as effectively. For example, Facebook can be used to host Q&A chats and post responses.

The point isn't about which social media platform would work better in this situation, rather this should serve as a reminder for public relations professionals to include using social media as part of your crisis communication plan because it's the quickest and most direct way to communicate with all of your audiences. Just make sure you tell the truth.

What To Do First: Email or Phone Call?

I was taught to always pick up the phone and call a reporter because it's more personal. More veteran (older) PR supervisors wanted me to do the same when I mentioned I was going to email a journalist. Picking up and dialing the phone was how so many PR - Reporter/Journalist relationships were built for many years. But now in 2011, is it better to send an email when reaching out to a reporter/journalist?

It will always depend on the reporter or journalist in question. You might be contacting a reporter who is 75 years old and hates email. Obviously a phone call is better in that case. But how many times have you as a PR professional unknowingly called a reporter who was on a tight deadline to pitch a story? Do you remember how annoyed they were when you called?

This topic was discussed in an ABA Journal article that also had responses to the question.

I'm a big proponent of emailing a reporter first because you give them a chance to read your pitch on their time, one that is good for them. If you do not get a response back, then follow up with a phone call. But maybe first contact doesn't have even have to be through traditional email: You can use Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter if you know how to use it correctly.

The main thing is know how the reporter/journalist wants to be contacted. At first you might not know how. There are websites and programs that try to provide this information for the price of their subscription fee. But you can also try contacting their news desk and ask if they know how.

For me, it usually email first. Times have changed and PR professionals have to change their communications habits as well.

How Stressful Are PR Jobs?

An article on Yahoo! Finance discussed a report that named "Public Relations Executive" as the second most stressful job in America. It feel right behind "Commercial Airline Pilot" and right above "Senior Corporate Executive". The author of the original report cited his main reason as: "Public relations executives are "completely at the mercy of their clients and buyers." I really don't buy it.

A PR job can certainly be stressful, but just as much as any other job. I believe PR jobs are only stressful if your no confident in your ability to connect with people. The success rate for PR professionals are similar to bating averages in baseball: It's a given that you're going to fail more times then succeed when pitching stories and you can succeed less then three out of 10 times and still be great at what you do.

It's how you handle your successes along with your failures internally that will decided how stressful your PR job will be. And that can be said for every job.

The Misconceptions of the PR

If you’re a Public Relations professional that has ever worked for a private business or organization, you’ve most likely run into the problem of co-workers having no idea what public relations really is. It can come from an executive or an entry-level employee and it mostly like contained the phrase: “Can’t the PR department just do that?

The art of public relations has been around since the beginning of time – the ancient Greeks and Romans were masterfully skilled at it. But the industry has been given a glamorous (please forgive me) spin in the past 10-to-20 years with TV shows and movies showing public relations professionals sipping martinis with music stars in limos. On his website, Jackson Wightman put together a list of 21 things PR is not and I agree with almost all his points.

My favorite not-to-dos on his list are No. 5 and 6: (Never) Ever guaranteed to generate coverage and (PR is never) Ever 100% controllable.

Just having a story or brand to pitch isn’t enough anymore, even for the best practitioners. It has to be interesting to people who have no attachment to the product. Often, CEO’s/Presidents/Executives think that everyone loves their product and story and have no reason not to and if journalists don’t pick it up, then it’s the PR departments fault. Well, it actually can just be the brand is boring in it’s current state and/or form.

As for No. 6, unless something unethical is going on between the public relations team and the media, chances are a bad story won’t just go away. A good PR professional can share the company’s standpoint and try to show the journalist their side of the equation. But once a journalist decides to run with a story, chances are it will be published. Only in rare instances can a PR pro make a deal to sweep one story under the carpet because they can offer up a bigger story in return in the not-to-distant future.

I would also add a No. 22 to the list: Easy.

Public Relations is not something that anyone can just start doing. I went to college specifically for a degree in public relations. In the last 10-to-15 years, more and more universities are offering specific degrees in public relations as opposed to a blanket degree in mass media and journalism for those who want to go into the industry. A marketing degree might help, but you would still be missing a lot. A degree in finance or pre-law? No thank you. Just because you watched the Sex and the City series or the movie Thank You For Smoking doesn’t make you an expert in public relations.

Public Relations is a lot of things. A lot of good things. But for some reason, as an industry, public relations professionals haven't pitched what their work really is effectively to the outside world. Misconceptions will only continue until we do.

LINK: Perfect PR Pitches

As a guest writer for Ragen's PR Daily, New York Times tech columnist David Pogue shared his thoughts on what constitutes a good story pitch from PR professionals. (Click here to view)

The only way for PR professionals to know how effective they are at pitching is not necessarily to see how often their pitches get picked up by the media, rather to directly ask the journalists they are pitching. Sometimes a PR professional can throw the perfect pitch, but the journalist just doesn't have the time, space or ability to commit to the story. 

But as Pogue illustrates from a journalist's point of view, there is a need for pitches to be unique and have newsworthy elements. Just because you think your pitch relates to something that will interest the general public, doesn't mean it will interest the media. PR professionals have to assume that the journalists they are pitching have been previously contacted about something very similar to what they are trying to sell.

And Pogue is absolutely correct that pitches and press release not only have to be clear and concise, but also unique and interesting.

A Voice to Defend

Social media platforms give organizations (and public relations professionals) a quick and direct voice to the world and that voice could be used to communicate with and to the media.

In the old paradigm, an organization would have to place an opinion-editorial column in a newspaper if they needed to voice their opinion on a subject or defend themselves, usually written by public relations professionals. Today, social media platforms allow organizations to directly and instantly communicate their desires. An important aspect of this is communicating directly with the media, especially if the specific media in question is the intended direction of defense.

In the sports Twitterverse (Twitter Universe), I have seen a more then a few teams defend themselves to journalists on Twitter or Facebook after a story or column ran that they felt was incorrect or inappropriate. Social media platforms give teams a voice to fight back and this is something that journalists didn’t have to deal with as frequently in the past. This isn’t an action I would recommend a team’s public relations staff take regularly, but if appropriate, it can be a great tool for them.

Social media platforms allow for public relations professionals to fight back when they receive media coverage that they believe is in error. This is a dangerous method to use because it is usually public for everyone to see (as oppose to a private phone call, e-mail or letter), but if the timing is correct it is an advantageous tool to use, although one that should be used extremely carefully, selectively and seldom.

Update: April 1, 2011
Along the same lines as the blog post above, social media platforms allow for an immediate avenue of access for crisis communication plans. As part of the old news cycle, responses driven by public relations professionals were at the mercy of the news cycle. With social media, a crisis communication plan can start immediately with your side/response at the forefront of the news. Social media should be part of every crisis communication plan.

Interactions on Social Media Platforms

Social media platforms have created additional direct methods of communications between many groups of individuals that public relations professionals must be aware of. They consist of (in no particular order or terminology): Consumer/Brand, Consumer/Media and Brand/Media.

In these models, public relations professionals are a part of the “brand” and even in the model that features only the “consumer” and “media”, the “brand” (PR professionals) must follow their communication because the feedback going back and forth is important. The image or perception of the brand can also be affected and needs to be monitored as well.

Since the media are on multiple social media platforms, communication directed to and from journalists is increasing due to the simplistic methods social media provides. This pattern shift shows that journalists are not only speaking to their followers and/or fans through their traditional publication medium, but also through social media platforms.

Social media platforms allow journalists to voice their opinion - or additional opinions - on subjects or events they have covered, opined or even have no direct relation to. That last part adds to the monitoring that public relations professionals are responsible for.

Jeremy Porter from Journalistics.com commented in an Internet article:
“What has changed is the direction of the arrows in traditional mass communications model. Back in the day, you had your message, the medium and the mass. Rip that page out of the book and throw it away. Today, you have people interacting with people. It’s two-way, with a lot more listening going on. You still rely on a medium to communicate your message – but you use it to listen now, and there are a lot of media options.”

“Mainstream” Journalists Use Social Media

An early, but crucial battle that social media platforms won in the communications revolution is when the “mainstream” media began publishing news on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. That move signaled to the world that social media platforms are legitimate enough to deliver their most important type of news -- breaking news.

At the same time, using social media platforms have turned the job of journalists from being ready to report the news at anytime to actually reporting the news at anytime on a consistent basis. So not only do social media platforms bring a new breed of journalists for public relations to interact with, it changes the behavior of “mainstream” journalists.

This is another, but important paradigm shift that public relations professionals must be aware of.