PUBLIC RELATIONS: MANAGING PRESS RELATIONS

I recall the frenzied phone call from a printer who needed help dealing with an acquisition rumor which was creating fear among sales staff and customers. Another client was very upset when he read a feature on his company in a well-respected regional business journal and found his name misspelled. Then there was the phone call from the distraught print supplier who, despite the fact that he'd spent thousands of dollars advertising in trade publications, was unable to land a feature story on his company.

While not always pleasant or predictable, publicity is a powerful tool. It can be used to shape perception of your company in target markets as well as for crisis containment and to reduce the impact of impending "bad news." More importantly, publicity is a key component of any marketing effort because, if it's a sustained commitment, you'll have relationships with the media which will allow you to stay in front of what¼s being said about your company.

The most important thing to remember is that reporters are only interested in information that¼s of interest to their readership, and this can vary widely depending upon the type of publication you're targeting. Some publications - like the Wall Street Journal and regional business journals - focus on "hard news," the facts. An example would be why your earnings this quarter are up when industry forecasts predicted a 2% decrease. Other publications lean toward human interest stories. For example, how is your company contributing to the local community? In either case, advance preparation is critical to dealing with editorial agendas.

Preparing

The first step is to have a spokesperson in place before one is needed. This person, with the support of a public relations professional, can be trained in a few hours to successfully handle press inquiries. In a previous column, I discussed the importance of developing a positioning statement as a necessary framework from which to build media relations. With that in place, if you are contacted by the media for comment, here are a few tips:

Silence is deadly. Always accept a reporter's call, even if you are unsure of the reason for the call. Once you've determined the subject matter, you can tell the reporter you'd like to take some time to prepare for the interview. But make sure you return the call once you've adequately prepared.

Determine the scope of the reporter's interests. Is it limited to one event, or are political, social and economic implications important to the inquiry?

Find out the reporter's deadline and confirm you'll call back by or before that deadline.

Remember that PR professionals are experienced in devising strategies that shed the best light on you and your company and make the best of difficult situations. Take advantage of their expertise when circumstances require.

Responding

The right tone is important. Your answers should be as conversational as possible. An angry or formal tone suggests a certain gravity to your answers that might indicate more than you intend. Also, be as concise as possible. When speaking to a reporter, avoid hypothetical questions and speculative answers. Limit your comments to the facts, while summarizing background information. Stop and ask, "Am I speaking too quickly?" or "Am I making myself clear?"

Be wary of leading questions. Reporters can lead you to places you'd rather not go. If a reporter uses a catchy or clever phrase in an attempt to reinterpret your language, always correct the statement.

It is not uncommon for the facts of a story to be distorted or left out entirely in media coverage. If a story for which you provided information appears with a misquote or with key information left out, you can bring this to the attention of the reporter and the editor. They may provide a retraction or errata in a subsequent issue.

Though a spokesperson should always be prepared to talk to the press, you may decide you don't want to speak to a particular reporter. If so, avoid saying, "no comment." Instead state that "this is a matter I am unprepared to discuss." Other possible responses include: "Confidentiality prohibits me from discussing that." Or, "The details of the decision cannot be released to the public at this time."

Remember, once you have made a statement, it is very difficult to retract or correct it. It is even more difficult to do so once a story is in print or has been broadcasted. So, you might want to make an outline of what you want to say and it is wise, during the interview, to take notes on any unplanned comments you make.

Pitching

There may be instances when you'd like to propose a story to the media. This is where PR professionals are invaluable, since they often have existing relationships with reporters. However, if you choose to pitch your own story, here are some guidelines:

  • Think about the information you want to provide. Is it consistent with your positioning statement and is it timely and relevant for the reporter's readers/listeners/viewers?
  • Is there a local angle to the information, especially if you're pitching a local news organization?
  • Will the information you provide be considered too self-serving by the reporter...is it really newsworthy?
  • Be aware that the information you impart may be important to current clients/customers as well as potential clients/customers.
  • Evaluate your editorial options. Sometimes a letter to the editor is more likely to get picked up than a press release or a pitch letter for a full feature. Op-ed pieces, if well prepared and timely, can be very effective.

DOs and DON'Ts

Developing relationships with the press takes time and patience. It also requires certain protocols to be followed:

  • Don't try flattery on reporters or offer them gifts. They are the authors of the story, and it's their name and objective reporting that lends credibility to you and your company.
  • Do offer to review technical or complicated material for accuracy before publication, but don't ask to see the story before it appears. The story belongs to the reporter and it is not your right to review it in advance.
  • Be sure that if you send the reporter support materials, they are clear and complete. In the long run, it's worth it to do your homework up front when providing materials. It adds to your credibility.
  • Find out how the reporter likes to be contacted: e-mail, phone, fax, or mail. As you can imagine, reporters are deluged with information, so finding out their preferred form of communication can go a long way.

Charlotte Mills Seligman is president of Traversant Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in planning and executing integrated marketing programs for printing and allied graphic arts companies, with nearly two decades of expertise in the industry. Previous columns and issues of the company's Ti Monthly e-newsletter are posted on http://www.traversant.com. Inquiries should be directed to (415) 357-2929 or charlotte @traversant.com.

© 2000 Charlotte Mills Seligman

March 24, 2000
Print & Graphics
Col#12 3/00
Printing Journal
Col #12 3/00
Public Relations #3
By Charlotte Mills Seligman

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