STRATEGIC PUBLIC RELATIONS EFFECTIVELY MANAGES EVEN THE BAD NEWS

As discussed in the previous two columns, public relations is a critical component in strategic marketing communications. It's also one of the more cost-effective tools in the marketing toolkit. PR, however, consists of more than a press release every once in a while. It should be integral to your entire marketing communications strategy, and it should be sustained and deployed systematically.

Having a public relations program in place is particularly important when bad news strikes. Even large companies can fail at effectively managing bad news, and it's usually because of internal struggles between the legal and communications departments. Martha Stewart's mishandling of her recent difficulties—denying all wrong-doing in the face of evidence to the contrary—is a good example of what not to do.

PREPARATION IS ESSENTIAL

Publicity can be a powerful marketing tool: It can be used to shape perception of your company in target markets. It can also be used to mitigate fallout when a crisis strikes. If you have committed to a sustained PR program, you'll have media relationships in place, which will allow you to get in front of bad news before the rumors start flying.

The most important thing to remember is that reporters are only interested in information that's 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. This is important: If you want coverage in business media, you must be willing to share financial information. We've often been able to finesse hard numbers by using percentages or rounded off numbers.

SELECT A SPOKESPERSON

Identify a spokesperson for your company at the outset. This may or may not be the company President or CEO. Take a lesson from this administration's handling of Bush's misstatements in his last State of the Union address when he had the CIA's Tenet take initial blame. In some cases, a seasoned and articulate public relations professional may be the best choice. Regardless of position, the spokesperson must be a trusted and integral player on the management team.

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.

RESPONSES

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.


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.

© 2003 Charlotte Mills Seligman

August 20, 2003
Print & Graphics
Col#54, 9/03
Printing Journal
Col #54, 9/03
Public Relations III
By Charlotte Mills Seligman

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