Here is another entry in a series of stories about my experiences working in public relations, and more specifically, in media relations. The names of clients and products have been changed to protect the innocent, but the facts remain the same.
Some tales may be good; some may be bad; and some may be ugly. But, like Aesop’s Fables, each tale ends with a valuable lesson I learned as a young PR professional. I hope you enjoy these and learn something from my experiences a well!
Picture it: Philadelphia, 2007, a young Senior Account Executive is presented with a sticky situation when a reporter covering a Hispanic disease-awareness event becomes critical of the event sponsor and lack of Hispanic community members in the audience…
Oh crap, why does this have to happen now? thought the young SAE.
She was still relatively new to the agency and was assigned to the Hispanic disease-awareness account because she was bilingual and worked in a Hispanic nonprofit organization as a communications director.
With no prior “agency experience,” this was an altogether new way of working and managing projects for the young professional.
And in all her previous media relations work, including the White House Press Corps, the SAE had never had to “mitigate” situations with the media like this before, especially with media from Northern New Jersey, where no one in the agency had any media contacts.
She approached the reporter, noticing the reporter’s furrowed brow during the event presentation.
“Hi there, Ms. Reporter, thank you again for coming to this event. It’s an important topic to talk about in the Hispanic community,” said the young SAE, remembering her media talking points.
The reporter cocked her head and replied, “I thought this was supposed to be about Hispanic Alzheimer’s disease awareness. But there are only six Hispanic people in the audience.”
“I understand that is a little perplexing,” the SAE replied. “We placed ads in the local Spanish-language papers and also in the area church bulletins where there are large Spanish congregations to encourage attendance. It might simply speak to the fact that there is still a lot of fear and taboo about Alzheimer’s in the Hispanic community”
“So why did (your client) sponsor for this event? Was it just to promote their drug?” the reporter retorted.
Jeez, that’s a little rude, the SAE thought to herself.
Trying not to lose her composure, the SAE explained to the reporter that the event was not a prescription promotion event. In fact, in no place during the educational presentation nor in the health fact handouts did any medication name appear.
Still, the reporter needled at the idea that the event sponsor had ulterior motives.
Okay, this woman has made up her mind about this event, and no amount of reasoning at this point is going to help, the SAE thought.
Time to think of another approach, maybe one from a source the reporter would trust.
“If you’d like, you’re more than welcome to talk to (a local Hispanic physician) who has helped the event sponsor create the educational materials used here,” the SAE offered.
“She is active in educating the Hispanic community about Alzheimer’s and knows this community very well.”
The reporter scribbled in her notebook without looking up and replied, “Let me see if I need another source. I might have enough for my story.”
Great, she’s already written the story, the SAE resigned in her mind. This isn’t going to go over well back at the office…
The next day, back at the office
The SAE decided she needed to review the situation with the account lead and get her feedback about how to follow-up with the reporter.
The account lead reassured the SAE that the physician interview was a good strategy.
“I’m sure the reporter had it all decided in her head how to write the story. The best we can do is offer to help with additional sources. Why don’t you give her a call and follow-up with her to see if she’s still interested,” the account lead suggested.
The SAE trudged back to her cubicle, dreading the phone call to the reporter.
It’s not like she begrudged the reporter for being cynical or for questioning the reasoning behind what was essentially a PR goodwill event.
It was more that the reporter didn’t care about hearing any other angle or source, besides a handful of event attendees and her own editorialization of the situation.
Still, the SAE picked up the phone and dialed the reporter’s number. It rang and went to voicemail, so she left a cheery “just following up” message for her.
A few hours went by and the SAE thought to try the reporter again. Again, no answer; straight to voicemail. She didn’t leave another message this time. I don’t want to come off as a stalker, she thought.
Instead, the SAE went about her work as usual, organizing the next event and getting various client materials ready.
Then, her phone rang and she saw that the area code was from the Northern New Jersey area.
“Hello, this is Krista,” she said.
“Hi Krista, it’s (the local Hispanic physician) calling. I just had the nicest conversation with Ms. Reporter from (a Northern New Jersey daily publication),” the doctor on the other line said.
Nicest conversation? the SAE thought to herself. She talked to the physician about the questions she was asked and how she responded. It all sounded perfectly benign, but she was still certain the reporter would stick it to the client somehow.
A week later…
Media monitoring found the story on the newspaper’s online version, and the young SAE read it with nervous anxiety.
But in the end, it was a perfectly nice article. It framed the lack of Hispanic community member attendance to the cultural sensitivity about the disease.
The physician’s quotes were all great, and she even quoted one of the other event site organizers who was familiar with the elderly Hispanic community.
Whew, that wasn’t so bad and it was good coverage, the young SAE thought to herself.
But then, there was a quote attributed to the young SAE in the article itself.
How nice, I was actually quoted….but I was identified as the client’s spokesperson? Oh crap, why does this have to happen now?!
- Always be prepared for the skeptical media, no matter what your event is (even a Hispanic Alzheimer’s awareness event in Northern New Jersey)
- Build relationships with trusted members of the community who can speak to your issue sincerely
- Accept that you can’t write a story for the reporter; in the end, it’s up to them and their editors; your job as a good PR pro is to be as helpful, honest, and accurate on your part.
Any similar experiences to share? What would you have done differently if you were in that situation?
Yes, that is a reference to the Whitney Houston song. I loved that album when I was little– and by album I mean the cassette I listened to so much that the tape warped.
But I’ve had that song going through my head recently, as I recently completed a supervisory development course and just wrapped up a graduate course in facilitating adult learning.
Both courses brought up the idea of self-awareness and self-management with regard to emotions, mostly in the workplace, but also in the training or adult learning setting.
Not getting emotional from a managerial (or employee) standpoint is not always an easy thing to do.
Very rarely do human beings have an “Off” button they click when they step into the office.
Sometimes, getting emotional at work can be detrimental to a person’s professional career.
In fact, while working at a communications agency previously, it was written into my performance evaluation that I was “too emotional” at times, yet there was no definition of what that phrase meant.
It is a difficult order, being told to manage your emotions, when so much of what makes us human is our emotional ticker.
But by that same notion, businesses and companies cannot fully function if we are guided purely by emotional reactions to situations. At some point, reason needs to prevail.
For women in the workplace, there is more pressure to control our feelings and to hold back the tears if we feel our emotions getting the better of us.
So what do we make of all this emotional stuff?
In learning how to be an effective supervisor, my training colleagues and I went through the exercise of exploring emotional intelligence, a term made famous by Daniel Goleman with his 1995 Harvard Business Journal article.
Put simply, the key to emotional intelligence lies in our ability to manage ourselves (i.e. our emotions) and our relationships with others.
I’m no stranger to emotional intelligence. I remember reading Goleman’s HBR article in graduate school. It all made sense, in theory…
But in practice, many communications professionals can find value in understanding emotional intelligence.
Our emotions will have an effect on how we communicate to others, so it stands to reason that many communications and PR professionals should have a good grasp of the concept of emotional intelligence.
The way my supervisory development course framed it, the four-part model can be thought of as a step-by-step process of gaining the emotional intelligence skills necessary to result in productive interpersonal communications and supervisor-employee relationships.
- Self Awareness – the first step is within the individual; recognize your own emotions, what sets you off, and how your emotions affect others.
- Self Management – a little harder than the first step is actively managing our emotional reactions so that they facilitate rather than interfere with the task at hand.
- Social Awareness – includes the ability to identify and understand another’s wishes, emotional needs and reactions, read situations, and demonstrate empathy.
- Relationship Management – is like the icing on the cake, if you get through the other stages, because it involves the ability to manage relationships, social interactions and service transactions. For those in supervisory roles, this includes interpersonal and cross-cultural communication, change management, influence, conflict management, team building, motivate and managing diversity.
This is not to say if you are emotionally intelligent that you will automatically have a productive team or clear communications. But it couldn’t hurt.
For those in the communications/PR field, emotional intelligence can help in how we work with our colleagues and clients. Imagine conducting an exercise on Self Awareness with a company CEO or a Relationship Management workshop with an account team.
Emotional intelligence is not the end-all, be-all of business communications. It’s more a method of organizing human emotions and utilizing them to their potential.
So maybe the key to emotional intelligence is not just controlling our emotions, but also understanding the right time and place to put our emotions to work for us.
That’s just my understanding of the emotional intelligence model. I would welcome anyone to share their experiences or interpretations.
What do you think? Is emotional intelligence a bunch of baloney or is there real value to the communications field?
It’s Friday, yay! Hope the start of your May is going well. I’m glad to be back in the blogging saddle after a little bit of a hiatus. And speaking of saddles, I’ll also be watching the Kentucky Derby tomorrow afternoon and sipping on a refreshing Mint Julep. What a way to kick off the homestretch month before the start of summer. So, if you’re also enjoying a refreshing cocktail (or two) this weekend, here are a few posts of interest to read as well–enjoy!
Ditch the Corporate Speak from PR Writing by @ArikHanson:
I recently laughed out loud (yes, I mean LOL’d) at a press release sent by a former employer. It said so much and so little in two pages that it was clearly a case of corporate speak running over common sense.
Arik Hanson presents an interesting challenge to PR pro’s to take a stand against the over-use of corporate buzzwords in press releases.
I am guilty of committing many of those terms, as many of us are, as they’ve engrained themselves into the corporate dialect that many leaders just assume the common consumer/stakeholder uses them too. It’s more of a learning curve that PR folks need to catch their corporate clients up to speed on how to clearly communicate messages without muddying the waters with too much jargon.
Ten Most Censored Countries by @pressfreedom:
May 3 was World Press Freedom Day but not all the world’s press is “free”
This report from the Committee to Protect Journalists reminds us of the reality that many members of the international press face with limited rights as journalists or photographers. It is especially concerning since many of the countries listed are areas of civil unrest and who knows how much of the story is getting out to the world, such as in Syria
Lessons Advertising Can Learn from PR by Timothy Kane via @AdAge:
I did not expect to read this article in Ad Age of all places—from my experience, PR and advertising (or marketing) always battled over budget and were expected to “play nice in the sandbox” together. (Oh, how I hated that phrase, but that’s another topic.)
What this article does so well is help articulate an advantage of public relations- that of connecting and communicating with a community, which is directly relevant to the way social media works. Social media is more than just one-way communication of the brand to the consumer; consumers today want a personal connection or the ability to articulate what makes them prefer a product.
So, if this trend continues, and social communications makes a few in-roads for PR to have a seat at the strategic table, I think it speaks to a need for an integrated communications team composed of people from all communications aspects. I think we’re going to need a bigger sandbox!
Breaking Free of Patterns and Routines by @chrisbrogan:
Here’s a post that made me really think. Personally, I am a creature of habit, both at work and at home. I have my routines that comfort me because I know things get done when they work. But after reading Chris Brogan’s reflective post this week, it made me realize that I might also become trapped by those patterns.
It’s not easy to just say, “oh well, I guess I’ll change my pattern” because we’re human and some of those patterns are necessary (like law enforcement or utilities). However, that doesn’t mean we can’t think of creative ways to break up our usual patterns to see how it might positively affect our outcomes.
That’s a lot to think about and I appreciate Mr. Brogan for positing that consideration…I’ll see if I can get to pondering it outside of my pattern ;)
As always, feel free to share any links or posts you found this week as well. Have a great weekend!
You can tell from the headline that I’m about to make a bold statement. But after reading Arik Hanson’s post on Monday that called out PR for perpetuating corporate-speak in press releases, I’m feeling a little sassy.
I’m about to confess something that I suspect every PR professional is guilty of at one time or another:
I have pitched crap to the media.
That’s right. I have pitched utter, complete crap that no one with a news hole the size of the front page would cover.
You can admit if you have done it too—I won’t judge.
Sometimes, we’re in a position where we have no say in what the client or company leader wants.
Sometimes, we don’t have the best material to work with and have to make lemonade out of lemons.
I got to thinking about this when fellow blogger Josh Brett wrote about the sins of marketing, communications, and public relations last year.
While I articulated an additional “sin” in the comments discussion, I found myself holding back from saying what I really thought was sinful—that of wasting the media’s time and the client’s budget by pitching crap.
This is an entirely subjective observation, of course, based on my previous PR work experience. But I have to believe that it has happened to more PR folks than they care to admit.
I first became aware of this trend when I started reading the Bad Pitch Blog. Think about it–if some pitches weren’t filled with crap, then what would this blog have to write about?
I also recall a conversation I had a few years back with a product manager of a Philadelphia-based cable company.
She and I were swapping stories about working in PR agencies, and she shared how a tech reporter once asked her why agencies pitch them crappy news ideas. She told the reporter it’s because the client thinks they are special and the agency has to deal with it, regardless of how crappy it is.
Wow—that was not subtle at all!
So, is it wrong for PR folks to own up to the reality that they have to pitch crap news ideas every now and then to the media?
Or is this just a dirty little secret that gets swept under the rug while we go on with our busy lives in public relations?
Let’s be honest and first examine some of the possible reasons why PR folks pitch crap to begin with:
- Perhaps a client thinks their product/service/leader is the greatest in the world and have an endless budget to tout it as such.
- Perhaps a senior-ranking PR executive convinced the client that their product/service/leader is the greatest in the world in order to get more budget and billable hours.
- Perhaps someone paid for research to show that the client’s product/service/leader is the greatest in the world and now the client is obligated to publicize those findings.
Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. What is crap to one person may not be crap to another.
But my question to this quandary has more to do with the PR professional’s responsibility when the client thinks their product/service/leader is the greatest in the world, even when it’s not, yet still expects the agency to pitch it to the media.
It is not an easy position to be in. PR folks still have to make a living, but where do we draw the line?
Perhaps this is illustrative of an educational gap between the client/company and the PR professional. Public relations is more than media relations, yet some people still think all we do is write press releases about anything and email them to reporters.
I would suspect that the knowledge gap at the root of some of these crappy pitch instances represents a challenge and opportunity for PR professionals.
It’s a challenge because it poses more work for the PR pro to have to educate their clients or company leaders about what is really newsworthy and worth their budget.
That may take some time, but it could be worth it if you consider the opportunity for PR to actually improve upon its own image by cutting down on the rate of crappy pitches that end up the butt of someone’s blog series.
There are a lot of really smart people working in public relations. Crappy pitches filled with too much corporate-speak does no justice to them nor to the profession.
I would up Arik Hanson’s ante of removing corporate jargon from press releases and add that PR folks should also ditch the crap.
So, that’s my PR confessional. What do you think? Anyone else want to get this off their chest?
There—I admitted it.
If you asked me how I felt about working in an agency about this time one year ago, the answer would have been different.
Back in 2007, when I started working in a full-service healthcare communications agency, specifically in the PR group, I didn’t know what to expect.
It took a few years of different projects and clients– some of which I liked and some of which I didn’t– for me to figure out that agency life wasn’t for me.
And that’s okay.
Some people are better suited for the constant change and customer service for the clients that is necessary for the agency setting. That just wasn’t for me.
But since I’ve changed back into an in-house setting—in a completely different industry and communications focus (a medical school alumni relations department)—I’ve come to realize something: I am glad I worked in an agency for the time I did.
I realize now that I learned some valuable lessons and practices that the agency setting imparted on me:
Working within an agency, you have to work with and rely on lots of people—from the account team, to the traffic manager, to the creative director and graphic designer. It’s important to develop a rapport with these people and to navigate via interpersonal skills in order to get a project done.
Because of that experience, I am more cognizant of my interpersonal skills and identify how best to work with others.
I have gotten a reputation as “the queen of charts” in my new job because for every project I work on, I have a project management chart to go with it. It’s ironic because if there was ever one thing I cursed the clients for, it was for the never-ending stream of Excel spreadsheets we had to draft and maintain again and again.
Now, I am using many of the same templates to ensure my projects are organized and my team is informed. How’s that for humble pie?
Remember how you had to prepare for anything for your client, especially when at an on-site meeting or when traveling? Just recently, I was with a marketing colleague for a film location scout with a production crew. In addition to sending a summary email of our locations to the team beforehand, I printed copies of the schedule for everyone and also brought copies of our interview schedules in case we had some down time for a meeting.
And you know what? All of those copies came in handy! You can never be over-prepared for anything…
Measurement, measurement, measurement
I am so glad I had clients who harangued us constantly for benchmarks to accompany our strategy proposals. I used to roll my eyes if I had to benchmark or set metrics to one more tactic because it was an ongoing process.
However, working in a role that supports a fundraising capacity, I find myself constantly looking for ways to quantify and measure alumni relations. I have become the client asking my colleagues to help me set the metrics and benchmark my strategies.
As much as I was miserable at times in my agency life, I have really come to appreciate that experience because it has done me more good than I could have expected.
The lesson in all this?
Even a job you think you hate can actually be helping you. You just might now know it yet.
What do you think? Anyone else benefit from agency experience? Or have you had a job you hated but have come to appreciate after a career change?
Image courtesy of a very clever agency with a good sense of humor.