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?
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?
A few months ago, I listed my favorite fictional journalism characters. I had meant to write this follow-up post about my real-life favorite journalists sooner, but I got a little side-tracked.
As many of you already know, I originally studied print journalism in the hopes of becoming a crusading, do-gooder newspaper reporter.
That didn’t quite pan out as I had expected.
Regardless of my actual career path, I sometimes remember those days of studying journalism and immersing myself in a world of mass media.
I always kept a mental list of those I consider my favorite journalists or my journalism heroes. Here are a few I’d like to share:
A reporter, an author, and perhaps one of the best storytellers I’ve had the opportunity to hear in person, Mr. Halberstam stood for the kind of reporter I had aspired to be like one day.
He reported from some of the most tumultuous environments of the 1960’s, from Vietnam to the segregated South. But he never lost his commitment to telling compelling stories that illustrated the larger picture. In doing so, Mr. Halberstam was preserving moments in our history that now stand the test of time and remind us of how far we have come.
As someone who has worked for everything in her life and has never had anything “handed” to her, I can appreciate Mr. Cooper’s dedication to broadcast journalism and to foreign reporting despite the fact he comes from a highly prestigious pedigree.
I also feel like I saw his career progress over the years—from Channel One in high school, to a foreign correspondent for ABC News, to not recognizing him as the silver-haired news anchor on CNN, to the personable daytime talk show host he his today. Mr. Cooper also demonstrated a dedication to those about whom he was reporting and raised the bar with watchdog journalism when he keeps those in power in check.
Yes, that cantankerous commentator deserves a place on my list. The reason being is that he inspired me to get fired up about what mattered to me and to express my thoughts and opinions. Often, after watching Mr. Rooney’s final thoughts on “60 Minutes,” I would write my rebuttal to him at my Brother brand word processor. (I realize how nerdy that must sound, but I must confess my geeky journalism past…)
I never sent any of my responses to Mr. Rooney, nor did I ever let anyone read them for fear of embarrassment. But it was always a cathartic experience to explain my feelings to him, and I realize it taught me to feel passionate about what really matters to me.
Anyone else have a favorite journalist to share? What about your particular communications field (PR, marketing, advertising, etc.)—any communications heroes you’d like to recognize?
Happy Friday, all! Are you ready for the holidays next week? It’s hard to believe this month has gone by that quickly. What I’m most looking forward to is spending Christmas with my family back home in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. I’m sure lots of you are also getting ready for holiday travels and house guests. If you have some free time this weekend in between last-minute shopping and prepping for the holidays, here are this week’s links and posts of interest to share–enjoy!
Seven Blogging Tips to Drop Right Now (by Mayra via @DannyBrown):
One blogging tip I follow frequently is to pay attention to tips other bloggers share. So, when I read something like Mayra’s column about the seven blogging tips to ditch and why, it makes me stop in my tracks and give it a read.
She doesn’t so much explain to ditch these tips for the sake of ditching them (because any blogger will recognize them), but rather, she reasons that they often tend to take the fun and organic nature out of blogging. I agree that blogging should be fun, and everyone has different time and resources to put into their blogs. And to each his or her own :)
Public Relations Perception and Messages in the Media (by @jepotts):
Sometimes, it’s hard to take the PR out of a person when you see a news story or follow a hot topic in the media. Jonathan Potts, who writes a very smart PR blog, noticed tone in the media coverage of a fight of words between a health system and an insurance company in Pittsburgh. He shared that as PR folks, we’re often analyzing the tone of a story and rating it if it is positive, negative or neutral.
But it’s also important to note if, regardless of tone, your key messages are getting into the coverage. Tone may change, but those key messages won’t, and it’s easy to get swept up in the media storm and forget the importance of message. I liked the clarity of that thought from Mr. Potts, and he gets bonus points for suggesting a content analysis of news stories, because that appeals to the PR geek in me.
Elements of Style Rap Video (via @juliemmoos):
Anyone who went to journalism school knows the Elements of Style by E.B. White and William Strunk, Jr. In fact, I still have my copy from my undergrad days upstairs in my bookcase of forgotten books. So, it was fun to see this video produced by Columbia Journalism students to showcase their rapping styles and general journalism nerdiness. Seeing how creative these guys were, I wonder what kind of rap PR folks could come up with? (Read: open challenge for anyone who does a PR rap—think of words that rhyme with “press release” and “key message”)
Science Cheerleaders Break Stereotypes (by @allieharch on @geekadelphia):
And since I’m on a geeky kick, I feel like sharing something completely different…
I have recently started following the Geekadelphia blog, and a post from this week bought to my attention the Science Cheerleaders organization. It’s made up of women who are professional cheerleaders but also hold multiple science degrees. They work to break the stereotypes of women in many ways—that cheerleaders aren’t airheads and that women can be successful in the sciences. The video embedded in this post is very inspirational and makes me wish I hadn’t put down my pom-poms in junior high. Go, science!
Did you come across any links or articles of interest this week? Feel free to share them and have a wonderful weekend :)
Ms. Avines’ post struck a chord with me because I’m both a movie geek who happened to study journalism.
Being as it is, it’s fun to see heroes/heroines of the Fourth Estate on the silver screen, mostly because of the dramatic overtones and exaggerated scenarios.
Even the films based on fact have to be inflated a little to add to the theatric experience.
If there was ever a movie based on my experience as a print reporter, it might be kind of boring—scenes of the reporter in front of a computer, the phone interview, driving to and from City Hall, maybe stopping at Starbucks, waiting for the managing editor to stop gabbing with the sports writer so he’ll finally get around to reviewing my story that’s due at 4:00 p.m…oh, the drama!
Inspired by the films of journalism, I thought it would be fun to list a few of my favorite fictional journalism characters from film (both big screen and little, so there’s more room for the “fictional” term).
Murray Slaughter, News Writer (The Mary Tyler Moore Show)
You’d think a girl from Minneapolis would have picked Mary Tyler Moore. Did you know there’s a statue of her in downtown Minneapolis in front of the department store where she threw her hat in the opening? I digress…
I always sort of identified with the forever-suffering Murray, who wrote wonderful news copy that Ted Baxter would butcher night after night. I liked Murray because he was the content creator and a writer like I aspired to be one day. Since I never wanted to be in front of the camera, I decided if I went into broadcast, I wanted be the “Murray” behind the scenes instead.
Murphy Brown, Investigative Journalist (Murphy Brown)
Talk about a great fictional role model for young women! I was too young to get most of the social overtones on this program, but I was old enough to recognize that Murphy Brown was a smart, dedicated, and passionate journalist.
Sure, she had a child out of wedlock and couldn’t keep a secretary or seem to finish painting her house, but Murphy Brown symbolized how far women had come in the field of journalism. She could hold her own against the boys club and still show her vulnerability as a mother or as a sympathetic friend to her colleagues.
Hildy Johnson, Reporter (His Girl Friday)
As a huge fan of classic Hollywood films, I fell in love with this movie and its heroine, who attempts to shrug off working as a reporter in favor of marrying away.
Slapstick and stereotypes aside, I liked how the male editor antagonist, the dashing Cary Grant, needed Hildy in order to get a huge scoop. He knew she had the skills and the drive to pursue the story. And Hildy discovers she actually thrives on reporting and investigating stories (and occasionally getting into sticky situations, like this film’s main premise). I guess by getting Cary Grant in the end, she gets the best of both worlds as a wife and a reporter.
Harrison Lloyd, Photojournalist (Harrison’s Flowers)
I’ve always had a deep admiration for war correspondents, perhaps because they endanger their own lives in order to tell a story for others. This film centers on a photojournalist whose life we see through his wife’s journey to find him in the war-torn former Yugoslavia. In doing so, we learn about his dedication to capturing moments in time, as horrific as some may be.
The film also depicts how photojournalists band together in war zones and explains how they do what they do, a topic all too real when photojournalists are injured and even killed in combat zones.
And although he didn’t make the cut, I couldn’t help but include a shout-out to Ron Burgundy from “Anchorman” as probably the funniest portrayal of a fictional television news anchor (no disrespect to Ted Baxter):
So, these are a few of my favorite fictional journalism characters. What about you? Who are your favorite journalism characters in film?