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The Unwritten PR Rules, Part 1: Promotional “Do’s” :

The Unwritten PR Rules, Part 1: Promotional “Do’s”

How can you succeed with the media? Here are the basic do’s, steps you ought to take with every report and news outlet.

Customize Materials

To the extent possible, tailor your efforts to individual reporters and media outlets. All media outlets, even those competing in the same field or for the same audience, have distinct needs and interests. An idea unacceptable at one outlet may be a lead story elsewhere. The bad news is that because media interests differ, a single, universal pitch sent to hundreds of media outlets will have a very low rate of success.

Journalism is a tough, competitive business and reporters earn no medals duplicating coverage. If your story is important, if you want maximum consideration, customize your proposal for each outlet and reporter you contact.

Customizing materials may seem tedious and time-consuming and so the question often arises: Should every story idea be customized? The answer depends on the subject’s importance. The more important to you, the more customizing is in order. The less important, the more appropriate to churn out standardized news releases (and the less likely they’ll receive serious attention).

Journalists are forever in the position of making judgments, trying to decide what’s important and what isn’t. If you want media attention, if you believe something is significant, then you need to spend time thinking about the needs of individual reporters and media outlets. If a story idea only rates a standardized news release, you’ve so much as said your news isn’t especially important. If it were, then surely you’d take the time to say why. In effect, deciding whether or not to customize materials strongly influences editorial judgments.

Background Information

When appropriate, send more than a news release. There are often ideas which cannot be adequately explored in a single news release. When faced with a complex subject, successful promoters provide supporting materials such as fact sheets that briefly outline story concepts, question-and-answer dialogues to address complex issues that cannot be discussed within the space of a news release and background statements or histories to give perspective and show why a story is important.

Graphics are another item to send. Charts, tables, and photos can all be valuable. Make certain your graphic is properly identified (“Source: The Woodwell Cooperative”) so that you get full credit for your work.

Maintain credibility.

The central measure in journalism is credibility, a fragile value which must be upheld in each article or broadcast. A reporter’s words and information must be reliable, his or her public must be able to count on what is being written or said.

In a similar fashion, promoters must also be credible, an authority figure. No one will be surprised if you have a point-of-view or a bias, that’s expected from promoters. But information presented to the media must be truthful, complete and in context, standards which apply not only to news releases but to interviews and supporting documents as well.

Build perception

In the battle for media turf, perception can be as important as reality. And, perception — like bridges and dams — can be engineered.

When the President’s Commission on Organized Crime issued a report favoring widespread drug testing for government employees there was considerable debate. No one, explained proponents, would want an air traffic controller to land planes while under the influence of drugs. Those who opposed the idea said it was unworkable, unconstitutional, unreliable and a gross invasion of privacy.

Whatever the merits of either view, proponents lost an important battle when one of their leaders was surprised in public. At a congressional hearing filled with reporters and television cameras, a top commission staffer was asked to not only submit his words, but also some vital fluids — in the presence of a witness, just as government employees might be required under the commission’s proposal. The bureaucrat refused and the undeniable public perception was clear: If a top commission staffer wouldn’t agree to a surprise test, why should anyone else?

Become a source.

As journalists gain experience they develop a network of regular sources on whom they rely for information, ideas and opinions. Such sources may be quoted in print or on the air, but in many cases they supply information on a “background” basis; that is, without public attribution. Many associations, for example, make researchers, specialists and librarians available to reporters on a background basis.

Initially, it may seem as though not getting public recognition defeats the entire purpose of promotion. After all, isn’t media marketing supposed to generate media exposure? Why help reporters if you’re not being publicized?

First, if you’re a source, you’re credible. A journalist won’t bother calling if you’re not reliable.

Second, as a source, you’re influential. The reason a reporter calls is because a story is not complete. More information, ideas and perspectives are needed and whatever you provide can effect the ultimate content and context of a story.

Third, when seeking coverage, sources have direct access to the media since they’re familiar and have proved reliable in the past.

Be aware of deadlines

Journalism is a time-sensitive industry with such products as the 6 PM news, the morning paper and the December magazine. Online, it’s possible to have a 24-hour news cycle, but most news outlets continue to stick with the concept of deadlines except for breaking news.

Plan Ahead

Formulate campaigns so media outlets will have enough time to consider and possibly cover your story. If you’re aiming for March magazine coverage and the publications you want to reach are assigning stories for that issue in November and December of the prior year, it’s easy to see that advance planning is necessary.

Time sensitivity is another aspect of deadline awareness. If a daily reporter has a 3 PM deadline, don’t even think of a 2 PM chitchat. Not only won’t the conversation be lengthy, but future contacts are likely to be chilled. It’s okay to start a conversation with a simply question: “Is this a good time?”

Identify other sources

Because few stories have just one side, reporters want a variety of viewpoints. If you’ve got the names, addresses and phone numbers of people who might make good sources, that can be valuable information to pass on to a reporter, particularly if some of your sources are competitors or oppose your views.

It may seem as though identifying alternative sources defeats the purpose of media marketing. Why should you help someone else receive press coverage, especially a competitor or opponent?

One reason is that a story will have greater value, and thus a better chance of being used, if it has balance. Another reason is that an enterprising journalist will speak to a variety of sources anyway, so why not provide names and numbers up front? A third reason is that without conflict there may not be a story.

Have perspective

There are products which can objectively be described as “new” and “improved,” but how many are utterly perfect? How many times is there only one approach to a given problem? Present products, services, and positions in context, and understand that questions and criticism are natural. Most promoters likely do best when they acknowledge limitations and flaws up-front.

Correct mistakes

People make mistakes. Organizations make mistakes. Journalists make mistakes. Mistakes being entirely common, why not say so?

Journalists do not expect the people they interview to have the linguistic skills of an Oxford don. Reporters want accuracy, but they recognize that a media interview is not a pop quiz.

Interviews can make people nervous and nervous people can forget information, invert words or ramble with something less than their usual coherence. If you find that in the midst of an interview you goofed, say so. If the interview is finished and you realize a mistake was made, call the reporter back as quickly as possible. Print copy can often be corrected before it goes to press, radio tapes can also be edited in many cases, but the situation with TV is more difficult. It’s unlikely that a TV station will send out a camera crew twice or that an interview program will have a second “take” once taping is finished. At best, hope that errant TV material is edited, cut, or not used.

Name a contact

In large organizations there should be one central office or media-wise person to expedite press inquiries, arrange interviews and locate information. This is a common arrangement for mid-size and large-size corporations, associations and governmental agencies.

Many business, civic and social groups, however, handle media relations by naming their president as the media contact. This is a “benefit” of leadership, a practice that assumes organizational leaders can speak knowledgeably to the media.

There are often problems when the president, being president, tries to deal with all the media inquiries received by the group. For instance, a local bankers’ organization may be headed by someone with experience in consumer lending, a problem when questions arise concerning long-term bonds or estate planning.

An alternative for groups is to develop an experts’ list. Poll the membership, find out who’s interested in what, make up a roster with several names under each heading, and then distribute the list to the media. The very fact that there is such a list may suggest story ideas and new contacts.

Always assume you’re on the record

Unless you have a clear agreement to the contrary, whenever you speak with a journalist assume that your name and information will be used in a story and that whatever you say will appear in print. Given this perspective, watch what you say.

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