September 25, 2013No Comments

Public relations as aikido

In martial arts, aikido stands out for its emphasis on leveraging opposing forces, not just for defense but also to protect the attacker from harm. Its practice demands flexibility, a calm mind, endurance and compassion. It is the opposite of a stand your ground and shoot someone mentality - it is a defense that allows both parties to walk away unharmed and fight (hopefully non-violently) another day.

On any given day, businesses and organizations can find themselves under fire for poor customer service, production mistakes or a thousand other errors. Public relations is not about covering these mistakes up or running from them - it is about responding to them and building off of them. Like in aikido, you must be calm as you summon the strength to deflect the attack.

Remember that old maxim any PR is good PR? You can make it true. Having people talk about your brand or your organization, even negatively, is at least an invitation to a discussion. You can take that energy and respond to it positively, by listening to the concerns and, even if it is a rant, finding the kernel of truth that can help you improve your communications or your business. That last part is where compassion comes in -- it takes compassion to really listen.

Public relations should be a dialogue, not a spin cycle where practitioners try to outwit one another with gotcha games and word play. Thinking about PR as a form of aikido means that we are doing our jobs by staying in the moment, by really listening and understanding all sides of the debate, and building long-lasting relationships.

March 13, 2012No Comments

“We Are a Good Company” is Not an Effective News Release Headline

If you're writing a news release or blog posting or newsletter article, it's easy and very tempting to make yourself or your organization the star of the show. And it's the exact opposite of what you should do if you want to get a journalist, blogger or, in these days of direct-to-consumer publishing, your potential customer to read it.

I once sat in a meeting with a bunch of business executives who wanted positive publicity on their recent organizational restructuring. "Great idea!" the PR people said. But how can we demonstrate the improvements? Had they reduced headcount or cut costs? Had they streamlined departments in an innovative way?

"We can't talk about that," they said. "We don't want to put any numbers out there. We don't want anyone to think what we were doing before was bad."

"Then how can we show that the restructuring was positive?" we asked. It would be the first question a journalist would ask.

"Just say that it was," they answered.

So despite our misgivings, we wrote the release making them the star -- the headline was something like "Productivity Further Enhanced at XYZ Corp." It included several quotes from management trumpeting a list of restructuring actions taken with no real context or insight into what had been in place before. And guess what? It generated absolutely no news coverage and probably drew no readers. Why? Because we didn't give the reader a reason to care.

The first rule of public relations writing is to focus on your audience first. Who do you want to read it? What do you want them to remember? Why should they care? 

Key to remember is that just because we -- or our bosses or clients -- think we have an important story, doesn't mean that the rest of the world does. The PR pro has to take a step back and look at the story with an outsider's perspective. And sometimes that means telling a client or a boss that there isn't a story there. It's a hard message to deliver, particularly to successful business owners or executives who live and breathe their work. But doing so will help you set realistic expectations for your efforts.

And save the fluffy "We are a good company" stories for the employee newsletter.




March 8, 2012No Comments

Pocket Guide to the Public Relations Professional

The public relations industry is vast and complex, employing some 60,000 people and bringing in a fee income of nearly $9 billion in 2010, according to The Holmes Report 2011 Global Rankings.

It's also perceived as a little, well, fluffy. Usually the first budget to be cut in a crunch, public relations deparments suffer more of an image problem than, say, finance or legal. Now, I've worked in public relations for more than two decades, and have worked with some incredibly smart, strategic professionals who earn their salary every day. But the image of PR as a somewhat soft gig persists. I had a job at a PR agency in the mid-90s where I attended cocktail receptions two out of five nights a week. My parents and friends had the entirely understandable impression that all I did was go to parties. This was at least partly true. It was also true that it was a high-stress job. We were expected to be on call 24/7, often worked 60-hour weeks and lived in fear of a client calling to say "why wasn't I in the LA Times today?" No wonder we were guzzling white wine at those cocktail parties designed to showcase clients.

As an industry, public relations is more open to generalists than most. At the entry-level, what you studied in school is often less important than whether or not you are an articulate writer and speaker.

However as I progressed through six different PR jobs and lots of networking, I noticed that the PR person as a genus has several distinct species, some marked by innate traits, others by their environments. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, I note five of them here. 

1. The Politician.

Hand extended for a shake while he's still two feet away, the Politician is what most people think of when they think of public relations. He's got great eye contact, remembers your name (or at least he read your nametag without you catching him). He's friendly, warm and engaging when you can catch him, but he can be hard to track down. What You Hire Him For: his contact list. Tagline: "Let me connect you with..." Favorite PR tool: lunch. Hates: sitting at his desk.

2. The Extrovert.

The Extrovert takes her natural affinity for other people and leverages it into a fulltime career in public relations.  She can work the room almost as well as the Politician, though she lacks his ruthlessness. She loves to talk and share ideas, so publicity and social media are natural extensions of herself. What You HIre Her For: her enthusiasm and energy. Tagline: "We've got a great event/product/cause coming up..." Favorite PR tool: social media. Hates: writing.

3. The Cynic.

The Cynic has little tolerance for hypocrisy, but he's also more than willing to help you craft a message that puts you in the best light if he believes in you, your organization or cause. Many journalists-turned-PR-people fall into this category, assuaging fears of "selling out" by working in the public interest. Best asset: an inside track to the mind of a journalist. Tagline: "Here's how this will play out." Favorite PR tool: written opinion piece in print media. Hates: talking points.

4. The EMT.

Search warrants served at the office? SEC on the phone? Dial 911 in your PR crisis and you get the EMT. Usually working for a PR agency that specializes in crisis management, she is the on-call professional ready to do media training at midnight and draft your apology statement. Best asset: decisiveness. Tagline: "What you're going to do is..." Favorite PR tool: the exclusive interview on a friendly news outlet. Hates: saying no comment.

5. The Conscience.

He believes in corporate citizenship and sees it as his job to not only listen to his organization's customers or stakeholders, but also to be their advocates. The Conscience is the subject of many PR "best practices" case studies, for urging companies to do the right thing despite financial or legal risks. Best asset: deep understanding of public perception. Tagline: "I don't care what Legal says..." Favorite PR tool: grants and sponsorships to worthy causes. Hates: obfuscation.

These five species are only a handful of the many that populate this large and growing industry. Can you think of any more? Let me know!

February 15, 20121 Comment

How to Get Your News Out There

News releases are a great way to promote your organization, your event, your book or your product. But writing it is only half the work. The second half is distribution.

In the old days, we used to create media mailing lists and actually snail mail or fax releases to reporters, and then put the release on either BusinessWire or PRNewswire, both paid news release distribution services that are still around today.
These paid news wire services typically send releases directly into newsroom computer systems through dedicated channels; but some, like PRWeb only send the releases out to their own mailing lists. Media relations pros prefer to pay to get a release "on the wire" as it still generates more media interest and pick-up than social media or direct distribution alone.

List of electronic press release distributors

BusinessWire http://www.businesswire.com/portal/site/home/

BusinessWire is the go-to news release distribution service for most companies, non-profits and government agencies. Putting a 400-word news release out on their news wire service to more than 1,000 news outlets in the United States starts at $325. Each news release gets its own measurement and tracking report. Their editorial staff formats releases, keeps an eye out for errors and makes distribution suggestions. BusinessWire has a large global reach, and also offers what it calls "full disclosure" releases that are commonly used by publicly-held companies to meet SEC requirements.

Cision http://us.cision.com/press-release-distribution/web-wire-distribution.asp

Cision's main advantage is that it offers flat-rate pricing while delivering to all the U.S. and Canadian news outlets that the other services distribute to. They offer two packages--one delivers releases to some 3,500 web-based news services for around $150 per release, and the other to major wire services in the United States or Canada for as little as $350 per release. They also do custom distribution.

PR Newswire http://www.prnewswire.com/

PR Newswire offers a wide array of distribution services that expand news release offerings with photos, video and web placement. They even have a package that will put a picture on a big screen in Times Square. Sending a 400-word release to their main United States distribution list starts around $715.

PRWeb http://www.prweb.com/

PRWeb offers a low-cost way to get news releases onto web news feeds like Yahoo! and Google. Skip their Basic package, which gets your release on their website for $89. Spring for the Standard or Advanced packages which get your release out to their own list of bloggers and reporters who have signed up for their mailing list. Paying $369 per release for their Premium service will get your release onto the Associated News wire.

Shop around and look for discounts. A quick search online revealed discounts to PR Newswire fees.



January 31, 2011No Comments

How to write a media advisory easy as pie

Whether you’re promoting a pie-eating contest, a press conference on the courthouse steps or a perfume product launch, a media advisory is a great tool for inviting the media, particularly television and radio. I think of media advisories as shorthand press releases – a means for delivering the who, what, where, when and how in a stripped-down format that a reporter can grab on her way out the door and get all the information she needs to cover the story once she is on location.



Typically less than one page long, the media advisory includes contact information, a headline, description of the event including the date and time, a listing of who is involved, the address (include cross streets if you can), and a detailed schedule.  Each of these should be broken into separate sections of your document, like so:



The headline should be a catchy sentence that captures the essence of your event and conveys a sense of urgency.  Highlight celebrities if you’ve got them, or compelling visuals like a children's blueberry pie eating contest or hot air balloons taking off.



Describe the event in one or two sentences here.



List the VIPs who have been invited and/or are confirmed to attend. This can mean your corporate CEO, the mayor, the local weathercaster or a skateboarding cat. This is also a nice place to make sure to give kudos to anyone you want to pay special attention to.



Date and time. Include a detailed schedule if you can do it in a few lines, so that reporters, who are often crunched for time, can easily tell when the pie-eating contest starts.  For example: 


9 to 9:30 a.m. CONTESTANT CHECK-IN




If there is coffee and, er, pie available for reporters, say so. Don’t be shy. A good PR person is not afraid to use free food as a selling point.



This is where to put the location details. Include the place name, street address, cross streets, landmarks and parking information here. If you have special parking for the media but not for the public, make that very clear here.


Still got space on the page? Then use it to describe the visuals if it is not obvious from the headline and description. Or include a sentence or two about why your company is sponsoring the event. Close with your organization’s boilerplate info, and distribute to assignment desks.


December 30, 2010No Comments

Writing a news release that works

Despite widespread reports of its demise at the hands of social media, the news release is not just alive, but relevant. Its basic format continues to be an important way to distribute content to both online and traditional media.


The same principles that scored publicity for “Mad Men” still work today -- a good news hook, attention-getting headline and well-written copy. What has changed are the distribution channels. Ten years ago, PR people aimed for a front-page story in the print media, which would have then fed the next day’s local television and radio news. Today, a good PR person may still target traditional media but would be foolish not to include online media, bloggers, Twitterers with Klout, and curators of interesting content.


The good news is that traditional and new media want the same thing -- content that is tightly written, timely and topical. Below are some tips for writing a professional news release with universal appeal.


Create an eye-grabbing, descriptive headline. “Vehicle Thieves Rarely Take a Holiday” is a clear and concise headline from a release issued on December 28 by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. What is it about? A report that found the highest number of vehicle thefts on New Year’s Eve and Halloween.


Write using the inverted pyramid format. Fill your first paragraph -- also called the lead -- with the story basics. You want to spark the reader's curiosity with either the conclusion or the “who-what-where-when-why” up front, and work in the supporting information and background in subsequent paragraphs.


Back in the days when newspaper layouts were pasted together by hand instead of laid out on a computer, an editor looking to shorten an article would just cut from the column end, where the least important information was placed. The inverted pyramid format is still valuable in online media, because if someone only reads the first paragraph and doesn’t either scroll down or click through, they still get the gist of the story. Notice how this release about healthy holiday tips summarizes its main point in the first sentence, and then works in all the relevant details in the second.

Enjoy the season's meals without the guilt this year. The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) is continuing to help you make healthy choices this holiday season with 15 easy-to-follow tips, crafted by NFCR spokesperson Chef Charles Phillips of Nashville's 1808 Grille.


Include a quote from your organization’s spokesperson. Quotes often appear in the second or third paragraph of a news release, and are a great way to insert points-of-view, claims or opinions. 

"Electronic waste is a very serious environmental issue, both because of toxic materials it contains and because of the lack of options for safe disposal of this equipment," said Lower East Side Ecology Center executive director Christine Datz-Romero. "That's why we make sure that the recyclers we work with guarantee that all of the material we collect is safely recycled in the United States, instead of being exported to the developing world or incinerated stateside."

Include your organization’s background at the end. In PR, we call this the boilerplate, or a sentence or paragraph that describes an organization and is included at the end of all news releases. Include a link to your website for more information.

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Include contact information. In case the reporter or writer has questions, news releases usually include in the header the name, office phone number, cell phone number and email of the organization’s PR person or most appropriate subject matter expert.