Thursday, July 29, 2010

Making Friends, Influencing People

It's storytime at Real Public Relations!  It's the story of public relations "professional" who made a mistake.  A really big mistake.

The story comes courtesy of a longtime and very good friend who currently works as a producer at one of the leading TV news stations in Denver.  An award-winning journalist and a person who knows exactly what it takes for a small business to garner earned media coverage.

The funny thing about this story is that, up until the very end, the "professional" in question did just about everything right on behalf of the client.

It starts a few weeks ago when the KCNC newsroom receives a press release pitching a story.  As it turns out, it caught the interest of the morning news producer and within a short period of time, some calls were made and an interview was booked for the morning show.

This is a big deal for a small business.  An interview on a morning show means exposure to tens of thousands of potential customers at one time.  A saavy business can leverage a single morning show interview into massive amounts of social media coverage, and, if they're lucky, even more earned media coverage from partner outlets and competitive outlets.

The PR "professional" agreed to the interview at the scheduled time; 6:30 in the morning.  In the local morning news world, that's a prime spot.  It's regularly among the highest rated time slots for most local morning news programs, which makes sense, since most people are up, have showered and are eating breakfast or catching up on the day's events before they head on out the door between 7 or 7:30am.  In other words, the interview slot was good news for the PR "pro" and for the client.

Time passes, a few days go by, there is no follow-up communication from the PR "pro" to the newsroom.  The producer, who is already swamped by the daily routine of putting together a daily news program, moves forward planning on having the interview.

The day in question arrives, the producer gets into the newsroom only to find an odd and quite frustrating email in his inbox.  The PR "professional" has cancelled the interview with the client.  Not because anyone is sick, or due to unforseen circumstances, but, and here's the doozy of it all, the interview was being cancelled because it was, "too early."

Seriously, you read that right.  The PR "pro" just couldn't manage to drag themselves out of bed that early in the morning.  Certainly, it might have been the client who deemed 6:30 am too early in the morning to do an interview, but either way, the PR "pro" in this case was not serving the best interests of their client.

Bad Move:

Trust me, I produced morning shows in radio and TV for years.  I KNOW how early 6:30 am can be.  Even as a public relations professional, I have dragged myself out of bed at 4am so I could be at a television station to support my client during morning show interviews.  If the decision was made by the PR person, then they should be fired immediately by the client.  If the decision was made by the clinet, then the PR person needed to do everything short of kidnapping the client and dragging them to the station for the interview. 

There is always the chance that the PR "pro" did everything in their power to get the client to show up for the early morning interview, and if the client simply refused to the listen to the PR pro's advice, then the PR pro should simply drop them as a client.

Yes, this sounds harsh, and in a difficult economy, dropping clients is less than ideal.  But a PR person's job is to grab media attention for the client.  As a consultant, I always had to remind myself that, ultimately, the final decision rests in the hands of the client.  I could make recommendation, but in the end, the client made the final choice. 

Certainly clients have made decisions contrary to my advice.  It's their right.  But I have, and would again, let a client go if they make decisions that are not only against my advice, but downright destructive to their bottom line.  Remember, it's not just the client's reputation on the line, it's the reputation of the PR person as well. 

I can pretty much guarantee, with a fair degree of certainty, that this business and the person who scheduled the interview, will never get another shot at the KCNC morning show again.  In all likelihood, their reputation has also been damaged in other newsrooms as well. 

The media, especially local media, is a very small community.  Reporters, producers, editors all talk to one another and you would be mistaken if you didn't think that this story has already made the rounds at the other television stations. 

Listen, Judge, Go To Bed Early:

There are two lessons to be learned from this episode in regards to small businesses and non-profits. 

Lesson 1:
Follow-up, consistency and commitment are essential to a successful public relations campaign.

You are most likely handling your own PR and social media efforts.  If you are, that's great.  That's the whole purpose of this blog; to help you save money by doing it yourself.  You can put together a great story, create a wonderful pitch and pitch letter and make your follow up phone calls in a timely and effective manner.  All of this might lead to an interview opportunity.  If it does, that's great news.  But just as I pointed out in the previous post, just getting the interview is really only half the battle. 

You have to be prepared with your messages and appearance.  You also have to show up when expected and you must deliver on what you promise a newsroom.  If you tell them your event will have hundreds of adorable children for photo ops, then there had better be hundreds of children smiling and happy to pose for the cameras.  If not, they'll be disappointed and they'll remember it the next time you pitch a story to them.

The same holds true to accepting an interview request.  If you say you'll be there for a 6:30 interview, then be there.  If they want you in at 2am, then get there at 1:30.  Get to an interview early.  Like Vince Lombardi used to tell his players, "If you're on time, you're late."  Show up early and show up prepared.  Don't get there five minutes ahead of time and then take 20 minutes to change clothes or put on your makeup. 

One of the best ways to anger a journalist is to take advantage of their time.  They are on tight deadlines.  Most likely, they have to file the story within just a couple of hours after talking to you.  They might even have other stories to cover or other video to shoot.  If it's a live interview, they want to see you in the newsroom, or on the phone line well in advance of the interview time.  This eases their mind and saves everyone a whole lot of confusion and panic. 

The time to tell a journalist that 6:30 in the morning is too early, is when they approach you for an interview. If you really don't think you can make it that early, let them know.  They might scrap the interview completely, but at least you didn't string them along. By the way, never tell a journalist that you can't make an interview because it "inconveniences" you.  They'll never ask you for an interview again.  They want interview subjects who will bend over backwards for them.  Sure, it's not totally fair, but then again, they ARE offering you a chance to introduce your organization to thousands upon thousands of potential customers, for nothing more than a few minutes of your time.

It's only fair that you meet them halfway, and if that means you have to drive to a studio for an interview, or get there hours before you normally get up, then you should do what it takes to make it easy for the journalist.

This also includes other kinds of interview follow-up.  Once you get that coveted interview, you need to do a few simple things which will endear you to newsrooms everywhere:
1.  Confirmation - Follow-up with an email to confirm the date, time and location of the interview.  Some interviews are set up weeks in advance, most are just days in advance.  Either way, a follow up email will confirm your commitment to the interview and ease the worries of the reporter, producer or editor.

2.  Send information - Reporters, producers and editors like facts.  Regardless of the interview venue, you should always send information to the newsroom.  This does a couple of things.  In the case of print interviews, it makes sure they spell your name right, it confirms your organization's name and services.  In the case of radio interviews, you can make sure they have the right pronunciation of your name or business.  In the case of television interviews, it allows them to create CG's, or cover graphics, that can be aired during the interview.  The same holds true for basic facts about you and your story.  

For instance, if you're interview is about a charity you run to help homeless people, you should send them a short list of facts about homelessness in your city or in the U.S.  These facts can be great additions to any story.  You might have covered them in your interview and just want to make sure the media outlet gets the information correct, or you may anticipate answering these questions during an upcoming interview.  In this case, a TV station can, again, put up CG's as part of the interview, a print or radio reporter can use these facts to direct their line of questioning.  Journalists love knowledge, and the more they know, the better an interview you will have.

3.  Provide Back-up - Every interview you do is an opportunity to show a newsroom you know what you're doing and that you understand how to make their jobs easier.  If you can make a journalists' job easier, they'll love you forever, kind of like bringing them beer and food.  For TV stations, send photos, for radio stations, send sound files, for tv stations, send ideas about graphics and send video.  Once again, the journalist wants your interview to go well so they can meet the expectations of their own standards and those of their audience.  This means providing great visuals and information to go along with the story.  If you can give them the visuals and information they need to make your interview really sparkle, they'll remember you and be more likely to schedule you for future interviews.
Lesson 2:
If you hire someone for their expertise and advice, listen to them whenever possible.

Let's face it, PR isn't rocket science.  Often, it's more like an art.  There are nuances that it can take years to get a feeling for.  You can, and should handle the basics of your PR campaign.  But there will be times when you need an expert.  This is when you might bring in a freelance PR pro, or a former journalist.  You brought them in for a reason, so listen to them when they give you advice or make recommendations.

You may not always agree with what they tell you.  You might be nervous about the direction they seem to be taking your campaign.  This is natural.  But they have years of experience that you don't have and they have a knowledge of how newsrooms operate that you don't have.  If they say a 6:30am interview on a local TV station is a "good get" then by all means, do what you have to do to make it to the newsroom by 6am, awake and prepared to shine. 

This doesn't mean you should turn all control over to any "expert", regardless of their credentials.  Ultimately, it's your business, your life's work.  You want any consultant to work with you, not against you.  Expect constant communication and expect teamwork.  Working with a PR consultant is a great way to get some quick media coverage for a big campaign.  But it will only work if you trust them and feel comfortable enough to voice your concerns to them.  It's also important that they listen to you.  Too often, I see a business bring in a consultant, spell out exactly what they want, and then the consultant goes off in a different direction.  Even if the consultant's motives are good, it shows they aren't listening to you.  And that's a recipe for disaster in the long run.

Here are a few tips to making your working relationship with a consultant the best it can be:
1.  Ask questions - Make sure you know everything you can know about your consultant.  Sit down with them and go over your campaign and ask them for their thoughts.  If they appear willing to work with you rather than try to control you, it might be a good fit.  Look to see if they answer your questions to your satisfaction rather than talk around the answer.

2.  Set your expectations - Make sure you set out exactly what you are looking for.  A good PR consultant will have questions for you about what you expect and will want to set parameters up front.  An experienced consultant won't rush into any work before they know what they're getting into.  Take note of what kinds of questions they ask you.

3.  Express Concerns - Once you start working together, you will likely have further questions and maybe even some concerns about their direction.  Don't let it go and think that your concerns will pass, they won't.  You don't have to be confrontational, but certainly you should approach the consultant with your concerns.  A good PR consultant will have no problem listening to your concerns and defending them.  Sometimes it's just a matter of perception.  Sometimes it's a difference of philosophy, which can't always be overcome.  If a consultant doesn't address your concerns, you always have the option of firing them.  Make sure there's a clause in any contract you sign that offers an out for differences of philosophy or an out for any reason with a 30-day written notice.  You'll have to pay some money, but not the entire contract, plus, if they've done any work at all, at least you'll be ahead of where you started.

4.  Don't Lower Your Standards - If a PR consultant ever offers you advice that goes against your standards or ethics, fire them immediately.  You don't want to work with a consultant that advises that you lie to customers or the media.  You can find out about a consultant's ethics by creating a scenario in which lying to the media would be the easy way out.  

5.  Listen - When creating a plan or a campaign or a strategy, listen to what the consultant has to say about the best options.  Hopefully, they will have listened to you and will work within your budget and stick to your code of ethics.  Make sure to ask questions if you don't understand why a consultant advises a course of action, but then listen to the answer.  Sometimes they will see an opportunity that you missed, or were unaware of.  They also have inside knowledge of newsrooms that give them an insight that you don't have.  You may think that a single, huge event that garners a ton of media coverage is the way to go.  The consultant might advise a longer-term strategy that takes up less of your time, but is twice as effective.  You might not agree at first, but listen to the reasons why that strategy is better than yours.  It might just change your mind.  Again, in the end, it's your decision, but when you DO make your decision, be sure to take their experience and knowledge into consideration.
You have much more on the line than a consultant does.  They don't have the kind of ties to your organization that you do, so it's natural that they aren't as invested in success as you are.  But here's what they ARE invested in; their own business and their reputation.  Their reputation within the business community matters.  More importantly, their reputation within the media community is of vital importance.  They don't want to ruin either, so they'll be looking for clients that will allow them to enhance that reputation, just as you're looking for a consultant that will help you in the long run.

If nothing else, whether you're handling your PR by yourself or with a consultant, if you do manage to get an early morning interview with your local TV station.  Don't party the night before, get your beauty sleep and make sure you don't cancel the interview because it's "too early" in the morning.  The last thing you want to do is become the butt of a joke making the rounds between the local media outlets.

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