Friday, September 10, 2010

The Confusion About PR

I had an intersting discussion on Thursay that I had to pass along today.  It's a conversation that I've been involved in a million times and one that I think could be the reason why so many small businesses and non-profits struggle when it comes to defining exactly what they want to do when it comes to PR.

The young lady I was talking with happens to be in marketing.  Marketing is one of those things that has always seemed a bit like a black hole to me.  I certainly engage in marketing through my social media efforts, and I believe marketing is a valuable asset to any organization.  However, marketers don't always see social media and PR as viable tools in their arsenal and therefore there has always been a disconnect between PR, social media and marketing.

Case in point:  The woman asked me at one point in our conversation, "What do you do?" to which I replied, "I do PR and social media for small businesses and non-profits."  The blank stare I received told me everything I needed to know.  She really had no idea what I did for a living.  Her follow-up question was nearly as classic, "Sooooo...." she hesitated, "You send out press releases and stuff?  How do you make a living at that?" 

Listen, I'm used to this.  My entire life I've held jobs that simply didn't register for most folks.  When I told people I was a producer in radio and television, many thought, "Wow, that sounds like a cool job!"  And it was.  Invariably, though, they would always follow up with, "What exactly does that mean?  What do you DO?"

I thought when I moved into PR and social media, that question would be self-explanatory.  I was sadly mistaken.  The fact is, most people really don't know for sure what PR means.  As I thought about this conversation more and more, it dawned on me that this could be the reason why so many small business and non-profit PR efforts fail; they really don't know what PR is.

Obviously, that was one of the reasons why I started this blog.  It's important to know what PR is before you can begin to successfully create and implement a PR campaign.  And yet, it still amazes me that for so many, PR is simply about sending out press releases.  For you loyal readers, you have seen that it's much more than that.  However, it's important to know that PR actually encompasses a few different areas, each one as important as the other for small businesses and non-profits.

Media Relations:

When most people think about PR, this is actually what they're familiar with.  The image of a PR pro is that of a person who spends their time trying to garner earned media coverage for their client.  And while this is important, this is only a part of what a true public relations professional does.

This aspect of PR is actually media relations and it can often be the hardest of the three tasks involved in good PR.  Most of what I have written about in this space has dealt with media relations since this is the aspect that most small businesses and non-profits desire from their PR efforts. 

Unlike the other three areas of PR, this one requires the most experience and the most patience.  This area not only involves putting together press releases, but understanding newsroom dynamics, timing, awareness of current events and a strong ability to be a good storyteller. 

There's a reason why the most successful media relations pro's are former journalists.  They have spent time in the trenches and understand instinctively how newsrooms operate and how best to pitch a story.  If you're simply looking for someone to come in and help you get some news coverage for an upcoming event or promotion, then you should really be looking for a qualified media relations individual rather than a fully equipped PR pro.

However, if you're wanting something more, something along the lines of a fully functioning and interactive PR campaign, make sure that you find someone who does more than just promise extensive news coverage.  You want them to talk to you about community outreach, civic outreach, partnerships and public interaction (including online interaction).  This is the person that will give you a well-rounded campaign and not one that makes a quick media splash before disappearing.

The Audience:

Before we move on to the other areas of PR, we need to look at the audiences you're campaign is going after.  Ultimately, you want the biggest audience you can get.  This is why media relations is so appealing.  You can reach tens of thousands of potential customers all at once if you get a feature story in the local paper or leading 10pm newscast.  But those stories are here and gone in a day or so.  Unless you become a regular news darling, you're likely going to only get a single spike in your activity before thing return to normal.

In PR, we're usually dividing up the audience.  There's the media audience, the reporters, producers and editors we're pitching our stories to.  Then there's the public audience, the ones who, ultimately you want the story to reach, and then there's the wildcard audiece.  This audience can be government officials, other businesses or a specifically consumer audience. 

Reaching each of these different audiences is best done through different venues.  A good media relations person knows how to best reach the media audience.  They know how to speak their language and convince them that your story is worth reporting on.  And of course, they're using the media to get your story and your message out to the second audience, the public at large.  They can even utilize specialty media to reach your wildcard or targeted audience.  But a good PR pro realizes that even the best placed news story only give so much bounce.  There are other methods that need to be used in order to really make your PR campaign successful.

Community Outreach:

This is an area of PR that often gets overlooked, but it's so vitally important, that without it, your campaign is doomed to failure.  What is community outreach?  It's very simple, it's getting out into the community and doing something visible, something impactful, something people will remember.  This could be as simple as setting up a booth at a local fair, or as complicated as setting up a travelling show that goes from neighborhood to neighborhood to tell folks what you're all about.

In the end, though, the purpose of community outreach is simply to get out in front of the public, potential customers or "stakeholders" as they're often called in PR circles.  Whatever you do, you need to make sure you are out in the community and visible.  This not only reinforces whatever media coverage you've received, but it also puts a human face on your organization. 

As with the media relations aspect, community outreach also has a media component to it.  Whereas media relations uses the media to get your message out to the public at large, an effective community outreach program can carry your message to the media.  If you want to raise awareness of famine in Africa and you use a powerful community outreach program to visually get your message across, you can stage your event on the steps of the capitol and find yourself surrounded by a handful of television cameras and reporter microphones.


We've spent some time talking about partnerships before, but this is a third, very important aspect of quality PR.  A good PR pro is always looking for ways to leverage your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.  This area often falls on the shoulders of the organization's willingness to join forces.  I've worked with clients who were dead set against partnering with any other organizations.  This was a mistake in my opinion, but the decision was theirs, not mine, to make.

Partnerships certainly have some cons involved, most obvious is the fact that you suddenly have more chefs in the kitchen and you do lose a little of the autonomy that comes with handling your campaign completely by yourself.  But I believe the pro's outweigh the con's in most instances.

First, a good partnership opens up your organization to an entirely new audience.  You suddenly aren't just talking to folks who might already be aware of you, but you're talking to an audience that might not have ever heard of you.  More importantly, you're reaching these new potential customers through a source that these new folks already trust.  It's a bit like reading about a new restaurant from a newspaper critic who you don't know, or having a longtime friend tell you about a new restaurant.  The critic may love the place, but your longtime friend may have gone there and hated it.  Who do you think you'll listen to?  That's right, the person you know, the friend who's word you value more than some third party who you don't know.

Partnerships also build your public persona as a whole.  In other words, you get the recognition from your own efforts, but then you also get recognition from the efforts of your partner.  In essence, you double the impact of your campaign.  Of course, you partner is doing the same. 

Partnerships can also help shore up any weaknesses your campaign or organization might have in terms of media relations or community outreach.  Let's say your organization is great at getting media coverage, but lacks the kind of community outreach impact you'd really like.  Your best bet is to find a partner that is killer when it comes to community outreach, but might not have the same media relations reach that you do.  This kind of partnership can help shore up the weaknesses of both organizations.

Of course, a quality PR pro goes about finding the right kind of partner for your organization.  They do the research, they find potential partners, either in business or government circles that not only have similar goals, but also have the right cultural fit as well.  Then they work with both organizations to increase the reach of your message and media relations and community outreach efforts.

Final Note:

In the end, a PR pro wears a lot of different hats.  What you get out of your PR campaign really has more to do with what your goals are than what kind of PR pro you bring in.  For most small businesses and non-profits, you can't afford to bring in an agency to handle your campaigns.  You MIGHT, however, be able to afford to bring on a consultant to help with the efforts that you have probably already began.

If you do this, be sure you have your goals well defined.  Do you want more media relations?  Do you want to focus on community outreach?  Ideally, organizations would be able to handle their community outreach efforts and then only need to bring in a consultant to handle their media relations.  However, be aware that all aspects of PR work in concert with each other.  Whatever you do, you have to make sure that your media relations, your community outreach and your partnership efforts are all working towards the same goal with the same message.  If each one is working separately, it doesn't matter how well you execute your plan, it will still be doomed to fail.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How Social Media Impacted a Local Disaster

On Labor Day, 2010, many of us spent the day barbecuing, enjoying the great outdoors, or simply recovering from the long holiday weekend.  However for thousands living in and around Boulder, Colorado, Labor Day meant something very different.

As a fire ripped through Four Mile Canyon above Boulder, fear was the predominant emotion as families ran for their lives from a  forest fire that destroyed homes and changed lives forever. 

We've all seen how social media has emerged as a player in regional and national disasters.  Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and other platforms have been able to deliver information, photos, video and  details in the aftermath of earthquakes, tsunami's and mudslides across the world. 

But as the fire continued to grow and rampage on Monday and into Tuesday, social media became more than just a way for those living in an around the impacted area to report on what they were seeing or feeling.  It also became an invaluable tool for officials to help keep the media and the public informed, coordinate services and save lives in the process.

An illustration of this can be seen from a recent post on the lostremote website:
When the Boulder Sheriff’s emergency alert system failed, its emergency operations center asked that residents use Twitter and Facebook to help spread the word of mandatory evacuations, reports the Boulder Channel 1 Blog. The hashtag #boulderfire has become a lifeline of sorts for many looking for the latest information on the fire, as well as people and businesses offering to help evacuees.
Twitter played a huge role in this effort, as did Facebook and other social media platforms.  As the fire grew in intensity and size throughout Monday, thousands who lived in the area begain taking photos and reporting on what they were seeing and feeling.  Information was coming in from folks who were literally facing devastation as the fire crept towards their homes, from people who lived in Boulder and could see and feel the impact of the fire.  Friends and family of those directly impacted by the fire constantly updated their Twitter and Facebook feeds as they received information from loved ones.

I shot this photo from my mother's house about eight miles outside of Boulder.

Information was everywhere.  Newsrooms were using tweets and updates from those in the path of the fire to get up to the minute eye witness reports.  Emergency responders were updating the situation as they tried to hold back the flames and public officials used social media to coordinate services as you can see from these shots from a Boulder Emergency Services website and from the KCNC news website.

In total, social media came through it all with flying colors, proving once again, that it not only serves as a depository of fun and entertainment, but also as a valuable resource when it really matters.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

5 Reasons Why Your Press Release Didn't Work

I've spent a lot of time in this space talking about all of the little things that can make the difference between a successful PR push and one that ends in miserable failure.  Hopefully you have been following along and have learned some valuable lessons without actually having to, you know, go out and make the kinds of mistakes that rookie PR pro's make every day.

We've discussed building relationships, crafting your story, making the follow up phone call, writing your release and timing your efforts.  We've covered just about everything from A to Z.  There are still a ton of tricks to be revealed and insight that will help you succeed in getting your story covered by a local news outlet.  But in the end, good PR comes down to some very simple techniques that, if followed, increase your chances of earning news coverage. 

I don't do this very often, but I want to share with you an article written by an actual reporter working in an actual newsroom that discusses some of the major mistakes all PR pro's make when pitching a news story.  The article comes from the website, "Localnewser.com" and I think it is one of the best written articles about why some stories get covered and others don't. 

In a rare move, I'm going to paste the entire article here, because I think it's that valuable.  I'll have some analysis after the article and some insight into why these five issues matter so much.  In the meantime, read this article, take it in, and then re-read it just so it's ingrained in your mind. 

Five Reasons Why Your Release Failed:
So you spent all that time crafting the perfect news release and—full of confidence and high hopes of massive news coverage and a satisfied client—you sent out your releases.
And zippo.  Something went wrong.  Systems failed.  The news trolls (like me) somehow missed the chance to make you happy.
But why? Why would a reporter read a solidly written news release with a beefy story to back it up and not jump at the chance to do a story--a minute and a half on the local news or a few inches of copy in the local paper?
Here are five common reasons why:

1.  You Didn’t Make Me Feel Special
We just got off on the wrong foot, that’s all.  I’m an overworked reporter and my feelings are very, very easily hurt.  I was interested when I saw that you’d sent me a possible story (you thought of me!) and then, quickly, I realized you hadn’t truly thought of me at all.  I was just a number to you.
The “Dear Mark” on your cover letter proceeds to suggest that a story I might do—and remember, I’m a television reporter—would be of interest to my “readers.”  My what? I don’t have readers.  This isn’t a personal letter—it’s a mass mailing.  My feelings just got hurt and for better or worse, you’ve started to lose my interest.  Now I’m not looking for a way to do the story, I’m thinking of how many other reporters have the same release in their hands.  It feels far less special.  It feels like wire copy to me now.
Recently, I got an email early on a weekday, tipping me to a potential story.  It was fantastic, because I was about to walk into the morning editorial meeting, where reporters are called upon to have story ideas.  I hate not having story ideas.  So your email was perfectly timed.  I felt good.  I felt good about you thinking of me.  And I was ready to pitch your story.
Then I got into the meeting and another reporter pitched your story.  In fact, everybody had gotten your email.  I didn’t feel so good about you after that.  And for that matter, I was even tempted to bust on the story when the other reporter brought it up.  Instead of making me feel special, you made me feel ordinary and I decided to work against your story, instead of for it.  Yeah, she's been shopping that thing around to everybody...
2.  I Was Ready, but You Weren’t
Okay, so you got me.  I read the release and I thought it would make a good story.  And my producers (or editors, at a paper) agreed with me.  If I’m a television reporter, I may even have been assigned to a newscast immediately—they wrote your story on the newsroom's assignments board in dry erase marker, which is as good as it gets! Pending breaking news, you’re a lock!
And so I called you.  I said we wanted to get interviews and shoot some video and do a live report at noon—basically, we needed to go directly from the television station to you, so that we could have a story ready to air in less than three hours.
And you said “today?
Yes.  Today.  In fact, now.  In broadcast and print, when that release goes out, you better be ready to jump.  If you mention an executive who has news, he’d better be ready to do interviews immediately.  If you mention a new cattle-combing machine, it’d better be in town, up and running, and ready for cameras.
If you say, “let me make some calls,” I have to go to the producer of the noon newscast and throw cold water on my own story.  “Hey, looks like it’s not as much of a go as I thought.  Sorry.  This might not happen for noon after all.”
Now the noon newscast producer doesn’t like me anymore, and the executive producer wants to know why the story didn’t make the show.  When something falls through, news producers don’t think, “okay, cool, we’ll do it tomorrow.”  They think, “okay, it’s dead.  What else do we have?
3.  You Buried the Lead
Look.  I’m in a newsroom that’s about three-quarters the size it was just two years ago.  Some of my friends lost their jobs and nobody’s been hired and I have to work a lot harder than I used to.  I’m not quite as happy with my job as I used to be, and I’m a bit cranky about that.  Short tempered.  Irritable.  I’m also forced to work fast and I don’t have a lot of time to chat or read.
So your news release—the one your client finally approved—well, it was just too long and too boring for me.  It had all the stuff the client wanted in there, all that corporate stuff, but I just read the first two paragraphs and didn’t see a story.  It didn't jump off the page and scream why are you sitting there?  You're missing a great story!
There was all this stuff at the top about the company and how it was responding to global this and that and how a green initiative something or other resulted in… I don’t know.  I couldn’t figure out what the story was.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a story in there.  But it didn’t read as a story the way I report stories.  It read like a news release.
Put yourself in my shoes.  Would you go on the news at six o’clock and have the first thing out of your mouth be the first line in your news release?  Would it make any sense at all?  Or would it sound like corporate blather?  If the top of your news release reads corporate, and not NEWS, you stand an excellent chance of losing me.  Because I’m just too damn overworked, tired, and coffee-deprived to do the work for you, sifting down to the fifth paragraph and then thinking of how to translate what you wrote into the language I use to tell stories.  So I move on.
4.  It’s Like… You Don’t Get Me
I read the release and I liked it.  I saw a story in there.  I thought it could even be a good story.  I told my bosses and they agreed with me.  I probably told them all about your story in my language, describing how I’d make it into a kickass television story (or newspaper story).
So I called you.  And we weren’t getting each other.  It was trouble from the start.  You see, as a television reporter I’m always thinking about who I’m going to interview and what I’m going to show.  If I can't think of a way to tell that story with images, I'm probably going to think that's a story that's never getting onto the air at my television station.
Maybe it's better as a newspaper story.  But newspapers like pictures (and, increasingly, video), too.
At any rate, I called you and said I wanted to do the story and you suggested that I interview your company’s PR guy in the company conference room at headquarters.
That sounded horrible to me and I almost gave up right there.  But I said, well, the story’s about your new aircraft baggage loading device that you say will cut airline costs.  So let’s meet at the baggage area, you show me the device in operation, we’ll get some great video and interview a few of the crew members who will be working on the machine—baggage handlers (you know, regular people, not spokespeople).
And you freaked.  Baggage area?  That’s going to be tough, you know, with regulations and stuff.  And we’d really rather you didn’t speak with any employees.
And my story started drying up before my eyes.  Because a PR guy in a fancy conference room—even with your company’s super nifty logo on the wall in chrome—bores me and gets me in trouble with my boss.
Watch my newscast and see who we interview.  Do you see a lot of conference room talking heads?  If you don't, then you know a story with spokespeople and handout pictures (no matter how nice your press kit is) just won't be cutting it.
Don’t you get me at all?
5.  My Day Changed…and You Got All Offended
So we agreed we had a good story here and I called and you were happy and your client was happy and we both decided to do the interviews with regular people (I know you prepped them—and that’s cool with me as long as they don’t sound like they’re reading lines) and we were going to get a look inside the factory with some great video opportunities.  And then—to top it off—you said the magic words:  “and we’re only giving this to you.”
And then an elementary school caught on fire.  That dry erase board with all the cool stories listed?  They grab the eraser sometimes when schools catch fire, or planes miss runways, or mayors turn up in handcuffs.  Suddenly everybody in the newsroom’s working the same story.
And our cool factory exclusive gets scrubbed.
I call—really sorry, but we’ve got breaking news… and I’m hoping we can maybe do the story later in the week.  (Odds are we’ll be doing a full day of follow-up coverage on the school fire tomorrow)
And you are irritated.  You’ve made calls, put things in motion, you know?  The company’s switching things up to accommodate the news crew and they roped off a parking place for our live truck and they've moved fast to give them everything a news crew could ask for (even bottled water, for heaven’s sake!) and now… you feel like you’re going to look bad.
So you say fine and hang up and you want to forget you ever pitched me the story.
But here’s the thing.  I totally still like the story.  I even feel bad and will argue with my bosses that we need to do the story.
But you took the hit with the client (don’t they know that reporters cancel all the time?) and you did damage control and pushed the story somewhere else.  But the TV story never happend, and nobody ever parked the big shiny TV truck outside the factory, which would've made everybody so happy.  But why?
I thought we had something special.
What This Means To You:

I hope you read this in its entirety and that you took every single reason to heart.  In essence this is a short recap of everything this space has tried to convey over the past year.  Most of these examples are easily fixed, and yet they are the kinds of things that paid PR professionals do every day!  It's understandable that you might make some of these mistakes.  I mean, hey, let's face it, these faux-pas are being made by folks who are supposedly experienced PR pro's.  That's their job and yet they manage to screw it up on nearly a daily basis.

You have a business or a non-profit to run.  How can you be expected to get everything right?  The answer is, you don't.  You're allowed to make mistakes, you WILL make mistakes, it's a given.  Don't stress too much over the mistakes you make, they will happen.  The key is to minimize the damage that those mistakes make.

That's why I liked this article so much, I just HAD to post the entire thing in this space.  If you follow the advice this space has given in terms of creating your story, putting together your press kit, building relationships, timing your release right and making sure your follow-up is solid, you can overcome a number of superficial mistakes.  But the five reasons listed above aren't just superficial oversights.  They constitute some major reasons why stories aren't covered by a local news outlet.

Let's start with #1.

Like actors, I've always said that reporter have huge egos.  One of the best ways to ingratiate yourself with a reporter is to play to that ego.  Producers and editors don't have the kind of egos you'll find with on-air talent.  You have to woo them with facts and a good story, but if you make a reporter feel special, you'll have a good chance of having them carry your story into the news meeting, which is vital to the survival of a pitched story.

Here is my one quibble with this point:  Unless you're pitcing a story to a reporter that you already have a relationship built with, pitching several individuals in a newsroom is actually a good strategy.  I have a few individuals in the Denver media that I have very close relationships with.  For instance, if I pitch the local CBS affiliate, I pitch to one person.  This is a person that I have worked with for years, a person I have the utmost respect for and a person that I often run stories by to get his opinion of the pitch.  When I send a pitch to that station, I send one pitch to him, so he gets it first.  I give him the first shot at the story.  If he doesn't want it, there are no hard feelings and I simply ask that he forward it to the desk or to others in the newsroom that might be interested in the story. 

However, there are a few newsrooms in the city that I don't have personal relationships established.  In those newsrooms, I send my releases to three, sometimes four individuals.  I send it to reporters, the desk, a producer and an executive producer.  This covers my bases.  If one person doesn't like the story, I have three others that might like it enough to take it into the newsmeeting. 

Point #2:

There is no excuse for this.  I have covered this more than once in the past few months.  Sending out your release is really just the beginning of your work.  If you send out a release, you HAVE to be ready to step up if a reporter actually decides to cover your story.

Remember, you only get one chance with a local newsroom.  If you pitch a good story, and they accept it, but you're not prepared to actually follow through with a quality interview, then you're shooting yourself in the foot.  Reporters and producers remember when an interview doesn't come through.  And the next time you pitch a story, they'll remember that you failed them once and they'll be less likely to schedule you for another chance.  If you send out a pitch, you had better make sure your schedule is cleared and you're ready to do what it takes to make sure the interview comes through.

Point #3:

This is a mortal sin when it comes to pitching a story.  When I taught PR to college students, one of the biggest challenges I had was breaking them of their 12 year habit of writing thesis statements and english papers.  Your first sentence had better be compelling and it had better tell the story immediately.  Imagine your first line as the first line of TV story or as a headline of a newspaper atricle.  Once you write your first sentence or two of your release, take a moment, then go back and read it out loud.  If it sounds like something that a TV story would lead with, then go with it.  If it sounds like an english paper, scrap it and start over.

You have to grab them with the first sentence, period.  Most journalists won't read past the first paragraph, hell most won't read past the first two sentences.  If you haven't captured their attention in that time, your pitch is doomed. 

I recently pitched a story involving homeless cats and the financial impact it has had on local taxpayers.  I didn't wait until sentence number three or four to get my point across.  I stated loudly and unequivocably in the first sentence: "Homeless cats in Denver are costing taxpayers over one-million annually in housing, adoption and euthanization."  That's the story and that's the kind of lead that a tv producer can lead with, or a newspaper can make a headline out of.

Point #4:

This point might seem tricky, but it's really not that complicated.  This is an aspect that needs to be considered long before you ever send your pitch out to a newsroom.  As you're writing your release, you have to consider what kind of visuals are available for your story.

In fact, you should even mention the available visuals in your pitch letter.  Letting journalists know what kind of visuals they have to work with can mean the difference between being covered, and being relegated to the dead list. 

Plus, and this is important, newsrooms don't take a story and decide to cover it hoping it will work out.  They expect you to come through.  The best line in the entire article was this:  
When something falls through, news producers don’t think, “okay, cool, we’ll do it tomorrow.”  They think, “okay, it’s dead.  What else do we have?
I know this was written as part of point number 1, but it applies to point number 4 as well.  If you don't have the kind of visuals a journalist is looking for, they may scrap the story and move on to another story.  And this doesn't just apply to television anymore.  Newspapers, radios and even magazines are using video more and more.  Even if they aren't looking for great video, they'll at least want good photos.  If you promise quality visuals, and you should, then you have to come through.  Otherwise you'll be labelled as a person who doesn't come through and that will make any future pitches that much harder to sell.

Point #5:

Finally we get to the last point.  This requires that you have patience and understanding.  One of the best things you can do is be amenable to change.  By understanding the stress and deadlines and pressure that reporters and producers and editors are under, you'll quickly endear yourself to local journalists. 

Be aware that breaking news, especially on the local level, supercedes everything.  If you're scheduled to be interviewed and they have to cancel, don't get upset.  If you throw a fit, you don't get anything.  Trust me, journalists feel bad if they have to cancel a story.  They'll do everything they can to reschedule and get the story on at a future date.  But if you get angry and throw a fit, they'll let your story just die. 

By understanding their situation, you'll build relationships and grow a rapport with journalists you'll want to work with again in the future.  We've covered this in several posts here, and being respectufl of a journalists time and limits will go a long way to getting more stories covered in the future, even if it means sacrificing a story today.

As a small business owner or non-profit, understanding and embracing these five tips will go a long way to making sure your story pitch succeeds.  And in the end, that's what it's all about.  Certainly you have work to do long before you make your first pitch, and the follow up is equally as important.  But by keeping these tips in mind, you can definitely increase your chances of a pitch success.  And really, in a world and an industry where there are no guarantees, that's the best you can hope for.