Anyone who’s been working in the communications business for more than a few years is likely to have come across the person who “doesn’t get PR” but thinks they know all about it. To most of them, PR means media relations – although the better informed know that it’s much more than that. Going back through my 25 years in the PR business – many of them in a press officer role – these are the questions that have come up with monotonous regularity, with some suggestions on how best to deal with them.
(1) Why do we have to talk to journalists?
Pretty fundamental? If you have come across someone in an organisation – whether you are working in-house or as a consultant – who doesn’t want to engage with journalists in any shape or form, then justifying the importance of media relations is a toughie. That is until the organisation gets embroiled in a major reputation crisis when the lack of any track record with journalists will cost them dearly. But to most, dealing with the media is simply an irritant that is best ignored. This attitude is fuelled by the belief that influence is gained best by working behind the scenes, or that the only meaningful communications activities are ones that can be measured. Bums on seats being one.
Here are two approaches you might try. One is to show how other organisations have developed their public profile, improved their reputation, recruited more students or generated income as a result of a having a strong media presence. Campaigning charities like Shelter, think tanks such as the Sutton Trust or organisations such as adult learning body NIACE all benefit from a strong media profile. The other approach is to go back to the core business objectives and show how media relations can help to achieve them. Hard figures showing how an appearance on prime time television can lead to a massive increase in web traffic provides suitable ammunition in many cases.
(2) Can you reassure me that the journalist won’t distort my message?
This question crops up a lot in the academic world. The short answer to the question is “No, you can’t”. Researchers are afraid that their reputation will be tarnished if a journalist “dumbs down” their research – horror of horrors. However, you can mitigate the risk of messages getting distorted. Deal with journalists you trust and make sure that you present the research in a way that highlights your key messages but also gives them a story. Even then the story may still not end up as anticipated, so you may need to balance the risk against the wider objective of having a public profile. One case I had to deal with was a story about research on the relationship of class size to academic achievement in schools. The story appeared prominently in a quality national paper with the headline: “Does size matter when it comes to performance?”. I thought it was a clever pun; the researcher didn’t.
(3) Can I see copy before it’s published?
Again, the short answer is “No”. If you ask a journalist it will probably irritate them. But you could tentatively ask to check quotes. If you are dealing with very sensitive issues such as mental illness or sexual abuse then a tactful request to see copy first is justified. But don’t turn text into a mess of tracked changes. And again, use journalists you already know and trust.
(4) Can you run this past the chairman, senior management team … and Uncle Tom Cobley ‘n all?
Getting sign off can be a complete nightmare. The danger is that you end up with an article written by a committee that reads like a turgid treatise. There are three ways around this. The first is to build in enough time to get your text cleared. You may need to allow several weeks for this by which time the story may be dead, so not a workable solution when a quick response is needed. The second is to agree a small number of people that need to check what you have written – ideally no more than three. The third is to give people a strict deadline so that the default is if they don’t respond by that time you assume that the text is ready to go.
(5) The headline/quote is too negative. Can you change it?
Many CEOs are afraid to stick their neck out for fear of upsetting their paymasters. But if you want to get media coverage – whether it’s news, comment, a blog or a feature – you need a strong opinion, preferably a controversial one. That might mean being a little bit negative. Ouch. Quotes like “We welcome the government report” or headlines like “Research into impact of Mozart on maths attainment inconclusive” will result in your story finding its way into the delete box faster than Usain Bolt.
You also need to steer clear of text that reads like a sales brochure peppered with words like “best” or “unique”. If your press release ends up blander than a dish of blancmange then one way around it is to put a stronger message in the email subject line or just call a journalist and explain what the real story is all about. Or you could dispense with a press release altogether and just pitch the story.
(6) Why is your press release so long? It should be one side of A4.
Why must it be? I confess being someone who writes long press releases, so I would like to dispel the myth that press releases must only be one size of A4. Whatever works best is the only rule. Certainly, you should try and sum up the bones of the story in less than 140 characters. But bear in mind that a features writer will think “Could I write 800 words or more on this?” and expecting a journalist to have to get back to you for more information may only irritate them. The way around this is to include all extra information in notes to editors and a link to more information on the website.
(7) Why wasn’t the story picked up?
The interview takes place. The press release is emailed. No-one picks up the story. An impatient CEO appears at your desk waving a newspaper saying “Where’s the coverage?”. It could be (a) they haven’t found a slot for it yet, (b) there was a government crisis/TV presenter sex scandal/vicious murder which took up the space, (c) it’s already appeared online or (d) the story wasn’t strong enough. Explain that to pass the “so what?” test the story needs to have a strong human interest angle, be relevant to a broad section of the audience (such as teachers, students or parents) contain something new or surprising and not state the bleeding obvious.
One lesson I have learned is the importance of trying to influence messages early on. So instead of being presented with a fait accompli, such as a report with no strong policy messages or a conference programme that contains nothing appealing to journalists, you need to try and get involved in the planning stages. Inserting a question into a survey to generate a newsworthy headline, weaving a strong message into an executive summary or crafting a speech that contains a challenging statement that the media will pick up has worked well for me in the past. But some organisations may shy away from such tactics as akin to “the tail wagging the dog”.
So these are my seven most frustrating questions. You may have others. Do add your comments as it would be helpful to know if I am a lone voice in the wilderness or whether this has hit a nerve somewhere.
Anne Nicholls is a freelance PR/communications consultant specialising in education and charities. This article appeared in a slightly different form on the CharityComms website in 2014.