When PR works, it’s fabulous

Journalists like me spend a lot of time moaning about PR people when we feel they’ve done something wrong. So I thought I’d tell you about something that went spectacularly right only this week.

One of the jobs I do is to edit Professional Outsourcing Magazine. It’s peopled by lively contributors from the academic, business analyst and consultancy worlds and is generally a lot of fun to do – until someone lets me down for an article.

So for whatever reason, on Monday I was left without a piece to fill five pages near the front of the magazine, which has to go to press this week.

I put out a plea on Response Source. This is a service that allows journalists to send blanket emails to PR people (who pay for the service) when we need help. The problem with this sort of service has been, historically, that a lot of the PR community – so the stories go – get a whiff of coverage for their client and pitch anything, no matter how irrelevant. I’ve seen journalists say so in tutoring sessions and if I’m honest I find the attitude patronising, for a good reason.

The quality of the answers I had was universally superb. So, what went right?

  • First, the number was low. This didn’t mean people didn’t want to help. This meant people had read the request and didn’t respond if they were irrelevant. If you’re among those who saw the request and excluded yourself from responding because it would have been unhelpful, thank you. (I’ll grant you I tend to get more irrelevant responses when I’m writing for the Guardian or New Statesman – the higher profile publications tend to push your head further over the parapet).
  • Second, people told me why they were replying. Two people conceded they had nothing to say about outsourcing but they understood I’d been let down and was faced by an empty page so something vaguely on the right theme would be better than nothing. Sometimes you get responses that are really left of field or plain irrelevant; there was none of that on this occasion.
  • Third, someone read the brief and realised that other than the length they had something ideal. They were apologetic about the length but offered extra pictures instead. That particular example is in, no question, and OneChocolate Communications can have all the brownie points they want for reading and understanding – as can Ketchum, whose article I’ll probably use in another issue, and Friday’s Media Group and Say Communications. Plus everybody who read the initial plea for help and held off communicating because they couldn’t help.

The PR community often gets a rough ride from journalists, who can be a stroppy lot. On days like today I quite seriously wonder where I’d be without them.

Do you need help with media interactions? I can help – fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Imitation: not always flattering

Senator Ted Cruz has been ridiculed for his attempts to sing while President Obama gets praised – so what happened?

I read about the American Senator Ted Cruz‘ attempts to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with some bemusement over the weekend. For people not reading this immediately, this was the weekend on which America made equal marriage for gay as well as straight people legal throughout the country, and – significantly – a couple of days after President Obama started singing “Amazing Grace” at the memorial of his pastor friend Clementa Pinckney, so horribly murdered.

Obama had whoops of appreciation from the congregation, which was used to breaking into song and which saw this as a genuine gesture. Cruz was met with silence and according to the story above, his security people asked anyone with their phone out to delete the footage.

So, you’ve seen a speaker or a spokesperson do something that works. Should you “borrow” it or not, and how do you know whether it’s going to look cynical?

Borrow but make it yours

Personally I borrow stuff all the time. Until recently I didn’t have a formal “sales funnel” but on deciding I needed to sharpen my speaking and media training business, I put one in. Whilst media training I speak about the bridging technique to get people out of difficult subject areas; I imagine most media trainers will to this, it’s commonplace and certainly not my own intellectual property.

I’ll even “borrow” a news story as I’ve done to write this post, and I see nothing wrong in this. What I won’t do is imitate the participants – I’ll add or overlay my own commentary so that the content is mine, and this is where I believe Senator Cruz went wrong. However sincere he may have been, it ended up looking as though he thought, “that worked for Obama”, took all the context away – the friendship with the pastor, the fact that this was an act of remembrance in a church – and tried doing exactly the same thing.

It’s the same when you find someone referring to a story you tell on stage, or something you’ve written, as if it’s their own. A colleague of mine was around the music industry a lot in his youth, mostly through his father, and as a child brought tea to a number of people who are now pretty much legends. He’s told the stories on stage, and was once surprised to hear someone else doing a speech claiming to have done exactly the same thing at the same gig (book Alan Stevens if you want to know the stories, I’m not nicking them!).

It’s never a good idea to pinch someone else’s idea too directly. Refer to it, put your own interpretation on what happened by all means, but don’t just nick stuff. It will always catch up with you.

Do you need help with your media engagements or presentation skills? I can help – drop me a line or call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Media training: mention the brand!

Picture: In real life I look less like a geography teacher. I hope.

At a media training session yesterday I had an unusual experience. In general I find people are too quick to mention their company name too many times. They’re in the interview to make their point and build their business so of course you get the “In my company, X, my colleagues think the best thing for X to do is this. X customers, on the other hand…”

…and so it goes until all of the quotes hit the cutting room floor. I’ve had near-rows with internal PR people about this in the past, who’ve urged clients to mention the brand in every sentence. Never, ever do this. No matter what you’ve said, we’ll hear “product puff” and won’t use the quote.

Yesterday’s event was different. The company in question had to be coaxed into mentioning their brand at all.

Branding in media interviews

At Clapperton Media we believe there’s a balance to be struck and no hard and fast rules, except that if you play a recording of an interview back and feel you’ve been too salesy, you might be right. (See what I did there? One brand mention and that’s going to be the lot for this post).

Bear in mind, though, that there can be different sorts of interview. If you’re doing a piece to camera or an audio interview, you’re free to ask how it’s going to be used. If they’re going to use your best quote and your best quote only, try to get the company name into every answer – otherwise you’ll lose your opportunity to promote it. If the publication is going to use the full five minutes or however long, then once or twice is enough.

Either way, focus on the valuable content you can share with listeners, readers or whoever. No matter how polished your delivery is, you’re going to be remembered better for what you said rather than how you branded yourself – and this is true whether you’re a massive international corporation or a tiny sole trader.

Do you need help with your press engagements? See our media training page for information.

Three mistakes people make in interviews

I interview a lot of people and coach almost as many in talking to the press. Here are a few of the howlers I see often.

Telling me something more interesting than the story they need to promote. I was interviewing one guy and asked him the opening “tell me about yourself” – honestly, just a name and job title would have been fine. Instead he replied “Ah, I think I know what you’ve heard”, and told me about how he definitely hadn’t been sacked from his previous job. He was so emphatic that even if it had been true and he hadn’t been fired, I wouldn’t have believed him. I certainly wasn’t interested in anything else he had to say – the opening story was far too entertaining.

Assume I work for you and will allow retrospective editing of your comments. It’s a point I’ve made before and I’ll no doubt return to it again. I once went to a company’s premises and interviewed all of the directors. The marketing manager was then distressed to find that I’d used their comments instead of simply reproducing his brochure. For someone who was portraying themselves as a marketing manager to a company in the financing sector this was astonishingly naive. He was also distressed when I disclosed things his company regarded as confidential – and which they’d told a reporter who’d come in at his invitation, without any indication that there was anything not to be repeated. Look, if you don’t want a reporter to report something, don’t tell them.

Withhold non-confidential information. There was an episode of “The Apprentice” in which one of the candidates was horrified to see that someone had got hold of her company’s accounts. These are publicly-available documents and you can’t suppress them if you’re a limited company. I’ve had people tell me they don’t disclose their profit figures because they’re privately held and it just tells me they don’t know much about how their business works; Companies House will disclose any company’s declared figures.

None of which was as much fun as the guy who, when I pointed out that I could find out his profit relatively easily, came out with the response “No, you can just find out about the profit I declare to Companies House, the actual profits are a load more.”

I was young and inexperienced, and I still regret not publishing that quote in full!

Do you struggle with interviews in the press? Do they serve the journalist and do nothing for your business? I can help – drop me a note by clicking here, call 07973 278780 or fill in the form below.

Why a good kicking helps my writing

Last week I pitched some articles to a commissioning editor. She’s the new contact to replace an old mate who’d been getting me to write regularly and for whom I’d enjoyed working. The workload was light, the money reasonable so nothing to dislike.

The new woman politely declined all of the new ideas. After a few years as a contributor it was basically a bit of a kicking. And was delighted.

The reason for this apparent contradiction is that when you’re too comfortable somewhere you can get lazy and start pitching second-rate ideas, mostly because you think they’re as good as the last one. They may be. That doesn’t mean they were ever good enough, it means someone found it easy to accept them.

A kick up the backside

It’s the same when you’re in PR pitching ideas to journalists you know – it’s easy to slip into an artificial comfort zone and assume that even if the hack moves, you’ll continue to get stories in. You may not. You’re as good as your last pitch, not the one that cemented you with a previous employee.

I’ve now agreed to go to a press conference tomorrow and see whether there’s anything relevant to the magazine to which I was pitching last week. If there isn’t, I’m not going to talk it up, I’m not going to pretend it’s something that it’s not. I’m going to have to try harder. This is stimulating and it’s going further.

It’s got me looking at all of my regular commissions. Am I too comfortable? Am I doing loads of research from my desk rather than getting out there and actually speaking to people? All of these are dangers to the overly comfortable journalist, and the same applies to our counterparts in PR.

Earlier this year I decided to try to spend a day a week at the IoD in London, making myself available to grab a coffee with anyone who wants a catch-up (please do contact me if you’d like to join me sometime). I did this without getting a kicking. This latest development from this magazine has spurred me to attend an extra press event per month on a “see what I can see” basis.

What have you changed this year to push yourself a bit further?

I will be hosting a one-day course on writing in London, for the Henshall Centre, in July – for details please click here.

PRs – knocked back? Keep talking!

If a journalist asks you why your pitch is relevant to their publication, do you back off`/

Twice last week I was approached with pitches for Professional Outsourcing Magazine, which I edit among my freelance tasks. I won’t disclose what they were about but they seemed to me to have little to do with outsourcing (there’s a clue in the title as to the publication’s focus.

I waited for the replies. Silence.

This is not how you engage people. Journalists get hundreds of pitches; if you get a reply it’s an opportunity to start a conversation. It’s the sort of thing that’s happened before.

In need of a case study

A few years ago I had a call from a PR person – someone I normally rated as quite good. He pitched a piece of technology for the small business market. I was interested and I said “I’d need a customer to talk to” – he said “Yeah, fair enough” and hung up.

I would have been happy to pitch his story to the Guardian if he’d come up with a case study for me – as it was he didn’t bother, his script was finished and that was it, onto calling the next hack and no doubt getting a similar knockback (or thinking that he’d been knocked back). Contrast that with the approach taken by another contact on another occasion, when listening got them a full page in the Guardian.

The thing is, we need stories. We need information and we can’t function without it. You may be precisely the person to offer it and if our needs are a slightly different shape from the pitch you had in mind, don’t worry – be flexible, it might turn out quite well for you.

But if a journalist gets in touch, always think of it as a starting point rather than a brush-off.

Does your company need coaching on pitching to journalists? I can help – why not drop me a note using this form?

Keep your message to the media consistent

I’ve been on my travels and at a product launch two people from the same manufacturer contradicted each other directly, on a matter of policy.

Last week I attended a press launch with loads of journalists. At one of the stands I asked about a particular piece of technology, sold only off the company’s website, and whether it would go through a mainstream sales channel eventually. No, said the guy in charge of marketing; we want to focus on explaining the story to the customer so we’ll be keeping this to direct sales only.

Fair enough. Except, chatting on the same stand to someone also involved in marketing, I checked “and this will be going direct-only” – and he said no, they’d be looking to sell through the established channels as soon as possible, they’d be crazy not to.

Ahem. My headline could so easily have been “New manufacturer in disarray over sales policy”, “Row breaks out over sales channel at manufacturer X” – and although I could have substantiated it from my notes, I doubt very much that an argument had actually broken out. Thing is, they needed to have a conversation before going out in public.

Things you need to ask yourself

I’ve seen this more than once. I once attended the launch of a watch, and the manufacturer had just gone over to having everything manufactured in Switzerland. I asked the sales director why and he said Swiss watches were precision-made, they were beautiful, they were exciting. I asked the managing director why. He said the market research said people would pay more for a Swiss-made watch but frankly if it had his name on it a Chinese-made watch would be as good. In fact every product from his business would be excellent but if the customer wanted to spend more money that was fine… Who would you believe?

I have no doubt both men perceived their answer as honest and correct, and to be fair the one doesn’t directly contradict the other in that instance (although the sales director’s response was distinctly salesy). But since they were moving their manufacturing, had they only had the conversation that said “What if a journalist asks why we’ve done this?” and stuck to a single reason, they’d have had a better story to tell the papers.

It can be a very good idea to ensure that you have a consistent message before making it public. These companies clearly hadn’t. I generally advise media training delegates to prepare three documents; a FAQ based on client feedback. a list of questions a journalist is likely to ask on behalf of the reader and a third list of questions they’re hoping the journalist won’t ask. Then establish the company line on all of them and stick to it.

Can I help you with your media engagements? Click here for information on my media training course.