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Some Tips and Techniques on the Care and Feeding of Spokespeople

I asked a long time colleague, Jessica Johannes, a communications pro with more than 15 years of progressive experience in communications, public relations and marketing for Fortune 500 technology companies, to share her insights on the importance of media training for executives. Her background includes extensive experience developing hard-hitting, creative global communications programs to promote technology and innovation for Fortune 500 and emerging businesses.

A solid media relations program entails a steady flow of continuous interactions with media and influencers all with a few goals in mind—obtain the coveted media interview and secure the coverage your client or company is seeking. While the journey and path to securing the interview is one facet of the process, after the victory dance for landing the interview is done, there’s prep to do to make sure the conversation your spokesperson has with the reporter is meaningful and produces a positive outcome. Each interview is a critical component of the media relations campaign and holds the promise and potential to forward a company’s thought leadership initiatives by helping to establish a unique point of view and voice. Although there is no one formula or magic bullet for getting it right every time, there are some approaches that in today’s world – where traditional and social media models are colliding – still stand the test of time.

Know Your Spokesperson’s Style
Every spokesperson will bring a varied level of skill, knowledge and expertise. Having an understanding of the mix they bring will help you to assess how to get them ready. We’ve all been trained to do our homework and view past videos on YouTube or find quotes from previous interviews. We all know to provide our spokesperson with clean, concise briefing materials that outline the opportunity and make it easy for the spokesperson to deliver the message. Meeting with the spokesperson and having a short discussion regarding the goals you want to achieve and the story you want to tell is a standard practice for many practitioners. Using the meeting to establish or strengthen rapport with the spokesperson, understand any objectives or concerns they might have about being interviewed and just engaging with them in a conversation can aid in the success of the interview.

Focus on a Few Key Messages
In today’s noisy world, where the volume of information we are bombarded with is growing at an extraordinary rate, netting out a few key messages is critical. The company you work for or client you represent will always want to drive more points across than the media will have time, space or room to cover. Although the battle of what’s essential and what’s nice to have is always a tough conversation to have with an executive, having a few succinct points the spokesperson can bridge back to will help lead the way to the goals and objectives your organization wants to achieve.

Allow the Spokesperson’s Authentic Voice to Emerge
In the age of PowerPoint, ghost writers, tweeters, bloggers and teleprompters, it’s gotten easier to tell when someone knows their content and truly has a passion for their industry. Surrendering control is one of those sage pieces of advice that is even more imperative due to a number of factors such as emerging social media models and the growth in the volumes of information and external influences. Allowing the spokesperson to tell the story in their voice can often lead to new story opportunities and spark new, creative ideas that help to enhance and evolve the programs your leading.

A Few Closing Thoughts
There’s plenty more ground to cover on the care and feeding of spokespeople. Knowing your spokesperson’s style, identifying a few key messages and giving the spokesperson some runway to make the content their own are only a few tips that can aid in success. These methods are just a small sampling of the strategies I’ve tried that have worked over the years. In today’s world of hybrid, traditional, emerging and social media models, there are no hard and fast rules or a magic formula for success—just an abundance of opportunity, fusion of approaches and many great stories to tell.

Increase Your Media Coverage with these Two Basic PR Tips

In 2009, we saw a lot of “innovative”, cost-cutting PR strategies — however, many companies may have cut corners to the point of potentially compromising the basics of a sound program. As stated by Naylor Gray, Frost and Sullivan Director of Global Marketing, in a recent Businessweek article, ”with recovery expected to take hold in 2010, marketing teams need to review their basic blocking and tackling to ensure that the fundamentals of their programs are on strong footing.”

Getting “back to the basics” of proven PR tactics can help provide a consistent stream of media coverage resulting in increased industry credibility and more interest from potential customers.

A real opportunity exists for companies that can consistently position their company in front of key issues and trends that truly concern the media. In doing so, companies become an invaluable resource to the media.

Here we’ll discuss two basic but proven PR tactics that can be utilized to help companies build credibility, trust and interest with key media and bloggers by fostering these relationships based on an industry-centric vs. product centric approach. Future-focused companies that provide meaningful insight and guidance to support buying decisions (vs. just marketing fluff) are often rewarded with more press coverage, better lead generation results, and a shortened sales cycle.

#1. Editorial Calendar Tracking

As much as social media can be a great avenue for starting and generating conversational trends, traditional main stream media (MSM) continues to have a huge influence on major topics of interest. Because MSM outlets operate on an advertising budget, they must secure ad sponsorship and leverage editorial calendars to attract potential advertisers. Most often, these editorial calendars are published a year in advance and can be a great way for your company to start the buzz about a topic.

TIP: Go get the editorial calendars from your top industry trade publications to find out what they are planning to publish in print. Then you can start blogging and writing articles for online syndication a month or two in advance of the print publication issue. This gives search engines the time to index your content providing high visibility for the topic once the publication hits the street.

#2. Rapid Response Program

“Rapid response” PR campaigns are a proactive strategy used to build relationships with media and bloggers by establishing a company’s spokespeople as industry experts and good news sources. It’s designed to keep your company on the cutting-edge of interesting news trends and is one of the ways to help elevate your company into a broader industry category with more press appeal.

TIP: After selecting 4-5 hot topics your company can speak to, begin to monitor news feeds and blogs. Every time a story about one of the selected topics is written and does not mention your company, contact the editor or blogger with positive feedback on their story and a gracious introduction to your company with an offer to help with future articles. Over time, you’ll build great relationships with key influencers and can work your company into the pages of high profile stories on a consistent basis.

While implementing fundamental PR strategies may take more planning, resources and budget, ultimately this approach can yield better results. Going beyond a “knee jerk” or “cookie cutter” approach to PR can help transform your company from an upstart technology player to an industry leader.

Is it Time to Place an Embargo on PR Embargoes?

Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. His writing can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.

Under the heading of things that can be both a blessing and a curse, journalists and the PR people we work with are in agreement on one: embargoes. They can be a simple and fair way for a PR client to disseminate news about themselves to the media, or they can be a way to manipulate journalists into doing a story because they know everyone else is.

All sides of the debate about embargoes were aired one recent evening at a panel discussion in San Francisco that featured journalists from old and new media and an audience of more than 50 media and public relations professionals. The organizer of the event was Waggener Edstrom, the huge PR agency whose most famous client is Microsoft.

First, here’s a primer on embargoes, just so we’re all on the same page. When a company wants to get the word out about something it thinks is newsworthy it reaches out to reporters with whom it wants to share the news. In order for all media to get the story at the same time, the company imposes an embargo that the news can’t be reported until, say, 12:01 a.m. Eastern time on Monday.

The reporters who agree to the embargo are then entitled to an interview with key people from the company a few days ahead of time, called a prebrief. They may also be referred to industry analysts who’ve also been briefed who can provide some independent perspective on the news. Then the reporter can take his or her time writing the story with perhaps a little more thought, detail and insight than if they quickly rewrote the press release once it came out at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

Sometimes, though, the embargo process fails.

“Embargo is from a Latin phrase which means ‘[to heck with] you,’” blurted Dylan Tweney, senior editor of Wired.com, the Web site of the high-tech magazine. (Use your imagination to fill in the real word in the brackets.) Tweney resents being forced to agree to embargoes in order to get the news.
Embargoes work — to get news out to readers in a timely fashion – except when they don’t work, Tweney said, and then provided examples of instances where he agreed to an embargo only to learn some other media outlet broke it and got the story out first. It happened twice within a few weeks on different stories handled by the same PR agency.

“I recognize both the utility and the anxiety and danger of embargoes,” added David Darlin, technology editor for the New York Times. While it can be a convenient way to report news, he also feels manipulated by the process.

“[The embargo] is a tool for PR people to co-opt the media to turn them into part of the PR apparatus,” said Darlin.

But the alternative to embargoes, which would be just putting the release on PR Newswire and only responding to reporters seeking interviews is impractical for the companies making the news, said Doug Free, public relations director for Microsoft’s operations in Silicon Valley.

“I can’t have my staff scrambling to take calls from 30 reporters,” said Free, from his seat in the audience. Using the embargo system sets up a more orderly process for arranging interviews ahead of time.

As the discussion continued, it became apparent that there remains some suspicion among reporters, PR people and their clients about who’s responsible for broken embargoes.

Sam Whitmore, founder of Media Survey, a consulting practice for tech PR people, and moderator of the discussion, listed what he thought were bogus “excuses” media gave for breaking embargoes, such as the story was posted by mistake, the embargoed story was mistaken for a non-embargoed story, there was time zone confusion about when the embargo lifts and the all purpose “I forgot.”

But Wired’s Tweney said embargoes are also broken by the client who, despite the PR agency’s efforts to control the embargo, leaks the news to a favored blogger or someone else who gets the jump on reporters who agreed to the embargo.

The debate ended 45 minutes later with no real consensus on how to fix the embargo dilemma, which with the expanding universe of media bloggers, corporate bloggers, PR bloggers, Twitterers and other new media sources, isn’t going away.

But both journalists and PR people agreed on one essential element for a fair embargo system: Trust.

Top 10 PR No-nos, Part II

Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. You can find him online at his Robert Mullins blog.
In my last post, I ticked off five ways PR people can tick off journalists. Now here are the other five, as collected by the Bad Pitch Blog:

5. You’ll be sorry. This hasn’t happened to me but I’ve heard it from other reporters that PR people have implied that they’re missing a great story by ignoring their pitch. Somehow, the theory goes, the reporter will be pulled into their editor’s or news director’s office the next day who’ll ask, “You HEARD about this story and didn’t follow up?” Bad Pitch says, “Good luck with that approach.”

4. One Bad Pitch poster bundled a number of miscellaneous no-nos, including “I told you I’d get the CEO, but…” The advice: never overpromise what you can deliver to the reporter. Another no-no, “I already pitched the Wall Street Journal but they said no.” This would be like Dick asking Jane out for dinner by explaining, “I really wanted to go out with Linda, but she turned me down.”

3. Can I review or edit this before it gets published? I still get this one. Here’s why reporters and editors don’t let sources see the story ahead of time. We don’t want them to see what we’ve attributed to them, have second thoughts about what they said and then try to change it. If the source said it, it stays in the story. There are a few instances in which I’ve shared portions of a story in which highly technical material is included to make sure I am explaining it right, but never the whole story. If the source is paying for words about them in the publication, then they can edit them beforehand. That’s called advertising.

2. We’re a big advertiser. Does that count for anything? Wince! Even if there is no intention to imply that because you’re an advertiser, therefore I should write about your company, the comment colors the whole rest of the conversation. When I worked for a business newspaper a few years ago, I trained myself to not even look at the ads because I didn’t want to know who was an advertiser. Sadly, some editors perk up when someone mentions they’re an advertiser, but none that I’ve ever worked for.

1. The unintended putdown. A variation on “I really wanted to go out with Linda,” this one covers the instance in which the PR person is trying to interest the publication but ends up insulting them. “We’ll give you a local exclusive on this. The Wall Street Journal is doing a piece, but we don’t view you as competitive.” Ouch. Also, “Sorry, we’re only briefing top tier media on this news.” Then why are you calling me?

Hope this helps. Again, most of the PR people I’ve worked with over the years have been far more professional than to commit these foot-in-mouth blunders, but the advice bears repeating. Call me any time with a pitch, but have these tips pinned up on your cubicle wall for reference.

Five Big Don’ts for PR People Pitching the Media

Robert Mullins is a freelance writer in Silicon Valley. His work can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.

I’ve often been invited to speak to people at PR firms on how to deal with the media. In preparation for one recent visit I did a little online research and came across a post to the “Bad Pitch Blog.”

It was titled “Top 10 things you should NEVER say to the media.” I intended it as a fun icebreaker for my presentation to the people at this agency, assuming they already knew this stuff. Surprisingly, or dismayingly, many of them expressed appreciation at my sharing with them this eye-opening guidance. This I take to mean that these guidelines bear repeating.

I’m going to discuss my take on the first five this week and the rest next week.

10. Never say “This is off the record.” “If you don’t want to see it published, you shouldn’t say it in the first place. Does your source know this?” Bad Pitch Blog stated. I got a tip that a famous steakhouse was opening an outlet near a busy shopping mall in San Jose. I called an executive of the restaurant chain who confirmed that for me. Later I heard from the real estate agent who was trying to secure a lease for the restaurant told me that my story killed the deal. Again, tell your client that. To this I would add that you cannot apply “This is off the record” retroactively. Many have tried. While I might retroactively place something off the record, it would depend on the news value of the information versus the value of the source for a bigger story.

9. That isn’t a story. I love this one. Nothing increases the resolve of a reporter to continue pursuing a story than to have someone who’d rather you not do the story tell you it’s not a story. The reporter and editor – and ultimately the readers – determine whether it’s a story.

8. You should do this because your competition did this story in their last issue. When I was a reporter at the Milwaukee Business Journal, a weekly, I received more than a few press kits with clippings of articles from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the local daily, as proof that the client company is worth writing about. Knowing that our readers also likely read the local daily, evidence that the daily already did the story would mitigate against our doing it.

7. Did you get my e-mail, voice mail, etc.? Unless your e-mail to me bounced back to you, I got it. To be sure, there are times when your message gets buried in 100 messages just that morning to the reporter and there have been times when a call prompts me to dig for it and I may be interested. But Bad Pitch Blog suggests you call with something new added to the pitch, like “The CEO is available on Thursday” that freshens it.

6. You don’t cover this beat? Can you forward my pitch to the person who does? Bad Pitch considers it bad form and says the PR person needs to do their homework. It does relate to what I consider the most important thing a PR person should do: Know the publication you’re pitching to. These days, many publications have pages on their Web sites that reveal which beats reporters cover. Check that page to guide your pitch.

Next week: “Top five things you should never tell the media.”

Traditional PR is Not Dead

The fat lady has yet to sing.

In the PR industry we’ve been hearing rumblings of the great shift from the reign of mainstream media to the rule of citizen journalists and social media channels. While we happen to believe that social media has forever changed the landscape of media relations (BTW, a great read is “Putting the Public back in Public Relations” by Brian Solis and Dierdre Breckenridge), we think the death knell may be more hype than reality.

Through a market research project, Attain Marketing has been in the trenches with senior IT buyers from a wide range of companies, including BofA, Phillips and First Data talking turkey about the IT buying process.

When asked how they first become aware of products and services, 95% of IT buyers interviewed said that trade publications were their number #1 resource. Although many did say they turn to IT peers to hear more about new products on the market, none acknowledged the use of social networking tools or communities as part of this process – right now. Analyst reports also topped the list of influencers, but mainly as part of the validation process.

So, here are some “old school” PR tips that never die:

  • Leverage key relationships with influential analysts and media. Schedule press and analyst “tours” in a 3-6 month cadence around company milestones.
  • Position your company/products around hot current events and submit articles to trade pubs for placement. Here are some good examples: PC World and Wireless Week contributed editorial
  • Always let your customers tell the story: editors are much more willing to write about a customer deployment than your product. Example: SC Magazine
  • Content is king. Journalists are looking for good stories. Period. See previous blog posts: Content is King and Some of My Best Friends are PR Weasels
  • PR campaigns should be integrated with marketing and lead generation efforts for maximum impact

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Every company should evaluate the unique landscape in the market it serves, but usually a blend of the old and new PR strategies is the best recipe for success.