Media Relations in the Time of Anthrax
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Media Relations in the Time of Anthrax

The public relations business has been impacted by the anthrax scare, because the journalists with whom PR people deal on a daily basis have been among the targets of the terrorist campaign.

Paul Holmes

Last week, PR Newswire sent an e-mail to 30,000 journalists asking whether—in the wake of the anthrax scare that struck several major media—they would prefer to receive releases via e-mail or fax than via U.S. mail. Within the next 25 minutes, more than 1,000 had responded in the affirmative, according to company spokesman Rene Aldruch.
Larry Moskowitz, president of Medialink, which also owns US Newswire, estimates that 150 daily newspapers are currently refusing to accept newsroom mail, including press releases, and that “television stations by the score are refusing to accept tape” because they are concerned about the use of snail mail to deliver deadly organisms.
The direct marketing business has taken the biggest hit as a result of the anthrax attacks—Direct Marketing Association president Robert Wientzen says the industry’s projections for 2001 revenues have dropped $2 billion since September 11—but the public relations business has been impacted too, because the journalists with whom PR people deal on a daily basis have been among the targets of the terrorist campaign.
Peter Himler, who a veteran media relations professional with Burson-Marsteller, says the impact on PR has been less dramatic than it might have been five years ago.
“It’s no secret that over the last several years, e-mail has become the primary communications channel for PR professionals and for journalists,” says Himler. “As such, the practical effect of the anthrax scare on the conduct media relations is not as profound as one might imagine, except perhaps for those in consumer product marketing where e-mail is impractical for generating product trial.”
But the scare is likely to drive more PR people to use e-mail as the primary means of delivering information to journalists. Suddenly, the fear of accidentally transmitting a computer virus seems trivial compared to risk of delivering the real thing via snail mail.
Lynn Brinton, a senior vice president in the San Francisco office of Fleishman-Hillard, says she is advising her clients to be careful when contacting media organizations. E-mail is preferable, she says, and clients who shied away from electronic correspondence in the past are coming around. If clients do need to send hard copy, she advises them to use overnight delivery services and carefully label all correspondent and send out e-mails to let reporters know to expect the package.
Preparing a large press kit mailing last week, New York-based Jericho Communications reached out to friends in the media to try to gauge their feelings about receiving mail from PR people. Says Jericho president Eric Yaverbaum, “t has actually been a mixed response, with some outlets saying security has become tighter and less mail is getting through, and other outlets saying it’s business as usual.’
Yaverbaum says his firm is keeping track of the way reporters like to be contacted—just as it has always done—and is diligent about keeping its media lists focused so the information that is sent out is relevant to the reporter. In addition, the firm will be sending e-mails to media explaining that all of our outgoing mail will have a clearly marked Jericho return address on it, and also asking them to let the firm know if their preferences have changed.
Kevin Donnellon, president of Chicago PR agency Donnellon Communications, says his firm is reevaluating how it delivers information to the media. “Specifically, we are pre-pitching the information, letting the reporters know the information will be coming, and also alerting them to the ‘look’ of the package—how big, what type of envelope, and to look for the return address of Donnellon.”
The approach has helped forge better relationships with some media contacts. “Many reporters have thanked us for being aware of the sensitivity to mailroom fears.” Donnellon says.
Others have been forced to postpone major mailings involving product samples.
“We had a client that was planning to mail out a sample of a new soap powder in its press kit,” says the president of a New York PR agency, who asked not to be identified. “We talked to some reporters and it quickly became clear that the mailing would cause them problems.”
The use of eye-catching press kits is likely to fall dramatically.
“We have always been very selective in sending these out,” says Yaverbaum. “We have always believed that the information contained in a creative package is of the utmost interest to the reporter, not the fact that you sent him or her information attached to a paperweight with their name on it. Now more than ever, unsolicited creative mailings could be a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere.”
Finally, the anthrax scare is having an impact in Washington, where members of Congress and their staff are just as wary of unsolicited mail.
“Most members are talking with their local media and stressing that their constituents should now reach them by e-mail,” says Rep. Robin Hayes (R-NC). That will obviously have an impact on grassroots public affairs programs, which have been using e-mail more and more in recent years.
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