Just what exactly do we have to do to draw the right sort of attention for clients from top-tier media these days? It’s no secret that the degree of difficulty in securing favorable interest is on the increase. Nor is it such an exaggeration to suggest that sometimes our only recourse for winning the ear of a reporter seems to be to serve a subpoena.
Why this is so everyone in public relations already knows full well. The hydra-headed creature we call the news media has changed dramatically within only the last 10 years. Cutbacks at major news organizations have created competitive pressures for journalists to do ever-more in ever-less time, relying on fewer sources and less fact-checking, all leading, in general, to lower standards and compromised coverage.
So, too, then, must the art and science of media relations – that centerpiece of traditional public relations practice – evolve. The question is how. In living on the front lines as I do, communicating with top-tier media every day, I’ve picked up a few insights into the new rules of engagement.
Go Faster: However fast you suspect you now need to function, you should probably go faster and be ready to jump on opportunities. Interview requests require a response 10 minutes ago. The call for immediacy has grown exponentially, with today seemingly threatening to turn into tomorrow sooner than ever, and you can almost feel the G-forces blasting you in the face.
Some organizations are slow to heed such cues. Recently, we counseled a client to capitalize on breaking news that corresponded perfectly with its agenda. Instead, the client held meetings and delayed until all internal stakeholders had been consulted. As a result, it missed a pivotal opportunity to get its say in a national discussion. On the flip side, another client proved more nimble. We recommended its resident research expert post a comment on a just-released New York Times article. Within an hour the expert had done so. Since then, the reporter behind the article has twice interviewed and quoted said expert.
Now, I have no issue with clients proceeding with all due caution. But I do see a difference between deliberating and dilly-dallying. Some clients have decisionmaking pipelines clogged with anxiety and dread of reprisal.
In instances where fast action is imperative, though, such delays come at high cost. Take my word for it. Years ago, as I considered whether to propose marriage to my then girlfriend, a Chinese fortune cookie opened after a dinner together helped unlock my future. It said, “He who hesitates is lost.” As luck would have it, I drew the same fortune in dinners out with her no fewer than three times in as many weeks. We’re now married 32 years. Jumping on the right opportunities when they arise is key.
Be Brief. If media relations is to function faster, we’ll also have to be increasingly pithy. Consumers of news scroll from story to story, clicking through links left and right. TV reports feed us global roundups in 60 seconds. Magazines resort to “charticles.” The only language most news radio stations speak is fluent sound bite. Editors urge staff to come up with headlines containing the buzziest keywords to drive search results. A few years back, with space at a premium in its print edition, The Washington Post issued a memo imploring its reporters to “earn every inch.”
Even so, organizations often struggle to meet the challenge of saying the most in the fewest words possible. Corporations issue white papers that double as weight-lifting equipment. Communications departments issue press releases that take a kitchen-sink approach. A brainstorm to develop three key messages ends up with six instead.
Achieving the public relations version of perfect pitch means getting right to the point. Most reporters have no time (see “go faster”) to listen to boilerplate generalities about “transformative technologies.” If you’re opposed to a bill pending in Congress, say so. As “The Elements Of Style” memorably pointed out, every word should “tell.”
I’ve long encouraged clients and colleagues alike to put such theory into practice. We have to craft catchier subject lines for our e-mails (I once used “Why Bill Gates Needs Money” to promote his push for pharmaceutical partnerships). Our written pitches should crackle with crispness (In a note about Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, or COPD, I wrote, “All most Americans know about COPD is how to spell it.”). Just as the earth’s pressure converts coal into diamonds, so should media relations creatively compress the vast information at our command into a kind of poetry. Our efforts can be enhanced via infographics, videos and other illustrations – and, above all, liberal use of the “delete” button.
Get Personal. Few reporters ever come face to face with interview sources anymore, much less with C-suite executives. Somewhere along the line, thanks to all the electronic devices so readily available, we stopped actually talking to each other, instead engaging in what I characterize as contact without real communication.
The obstacles here are many. Reporters who are too pressed for time to leave the office to run down a story often make do with a quickie phoner. Sometimes clients themselves erect barriers to coverage. Recently, a senior correspondent at NPR told me that a certain international food company leaves his queries unanswered except when it has news it truly cares to share. Last year, we persuaded ABC-TV and several other major outlets to interview an influential policymaker, only for him to decline, apparently on grounds that the media training he had undergone for several months had yet to take satisfactory effect.
My radical proposal here: bring back that endangered species, the live, in-person conversation between client and reporter. As neurobiologists readily attest, the appetite for human contact – seeing a face, hearing a voice, sharing a handshake – is primal. Besides, true organizational transparency requires actual visibility.
In recent years, for instance, we’ve advised clients to make time for deskside briefings. Such briefings, though certainly guided by an underlying agenda, complete with talking points and objectives to be met, give reporters a rare opportunity to hear a leader think on his or her feet. And in the bargain gain a sense of his personality and recognize the depth of his experience and expertise.
Ideally, client and reporter thus arrive at a state of mutual trust and respect. Reporters, now properly introduced, feel encouraged to come calling for interviews. Clients, now prepared to allow access and act as reliable sources, take those calls. And it all happens simply because one person talked to another across a table.
Establish stronger relevance and context. In conducting media relations, virtually all organizations invariably suffer from a degree of narcissism. They believe themselves distinctive, special, maybe even unique. And that kind of look-at-me attitude is generally all well and good.
But nobody operates in a vacuum, and organizations seeking media exposure are often at risk, almost perversely so, of acting as if they’re alone in the universe and thereby falling into the trap of self-promotion. Recently, for example, a client drafted an op-ed piece in which it identified itself by name no fewer than 12 times. We advised toning it down before submission and compromised on merely three mentions.
Top-tier media have a built-in aversion to organizations whose media strategies are unduly and disproportionately self-centered, and understandably so. Rarely does a single piece of news, whether about a product or a service or a policy, stand alone – usually it must be combined with other forces at play to merit coverage. News media are under growing pressure to practice a kind of pattern recognition – in short to detect issues and trends worth reporting on, otherwise known as reading the tea leaves.
We should urge clients to address fitting issues and align with suitable trends to establish relevance and demonstrate a sense of context. How do you fit into the big picture? Why this, why now? How does “A” affect “B” and “B” “C.” How does your news illustrate a wider movement now afoot?
Tell A Better Story. At previous agencies in recent years, I noticed a trend toward media strategy memos that address mainly the vehicles for conducting outreach. We’re going to issue a press release on a business wire, do a webinar and conduct an SMT/RMT, the memos would promise. Then we’re going to hold a contest through Facebook and start a blog and tweet the results.
Now, being intrigued and smitten by – and leveraging – the latest communications technology is fine. But in the process, we tend to overlook an element essential for public relations since the dawn of humanity. Story. The story presumably at the heart of the pitch you plan to make and how best to tell it.
That phenomenon – the default reliance on, say, the latest app as a supposedly adequate substitute for drama – has emerged with alarming frequency. Some years back, a media strategist I know shared a tale about how this approach can backfire. He had pitched a similar story to a newspaper reporter several times. “When you pitched me by phone, this idea was crap,” the reporter finally told him. “Then, when you faxed it it to me, it was crap. And now that you’ve e-mailed me, it’s still crap.”
In short, no matter the packaging, the contents remain the same. It all still comes back to what we say and how we say it rather than the means of delivery. Story has never stopped mattering, of course. It just matters more now. Unless we have a real story to share – a scenario with a beginning, a middle and an end, a narrative marked by a problem begging for a solution, something at stake and even a clash between right and wrong – the means by which we disseminate the story makes little or no difference.
Here’s why. As more organizations vie for attention – and as media outlets concurrently compete more aggressively with each other for ratings and page views – even the clutter in the mediasphere is getting more cluttered. Having an actual there there – preferably grounded in fact and reality and truth – is thus all the more a prerequisite. The clients that free us to do our stuff – to play reporter, ask questions, gather details, synthesizing, crystallizing – free us to tell a better story. And are more likely to see that story well and truly told.
Years ago, a colleague, rightly known for her news judgment, listened patiently to my long-winded strategy for a given client. “That’s interesting,” she said, “but what’s the pitch?” Indeed. That question remains the starting point for everything we do, and the finish line, too. Don Hewitt, the CBS producer who founded “60 Minutes” and invented the TV magazine news format, operated according to a similar principle. He held his fellow producers to a guideline he boiled down to four words. “Tell me a story,” he would say. That’s as memorable a mandate for us to live by as I can imagine.
So go the new rules of engagement for media relations – rules actually old enough to seem new again. Much like the Olympic motto – Citius, Altius, Fortius, Latin for "faster, higher, stronger – we’ll have to function ever-faster, our pitches ever-briefer, our stories ever-better, practicing public relations ever-more personally, with relevance and context aforethought. In the process, media specialists will be more instrumental, too, especially for making sense of it all and quickly turning insights into action.
In time, we may find other ways to attract the right kind of interest from media. Maybe we’ll develop clairvoyance about what editors are thinking, or figure out how to pitch reporters telepathatically. Maybe we’ll have silicon chip implants that enable us to transmit our latest pitch directly into the cerebral cortex of that elusive producer at “Good Morning America.” But until then, we’ll have to stay more down to earth. And no subpoenas will need to be served after all.
Bob Brody is a senior vice president/media specialist at Powell Tate, a division of Weber Shandwick. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.