Public relations is everywhere. Call me a cynical ad man, but I turn on the box and there’s a spin masquerading as news. I open a mag and there’s a spin masquerading as editorial.
Most of the big shows like 60 Minutes, Today Tonight etc. have a fair component of PR welded in like the roll bars in a rally car. Where it gets really nifty is in the manipulation of things that should be beyond it, like the law, by interested parties, particularly the political ones. Every decent politician has several Press Secretaries, seeding stories that work to push their boss.
You can be like a politician. You can have your company look like a combination of God and the Good Witch of the South if you think through how it could work, and you find the right help. Good PR is often one of the most cost effective things you can do.
Public Relations is just another tool for the professional marketer, like press or packaging. As such, don’t let the PR consultants tapping on your window big-note themselves into any other role. It’s like radio reps thinking they ought to get into the ear of the CEO. They would if they could, but should you let them?
While PR deserves inclusion in your regular armory, it has got severe limitations. for a start, it is the least accurate of the powerful media tools you can use. It’s like a bomb. Unstable, useful on your side, but nasty if it backfires. It ain’t logical. And it sure ain’t predictable.
PR is absolutely brilliant if you get it just right. A couple of minutes on national TV and all of a sudden you’re a household name. A couple of lines in the right newspaper or magazine can lead to sales for months to come. A couple of well worded sentences delivered to editors and you may be able to squash a story that might have resulted in you becoming a ‘consultant’ instead of getting a regular income.
But it’s hard to get it right. You’ve got to have just the right spin, convince just the right journo, do it on just the right day, sneak past their editor’s whims and hope WW 111 doesn’t start the hour your piece is planned to go to air.
At least with any other form of media you more or less get what you pay for. You buy a spot on Channel 10, and most of the time, you get a spot on 10. You buy a month’s worth of a PR consultant’s time and you may get something for it.
How to do good PR
I’m going to define good PR as PR that has a fair chance of achieving your goals. There are no guarantees with PR. With the big media players, no matter how much you spend on ads, most of the time it’s really lucky dip, like it or not. Yes, if you’re a major advertiser like a bank or a telco, you may have some influence, but the chances are, even then there’s a fair element of uncertainty.
Bond (with journos/editors)
Journalists like people. They did their course so they could lead a life doing the right thing and informing the public about issues that matter. The fact that they all work for robber barons who couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about journalism or honesty does not mean they as people have changed. So make friends with them. Don’t be scared of them unless you have something to really hide, and if you do, change jobs.
Your PR people ought to know some of the relevant journos. Not all of them. With something like 5,000 publications in this country alone, you simply can’t know more than a few more than just by name. Suspect someone who claims to know all the journo’s unless they are a huge celebrity in their own right.
If you or your PR people bond well, it’s relatively simple to get articles in local papers/ trade mags, or work up stories over some months with magazine editors or TV life-style show producers,
The PR industry finds this term offensive. They even put a spin on what they do. They ought to come out and say, ‘Yes, we manipulate the public’, but that’s sounds nasty, so they say ‘we help people make more informed decisions’ or some other crap. But it’s all in the spin. It’s in the way you look at the situation. An intelligent, moral high-ground spin can turn a launch into a bonanza, a disaster into a great event and a nice little product into the next big thing we all have to get.
Take the moral high-ground
Journalists think like Disney. They have the most pronounced nice-person suburban values you can imagine. They will respond to those ‘doing the right thing’ every time.
Make it Interesting
I know you think your story is interesting, but nine times out of ten it isn’t. Something that you don’t feel comfortable about, or something that you think is irrelevant is often the most exciting story for an outsider. Please get a second opinion before sending out another boring release.
Journos are language snobs. It’s their stock & trade. You should write as you speak, get the commas in the right place, do spell checks and try not to make too many grammatical errors. Like I can talk, huh?
Whether they like it or not, editors in this country are heavily influenced by those who pay the bills. This is particularly the case in the trade rags, smaller independent papers, etc., but there’s no doubt if you’re taking out a decent slice of ads in a major magazine or newspaper, you get better treatment, regardless of what their editorial department may want to think. This has been taken to the extreme in the USA where those in real risk of community backlashes, like the nuclear industry, have taken to buying large blocks of shares of the media groups who are most likely to cause them grief.
One of the best ways to work the media is to sign up for a couple of months worth of ads on the condition that the ‘launch’ will be covered, or buy an ad on pages 4-8 if you get a nice story on pages 34-36. This can work with some publications, but must be handled very carefully or you’ll get an angry, nasty journalist and probably egg on your face.
Get on the phone
If you’re driving in the car and the radio has talk-back on a subject you think might work for your company, ring in. If you’re reading an article in a paper or maq, and there’s an angle for you, ring the journo. You never know where an instant contact will take you.
Have a kit ready
Always have a kit consisting of company brochures, an annual report, some snappy’s of management/you and some tight backgrounders on any subject you may have cause to promote ready. Now you’re only a courier away from a good story.
People often go cheapskate in PR. They just type the story on letterhead and hope it will be noticed by the 300 journos they send it to. If it deserves to be noticed, do a professional job. It’s incredible what a small investment in printing or having your agency knock up a decent email PDF thingy will do for responses.
A picture tells a thousand punters
Visuals are essential. There’s almost no news that doesn’t work better with a pickie. The basics are a good photograph of the person making the claims (or footage of them speaking) and some kind of visual of the story itself. If you want serious coverage of a launch or whatever, it’s worth considering getting the whole thing taped by a film team, so the TV station’s don’t even need to send along a camera crew (damned expensive people) or having an artist’s impression or a moving 3D computer drawn version of the widgit etc. knocked up.
Check your list
Journos move jobs. Have the list checked against the latest copy of Margaret Gees Directory (lists almost every decent Australian journalist/publication) and get your staff to check the critical ones are still there.
Add a toy
Well, a present. A bottle of booze. Flowers. Tickets to the theatre. Free meals. A car for the week-end, or for months. A flight across Antarctica …
Fit with Vehicle
Make sure your stories fit the publication. That means their tone, their language style, their subject matter etc. Make sure they are seen as news. That’s NEW with an S on it, right? It only takes brains and some hours of decent application to put a good story together and then sell it through to the right people. That is asking a lot, I know. But journalists are intelligent people so don’t try to treat them other wise.
Pump Up The Volume
If you get a nibble from one vehicle, use that to convince journo’s in other media that it’s a strong story. Have them try to gazump each other. With the right sneaky pushing you can roll an article that might have appeared as a 1/4 page on page 47 of the Herald Sun onto the evening news.
Timing is everything
If there’s a story running on the news/in the paper you can connect with, don’t hesitate. You may not get another shot at it. Ditto if you’re doing a launch, make sure you’re having the function in time for the evening news, say finishing by noon.
This is when you need to fly the crack troops in. You can manage damage with decent media training (see below) clever arguments and apparently honest responses, but you’ll only get half way and there’s a serious chance if there’s a kink in your armor, they’ll find it and drive the knife in. If there’s one thing a journo loves it’s discovering a lie or half-truth coming out of the mouth of someone who is making twice the money they are on. What works best in a crisis situation is a couple of hours with the best lawyers and PR consultants you can find and then complete honesty about the situation. People accept honesty. They accept that mistakes happen. Everyone makes them. And yes, sometimes a mistake costs those who make it.
“No, we did not know there was a leak. We would have fixed it. Yes it is a shame the children are now glowing in the dark. We’re considering our position, but personally, and I can’t be making any promises here, I’d like to think our insurers will be able to see their way to somehow assisting the families.”
Lies and cover-ups get found out. When the shit really hits the fan, be a decent person and do the right thing, just like your Mum taught you. It’s not worth walking around the rest of your life being thought of as a stupid, lying bastard.
Good media training (have repetitive sound bites on pat, don’t look directly at the camera, wear conservative colours/clothes, be interviewed with the right background etc.) is absolutely invaluable. It’s like brushing your teeth. You look and feel better for it.
You should get an experienced ex-journo to interview you on the subject in front of a video camera and then watch the footage. Do it several times and you’ll start to see a new, nicer you coming through. But do us all a favor and don’t go completely bland or fake it. You can have personality, just massage the sharp bits off.
What to avoid
Mass Press Releases
You can hit lots of journos with a story, but it’s very much hit and miss. A dumb, self-serving press release sent out to a couple of hundred journalists will be tossed into the round file by almost all of them. The last figures I saw said the average metropolitan newspaper journalist is sent about 54 unsolicited Press Releases a day. What hope has yours got of getting a run?
Keep the story simple and make sure it’s got paragraphs that can be cut out that won’t detract from the essentials, so the paper or mag editor can just edit to fit the space. In the case of TV, stick to one subject and just hammer the same thing home. Don’t try to fix the problems of the world because you have a Channel Seven camera in your face.
Using PR Best
Hire Your Own
If you work in a big company, it’s not a bad idea to hire a publicity person on the side. (Or you could save a few thousand and insist on media training for X launch or whatever and just slip it past the other people in marketing.) If you can manage to get your pickie in the trade rags, national newspapers or where ever, your career will almost always blossom dramatically. Whoever is the spokesperson is assumed by the rest of the world to be the one in charge.
Make your career
Have the tapes supplied to you. Play them in the board room at morning coffee time or when ever most of the staff/management will be around and sober.
How to Hire
Big companies usually like to hire big firms if they are not sure what they want and they don’t want to make a mistake. Fine. But you often don’t need a big firm. Most of the time a small team of one or two people will be much keener to get your business and will work twice as hard for you. I believe in hiring on fit. If you feel comfortable these people will be able to do the job, that’s a good start. Give them a small project and see how they perform.
Get your PR person to justify their retainer or hourly rate regularly. See the clippings. Have them compare the magazine page rates or TV time rates with what you got.
How they charge
PR firms tend to charge in two ways, they usually do a basic retainer which means they’ll work on your business, not your competitors and they’ll do some hours a month for it too. Which is all negotiable. Make sure you get a precise list of what they’ll be doing for the retainer. Then they charge for projects or crisis etc. also based on the hours involved.
Be Prepared for Disappointment
Often the editor can have a bad hair day, a full rag or your competitors will be interested in another out-come. And you won’t usually know until your story doesn’t appear. Or worse, appears with a nasty twist.
Who does it best?
I want to be a doctor in my next life. They have a PR machine so powerful, that when they have a problem like medical insurance costs sky-rocketing, they can get a show run on the ABC about it. MDA, Medical Defence Australia, that snappy show with Jason Donovan on it, has got to be one of the most incredibly well-planned coincidences in the history of Australian television. The Doctors have 30 odd years of shows from RPA to Chicago Hope pushing their barrel. They have a story on national TV at least once a week. Nobody does it better than the doctors.
If you’re in mining, or paper manufacture, or fast food, think how easy it would be if you had your own TV programs. If you’d like Starship to whip up a few story treatments for the board’s approval….