PR Myths - part four

28. January 2009 21:07

To many experienced communicators, these 'PR myths' (well, more misunderstandings maybe) probably seem very basic. But I'm often asked these questions, so I guess there is value in just knocking them off, one by one. Here's another frequent query... it cropped up again just yesterday:

"But I said it was off the record! Why have they landed me right in it? And what do you have to say to stop a journalist writing anything?"

'Off the record' must be three of the worst heart-sinking words a journalist ever hears. It's supposed to mean that nothing they are told can then be reported. It's an attempted gagging order that aims to stop a journalist doing their job.

Talking to people on our media training sessions, it's clear that their experience of 'off the record' is just as disastrous. It's not like on the telly. Too often, it's a plea blurted out at the end of a unguarded rant or indiscretion, in the hope that the fast-regretted words will somehow vanish from the journalist's memory and notepad. We all have those 'Oops' moments. But claiming 'off the record' at that point is a waste of time and usually never works.

In fact, it's very rare that 'off the record' ever needs to be used.

If you have important but sensitive background information that a journalist probably should know but that cannot appear in print upon pain of (your) death, there may sometimes be scope to agree a confidential briefing with the journalist if they are someone you already know and trust. You will obviously need their promise to respect that confidentiality before you start spilling the beans...

But if something is so sensitive that it cannot be discussed openly, then it's probably best not to say anything at all. Discretion is the better part of valour and all that.

Your best bet is to find out what the journalist needs to know (and what they know already), and decide on how you want to respond without resorting to the awful "No comment". If you really, really can't comment on something right now, explain that truthfully, find out what you can say as an acceptable holding statement and/or agree a date/time when you can talk more openly.

Managing in a downturn - remember to keep communicating

23. January 2009 17:15

The FT has started another of its excellent Mastering Management series this week. 

The focus of this special report, predictably, is on managing in a downturn. And I'm heartened to see the importance of internal and external communications highlighted so clearly. Here's an extract from Stefan Stern's intro (I've put bits in bold):

"... There are only so many ways you can tell a company to 'conserve cash'. It will probably turn out to be the business catchphrase of 2009. But while managers are understandably in a hurry to stem the flow of cash out of the building, in particular by reducing headcount, they risk cutting too deeply into the flesh of the organisation, and making future recovery much harder to achieve. Easy advice for an outsider to give – and hard for a manager to take for when survival is the number one priority – but sound advice all the same. Don’t get rid of the people who actually make your products and services worth buying in the first place.

"Second, the rumour mill is almost as big an enemy to senior management right now as collapsing customer demand. All the management gurus agree that leaders have to invest much more time than they might think is necessary into communicating with their staff. And “communicating” means listening as well as telling. In his new book The Leadership Code, Dave Ulrich estimates that a message may have to be communicated as many as 10 times, in a variety of means or channels, for it to get through and be understood.

"Offering as much certainty as possible will also help kill rumours. Binna Kandola, managing partner of business psychologists Pearn Kandola, argues that knowing you have lost your job is a better outcome for most employees than being in the dark about your future.

"Third, keeping your head down, retreating from markets and turning introspective, while a natural human response to bad news, is a terrible option for businesses. Now is not the time to abandon partnerships and joint ventures, or to close yourself off to other outside influences. Keep an open mind to new initiatives, remain an active networker and ensure the organisation is not collectively burying its head in the sand.

"Fourth, remember that recovery will come – eventually. Research and development needs to continue. Revenue streams that may have temporarily dried up will start to flow again. But capacity that you cut back on now may be hard to resurrect. And again, excessive redundancies – which carry a significant cost in any case – will deprive you of the talent you need to make the most of the upturn. You will only have to hire it back again, at great expense, in a year’s time."

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Employee communications

The wonder of Web 2.0

22. January 2009 10:06

Since starting this blog and dipping my toe (ok, big flat foot) into the new sea of social media - or 'Web 2.0' as some would call it - all sorts of new doors have opened, new connections have been made and new learning has flooded in.

Youngsters will scoff at this daft old bird. Much brighter brains in PR will be on a whole different level of understanding and sophistication (I certainly don't expect them to read this blog!). But I hope I can share some of this learning, for the benefit of clients or others just beginning their introduction to good PR in the construction and property sectors. My observations are still very much from the position of a newbie... not a day passes when I don't learn something new.

For many of my clients (and maybe future clients too) are starting from a similar place. It's a good exercise to report on 'first impressions' before this all blurs into comfortable familiarity and I forget what it's like to start from scratch.

So what have I done so far in the first weeks of 2009?

  • I have started this blog, and found that I can link these posts with my profile on LinkedIn.
  • I have discovered a whole load of other bloggers whose posts I am alerted to automatically by RSS feeds.
  • I have joined Twitter and started following the news/comments ('tweets') of a wide group of people and publishers. And yes, I too have joined the 50,000 others who follow Stephen Fry.
  • I have even found a way to tweet on the move by installing Tweetie on my iPhone.
  • I have joined Be2Camp and its ConMarcoms 2.0 Forum and a host of other relevant discussion forums on the web.
  • I have started reading and noticing so much more information, advice and guidance on the use of social media in PR and, specifically, in the sectors I serve.
  • I have even started spreading the word - you should have seen the look of amazement when I introduced my husband to some of this technology and he saw how it could help his business!

And first impressions?

1. Cyberspace is friendlier than I thought it would be. Thank you to the very many people who have made me feel welcome and have happily shared their knowledge and ideas. I would urge anyone else thinking of trying new things to have a go. Everyone appears to be extraordinarily patient and helpful!

2. It's time consuming, but relatively simple to build these communications activities into an office-based day. (If only my attemps at daily exercise were this easy...)

3. There are some interesting and important ethical issues for PR folk like me, not least balancing the absolutely fundamental and deeply-ingrained commitment to confidentiality against the exciteable urge to tweet about what's going on at every opportunity. (More on this soon)

4. There's no going back now.  I already have a wishlist building up of fascinating things that I want to share - creative new communications ideas, observations about the media and how it's approaching certain issues, other peoples' blogs, interesting articles I've read elsewhere...  What I'm learning is that I need to be focused. Just because I have now 'found my voice' doesn't mean I should use it! 

5. The pond is still very small.  At the moment, the Web 2.0 community in construction and the built environment looks to be pretty small and tight-knit. I hope to learn a lot from their intellectual generosity, but I can already see a risk that we might sometimes forget how to talk to the outside world too in a way that makes all this seem accessible and beneficial to real business. That's something I want to make my mission in 2009.

Finally, a thought on the best place to start a journey like mine.

Personally, I think finding a way to use RSS feeds (eg. within Internet Explorer or your usual home page on the web) to keep you alerted to other people's online publishing is the best way to get started.

For example, if you're interested in sustainability in the built environment (a key aspect of our work), start reading blogs like zerochampion, Elemental and SaaStainability. Look at their Blogrolls (lists of other blogs they recommend) and see where that leads you.

Read, follow links, don't be put off by the jargon and suddenly a whole new wonderful world opens up. Just please remember to let me know what you find - I'd love to join your journey too!

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Social media

PR Myths - part three (and UFOs)

19. January 2009 09:13

The third most common misunderstanding I encounter about PR and the press is the emotive issue of headlines and how a company's news story is reported:

"The article they've written is fine I suppose, but I'm not happy - they haven't used the words we approved in the press release and the headline is completely misleading..."

For newcomers to PR the answer may be a blow, but it's no reason to be downhearted!

A press release is only ever a spring board from which to launch your announcement or news story. Don't spend too long composing it in committee, or over-worry about the words.

Obviously the better written a press release is the more likely it is a journalist will lift from it the key facts and the chairman's pithy, pertinent quote in paragraph two. However, despite all the hard work that goes into getting messages just right and those carefully crafted comments approved, it's never a script that will be printed word for word.

It is extremely rare for the press release headline to be used in the finished article. That's not our fault. Don't shoot the journalists as they don't get to dictate the headlines either.

It's the job of the sub-editor and headline writers working on the production team, because the purpose of a headline is to be an eye-catching graphic device, more part of the page design than about adding lucidity to the actual story beneath.

Headlines are written to be punchy, concise, brutal even - anything to grab your attention and keep you reading. Sub-editors are taught the art of jazzing up mediocre stories and love the opportunity for a pun or two, but there's not much room in a headline for nuances and niceties.

It's a PR dream to have a client's story powerfully or wittily captioned. Even a 'misleading' headline can work in your favour. If it's commercially damaging and utter nonsense there may be cause for complaint and we can probably help. But don't lose sleep over it all.

Instead, enjoy these recent gems I spotted courtesy of the Hold the Front Page Facebook group:

Children Get Shot At Games
New Church Opens On Sunday
Teenager Held For Skipping Trial
Fishermen Almost Swept Out To Sea
Great Tits Cope Well With Warming

and a good one for our industry (which thankfully we never used on a TrustMark story):

Warning Against Doorstep Builders

* * *

If you'll excuse the indulgence, all this talk of headlines brings me on to a celebration of sheer genius... for I can't let the opportunity slip by to revel in the story about the wrecked wind turbine in Lincolnshire earlier this month.

According to Ecotricity's founder and resident blogger Zerocarbonista, the damage was almost certainly the result of materials or maintenance failure (boo). According to the MOD, it was the result of night-time flights by a stealth bomber (scary). According to the Guardian, it was the result of a reporter's family fireworks party (daft). But according to local residents who witnessed strange lights in the sky, it was the sure act of a UFO which had crossed the galaxies to joyride the skies (hoorah!).

And the classic headline (written by the Sun allegedly, although sadly the online story has a much more boring headline of 'UFO Hits Wind Turbine')?

E.T. Farm Harm.

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Journalism and the media | Media relations | PR Myths

Approved Document X gets a hug from Hansom!

9. January 2009 10:11

High praise indeed. Today's Hansom column in Building magazine told everyone about our latest Christmas card - a new addendum to the, ahem, Building Regulations which we have christened Approved Document X (apologies, no industry consultation was conducted first).

If you'd like to see a copy, just click here.

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Building Regulations

About the author

Liz Male

Liz Male is a PR and communications professional specialising in construction, property and sustainability in the built environment. This is Liz's blog on the foundations of good communications, covering everything from the basics of media relations to topical ponderings on strategic comms issues. Follow Liz's more concise thoughts on Twitter: @lizmale

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