PR Myths - part five

3. July 2009 22:36

Here's another in our quick series trying to debunk a few PR myths and misunderstandings.

This is a true story - a comment I received some time ago from a new client:

"I don't understand. I gave the journalist all the information I could - our brochure, annual report, even a copy of the presentation I gave at that conference last month - and they still got it wrong!"

The moral of the story? Less is more.

Information overload is a sure fire way to confuse (or simply turn off) a busy journalist under deadline. If the reporter has to struggle to find your point of view in a swathe of corporate literature, or sift through a 900-word email to get the facts and simple three-line quote that's needed, then you cannot expect them to write a good article that accurately reflects the facts and your views - or even to write one at all.

It's much better to find out exactly what they need and for you to supply it succinctly, efficiently and professionally.

They need an article or opinion piece? Fine, that probably means 600-800 words or so and a picture. They need to know what you thought about that Government announcement this morning? That probably means two or three short sentences max in a quick email (or better still, over the phone right now).

By all means put annual reports, brochures, presentations, previous press cuttings and a rich source of additional information onto your website (for example, within your News Centre) and offer links to it. But a parcel of your finest colour brochures will never be a suitable substitute for getting straight to the point.


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Journalism and the media | Media relations | PR Myths

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.

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

PR Myths - part two

6. January 2009 08:23

"If I agree to that interview, I want to check what they're going to print before it goes to press..."

Sorry, but dream on. Most journalists will resist very strongly any attempt by anyone outside their publication to influence or in any way exert editorial control over what they have written.

As one reporter at Property Week told me indignantly a while ago when someone had apparently asked for the chance to check in advance what would be published: "I don't tell them how to do their job! I will not be told how to do mine."

The only journalist I know who ever offers my clients the chance to look at what she's written to ensure the facts are correct is Jan Ambrose, editor of the RICS Building Control Journal. But she is entirely and wonderfully unique!

If you're worried about being misquoted, or that a journalist may have got the wrong end of the stick, then there are better ways of making sure the facts come out as they should.

Demanding to check the copy before it goes to press is just seen as an attempt at censorship, so please don't even ask!

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Journalism and the media | Media relations | PR Myths

PR Myths - part one

4. January 2009 11:28

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to take a look at a handful of common myths and misunderstandings among managers new to PR and to media relations in particular.

Today's myth is the perennial question about the link (or not) between PR and advertising.

"We do a load of advertising in Widgets Weekly - we should be getting some free editorial every week too..."

Here's the truth as we see it after 20 years in PR.

Newspaper and magazine editorial teams are usually entirely independent of their advertising colleagues, and insist on keeping it that way. Big advertisers (indeed, any advertisers) are not routinely given preferential treatment when it comes to editorial. It's all about journalistic integrity.

If you want editorial coverage in your main trade journal (or any respectable publication), you have to work for it. That means having a real piece of news or timely, interesting story or point of view to offer. You need to know how best to approach the right media with the right story at the right time and in the right way. You don't have to advertise at all, or spend any money with a publication, in order to get a genuine journalist interested in publishing a genuine story.

There are many monthly and quarterly publications (print and online) in the construction and property sectors that operate in a different way - offering to publish 'free' vanity profiles of trade associations in exchange for members' details, or requesting a 'colour separation' fee for photos. This is a subject I'll return to again another day.

But for now, let me just clear this up in a single sentence: this is not editorial, it's advertising just dressed up a different way (and actually with fewer benefits than real display advertising). Our typical advice to our clients is: Don't go there.

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Journalism and the media | Media relations | PR Myths

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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