Tag Archives: Media Relations

Thoughtful Pwns Cluelessness (When You’re Not Ready, Stay Home – Part II)

You wouldn’t think that anyone would have to write a post telling companies or PR people — or just about any person, really — to be thoughtful.  Or put another way, to at least not be stupid.

Unfortunately stupid is just how some people roll.

And as it happens, the rules for “don’t be stupid” (with apologies to Google) apply as well to regular life as they do to PR.  They’re spectacularly easy to avoid.

Here’s a quick (true) example.

Years ago, a client with a Very Big Company was planning a multi-country launch of a Big Deal Product…in early Autumn.  By big deal, I mean that they were planning to fly in a bunch of journalists, customers and analysts from across the globe. My colleagues at the time were in a tizzy, coordinating with other agencies who handled the Very Big Company’s business in other parts of the world.

There was drama.  There was excitement.

There was …just one problem, I realized as I looked at the calendar.

The launch date was on Yom Kippur.

I knew that several of this company’s key beat reporters were Jewish.  The reporter at BusinessWeek, at Dow-Jones, at the AP, just for starters.  I told my colleagues: “if our VeryBigCompany client has any sense at all, they will move the launch by one day.  Because I am sure that they want coverage from these reporters.  And I am equally sure that these reporters a) will not come; and b) may even be offended that our client was so insensitive as to have a Big Launch on a High Holy Day.”

I mean, they’re not called the low holy days, right?

My colleagues basically told me to pipe down.  They didn’t want to be the ones telling the Very Big Company that it had made a mistake.  Plus, they reasoned, it was too much trouble to change all the reservations and arrangements.

My take was, the whole point of the reservations and arrangements was to get coverage — and if they weren’t going to get at least some key coverage, then why make said reservations and arrangements?

I didn’t exactly pipe down — I think there’s a slip in a personnel file somewhere that says something like, “M. really got on my nerves about the Yom Kippur thing.”

When the launch came, a whole host of reporters didn’t show.  The client — who is now my friend — told me it went something like this:

Client:  “Where is everyone?”

Us: “Well, it’s Yom Kippur.”

Client:  “Did we know this?”

Us:  “Er, um…”

Client:  “Why would we go to all this trouble to have an event on a day when our key reporters cannot attend?”

Various Agencies:  “Er, um…”

So here’s my point.  There are simple and obvious things you can do to avoid looking or being stupid — in life or in PR.  This goes with my “If you’re not ready — stay home” post below.  So here’s my list:

  1. Check the calendar.  Avoid holidays, days when the markets are closed — days of significance to any of your stakeholders in fact.  Some of this is about sensitivity and image; some of it is simply pragmatic.  Take your pick, but either way — do your homework and don’t be stupid.  Check Earnings calendars, too.
  • This is equally true for life.  A relative who did her graduate work at the University of Tennessee was planning her wedding, and was surprised and pleased to find a picturesque little chapel on campus open on short notice — for just one Sunday afternoon in October. You can guess what happened — I love her for not knowing that it was the football-crazy Vols’ HOMECOMING WEEKEND and PEYTON MANNING’S DEBUT, but it is also true that we almost lost the minister because many roads into campus were either blocked off or backed up.  On the bright side, we had conversations like this:  “I know, we’re an hour late and we have the flower girl, but we’re stuck in traffic. Hey, they’re putting some kid named Peyton Manning in for Todd Helton!”
  • 2.  Speaking of homework: do it.  PR peeps could have avoided that whole ridiculous Chris Anderson blacklist thing (and no, I’m not on it) if people would just take a few minutes to read.  How hard is it to go to WIRED — or wherever — search on the topic you’re wanting to pitch — and see who’s writing about it?
  • Real life parallel:  a friend recently sent invites to a big party to Mr. and Mrs. Roberts — not realizing that Mr. Roberts had died some time back. A few questions and a little research would have prevented a painful and awkward moment.
  • 3.  Sampling = not just for Costco.  If you’re going to suggest a press person stake his or her reputation on a product or service you’re suggesting, make sure it does what you’ve promised.  Try it.  Look for flaws, anticipate questions.  This isn’t rocket science.  And if it doesn’t perform as advertised?  Tell your client that it may not work for the person with the million subscribers, either.  (See:  If it’s not ready? Stay Home, part one).
  • 4.  Don’t pitch a story you don’t believe in.  I learned a while back that a at least half of my clients want to be in the Wall Street Journal, preferably above the fold.  In print, if possible. (Never mind that online would take a reader to the website — but, lo!  That is a post for another time).

I have three choices.  I could laugh:  mbwahahaha.

Or I could tell them what it will take to get in the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times, or TechCrunch, or ReadWriteWeb.

And I could also work really, really, REALLY hard to find an angle — a story, an intersection — that *they* can tell — and that I can tell.  Something true, and (this is harder) something that people not at my client’s company would care about.

Usually, I do all three – not necessarily in order.

Things have gone badly the few times in my career when I have not followed my own advice on this last caveat.  I was once browbeat by a client into phone-stalking a particular reporter at the WSJ.  I really didn’t want to call him, but the client was threatening pretty much life, limb, and a huge account if I didn’t.

You know what happened next.  The reporter was annoyed, disappointed in me, and basically told me he’d lost faith in me, that I was selling out, I knew better, and I shouldn’t call him anymore.  I lost a great relationship; and that particular client is no longer with his company, either.

That’s what I get for being stupid.

Now it’s your turn: what other rules should be on this list?

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Ethics: Where’s Your Line in the Sand?

Professionally… where’s the line you cannot cross?

I was either really lucky or really unfortunate — depending on how you look at it — to discover that line early in my PR career.

At the time I didn’t even think I was doing PR as a career. I was helping out a friend while she was off backpacking in Tibet.

I had been starting to do freelance writing, and I had also worked in marketing and PR. I figured I could help my friend and also make some money to supplement my freelance work.

So I skipped into her agency and dug in. I was 27. She had some great accounts. I was enjoying myself.

But then, there was a crisis. I can’t tell you what it was without revealing all the companies involved, and honestly, I have no idea of the ramifications of calling them out on a blog. So for the moment, let me just say that it would be filed under the insurance clause, “Acts of God:” many people had lost their lives, and crisis communications were called for. For the most part, it felt as though everyone came together — well, and thoughtfully — in a time of great need.

The worst of it passed. I felt good about my work and that of my colleagues. While that one account was serious, intense, and sometimes draining, the others were fun and usually pretty interesting. I was making friends with the beat reporters — men and women who worked at the same papers like the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, where my father had written for 40 years. I took some pride in assessing what a journalist would want to know, and trying to deliver that creatively.

Until the day my boss asked me to spy.

Now, at first, it sounded just like research — pose as a college student, ask some questions. I didn’t mind that.

But later, he asked me to do it again — this time, for a union connected with the crisis I mentioned.  As in, pretend to be a member of the union.

And I realized, he wanted me to spy. SPY-spy. Not research. As in: get admitted to a place under false pretenses and get people to trust you — and get information from them that they otherwise would never give you.

Mind you, my boss gave me this assignment with a warm, confident smile; sure that I’d accept this latest exciting little bone they’d tossed me. They weren’t trying to do anything bad, he assured me. He just wanted to keep his finger on that union’s pulse.

I thought about it. I’m a pretty good actress. Really good, or I was once. And suddenly, I felt like Peter frickin’ Parker — “use your powers for good? or evil?”

And y’know? I couldn’t do it.

I literally found myself staring in the mirror, in my then-studio apartment, with only my cat to keep me company. And for me — trained at Northwestern, daughter of a newspaper editor, pretty much a center-left person, and just a person-person amidst this whole mess… I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t lie — not to those people in the union, not to my parents; and certainly not to reporters whom, whatever they thought, I still considered my brethren. If it ever came out that I had impersonated someone in this union… I just couldn’t do it.

So I went in the next day and resigned.

I walked away.

This meant walking away from what was, for me, a fortune at the time. I hadn’t been doing my freelance work for a couple of months, so there was nothing else coming in.

I upset the Agency that had been taking very nice care of me. My boss was incredulous. Then angry.

I surprised the (big) company to whom my boss had apparently promised my spying abilities.

And it wasn’t like I had a bunch of savings in the bank.

But it was still with a huge shrug of relief that I walked away from that office.

I had found my line that I could not cross; and it was like opening a door in myself: this is who I am; it was what they tell you about boundaries: that, paradoxically, they can be very freeing.

And I figured that somehow karma would take care of me.

(It did. One of the accounts followed me: the local business for Anheuser-Busch — which I had for several years, and had a total blast. And other work. And marriage, and kids, and a couple of series on TLC and Discovery.)

Nothing that anyone’s going to give me a standing ovation for — but it was priceless to learn, so early on, that there were some things I wouldn’t do, lines I wouldn’t cross — places where no amount of money, no threats, were worth my integrity.

And knowing that — knowing that I absolutely can and will walk away if my integrity is threatened — is probably the most powerful weapon I have in my arsenal. People ask me what my “secret” to media relations is; it’s not really a secret. But knowing that I’m not for sale — even if it’s just me knowing that — allows me, I think, a degree of clarity that not everyone in my business shares.

Where’s your line in the sand?

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