CFM Strategic Communications

The Seven Deadly Sins for PR Pros Working with the Media

Working with the press can be challenging for PR professionals, but following several key guidelines can make the job quite a bit easier.

Working with the press can be challenging for PR professionals, but following several key guidelines can make the job quite a bit easier.

When you sit behind a reporter's desk, you see the good, the bad and everything in between from public relations professionals. Now that I'm on the other side of the desk, here is some advice on how to take your best shot at smoothly working with reporters.

Think of these as the seven deadly sins of PR. Avoid committing them, and you should be just fine.

1 Not taking controversy seriously: Controversy drives the news business. No matter how small the issue, always, always, always take a serious approach in responding to a reporter’s questions about any potential problem.

A few years ago as a reporter for The Spokesman-Review, I exposed an embarrassing oversight in the search for a new chief for the city’s troubled police department. It turns out one of the four finalists for the job had fabricated his academic credentials, listing on his resume two degrees from a diploma mill in Louisiana that the FBI had busted several years earlier. The man dropped his candidacy the morning we broke the news.

But the story only became more embarrassing for the city when I inquired about how the situation arose in the first place. Spokane has a history of rooting out public officials with degrees from diploma mills. So, why hadn’t anyone caught the phony degrees before we’d gotten to that point?

The best explanation the city’s spokeswoman could offer: “These things happen.” The city hadn’t done a background check yet, and the whole thing was no big deal, she said. Well, it actually was a pretty big deal to the public and the media. 

That quote was fair game, so I ran with it in print. And so did one of our most popular columnists, who ridiculed the city’s response at length in the paper. He even went so far as to make and distribute pins sporting the quote.

All that embarrassment could have been avoided if the city had taken the situation more seriously. We’re all human, and it’s better to admit to a mistake than to diminish the legitimacy of a controversy.    

2 Incessant follow-ups: This happens all the time. A reporter doesn’t respond to your press release, so you send another email, and then a third. Finally, you’ve lost your patience and decide to call and ask if the reporter received the press release and what he plans to do with it.

One email will do just fine. If the reporter hasn’t contacted you for more information, he’s probably not interested in the story or he may just not have time to pursue it yet.

We live in a time of shrinking newsrooms. Keep that in mind, and remember that as staffs continue to dwindle, reporters have less time to respond to every email and phone call. That trend means there is an ever-increasing need to write more engaging press releases. 

3 Getting mad: Whatever you do, never lose your temper in an interview. Nothing will make you look worse on camera, and unless you and the reporter have already agreed to keep your conversation off the record, it could end up in a story.

Unfortunately, reporters sometimes ask insensitive or uninformed questions. Sometimes, they run a little too far with rumors or misinformation. And sometimes, they can be invasive or exploitative, especially in times of loss or personal crisis.

But when it comes to dealing with a reporter in a difficult situation, getting angry is the last thing you want to do. Take a breath, if necessary. Pause to collect yourself, and then carry on with the interview.   

4 Knowing nothing about the reporter, the organization or the coverage area: Every day, reporters receive numerous press releases sent out in email blasts to all sorts of news organizations. These become problematic when it’s clear that the sender knows nothing about the reporter or the coverage area.

“Dear _____:” Believe it or not, empty fill-in-the-blank press releases that start just like this make their way to reporters all the time. And there’s no faster way to turn a journalist off to your big announcement.

Before sending out a press release, take some time to get to know the receiver. What is the reporter’s name? What’s the coverage area? Would the news organization be interested in this? If so, how can you tailor it in a way that makes it more likely to get coverage? 

5 Burying the lead: If you’re wondering why you never got a call back about that press release you sent out a couple days ago, maybe this was your mistake.

Reporters have less and less time to spend on any given story in today’s fast-evolving newsroom. That also means they have less time to read press releases.

Stick to the basic rules of newswriting when reaching out to the media. Remember the inverted pyramid, the fundamental structure of a simple news story: the most important information should go at the top of your press release. As you wind down to the bottom of the page, your paragraphs should become less and less essential.

Place the heart of your message – the biggest news you have to announce – in the first paragraph of your press release. That way, you’re guaranteed to grab the reporter’s attention. 

6 Ignoring the media: Unfortunately, reporters won’t just disappear if you close your eyes and pretend they don’t exist. They keep calling or writing. And if you continue ignoring them, they’ll publish the most dreaded words imaginable: so and so declined to comment.

I can’t count how many times I’ve written that phrase, but it never reflected well on the people who decided not to say anything. When in doubt, almost any response is better than silence. Ignoring the media only makes the public suspect you have something to hide.

Instead, prepare a well-thought-out statement or simply agree to an interview. Planning ahead pays off, so try to anticipate what questions the reporter might ask and think about your responses beforehand. Try not to sound rehearsed, of course, but keep your main points in mind throughout the interview. 

7 Using jargon: Reporters tend not be experts in, well, just about anything. They specialize in distilling complex issues into simple explanations communicated to the masses. So, it’s best to avoid using industry-specific jargon in a press release.

Otherwise, you stand the risk of confusing a reporter. In that case, a reporter is likely to make an error in the story, which can be embarrassing for both journalists and PR pros alike. 

While a reporter might not let you proofread a story before it’s published, there is nothing wrong with asking to double check the facts first. It may sound pesky, but there’s nothing reporters hate more than having to write a correction to a story.  

The Benefits of Brevity

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering a campaign address in November 1944 at Fenway Park in Boston. FDR, who charmed America with fireside chats and galvanized a nation with memorable refrains, said the key to successful speeches is to "Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated."

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering a campaign address in November 1944 at Fenway Park in Boston. FDR, who charmed America with fireside chats and galvanized a nation with memorable refrains, said the key to successful speeches is to "Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated."

William Shakespeare called brevity the soul of wit, and Dorothy Parker referred to it as the soul of lingerie. In public affairs, brevity is a source of successful speechmaking.

The benefits of brevity are not a secret or a new insight. President Franklin Roosevelt said, "Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated." 

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, "It is my ambition to say in 10 sentences what others say in a whole book." 

And humorist George Burns quipped, "The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, and to have the two as close together as possible."

Despite such sage advice, speakers continue to drone on, inducing drowsiness in their audience. Worse than that, longwinded speakers frustrate their audiences, drowning out what might have been a powerful, useful message.

Resonating with an audience demands several things, but chief among them is brevity. You need something worthwhile to say. You must organize your thoughts so an audience can trace your train of logic. You should illustrate your key point in memorable ways. And you need to get the job done while people are still paying attention, otherwise the point is lost in a wave of inattention.

Speech coaches properly concentrate on ways to establish immediate rapport, use vivid language and end on an up-note. But sometimes they forget about the health of the heart of the speech, the part about economizing what you say so your words and thoughts stick out.

Louise Brooks, the actress known for popularizing the "bob" hairstyle, offered this advice, 'Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination." Her point is well taken. When writing a speech, don't think of everything you can say; think of everything you can leave out.

It is not just an issue of shortened attention spans; it is a case of limited space in people's brains to absorb and store information. Making your point and being brief is one way to claim space in the mental warehouse of your audience.

In the public affairs world, too many people want to share "all the facts." Unfortunately, audiences and news reporters can be quickly overwhelmed. The result is you lose their attention and they wind up not remembering any of your facts.

A better approach is to select the most salient points. Talk about those. Show why they matter. Explain how they work. Then stop. The discipline of being brief usually brings about increased clarity to your message. You are forced to be specific, to focus, to stick to your main point.

The best compliment a speaker can receive is, "I could have listened to that person all night." Just remember, that's a compliment, not a stage direction.

Managing an Issue, Avoiding a Catastrophe

Managing an issue is harder and takes longer than just responding to one, but it can save your reputation, avert a catastrophe and protect your hindquarters.Circumstances such as angry neighbors, pesky protestors and petition drives force many organizations to respond to public issues, even when they are ill prepared. 

Issues management can mean the difference between a crisis turning into catastrophe. Issue management is the phrase PR professionals use to describe the process of anticipating a messy public process or debate and taking proactive steps to respond.

Issue management isn't rocket science, but it takes discipline and a forward-looking approach. Hoping the problem will disappear or fantasizing the fuss will blow over aren't strategies with much long-term prospect. Here are some basic tips that can help save your brand, reputation and hindquarters:

Helping Reporters Do Their Job

Fewer reporters in newsrooms creates an opportunity to shop more complete story pitches. That requires creativity and integrity from PR professionals.Shrinking newsrooms make it tougher to pitch story ideas, but it also puts a premium on PR enterprise to outline a great story idea that is easy to follow by a stretched-thin reporter.

"If you can sketch a story and help a reporter fill in the blanks, you are well on your way to a successful pitch in today's evolving media environment," says CFM Account Executive Hannah Smith.

At a minimum, most newsrooms are looking for more than just words on a page.

"They want images, video, contacts and any relevant context," Smith says. "In short, they want help with their homework." This includes finding credible people who use products or are affected by policy decisions for reporters to interview.

This kind of scripted journalism requires PR professionals and anyone else pitching stories to keep their integrity front and foremost. "If you steer a reporter into a ditch or blindside them," Smith says, "don't be surprised if you find them unwilling to work with you on your next pitch."