media relations

A Primer on Public Affairs

Public affairs professionals are specialty marketers who master, explain and advocate for ideas, major projects or innovative initiatives and ride to the rescue in times of crisis. They are who to call when you face a communications challenge involving any kind of a public issue.

Public affairs professionals are specialty marketers who master, explain and advocate for ideas, major projects or innovative initiatives and ride to the rescue in times of crisis. They are who to call when you face a communications challenge involving any kind of a public issue.

We have been asked more than once what public affairs involves. Our best answer is a communications challenge that occurs in the shadow of a public issue.

Public issues can loom over marketing, media relations or crisis communications. Public affairs to address a public issue can take the form of strategic communications, marketing plans, crisis counsel or advocacy – and often involves some combination.

Public affairs professionals, at least the ones who know what they’re doing, typically have experience in the public sector or dealing with the public sector, such as a reporter who covers government or the courts. One way or another, they have the scars and skills earned through managing – or muddling through – a public issue.

At its core, public affairs is like any other form of marketing. You need to understand your audience, condense your message and tell your story with effect, whether in writing or orally and whether you have 30 minutes or 30 seconds. That’s why knowledgeable public affairs professionals know the value of research and have a working knowledge of what type of research matches specific challenges.

Some public affairs professionals are attorneys, but all good public affairs professionals have a solid working understanding of the law, legal procedures and judicial language. Public affairs professionals frequently work side by side with attorneys because their respective disciplines overlap. Sometimes the best solution to a public issue is legal; other times it requires changing a law or regulation. 

It is fairly easy to grasp that public affairs involves managing a public issue through direct engagement (open houses, town meetings, door-to-door visits), media outreach (press releases, op-eds, white papers) and social media (explanatory videos, infographics, charts). 

It is less obvious that public affairs centers on reframing or clarifying a complex, contentious public issue. The ability to reframe a contentious issue and clarify a complex one is what sets apart a skilled public affairs professional from someone who simply has ‘public affairs’ on their business card.

Another overlooked attribute of a skilled public affairs professional is the ability to anticipate a public issue and the arc of its evolution. Managers and clients would be wise to listen to warnings from public affairs professionals and their recommendations on how to ward off an impending public issue or at least mitigate its dire consequences.

Public affairs professionals are an important part of any team attempting to advance a major project, respond to a crisis, engage the public on a significant initiative or pass legislation. Public affairs professionals know the lay of the land, media contacts and elected officials and their staffs. Chances are good that an experienced public affairs professional has worked on a similar project or faced an analogous challenge and, as a result, can add valuable perspective of what to do – and not to do.

Effective public affairs depends on who you know and what you know. Experienced public affairs professionals have a lifetime of contacts they can tap for information or attempt to influence. They have watched the wheels of government grind away, followed the footsteps of men and women on planning commissions up to congressional committees and synthesized confusing events into 10 to 12 revealing paragraphs. They have a vertical understanding of public issues that enables them to see the depth of an issue and know where to dig for a solution.

Of course, knowledge has a shelf life. People move on from government, newspaper and nonprofit jobs, so connections need to be refreshed continuously. Communication techniques and channels morph and change. Almost every communications plan worth its salt these days includes a website, social media and video content. As recently as a decade ago, that wasn’t so.

Processes and practices evolve, too. The days of building rapport by taking someone to a professional sporting event or a pricey dinner have ended in the public affairs space, thanks to stricter ethics laws and reporting requirements. Public affairs professionals have adapted by pursuing other ways to build and maintain relationships. Integrity matters more than ever.

One thing hasn’t changed. Public affairs remains a roll-up-your-sleeves, hands-on form of communication. Personal contact, authenticity and compelling presentations are still what makes public affairs effective. Knowing what you’re doing is important, too.

(Since its founding in 1990, CFM Strategic Communications has been regarded as a leading public affairs firm in the Pacific Northwest with experience guiding major projects, developing and executing strategic communications plans and providing crisis counsel.)

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

There Are No Throwaway Questions in Interviews

The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

Wary reporters have taken to a tactic of asking an out-of-the-blue question at the end of what otherwise might be a routine interview. Whatever the purpose, such questions can send well-rehearsed spokespeople skidding off script, blurring their key message and making the wrong kind of “news.”

For that reason, media training these days includes “ambush interview” techniques and how to combat them.

Ambushing spokespeople is one way reporters are responding to rote, opaque or superficial statements. Those of us who coach spokespeople are responding by adding training to address what can be a very disorienting – and potentially disheartening – end to an interview.

It is important for spokespeople to remember there are no throwaway questions in an interview. Each question is a live-stakes interaction and should be treated with respect – and awareness.

Ambush questions tend to occur when entities or spokespeople are evasive, non-responsive or arrogant. It is a reporter’s way to get-even or level the playing field. Instead of regarding ambush questions as impertinent or a trap, spokespeople should view them as reporters trying to do their job.

The best way to avoid being ambushed is to say something when being interviewed. A well-prepared spokesperson should have a key message centered on action, not evasion. Reporters may still push for more detail or question the motivation for action, but that’s where solid preparation comes into play. A spokesperson should have practiced to parry with a reporter or a press conference full of reporters.

Former President Bill Clinton, no stranger to high-pressure interviews and ambush questions, stumbled over NBC correspondent Craig Melvin’s direct question about whether he personally apologized to Monica Lewinsky. While his interview with Melvin was nominally about the new book the former President has co-written with James Patterson, Clinton should not have been surprised about Lewinsky questions. In the shadow of the #MeToo movement, he absolutely should have anticipated a question about whether and how he apologized to Lewinsky.

In reality, Clinton ambushed himself by failing to prepare or not preparing well enough. It is a common mistake that can keep a crisis grinding on for another news cycle or rekindle an old ember into a fresh fire.

Whether it is the first question or the last question, each question can have a purpose – and maybe an underlying motivation. Spokespeople need to protect themselves and the organization they speak for by:

  • Knowing their subject
  • Mastering their key message
  • Anticipating questions
  • Preparing for obvious and not-so-obvious questions
  • Practicing

You are less likely to be surprised if you go into a media interview with something newsworthy to say – and say it in a clear, plainspoken way. The trickier you try to be, the more you invite in-kind behavior from reporters. If you try to brush them off, don’t be surprised if they try to ambush you.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

 

Practice = Secret to Making the Winning Shot

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale knocked down two last-second, game-winning shots in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four over the weekend and told reporters afterward she practices those shots everyday.  Speakers and presenters who want to make a hit should take note. (Photo Credit: Tony Dejak/AP)

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale knocked down two last-second, game-winning shots in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four over the weekend and told reporters afterward she practices those shots everyday.  Speakers and presenters who want to make a hit should take note. (Photo Credit: Tony Dejak/AP)

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale lived every athlete’s dream when she drained a last-second shot to win a national championship. It was the second Final Four game in a row in which Ogunbowale made a clutch, game-winning shot. When asked about her heroics, Ogunbowale said she expected her shots to go in because she practices them everyday.

In contrast, Geno Auriemma, the Hall of Fame coach for the University of Connecticut Huskies, said his number-one seeded and undefeated team that lost to Notre Dame and Ogunbowale in the semifinals took it easy too often during practice. Team members knew they were good, he explained, and assumed they would win.

That, in a nutshell, describes the prevalent attitudes about practice by public speakers and presenters. Some speakers and presenters practice to gain confidence. Others are self-confident – to a fault.

The old phrase “practice makes perfect” may be a hyperbole, but practice is absolutely the path toward perfection. And the stakes keep getting higher for more perfect communications with dwindling attention spans and growing competition for people’s attention.

Customized media training is never out of style – or unneeded, even for experienced speakers and presenters. Here are three reasons why:

Delivering a crisp, clear key message

As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is discovering on a daily basis, crisp, clear key messages don’t just roll off the tongue. They need to be crafted carefully, tested to see if they work as intended and practiced so they appear to roll off the tongue.

Depending on the circumstances, key messages must reflect more than what you want to say; they also need to deliver something your audience needs to hear or finds of value. Key messages must be in language that audiences will understand and delivered through a channel where they are listening or watching.

Speakers should strive to leave their audiences with something to remember. It can be a clever phrase or a memorable story, but it is almost never an off-the-cuff comment. There is little accidental success in speaking and presenting. If you want to hit the game-winning shot, you need to practice making the shot.

Reinforcing your point through your posture

Body language for speakers and presenters communicates more to audiences than the words they utter. If you look nervous, uncertain or unprepared, the audience will see it. They also will see the distracting physical tick or the inappropriate smirk.

Good posture can convey confidence, which gives audiences reason to have trust in what you’re saying. If you stumble through your remarks or look befuddled, audiences will consciously or subconsciously wonder if you know what are talking about. Certain postures, body language and facial expressions can come across as over-confident or defensive.

Practice, whether it’s in front of a mirror or on video as part of a simulated interview, can reveal how you look when you speak, what ticks you might have and whether your facial expressions match the message. Nobody likes to see someone smiling when they are announcing layoffs. With some coaching and lots of practice, you can improve your posture, pacing and breathing, which will boost your confidence and your audience’s confidence in you.

Making your message entertaining

Few people naturally speak in sound bites. But sound bites are an effective way to engage your audience or a reporter, so are worth the time and sweat it takes to develop them.

Presentations need pep, too, which can be provided with eye-catching graphics that reinforce key points or video clips that show what you are talking about.

Audiences are accustomed to a higher level of presentation value and polish. It takes forethought, hard work and practice to come up with those presentation values and achieve polish.

Stand-up comics make their money by delivering funny punchlines. They spend a lot of time writing their jokes and concentrating on timing so their punchline draws a laugh. The craft of stand-u comics should be an example to every speaker or presenter.

And if you really want to impress your audience, follow the example of Arike Ogunbowale and practice your game-winning lines everyday.

For more about media training, check out these previous CFM blogs:

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Gary Conkling  is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at    garyc@cfmpdx.com    and you can follow him on Twitter at    @GaryConkling   .

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Think More, Talk Less to Be Heard

Overwhelming an audience or a reporter with too much talk can drown out your key message and cause those listening to you to reach for their smartphones. Better advice: think more about how to simplify what you want to say so you talk less and are heard better.

Overwhelming an audience or a reporter with too much talk can drown out your key message and cause those listening to you to reach for their smartphones. Better advice: think more about how to simplify what you want to say so you talk less and are heard better.

In communication, less is usually more than enough. Brevity is the soul of wit – and quite possibly the only way to get your point across to audiences addicted to mobile devices and plagued by shrinking attention spans.

Executive coach Greg Salciccioli instructs presenters to deliver “clear, concise and compelling content.” His advice applies to any form of communication, especially media interviews.

A client asked me why a TV reporter totally missed his key message after he gave an in-person interview. I told him he drowned out his message by offering too much information. The reporter needed something quotable; he gave a lecture.

In a LinkedIn blog post, Salciccioli cited research by David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, that indicates full-time workers focus on their jobs for only six hours a week – or roughly 15 percent of their time at work. He also notes a 2016 Nielsen report that says US adults spend more than 10 hours per day interacting with electronic media. These two data points are not unrelated. Statistics like that underscore why simplicity and scintillating content are necessary to grab attention.

Simplifying what you say is not the same as dumbing down what you say. Simplification means conveying what you want to say in as few words as possible. Or as Joseph McCormack, author of Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, advises: “Think and speak in headlines.”

Headlines are basically the same as sound bites – short, catchy phrases that convey a lot of meaning in a few words. Presenters and spokespersons may balk at reducing their brilliance to sound bites, but they do so at the peril of their key messages, like my client. If you want to be heard, you have to do what’s necessary to be heard.

Catering to your audience isn’t an act of surrender. If people are interested in a subject, they will ask for more information. However, pepper-spraying an audience – or a reporter – with a lot of information all at once only serves to push them away. That TV reporter interviewing my client couldn’t wait to beat a hasty retreat.

Contemporary audiences don’t view long orations or debates as entertainment. Abraham Lincoln, who participated in seven 3-hour debates with Stephen Douglas, gave his most inspirational and enduring speech at Gettysburg. It lasted only three minutes and consisted of just 272 words, punctuated by the riveting line, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln’s memorable remarks followed a 2-hour “keynote” speech that has been largely forgotten.

People with a lot to say tend to put up the most stubborn resistance to brevity. But their vanity can’t overcome – and might actually contribute to – the lethargy and apathy of an audience. As humbling as it might be, people listening to a speech or media interview will remember more of what they see than what they hear. How you look and present yourself can make up 80 percent of an audience impression. All the more reason to choose your words carefully to maximize that other 20 percent of retention.

Speaking effectively and efficiently, as Salciccioli recommends, can earn you credibility with an audience or a reporter. Your preparation, organization and succinct delivery makes listening easier. Audience members don’t need to struggle to figure out what you mean to say. A reporter doesn’t have to scramble to find 12 usable seconds of tape, the average length of a quote in TV stories.

Salciccioli titled his LinkedIn blog, “The Power of Getting to the Point.” He is absolutely right that straightforward, brightly expressed commentary puts you in the driver’s seat because you are commanding the narrative. When you wander around and drone on, you muddy and bury the story you mean to tell. You leave it to the audience or a reporter to decipher what you said.

My baffled client told me proudly he gave the TV reporter enough material to fill 30 minutes of air time. Sadly, the reporter only needed 12 seconds of good sound for her story. The 12 seconds she chose wasn’t his key message, which we had worked on for two hours before the interview. My client blamed the reporter. In reality, he had no one to blame but himself.

If you want to make your point, take the time to chisel it into a phrase or sentence that people can hear, comprehend and remember. Think more and talk less.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

The Value of Local PR Advice

Cultural barriers and geographical distances can thwart effective communications, which is why it is wise to seek local PR counsel and follow its advice.

Cultural barriers and geographical distances can thwart effective communications, which is why it is wise to seek local PR counsel and follow its advice.

Companies and organizations ask for trouble when they fail to recognize the obstacles that can occur in communications between different cultures and geographies.

What is transparency in one culture may be completely foreign in another. The kind of language and quality of explanation that works in one part of the country may fall flat in the ears of consumers who live somewhere else.

The most fundamental obstacle is not knowing the local turf. Our colleague Ruud Bijl, who provides crisis counsel to clients from his home base in Amsterdam, wrote, "When a crisis occurs, corporate guidelines and cultural differences often cause an international company headaches.”

In his blog, Bijl cited the example of a Chinese toy company that was baffled by a West European company representative who recommended issuing an apology and recalling a defective video game. Toy company officials refused to do either and instructed their representative to respond only to complaints, even if that risked a long-term dent in the brand’s reputation. 

Encountering these kinds of obstacles doesn't require crossing international boundaries. They can occur anywhere. Cultural barriers can exist in the same city.

For example, a company with social service operations across America and a headquarters in the Midwest may feel like a fish out of water trying to communicate to stakeholders in a place like Oregon. The politics and sensitivities around the social services could be very different. And the company PR team may not have any existing relationships with key reporters or local influencers. Their attempt to deliver a complex message may be thwarted by not getting a reporter of a key publication to call them back on the phone.

Crisis response and media relations, like politics, is all local. You need to know the lay of the land and who to call. You should understand the local context for a problem or issue. Experience dealing with crises or touchy issues is valuable, but so is the good sense to seek some local assistance. 

Bijl advises that crisis communications plans take into account cultural differences and geographical distances so a crisis response team isn’t bogged down trying to identify and cope with those obstacles. The same counsel applies to a media relations or marketing program. Know your audience, understand how it gets trusted information and build rapport with those influencers before you roll out a campaign or respond to a crisis.

For large, complex and multi-location organizations, that may not be possible without competent local assistance. The cost of hiring and following the advice of a savvy local PR team is well worth it if you can avoid running into a communication brick wall.

Two Visions for Successful News Outlets

Philadelphia newspapers are entering a new era after H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, right, handed over ownership of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media. Meanwhile, journalist-turned-entrepreneur Steve Brill, left, says newspapers fail to understand how to operate paywalls and produce the kind of content readers will have to pay to get. 

Philadelphia newspapers are entering a new era after H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, right, handed over ownership of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media. Meanwhile, journalist-turned-entrepreneur Steve Brill, left, says newspapers fail to understand how to operate paywalls and produce the kind of content readers will have to pay to get. 

Philadelphia’s newspapers are entering the uncharted territory of nonprofit ownership. Meanwhile, journalist-turned-entrepreneur Steve Brill says newspapers are clueless about paywalls and generating the content readers will pay to read.

For Portlanders, both trends may seem like more promising options than witnessing the slow shrinkage of The Oregonian.

In Philadelphia, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest handed over ownership of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com to the Institute for Journalism in New Media, a newly created arm of the Philadelphia Foundation. The keys to the publications came with a $20 million endowment from Lenfest.

But largesse won’t keep the presses rolling in Philadelphia. Earnings from the endowment will be given as grants for reporting projects and journalistic innovation. The publications will retain independent management and remain dependent on advertising and subscription revenues.

While reaction in Philadelphia was generally positive, Brill is cajoling newspapers to take bolder steps that may seem counterintuitive to newspaper owners. Brill says newspapers should beef up their reporting staffs to produce content that people will pay to read through paywalls. The challenge today, Brill says, isn’t the idea. It’s having anything left in the newsroom worth paying for.

"We had a meeting at one big paper – I think it was the Atlanta Journal Constitution,” Brill told James Warren, writing for Poynter. "They were psyched to do this, but one editor walked us out of the building and said, 'It's a good idea but I'm not sure we still have anything left to sell.’"

Brill cited an example of a Montana newspaper with a successful paywall. "They were covering the local school board, local politics, local sports – and people wanted to buy it,” he said.

Categorizing newspaper owners as something less than “swashbucklers,” Brill predicts, "Some smart venture capitalist is going to bottom feed a large company and bring in people who do it right. That means beefing up the website, making it the place for information and news in a community and getting people to log in so often, you will be able to get by with only printing, say, once a week, maybe on Sunday. And online will be a seven-day-a-week product that everybody will be happy with and will be self-sustaining.”

Brill sees his mission as "hand holding with publishers and people in newsrooms to get them to support investing in the newsroom.”

"This is not a group of business people who are real business people,” he says. "They either inherited monopolies or were, by then, part of big chains in the hands of debt holders. The industry wasn't full of high quality, big thinkers, in terms of the people running it, since for many years it didn't have to be.

"For years, if you had a paper, for many advertisers, you were the only game in town. If the Oldsmobile dealer wanted to announce a sale, you got the ad. Now there isn't even an Oldsmobile dealer, and the car dealers who are left have multiple ways to market their cars and infinitely more efficient ways to market used cars. The underpinning of the business was eviscerated and in many places the people who inherited the businesses weren't prepared, since they never had to really compete.”

Brill believes investigative journalism is key to paid content, though he concedes readers are unlikely to be willing to pay its full cost.

“In the history of the world, if you are talking about quality journalism, where you have to pay people to do real reporting and go travel to do interviews, it would be hard to name the quality journalism organization that existed solely on advertising revenue,” Brill admits. "The closest is the broadcast networks in the '60s, '70s and '80s when they had 90 percent of the eyeballs in the country. And even then their news operations mostly didn't make money and were really considered a public service.”

Brill, 65, earned his cred in 1978 with an exposé book about the Teamsters Union. A graduate of Yale Law School, Brill founded Court TV (now truTV), a cable and satellite channel that gives viewers an inside look at courtrooms. In 1998, he launched Brill’s Content as a media watchdog, which ended with a controversial piece alleging independent counsel Ken Starr leaked grand jury proceedings involving the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Brill has written attention-grabbing pieces about educational inequality and profit-making gaming in the health care industry. He most recently produced a 15-part documentary about Johnson & Johnson titled, “America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker.”

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

The News Advisory Versus the Press Release

Want to stop reporters from tossing your press release in the trash? Try a news advisory instead. 

Want to stop reporters from tossing your press release in the trash? Try a news advisory instead. 

There is no right way to pitch a story to the news media, but some ways work far better than others. One of the weakest media relations tools is the venerable press release.

For starters, reporters, editors and producers don't like them. They smack, in their view, of attempts to spoon feed the press. As a result, press releases – despite all the energy to wordsmith every last sentence – gets wadded up and tossed in the newsroom.

Press releases have their places, which we will get to later. But a better approach to pitching a story is the news advisory.

News advisories focus on the main story hook. In a sentence or two, an effective news advisory provides the reason a reporter, editor or producer should care abut your story and its critical details. Most important, the news advisory contains links or visual assets that allow the reporter, editor or producer to scout out the story on their own.

One of the links can be to a press release that you've posted on your organization's online newsroom, so the press release is used as back-up material, not the wedge to sell the story.

The self-discovery strategy has another key quality – it leads to quicker interaction between the PR pro and the reporter. If the story hook perks interest, the reporter may want to ask quickly about other resources or contacts. Story development becomes more of a collaborative endeavor – and more likely to produce something you will feel good about.

Maybe the underlying value of news advisories is the need to zero in on the story hook – what makes whatever you are pitching news, at least in the eyes of the reporters, editors and producers you are pitching. They may like your hook or see a promising variation. Either way, you are ahead of the game.

In certain circumstances, a news advisory can prompt an invitation to write a "story" or an op-ed. This offers a chance to find out what the reporter, editor or producer wants before you start writing. You can customize the story to fit what the media wants while still incorporating your "news" message. This is way to give one media outlet something exclusive, instead of the same press release that has been sprayed around to other media.

This advice applies to online influencers. Bloggers, many of whom are former journalists, aren't more prone to wade through a pile of press releases. News advisories appeal to them for all the same reasons. You give them a chance to work with you on a story one-on-one.

Another convenience to news advisories – they can fit into the 140-character channel of Twitter. Pitching stories on Twitter has become commonplace, especially for people who take the time to sharpen their story hook and share it cleverly.

News advisories aren't revolutionary. People and organizations that get their stories out have always used more personalized outreach strategies. The digital age just allows you to be personal with more people at the same time.

The next time the boss says to write a press release with dubious news value, suggest a news advisory that you send after spending time on the story hook, not the quote that never will see the light of day.

Click here to download a copy of one of our recent media advisories.

News and Yesterday's News

News delivered late is yesterday's news, and nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response.

News delivered late is yesterday's news, and nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response.

In comedy, a badly timed punchline ruins the joke. It's the same in news. Deliver it on time, it's news. Deliver it late and it's yesterday's news.

Nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response. But sluggish media relations can be just as harmful. The most serious casualty is a lost opportunity to tell your story when a key audience may be listening or watching.

Here are some of the most common, albeit lame reasons for tardy media engagement:

  • Arthritic approval structures in organizations, especially large ones.
  • Obsessive word-smithing over language in a press release that will never see the light of day.
  • A reticence to share some facts until all facts are known.
  • A forlorn belief that the story will blow over.
  • Worries about legal exposure.
  • Waiting for the right moment.
  • Not wanting to look pushy.

Organizations that understand the value of media relations in this media-rich digital age overcome those obstacles to timely news delivery. They streamline how news releases are written and approved. They focus on key messages, not press releases. They know opportunities come and go, but some stories don't fade away. They pay attention to legal counsel, but don't enslave themselves to it. They understand that if they don't tell their story, somebody else will.

Most important, smart organizations see effective media relations as a critical strategy. Direct communication with your target audience is vital, but that audience also pays attention to third-party coverage and commentary to provide context and validation.

In a world of profiling communications channels, media relations has gotten tougher. But one thing remains the same. News is news. Old news isn't news, just like a mangled punchline isn't funny.

The Power of 1 Voice: Everyone Is a Spokesperson

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

[This article originally appeared in the March edition of PR Tactics]

On Thanksgiving evening, I watched shoppers hold their smartphones high above their heads as others jostled, pushed and complained. While someone was recording them, cashiers good-naturedly answered questions about their stress levels. They were also sympathetic with those shoppers who were frustrated that some early bargains were already sold out.

Once uploaded to YouTube, people might largely ignore that content, or it could easily appear on “Good Morning America” the next day. How plausible is that? A survey of professional journalists by Arketi Group found that 91 percent of journalists say they use the Web to search for news sources and story ideas, and 34 percent admit to spending their time online watching YouTube.

If the content is interesting enough, then someone will pick it up. In my experience, it first emerges in a community discussion on Reddit, where readers pick it apart from every conceivable angle. Then The Smoking Gun or BuzzFeed gets wind of it, helping it go viral. In hours, days or sometimes months, traditional journalists see it pop up in their news feeds, prompting another wave of attention. 

In an era in which everybody spends their time gathering and disseminating information to their respective spheres of influence, everybody who those quasi-journalists come into contact with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

While it is common for organizations to have policies prohibiting personnel from speaking with the media, how can they enforce these policies when every word could end up on Twitter, Facebook or someone’s blog? What guidance can they give someone who is snapping pictures or shooting video on company property, or a customer who is thrusting a smartphone in their face while asking questions?

Every employee can benefit from guidance and training in an organization’s messages and delivery techniques. The CEO probably knows more than others, but 100 or 1,000 employee voices have the potential for an even greater impact – positive and negative.

Sticking to command and control communications policies that attempt to funnel all communications to approved spokespeople is counterproductive. Consider the power of people throughout the organization welcoming the chance to tell a consistent story that taps into their passion. Then consider the risk of those same employees who are left to flounder in an environment in which they are under constant scrutiny.

Interacting with storytellers

This all became clear to me several years ago when I helped an oil and gas exploration company pursue shale plays throughout the United States. In Texas, people were enthusiastic about extracting oil and gas by fracturing – or fracking – the shale thousands of feet below the surface, but people in areas such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio were suspicious.

Out front of this effort were the “landmen,” the corps tasked with securing contracts with landowners. In a series of training sessions designed to help educate landowners, build trust and diffuse anger, we heard early warnings of how smartphones were changing everything. The landmen described landowners holding their smartphones up and recording their interactions – some were well informed and some were aggressively unfriendly. 

What had been a messaging and education training session evolved into something that closely resembled a media training session. If everyone – including the community that we were seeking to influence – was a journalist with the ability to reach a worldwide audience quickly, then all of our frontline people should be trained to interact with those storytellers.

With practice, many of the same techniques that are effective in managing interactions with professional journalists can be equally effective with citizen journalists. Here are five tips for all employees to keep in mind:

  • Prepare for the unexpected. Unlike most interactions with professional journalists, which are planned and scheduled, interactions with citizen journalists can come at any time. This means that organizations should keep the lines of communication open with people throughout the organization who interact with the public. If you are not providing them the information or context they need, then you are setting them up to look foolish, and you will look foolish, too.
  • Define what you want out of these interactions. It comes down to three questions: What do you want your community to know? What do you want them to believe? What do you want them to do as a result of the interaction? Left untrained, employees may not think that the person recording them with a smartphone presents an opportunity to build awareness or encourage positive feelings. Establish objectives and you will realize that it is infinitely easier to achieve positive outcomes.
  • Practice three-dimensional storytelling. Typically, message guidance from organizations is long on claims and short on personality, which reinforces negative perceptions that many companies are self-centered. Change that by working with your community of spokespeople to make your messages personal. First, whittle down your messages to three or four ideas that are central to what your organization is all about. Next, come up with proof points – data that makes those messages bulletproof. Finally, challenge spokespeople to come up with anecdotes, experiences and observations that make the messages tangible, human and authentic.
  • Think beyond messages. If a person is thrown into a tense situation, then it is only natural that their facial expression, posture and tone of voice will reveal feelings of anxiety and stress. Good luck with having people perceive your information positively in that situation, as negative non-verbal and voice cues will trump the meaning of what you’re saying. Through role play – preferably recorded and played back – your employees can see how they interact and can practice maintaining an optimistic overall disposition, even in chaotic situations.
  • Use bridging techniques responsibly. With some practice, spokespeople throughout the organization can grasp the idea that they can manage interactions by bridging to the ideas they want to emphasize. The potential downside of this technique is that it can seem evasive and manipulative if people ignore the questions. We recommend spokespeople always acknowledge the question and briefly respond in 10 seconds or less, then bridge.

Most organizations have a few trained spokespeople ready to interact with the media. When journalists call, they can funnel the questions to the approved spokesperson. Few organizations disseminate these skills broadly so that every public-facing person knows how to handle challenging questions with the expectation that any interaction could be recorded for a worldwide audience.

This loosening of the command and control approach to the role of spokesperson is the next step in our profession’s evolution. Organizations that adapt and train frontline personnel will multiply the impact of their communications. 

Which is louder: the voice of one spokesperson or the combined voices of all your employees?

Don't Be Like That Marshawn Lynch

If you perform at press conferences like Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, don't expect to enhance your reputation or build rapport with the media.

If you perform at press conferences like Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, don't expect to enhance your reputation or build rapport with the media.

If you were looking for a punishing running back, you couldn't do any better than Seattle Seahawk's Marshawn Lynch. If you were looking for a model of how to handle the media, look elsewhere. Being the Beast doesn't work.

Throughout his career, Lynch has avoided reporters. Unfortunately for him, it is part of his job as a professional football player. Lynch has been fined for no-shows at press conferences. Maybe reticent CEOs should get the same treatment when they duck the press.

Amazingly, many heads of corporations, nonprofits and public agencies don't think meeting the press is part of their job or, if it is, don’t think it’s an important part. 

Wrong. Their job may depend on how well they perform in dealing with the media. 

Dealing with the media, especially as the head of a significant organization, is neither art nor science. It has a lot to do, however, with common sense and being personable. The media writes or posts stories that influence public perception. Leaving a bad impression because of indulgent or boorish behavior isn't productive or good for your organization. 

Leaders don't need a bromance with reporters to show respect for the job they do — or help them to do that job. Talking straight and being genuine build rapport and, over time, trust. And the time inevitably comes when you want to see something about your organization published, which is when the rapport and trust you have built will come in handy.

You won't always be happy about the coverage you receive, but it usually is the coverage you or your organization have earned. You will get a better shot of telling your side of the story if you make it easy for reporters to get your side of the story.

At a Super Bowl press conference, Lynch showed up, but told reporters the only answer they would get to any question is, "I'm here so I won't get fined." And that's what traditional and social media reported. 

The performance added to Lynch's already sketchy reputation as a media bad boy who happens to be a great running back. It did nothing to enhance the reputation of his foundation or the good work it is doing in his hometown of Oakland. Spouting canned answers and staring down the press awkwardly for several minutes was what you might call beastly. 

Lynch is a great example of what a great running back is like, but his Beast routine at press conferences is a failed strategy that will get you tackled behind the line of scrimmage.

Don't Forget Editorial Board Visits

A savvy media relations strategy should include editorial board visits, affording a chance to offer the context and your opinion about the facts.

A savvy media relations strategy should include editorial board visits, affording a chance to offer the context and your opinion about the facts.

Much energy is devoted to wordsmithing press releases which could be better channeled into thinking more broadly whom to brief in person.

Notwithstanding the decline of newspaper readership and ad space, their editorial columns still have an impact. Editorial writers are worth the time to meet with and tell your story. Remember, the newsroom and the editorial staff aren't marching to the same drummer. In a savvy media relations strategy, you need to sing your song to both. 

While news releases bring attention to facts, events or developments, editorial board visits provide an avenue to express an opinion or to share the context behind the facts, events and developments.

Sharing your views doesn't automatically translate into a favorable editorial. But it does ensure your views are taken into consideration when an editorial is written.

A newspaper's editorial slant is usually obvious, but never should be taken for granted. There are plenty of examples of a pro-business paper writing an editorial lambasting a business.

Just as it is necessary for you to tell your story about a project, it is imperative you provide your perspective on the project — the way you hope the public or key groups will see the project.

An effective news release zeroes in on key points, starting with your best fact. An effective editorial board meeting should hew to the same discipline and hone in on what's really important. The exercise of framing snappy news releases and editorial board key messages should simplify and sharpen the focus of all communications. 

Proponents most often have a lot to say. But reporters and editors, just like the general public, want you to cut through to the bottom line. What are you proposing, doing or committing to that is significant? Winnowing down what you say increases your odds of getting across your desired message.

Questions or conversation can explore other relevant ground in an editorial board meeting. That's when you are apt to have an opportunity to rebut an opponent's claims or clear up a point of confusion.

Editorial board visits take time to arrange and prepare for. It is time and energy well spent, especially if the editorial on your topic is favorable or sympathetic with your point of view.

Stock Online Newsrooms with Visual Assets

A new survey shows corporate online newsrooms are underperforming, in part for lack of trying to meet evolving news media needs. 

Traditional newsrooms are running with smaller staffs as newspapers and magazines try to convert or at least adapt to digital platforms. As a result, there is heightened interest by news reporters and editors in images, video and links they can use as part of stories. TV stations share in this interest as they seek to build strong web presences.

However, managers of corporate online newsrooms often fail to provide this kind of content, resulting in lost opportunities for more dominant coverage of their story pitches.

Sally Falkow, president of PRESSfeed, which conducted the survey, says 83 percent of journalists surveyed wanted images to accompany text. But only 38 percent of corporate online newsrooms included visual assets. The disconnect, Falkow told ragan.com, reflects a sluggish response by PR professionals to a more visually oriented news environment.

Ringing in New Year of Media Relations

Media relations hasn't disappeared, but it is evolving along with media itself, requiring successful story pitchers to be nimble, adaptive and creative.Media relations hasn't gone away, but it has changed as media has multiplied and evolved. There are more outlets to monitor and pitch, including your own self-publication platform.

Even the press release has managed to survive in a faster-paced, highly segmented media world, but it also has assumed new shapes and purposes.

The overlapping crazes of social media and content marketing have lost some momentum here and there, but they also are adapting and adjusting.

So the key is not to arrange eulogies for positions and tactics. Instead, be alert for change and learn how to capitalize on new circumstances. Most important, concentrate of delivering quality, useful information with sharp story hooks, which remains the hallmark of attracting media attention

Learning What Not to Say

You practice crafting and delivering key messages. You also need to practice sticking to the script so you don't say what you didn't mean to say.Crisis responders and reputation managers coach clients on what to say and how to say it. They also should spend time emphasizing what not to say.

It is hard enough to extinguish a crisis or reinforce a reputation with carefully chosen words. But some words, no matter how well intended or even deserved, should not be uttered because they will stoke controversy more than quell it.

Media Relations Is Not Dead

A secret to successful media relations is a comprehensive media audit to discover where your stories appear, what key messages are conveyed and whether coverage hurts or helps your reputation.Media coverage can make organizations smile, sigh or grimace. But too few organizations take stock of the cumulative impact of their media coverage to see how it affects their reputation or reflects their intended key messages.

The digital age has turned media coverage on its head. You now need to track a lot more than the local newspaper and television stations. There are media tracking services and software to aid in compiling clips from a wide array of sources. Some services even provide a basic level of analysis of the coverage.

However you collect your media mentions, it pays to take the time to conduct a thorough media audit on your own. Here are some important things to look for:

1. Where did stories about you appear?  Separate your clips into relevant categories — local newspaper, local radio and TV, national media and blogs. This will give you a clear sense of where your stories resonate best.

Finding the Stories All Around You

Instead of griping about what the news media doesn't cover, be attentive to the stories all around you that underscore what your business, non-profit or public agency stands for.

Helping a local blood drive or contributing to a worthy cause are good things that build employee morale and pride, but usually won't earn any media coverage. Reporters, editors and bloggers are looking for stories with some sizzle.

  • A truck-driving school that trains an amputee who goes on to own and operate his own successful trucking company — opportunity for all.

  • How a rash of consumer complaints prompted a series of face-to-face meetings with company managers and designers that led to a completely revamped and much improved product — creative innovation.

  • An employee who is injured in a car accident, but still finds a way to deliver a critical part to a snow-removal crew preparing for bad weather conditions — service that goes the extra mile.

These are brand-building, reputation-enhancing stories that will attract media interest.

The Habits of Effective Media Relations

Building relationships with the media is more effective over the long-term than coming off like a carnival barker pitching stories.Good communicators rely on craft and relationships rather than luck to earn positive media mentions. Many times, good communicators go unnoticed, like great athletes who make amazing physical feats seem effortless. But like athletes, communicators train to improve their skills.

Here are five healthy media relations habits you should adopt:

1. Believe relationships with the media are important

Don't fall into the indulgent trap of believing that reporters or media outlets are out to get you. Think instead of what you can do to build rapport with the men and women whose job it is to cover what you do and say. You can't control what the media publishes, but you can assure yourself better access to the people who write the copy by taking the time to treat them as you would a colleague or customer. A little respect goes along way, and you will get back what you give.

2.  Think like a journalist

Convergence, Chaos and the Supreme Court

In much the same way the earth’s tectonic plates are grinding against each other off our Pacific shoreline — potentially creating a powerful force that could reshape our landscape — the world of technology and the news media universe are in collision. The forces emerging from the evolutionary  “convergence” of computers and television already are changing where and how we get our news. Convergence is the keyword.

Two seemingly unrelated news events last week could show us how and where we may find the trusted news sources of the future. The events: The high court's health care ruling and the split up of Rupert Murdock’s News Corp.

First, the Supreme Court’s affirmative ruling on the Affordable Care Act. News coverage was so confusing that even President Obama, who taught constitutional law at Harvard University, at first misunderstood the outcome and thought he had lost the court’s vote.

The leading cable news networks simply got the story wrong. CNN aired three differing stories on the court’s decision in 15 minutes, says reporter Luke Broadwater of The Baltimore Sun, adding that Fox wasn’t much better. 

“In addition to hitting the airwaves,” Broadwater wrote, “the network also sent out two breaking news alerts.”

• “10:09: The Supreme Court has struck down the individual mandate for health care — the legislation that requires all to have health insurance.”

• “10:18: Correction: The Supreme Court backs all parts of President Obama's signature health care law, including the individual mandate that requires all to have health insurance.”

The New York Times seemed to take a more cautious approach, Broadwater wrote, tweeting the following: "The Supreme Court has ruled on President Obama's health-care overhaul, and Times reporters and editors are analyzing the decision. Once we are comfortable with its basic meaning, you can expect a torrent of coverage."

 A red-faced CNN emailed a statement, explaining the initial confusion: 

"In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts initially said that the individual mandate was not a valid exercise of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause.  CNN reported that fact, but then wrongly reported that therefore the court struck down the mandate as unconstitutional. However, that was not the whole of the Court’s ruling.  CNN regrets that it didn't wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate.  We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error."

Jon Stewart of The Daily Show had his own take on what happened in the race for “news firstiness."

In simple terms, the print media proved to be a more reliable source.

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."

Getting Off the Front Page

Most organizations drool over the chance for front-page publicity. But what if the news and accompanying spotlight is uncomfortable? Got a Page One exit strategy?

Say, for example, a government agency is about to issue a less than glowing report of a business or contractor. Or an agency is undergoing a stormy relationship with a citizen group. More often than not, such issues of contention are not a surprise, but are situations that slowly have built to a head.