Reporters Don't Take Orders and Other PR Truths
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In a perfect-world scenario, the media’s needs would somehow perfectly align with needs of clients when it comes to content, information, and self-promotion. Both sides would get what they wanted. In reality, brands and the media often face the hard task of bridging the chasm between marketing or communications goals, and the public interest. As a PR professional, part of negotiating this tricky situation is remembering that the editors and writers of the world do not work for me or my clients. More often than not, they are simply too busy producing breaking news, thought pieces, columns and more to immediately address your requests.
Look, the news media can be a confusing beast for those who aren’t journalists or don’t work in close coordination with them. Current events and opinions get steadily churned out through a seemingly infinite number of newspapers, magazines, and blogs, with little indication of how stories are selected and who’s doing the selecting.
One of the main reasons people hire PR agencies is to navigate those murky waters. An informed PR agency can find the most newsworthy aspects of your story, package it in a concise and appealing way, then submit it to the reporters and editors most likely to be interested or find value in it. Well-executed PR can look like magic: with just a wave of the wand, favorable headlines and glowing reviews come pouring in.
This misconception, though, has led those outside of media and marketing to forget about the thousands of hard-working individual journalists that field pitches and tips, treating them as occasional resources to assist in the high volume of stories they’re expected to write. Here’s a collection of the most common myths that I encounter with clients and brands hoping to engage the media.
“Tell the Times to take it down!”
So, your story hit the front page, but it resulted in a lukewarm review of your product, or gave mention to your competitors, or worse, you even feel it misquoted you. Unfortunately, there’s almost always nothing you can do.
Just because a journalist has been helpful in getting your news out to the world, it doesn’t mean that they’re now in your employ. They responded to a pitch because it offered them valuable news or content, then they did their job by reporting on it.
Unless the article contains a glaring factual inaccuracy, has blatantly butchered a quote or its context, or - worst-case scenario - has delivered career-ending lies under the banner of accurate reporting, your inquiry will be ignored and sour the journalist against the brand and PR agency. They already have at least one boss, maybe even two or three, so they don’t need another.
Instead, put that energy toward confirming that your PR agency has thoroughly vetted any journalists’ portfolios and interests before pitching. Do they have a tendency for irreverent or cynical writing? Then maybe move on. It’s also important to have several irons in the fire, so that if an unfavorable writeup does go to print, you can call on other interested publications to balance it out with positive press or to drown it out with volume.
“How about we do a soft launch with a press release?”
I get requests to help conduct “soft launches” for companies and products all the time, but what does that term/strategy even mean? Soft launches work for restaurants and pharmaceutical trials, not company or product announcements. The moment a product name is reported on and available online, a substantial portion of the currency associated with it has been spent.
Typically, a soft launch will use a low-risk venue to receive consumer feedback and work out possible kinks. By using a high-profile news story as that venue, you risk broadly publicizing any of your product’s faults and prevent yourself from being able to conduct a “hard launch” announcement in the future. Of course, there are some conditions that can refresh a story, making it new again from an editorial perspective; new features, platforms, compatibility, design, and pricing models are some of them. However, it’s never a good idea to turn the media machine into your product petri dish.
Journalists are excellent at sniffing out and avoiding stale, old news; in fact, their jobs depend on it. If you’re hoping to weather balloon your product’s features, or test your brand’s new identity, stay out of the news and hire a focus group instead.
“We can do our own press outreach, and the brand won’t care or find out.”
Another common myth I run across is the idea that a corporate partner can conduct PR by trumpeting their involvement with a high-profile project without their client finding out. Say you’re the CMO for a major glass manufacturer, used in “unbreakable” smartphones. The thought crosses your mind to send a press release detailing your essential contribution to the product, despite the brand already warning its partners not to do any press outreach.
Maybe you just want some self-promotional language on your homepage, or a quick shout-out from a mid-sized tech blog, and rationalize that based on the scale of your efforts, the parent brand is unlikely to find that you violated their gag order or unlikely to care if they do.
Wrong! Treat every brand as though they have staff solely dedicated to Googling themselves and hitting refresh at a frenetic pace. Take heed, you will be caught. Any promotional messaging visible enough to have value will also be visible enough to be discovered by the partner who already warned you against it.
One way to avoid this position is to make promotional outreach a higher priority when negotiating contracts. Address your promotion concerns early. So long as you’re even tempered and don’t promise the PR coup of the century, your partners will likely overlook any conditions in favor of closing the deal on the table.
"Let's be clear."
Frankly, there isn’t a clear-cut method to ensure that your story will get published 100 percent of the time or that the end result will turn out exactly the way you envisioned it. There is a simple reason for this: the media at large is not at our beck and call and we are subject to their discretion at any given point in time. Once we’re aware of this, we can move forward with more optimal promotion and better opportunities for media outreach.