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Lessons From a Tough Week

Lessons From a Tough Week

Lessons From a Tough Week

My first public relations job was in the Capitol Hill communications office of a U.S. Senator, and I reported to his press secretary, a seasoned former journalist from New York.   As an intern, I mainly answered phones, but I also would regularly proofread news releases.   Right before we distributed a release, the press secretary would always say that we had a good chance for coverage “as long as there isn’t a fire in the garment district.”  Simple translation: A big news event will always scuttle even the best, well-crafted PR message.

On Monday, we had our own version of a fire in the garment district when the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon.  On Monday morning one of our clients did an interview with a television station in Atlanta.  We had orchestrated the story, hired a guy to be on the ground for us, prepped the client and coordinated the on-camera interview.

Our client did well discussing his lawsuit against a medical center, and we were expecting the story to run that night.  Shortly after our interview rapped, the bombs exploded in Boston, and our story got rightfully bumped – indefinitely.

We did everything right for our client, but there’s nothing you can do when major news breaks.  Years ago, I was working on a project where we were trying to get media coverage for a morning event in Miami, but as we were making follow up calls to TV stations, we learned that fashion designer Gianni Versace had been shot outside his Miami Beach mansion.  This huge news event, the murder and ensuing manhunt, took-over newsrooms in Miami and beyond.  Needless to say, our client’s event wasn’t covered.

While you can’t overcome a story as big as the Boston Marathon bombing, I do have some big picture media relations tips which can be helpful during more typical situations.

Strike While the Iron’s Hot
While we all have busy schedules and we want to be well-prepared for an interview, I recommend doing an interview as soon as possible.  First, another source may be interviewed before you and help shape the story in a way that makes your opinion less relevant.  Second, the reporter might get enough info for the story from other sources before you even get a chance to talk.  Third, deadlines change and the story might get published before your interview even occurs.  Lastly, a big news event comes along and scotches the opportunity completely.

Get your “Why Now?” Ready
My friend and fellow PR pro Greg Euston and I spent an evening in New York a few years ago talking media relations, and he opined about the challenge of “why now?”  Reporters get pitched interesting stories all day long, so if there isn’t a compelling reason to cover it “now,” then your challenge is magnified.   Why now vs. later?  Why now vs. ever?  You always have to figure out why your story is relevant right now.  A year or so ago, a friend of mine was telling me about a PR issue regarding the cruise industry – the specifics aren’t that important.  When Carnival Cruise Lines had its problems recently, I suggested that now is a good time to bring the issue up again.  Carnival is down and I figured he would have a better chance of getting a sympathetic ear because of it.  Sometimes the “why now” presents itself, well,  later.  The lesson is that you have to be ready to explain to journalists why they should cover your issue now vs. later.

While You See a Chance, Take it
I believe there are very few instances where one should turn down an interview opportunity.  I might get some blowback from other PR people on this one, and I have certainly had crisis situations where you try to deflect more than engage.  However, in most circumstances, if you have a chance to talk to the press, you ought to do it.  Even if you don’t believe you can give any deep insight into an issue, an interview offers a chance to showcase your expertise.  In some instances, you may actually change the story because of your insight.  A reporter might be misinformed and you can educate them.  And even if they don’t use your information, you are branding yourself as a source for a story in the future.

Don’t Sweat What is Out of Your Control
Stories get bumped all the time, and one can’t get upset when a national tragedy takes precedence.  I guess I would feel differently if our Atlanta story was pushed back due to Kim Kardashian’s baby or Lindsay Lohan’s admittance to rehab; but it wasn’t, so I’m not.

Luckily, our Atlanta story did eventually run on Wednesday, so we were pleased.  But quite frankly, the events of this week put a lot of things in perspective.


Author: John P. David

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