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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Friday, May 20, 2011

Don’t Call Us. We’ll Call You.

Just because he’s the president of the organization, it doesn’t mean he’s a good interview.

As part of the job of being a good PR professional not only does it fall upon us to secure our organization and/or clients meaningful media coverage that supports a communications plan and business objectives, but we must also find a way to position our executives as thought leaders and/or excellent sources for commentary.

One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is by offering a relevant executive as a person to interview when you’re pitching a particular media outlet about some new trend, noteworthy product/service launch, upcoming event, or announcement. The other way is by monitoring what a particular journalist is covering and then positioning your executive or expert as a person who can lend to the story by offering some balance or key insights.

Now this may be a shocker to some (especially to the executive or expert you’re positioning) but not everyone can deliver the goods.

When a PR pro pitches a good story, a lot of times we’ll have a person in mind who we want to put out in front for an interview. And to really sell it we’ll tell the person we are pitching that so and so is a “good interview.” For those not in public relations, you’re probably thinking to yourself, isn’t that what you’re supposed to say?

(Side note: If you’re anything like me, you’d have several people you want to offer for interviews: an exec to talk overall strategy and position in the market; manager directly hands on with the project/product; an end-user; and some analyst or industry type to provide perspective or talk trends – that’s how you package a story.)

But what does that mean when we tell a reporter/journo we’re pitching that so and so is a good interview?

What we are saying is that we know what you are looking for and we got a person in mind who can deliver the goods and the money shot. The person we lined up is knowledgeable, personable, engaging, sometimes funny, passionate, an excellent story teller and they give good sound bite. Sometimes they’ll have a great voice, sometimes they are camera friendly, or there’s something compellingly quirky about them. In essence they are a “good interview” – someone a reporter would WANT to talk to about that thing the PR person pitched.

Unfortunately, a lot of PR pros think in a very linear way about who to put in front of the reporter/journo. If the topic is something scientific, you go get the scientist; if it’s something legal you get the attorney; if it’s a big story or a big media outlet, you go get the CEO. I can’t say that this is wrong or that I haven’t done it myself.

But what if the person who lined up the most succinctly with the subject matter was a god awful interview? You know what I’m talking about, the person who speaks monotone using acronyms, industry terminology and only sees questions in black and white. Or the type of person that sees the media interview as more of a begrudged task and not an opportunity, or the person who over talks, does a verbal data dump and bores the interviewer to tears. You could end up doing more damage to the outcome of your coverage, just on the strength of a bad interview. Also, when there is a future story that your org/client wants to desperately be a part of, the reporter will remember the agonizing experience and opt to go with someone else.

I’ve painfully sat through interviews with bad interviewees myself. Either they viewed talking to the media as an annoyance, used too much “shop talk,” peppered their responses with jargon, talked too little giving only one word answers, not answering questions at all or went off onto tangents that helped to lose the message. All of these attributes, along with those previously mentioned, make for interview hell.

Back in my agency days, two clients I worked with were led by individuals that fit the description of being a good interview: Rick Hecker, Owner and CEO of Eifel, Inc. and the late auto journalist David E. Davis Jr. Both of these gentlemen had great back stories, were extremely knowledgeable about their industries, wielded a hard to hide passion and both were just rough enough around the edges to be interesting. The media used to enjoy talking to them so much they’d try to go around me (the gatekeeper) to interview them for various stories.

Right now you’re reading this and probably mentally identifying that person at your company (or your client’s) that fits the build of being a good interview. But how do you get them past the people who think that THEY should be doing the interview, and in front of a reporter? I don’t know, you are on your own there.

But I offer this, think about the medium you’re approaching and then match it to the right messenger. Print interviews are the easiest, but for broadcast think about the intangibles. For radio, get someone with a great speaking voice, can think quickly on their feet and knows how to banter or tell a story to someone listening. When it comes to TV, think about the optics (what the viewer will be seeing) as well as your exec/expert’s comfort level with being asked tough questions under a bright light. People tend to have a more positive impression when the people they are listening to or looking at are appealing in some way.

As far as depth of the issues (if it’s not the interviewee’s specific lane), most of your organization’s leaders know a little bit of something about most facets of the org’s operations and objectives, that’s what the executive management team meetings are all about. And if they don’t, they can be coached and briefed on the details. I think it’s extremely important to have the right messenger.

And if you don’t have the leeway to utilize someone who’s a good interview because a particular topic is not their area of expertise and you have to use the exec, who’s not as fruitful when it comes to doing interviews, then there’s always media training.

Friday, May 13, 2011

PR Guerillas In Our Midst

All the talk about U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6, clandestine missions and assassinations must have gotten PR firms feeling real frisky. How else would you explain what public relations power house Burson-Marsteller recently got caught doing (or trying to do) to Google.

By now, if you’re in the field of public relations you’ve heard or read that Facebook put out the proverbial hit on a potential social media rival. And how did they attempt this feat, by calling on one of the PR industry “Big Boys” to launch a secret reputation damage-ment campaign. I told you before, the Empire Strikes Back!

Now the news here is not that a major brand got involved in some competitive monkey business with another major brand that threatened a core product. That happens, rightfully or not, all the time in the business world. After all, only the strong survives.

No, what’s news is that Burson-Marsteller (BM), a seemingly reputable firm that recently received the North American Agency of the Year award, actually accepted such a smarmy, ethics challenging assignment. Especially knowing that if they got caught (which actually happened) they had so much to loose in terms of reputation currency.

I can’t imagine that this very public foul play sat well with the remainder of the agency’s client portfolio (which by the way reads like the who’s who in the recognizable brand community). Reputation management is bad enough when a company is dealing with its own issues, so being close enough to get some stink on your brand due to someone else’s bad judgment is problematic.

Where was the leadership or the voice of reason at BM to step up and say, “No, we won’t engage in such a practice because that’s not who we are as an agency.” But that didn’t happen.

I can recall an instance when an employer asked me to do something unethical as a PR professional and I refused. I don’t engage in dishonest or questionable public relations practices because that’s not who I am and by doing so, I run the risk of hurting my personal brand. So I found what BM engaged in even more troubling.

Not only did the agency take on this high stakes, daring mission to assassinate a potential future client, but they used two converted journalists as operatives. Beyond the decision to do the job in the first place, the usage of former news men is what puzzled many, because they should’ve known better.

When this Bay of Pigs styled mission was discovered, BM went all Ollie North and refused to out their benefactor and puppet master. However, that outing would happen with some journalistic investigation. If there is one thing the media loves to do, it’s to go after and nail unethical PR types. It’s like nectar to the scribe gods and then they hang the pelts out for all to see.

This is not the first time we’ve seen this type of thing in our profession. Dick Armey of Freedom Works fame successfully used a PR agency in an Astroturf campaign against the Obama Administration’s Healthcare Bill. Armey’s PR guerillas succeeded at making something as socially necessary and desired as healthcare, seem like something dark, menacing and anti-American. They were able to convince the media and unsure voters that this was somehow bad for them and fit to be destroyed.

While public relations can be broken down into many different disciplines, I don’t think character assignation should be one of them. PR should never want to play in this space.

We can overlook stuff like Armey’s Astroturfing because it’s political. But this sort of unethical behavior coming from a top five global PR agency was a little hard to stomach. Even the Chairman and CEO of the PRSA offered uneasy thoughts on the situation.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this action, especially given the fact that BM is head by Mark Penn, the same person who handled Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. He’s also the same guy who put the media hit job on current President Barrack Obama during the primaries. So maybe this is who they really are and it all stems from the top down.

Here’s the only thing BM has said about this issue so far: Statement

Now when we see a slew of unfavorable media coverage on a particular brand, we may have to ask ourselves the question, which public relations agency is behind this?