Communications Can’t Cure the Current Chaos

Reflections on a thought leadership event.

by Samantha Villegas
Samantha Villegas, APR, is President of SaVi PR, and currently serves on the PRSA National Board of Directors. She was the 2013 president of the National Capital Chapter.

I don’t know about you but as a communicator, my optimism is at an all-time low, and my cynicism is at an all-time high. Though fake news (or lies or propaganda or whatever phrase you prefer) is nothing new, it’s now being created and disseminated at rates and volumes beyond what we’ve ever experienced before. And thanks to today’s sharing technology, it proliferates at warp speed. Couple this with the apparent loss of respect for facts and science – scientific method and critical thinking – and what is a professional communicator to do? It seems we can’t win for trying.

art-broken-explosion-glass

Courtesy: Pexels/Stokpic

The science, data, and peer-reviewed study behind such important issues as climate change, vaccinations, and gun violence, for example, is indisputable, and yet, here we are, every day, forced to engage in insidious conversations about whether sea levels have risen or fallen (they’ve risen); whether vaccinations cause autism (they don’t) and whether having more guns and easier access to them makes us safer (they don’t). Each one of those facts, whether someone likes them or not, can be definitively defended, because there is ample data, peer-reviewed studies and science to back them. I know them like I know hot food will burn my tongue and the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Despite that, people are disputing them, with points that are irrelevant, not fact-based or just wrong. And they dig in and stay put.

The scariest part is this behavior is not confined to a small group of naysayers or even only the uneducated. This behavior can be seen in Ivy League graduates, serving in some of our country’s highest leadership positions, who are using it as a tool to push political agendas. It’s used by leaders in business and government to relax regulations that were grounded in science and put in place to protect public health, just so they can pad profit. This adherence to misinformation and disinformation, whether involuntary due to ignorance or purposeful for politics, comes with tremendous consequences. It has me feeling a bit paralyzed, frankly, as if the only firm ground I’ve ever known has suddenly crumbled away.

So I was glad to have the chance, recently, to attend a panel discussion about fake news and its impact on journalism and the public relations profession. A lot of agreement on the state of things, and very sound advice for dealing with our new normal was offered, such as:

  • Use non-confrontational language, even when challenging those who present ideas based on false premises
  • Be advocates for teaching the next generation critical thinking skills, how to interpret, analyze and evaluate information
  • Invest in market research to understand your audience’s wants
  • Speak plainly and in an authentic voice
  • Don’t jump in without first understanding context and having a strategy
  • Keep messages short
  • Build partnerships and alliances rather than challenge misinformation, disinformation, lies and false “facts” alone
  • Be vigilant in advocating for truth in communications

This is all, undeniably great advice. But here’s the thing: all those bullets apply to any communications professional at any time in history. All of this represents some of the very basics of savvy communications. Granted, not all of us can practice all of this all of the time. Budgets get in the way of conducting meaningful research. Deadlines prevent us from building the critical partnerships. And sometimes, the arrogance of a decision-maker stops us from being able to say the exact right thing in the exact right way we should. I get it, we can’t always be on our game. But, if most of us are doing most of this, most of the time, how is this chaos still happening?

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Courtesy: Gratisography/Ryan McGuire

Someone on the panel said truth is now a differentiator. Truth, as a differentiator. Let that sink in for a second. On the one hand, I can’t contain my sheer despondence if that’s the case. And two, at a time when facts don’t matter and he who lies best wins, how does truth set you apart, let alone set you free? Whose truth? Which truth?

Fellow communicators, we’re facing the challenge of our careers right now. I don’t have any easy answers for you. Of course we must follow the panelists’ advice, as I hope you always have been. We shall endeavor to seek first to understand before being understood. We shall strategize first and write truthful pithy copy in snack sized bites, and we shall seek common ground and partnership with different minded but similarly missioned (or is it similarly minded but different missioned?) groups. We shall continue to do as I think we have all been endeavoring to do, with added vigor and purpose.

But please forgive me if I tell you that I don’t believe these approaches will cure what ails us.  So while I am grateful for the sage reminders, I don’t think these issues – this lack of critical thinking, self-control, or basic understanding of science, can be fixed by upping our communications game. We need to stay focused and bring our best every day, but I think we just need to let this stink bomb dissipate.

As one colleague put it so well, “The flames of emotion are being fanned at such an alarming rate that I have no sense of how to encourage critical thinking in so many people who form opinions about policy and events from tweets.”

Another I spoke to about this said she “fear[s] for what happens when too many among our citizens fail to reason rationally and logically, and fail to think independently,” and I couldn’t agree more.

So, we must do all these things the panel said. Do your best work. And bide your time, because we can’t change crazy but we can outlast it. I predict that in a few years, after another election cycle or two, we will look back at this and shake our heads. We may even get a chuckle. We will have volumes of remember whens and memes and footnotes and stories. And we will snap back to reality, where facts are facts, truth is truth, lies are lies, and love is love. At least I hope that’s what will happen. See you on the other side.

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Michael Smart delivered a solid repeat performance on June 29 of his two half-day workshops: Pitching Bootcamp and Building Media Relationships

Session One – Pitching Bootcamp: by Ana Pinilla, BusinessWire

Michael SmartThe Morning Session “Pitching Bootcamp” started with Michael talking about the problems PR practitioners can encounter when pitching journalists and went on to offer his “pitching playbook” where he discussed several examples of how to do it right – starting off with turning a press release from boring to glowing – making it into something newsworthy that journalists will want to use as part of their reporting.  It’s also about finding the angle for the story – one that could be holiday or seasonally related, a story with human impact, or even proximity to where we live and work, as well as other ideas. Michael went on to discuss the anatomy of a perfect pitch that included appropriate phone and/or email introductions and how to deliver the story with speed and interest. But with all this being said, success also depends on knowing the journalists – what they write about and knowing their style. What was particularly helpful was that Michael provided audio and video examples of pitches – with lots of do’s and don’ts – that made it all so much easier and real to attendees.

 

Session Two – Going Beyond the Pitch: Why Relationship Building Matters: by , News Generation

Michael SmartAs PR pros, we know the importance of building and strengthening our relationships with reporters. This was the focus of PRSA-NCC’s recent series of workshops with media relations expert Michael Smart. During the workshops, Smart offered participants hands-on, practical tips and social media suggestions on how to engage and build relationships with members of the media.

The most important theme he stressed is that you must invest in your relationships with the media. Invest the time and brain space. It is a critical component of your job and helps us be more effective at what we do.

Also, pay attention to what journalists are covering. Engage with their material. Show them that you are following them, that you genuinely care about what they’re reporting. Doing so will help separate you from other PR pros. Learn their style and pitch them in a personal, customized way, and become a credible resource to journalists. When pitching, it’s equally important to show that that we’re respectful of a journalist’s time and deadlines.

(*re-published from News Generation: http://www.newsgeneration.com/2016/07/01/relationship-building-matters-michael-smart-prsa/)

Media Relations in the Age of the Mobile Device

By Ailis Wolf, Van Eperen

media-mobileOn Thursday, Nov. 19, the Professional Development Committee hosted an exciting media panel at the Navy Memorial to discuss what the rise of the mobile device means for the future of media relations campaigns and for the outreach being conducted now by media relations professionals.

The panel consisted of Lisa Stark, national news correspondent for Al Jazeera (@LisaStark); Lenny Bernstein, fitness and health correspondent for The Washington Post (@LennyMBernstein); Eric Lichtblau, justice department correspondent for The New York Times (@EricLichtblau); and Andrea Shalal, defense industry correspondent for Reuters (@andrea_shalal). The panel was moderated by Aaron Cohen, president of Aaron Cohen PR, LLC (@aaroncohenpr).

The panelists shared insights into what the changing digital landscape has meant both for how they work and for the level of their workload, which informs how best to reach them when pitching. They also offered a variety of useful information about the changes going on within their organizations in order provide content optimized for mobile platforms, both phones and tablets.

On Al Jazeera America and what she does, Lisa Stark shared that she loves PR people as they give her a window into items about which she would not know otherwise. But for her, the worst thing is individuals who try to “pull the wool over my eyes.” She said the most important thing to her is that PR professionals are honest. She says, “You want me to be straight with you, and I want you to be straight with me.” Lisa said, and other panelists agreed, that it is important to know the audience of the media outlet you are pitching and know the types of things they cover, particularly when pitching a journalist who has a specific beat. She noted that Al Jazeera America, for example, is focused on covering stories about inequality, social justice, immigration, gender issues, and pioneers. They think of themselves as the “anti-Kardashian” network. They tend to do larger pieces and their pieces run longer than most found on other networks. Their network is also on social media across all platforms and she has been told the big issues for them on social media are gender and race. And unlike some of the other speakers, Lisa said 60 percent of Al Jazeera’s online traffic is from desktop, with 40 percent coming from mobile.

Last month (October), 80 percent of the online traffic for The Washington Post – 51 million out of 66 million – came from mobile, either through phone or tablet. That statistic, reported by Lenny Bernstein, is indicative of a major trend affecting changes at all media outlets with the goal of optimizing online traffic. What changes are being made at the Post that have allowed them to recently beat The New York Times in unique page views? Bernstein reported that the big difference between what is seen on mobile versus on a desktop has to do with design. The Washington Post has a team of people focused on redesigning content to make it shorter, punchier and grabbier to appeal on mobile. Other Washington Post statistics the audience was interested to learn include:

  • Forty percent of mobile users are millennials.
  • The top levels of traffic come from (1) Facebook, (2) Google search, (3) other sites. Direct site visitors fall fourth or fifth when it comes to overall online traffic.
  • Many readers only read through the fourth paragraph of a story.

Bernstein also said he gets 200 emails a day and he does try to read them all. Therefore, it is key that you have a compelling subject line and a short, interesting pitch. You don’t need to put all of the information in your pitch email, just the key points – you can always send additional details later if he contacts you with interest. If you have a health pitch for him, he said not to call unless you know him – just send an email. He is interested in health and medical trends, particularly topics he would have a hard time finding himself.

Eric Lichtblau said about mobile: “It’s all about the delivery.” As with the Post, The New York Times is also seeing a lot of traffic “coming in sideways” – from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other mobile platforms. Only about 20-30 percent of their online traffic comes directly to the website – the rest is all from mobile. He said as the focus shifted to delivery, there was initially pushback from reporters who wondered about why content wasn’t the focus. But the change had to be made to stay competitive as the digital landscape continues to shift. Regarding how to pitch him, he agrees with Bernstein – if you don’t know him, email him. The only exception, of course, is if you have something that would be a page 1 exclusive. Eric also added that while he is not as involved in Twitter, as is the case for many reporters over 40 years old, the younger reporters often do everything on Twitter so PR professionals should do their research. And younger reporters don’t only use Twitter to share their own stories, they use it to track news, competitors and even to find sources for stories.

At Reuters, the world’s largest wire service, reporters are always racing against other newswires, newspapers and all other media to be first to a story so PR professionals need to keep in mind that the pace is incredibly fast. Andrea Shalal told the audience that she gets a daily report showing scores for how fast they were on the daily headlines as compared with other media outlets – down to the millisecond. She said the average length of a Reuters story is 400 words – for PR pros, that means pitches need to be quick, pithy, honest and to the point. The short length also changes what she is able to do with a story, even a really good one.

Across the board, the panelists agreed that a pitch with visuals was better than one without. Even better – if the reporter can bring a photographer or videographer with them to film it themselves. The speakers also agreed that they are all open to an introduction to a good source, given that source is easy to connect with when needed. Also, the speakers said it is fine for a PR pro to sit in on a call with a source that they have coordinated, but they should make the call happen as fast as possible and stay out of the way so as not to clutter up the process.

Top 5 Tips for Pitching Multimedia Newsrooms

Jennifer Nycz-Conner of the Washington Business Journal and WTOP

Jennifer Nycz-Conner of the Washington Business Journal and WTOP

Why didn’t they respond to my pitch? Why doesn’t this reporter care about my client? Sending out generic pitches to reporters is not only a waste of your time, it also won’t get coverage for your clients. Jennifer Nycz-Conner, an editor at Washington Business Journal and a business reporter at WTOP, knows first hand what goes into pitching the right story to the right reporter. During this month’s IPRA Luncheon, Jennifer provided her top five tips for successful pitching in today’s multimedia newsrooms:

  1. Get to know your prey. Reporters receive countless numbers of pitches every day, so you need to make your pitch worthwhile. Reporters often get emails that read “I see you have written about X, so I assume you will like this story.” Jennifer recommends researching the reporters you’re pitching to determine how often they’ve covered a particular issue. Was the topic covered in one story or several?
  1. Pitch stories that are interesting. Nine times out of ten, sending pitches with photos of your client holding a giant check or giant pair of scissors at an event is not going to generate coverage. There is no true meat behind those stories and nothing that really interests readers.
  1. Choose the best subject line. When you’re emailing reporters, it’s all about the subject line and it will make or break your pitch. Try equating your subject line to a good headline – it should grab the reporter’s attention. “If you can’t put your pitch in a headline, then it’s not a good pitch,” says Jennifer.
  1. Know if and when it’s appropriate to attach files. Reporters don’t want multiple files attached to an email. Opening multiple attachments creates more work for them, so skip the file attachments. Instead, send a brief, two-paragraph pitch with a link to the full press release. If you have photos or videos to include with the pitch, add a link to a Dropbox folder with the files. These steps will save reporters time and help you get straight to the point with your pitch.
  1. Be prepared for a response. PR professionals are used to pitching so many reporters in a given day that they can forget to be prepared when the reporter responds sooner than expected. If you’re pitching a great story, then you and your team needs to be ready for the story to be picked up.

The next time you start to pitch a reporter, keep these tips in mind and make sure your pitch is tailored to the person you are pitching. It should be easy for the reporter to understand the point of your pitch – and if they don’t, chances are your pitch won’t turn into coverage.

Erin White is the vice president of the George Mason University Chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America. She is also an intern with the Independent Public Relations Alliance and PRSA-NCC.

6 Tips for Working with Today’s News Media

By Angel White

Washington Post Media Blogger Erik Wemple and IPRA Membership Committee Member Robert Deigh of RDC Communications. Photo credit: Sabrina McGowan

Washington Post Media Blogger Erik Wemple and IPRA Membership Committee Member Robert Deigh of RDC Communications.
Photo credit: Sabrina McGowan

Washington, D.C. is considered the news capital of the world and a great place from which to observe big changes in the media industry, so it should come as no surprise that our hometown paper follows the changes closely – reporting on big players and rising stars alike. In a May 7 Independent Public Relations Alliance program, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple discussed ways that PR professionals should be engaging with reporters and focusing on the new reality:

 

  • PR people are a growing part of the press industry. News organizations are becoming similar to corporate America by creating their own PR departments. Often, you have to go through a PR person in order to speak to anyone at the news outlet. The result is the media has become more regulated by the people we are trying to talk to which can result in frustration for reporters.
  • Beats are fragmentary and boundaries are disappearing. Reporters are expected to cover a lot more news these days trying to feed multiple platforms. So, don’t give up if one reporter isn’t interested in your story – share it with another reporter.
  • Deadlines are obsolete. Reporters are working in a 24-hour news cycle, always writing and always on deadline. This reality changes how and when we approach reporters.

Here are Erik’s six tips for creating the strongest relationships with reporters:

  1. Pick up the phone. PR professionals tend to overlook the value of making calls to reporters in order not to interfere with deadlines. Ignore the adage of “don’t call a reporter on deadline” – if you have a reason to communicate with a reporter then do it and be direct.
  1. Write letters. Another effective but underutilized tool is the handwritten letter. Yes, snail mail still exists and reporters pay attention to it.
  1. Use Twitter. PR professionals should be using this tool to message reporters on Twitter – a simple “Have you seen this?” can be an effective way of reaching reporters you know and those you want to know. Reporters also monitor their mentions on Twitter more than email and voicemail.
  1. Pay attention to bloggers. In the past, journalism standards didn’t always apply to news blogs. But, today’s news blogs are held to the same journalism standards as other media. PR professionals should work with bloggers in the same way they work with traditional reporters.
  1. Maintain trust. Don’t ask a reporter to do something considered un-journalistic. It’s expected that they will talk to your competition for a story, so don’t ask them not to. That will only erode their trust in you and make you look defensive.
  1. Engage early. There’s no excuse for a reporter not getting the facts straight, but there are also areas of judgment, interpretation and nuance that go into writing a story. These are areas where you need to engage the reporter early – it will be too late to do so after the story is filed.

The state of the news media today is being driven by the rise of social media and the consolidation of traditional media outlets that affects the way in which we regard reporters. PR professionals who understand these changes will ensure they have the most beneficial relationships with reporters.

 

Angel White is a May 2015 graduate of George Mason University where she received her bachelor of arts degree in communications​. She is a former vice president of the Public Relations Student Society of America at GMU. Connect with her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/angeldwhite.

Press Release Writing: 12 Tips To Attract the Attention of Journalists

052115Writing a press release may seem like a chore, but it’s really a great tool to use to share information about your organization, association or company. But it’s important to be succinct and clear – journalists spend on average, less than one minute reviewing your press release before hitting the delete button or deciding to get more information or use it.

Tip #1: Use a clear, eye-catching headline. A well-written attention-grabbing headline that shares the most important and newsworthy nugget of information in your press release is key. It’s important though not to be too clever. Being obtuse, silly or anything that renders your news unclear, will get your press release deleted.

Tip #2: Sub-headlines can be helpful. I’ve always been a fan of using a sub-headline, usually in italics below the main headline, to offer additional insight or include source information.

Tip #3: Think carefully about your subject line for your email. In a study last year on journalists and press releases, 79 percent of journalists said subject lines greatly influence whether they open an email with a press release or not.

Tip #4: Get to the point right away. Your first sentence should really summarize in a nutshell the main news you are sharing. This is no time for you to set a stage and build up to your announcement at the end of the paragraph (or even worse, a few paragraphs down). Just spill the beans, please.

Tip: 5: Use Associated Press style. At least give a deferential nod to AP style. Journalists know it and use it. Easy things to fix – state abbreviations in your dateline. There are plenty of AP style tips online.

Tip #6: Use numbers. Statistics, data and numbers bolster your cause and provide context and amplitude. Even if your press release is discussing an interesting situation or observation that is anecdotal but that you think may be a bigger problem, you can sometimes find data in other sources that you can cite in a press release. The point is to give a sense of scope and to verify what you are sharing.

Tip #7: Offer infographics, photos or video if you can. These additional assets can help time-stressed reporters and bloggers access your information and are especially useful if you are reaching out to smaller markets. It’s usually best to have these materials up on your website and link to them in the press release. Do not send them as attachments.

Tip #8: Avoid using a lot of acronyms and internal language. This is where I often see nonprofits struggle, especially if the press release must be “approved” by a committee of people who don’t all work with the media on a daily basis. Internal jargon does not belong in a press release. If you are making statements like, “we had to include this sentence to keep so and so happy,” and not “we had to include this sentence to make the press release more interesting to reporters” – then your release may be set up to struggle at getting attention.

Tip #9: Include a relevant quote written in an informed, conversational tone. While some journalists have remarked that they find canned quotes on press releases to be a pain and never use them, I’ve also seen a lot of journalists use them for sake of expediency. It’s fine to include a quote in your press release. Frame it about the topic, say something interesting, and do not be purely self-promotional.

Tip #10: Don’t regurgitate your boilerplate again at the bottom of the release if you don’t have to – you are just adding to length. If you have a standard news release boilerplate containing information about your organization, association or small business, and you include some of that information in your release copy, then don’t feel the need to regurgitate all of that information again in the boilerplate. You are just adding to length.

Tip #11: Keep it brief. One page is great. Two pages maximum.

Tip #12: Include contact information. Make sure that you include clearly labeled media contact information with a name, phone number and email address for someone who can (and will) respond promptly to any media inquiries or needs.

Bonus tip: Deliver your release pasted into the body copy of an email. This may not be a writing tip, but it is very important. Do not send your release as an attachment. And don’t send only a hyperlink to your press release in an email with a headline and no body copy – this forces a journalist to click and go see the press release on your website. Over the years, I have had clients tell me that releases should be sent as attachments, or only sent as hyperlinks so journalists can “see their branding.” You need for journalists to see your news in your press release and decide to do a story or to keep you on their list of people with interesting story ideas who can make my life as a harried journalist easier. They won’t see your news at all if you send your press release as an attachment or a lonely hyperlink. After they read your news, you can worry about your branding (which should be more about authenticity and less about stunning people with logos).

 

Photo credit: Image courtesy of Kristen Nador and licensed under a Creative Commons license.

 

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites. Ami is also a member of IPRA and serves on its marketing committee. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

Prepare Thy Self: 5 Ways to Make Yourself a Better Media Trainer

Peter Piazza of Live Wire Media Relations, photo credit: Jay Morris

Peter Piazza of Live Wire Media Relations, photo credit: Jay Morris

By Nicole Duarte

To help your clients prepare for anything, you must first prepare yourself. In an April 9 reprise of a popular Independent Public Relations Alliance media training seminar, Peter Piazza and Angela Olson of Live Wire Media Relations, LLC outlined five ways PR practitioners can improve their training sessions.

  1. See what the reporter will see

It’s an often-skipped step, but research can make or break your training session. Before you meet with your clients, do a public record search to uncover any potential landmines. An ugly court case, embarrassing social media post, or past professional controversy may be just the ace a reporter will play to shake up the conversation or get the upper hand over your trainees.

  1. Shock and awe

Manufacture the anxiety clients will face in a tough interview to give them a chance to work through it. Managing anxiety and scrutiny is a skill like any other, and proficiency comes with practice. Trainers should use the first moments of their media training sessions to try to rattle interviewees, make them defensive or angry, and try to provoke them into saying something provocative or contentious. Hot lights, a live video camera, and some record of a prior embarrassing moment are all tools to unsettle your interviewees. Once you see them at their worst, you will be better able to help them get back – and stay – on message.

  1. Speak the truth

Your clients are relying on your expertise. Insist they hear it. Many staff media trainers pull their punches, hoping to keep the peace or avoid ruffling feathers, but it’s better if your client is embarrassed for a moment in your presence than humiliated on the Internet indefinitely. Be diplomatic, but don’t avoid telling your trainees if they have any distracting nervous habits, speak too fast, overuse jargon, come across as arrogant or defensive, or display any other behaviors that would make them look foolish or unprofessional.

  1. Play if Forward

Most media trainers do some form of practice or role-playing that simulates real interview conditions. However, media trainers need to apply their own news judgement to these conversations. Help your trainees refine their message points by asking tough questions and then pushing for clarity until you hear the quote the reporter should use. Questions like, “Why should anyone care,” “So what,” and “Prove it,” should elicit quote-worthy answers that move the story forward, and if they don’t, keep pushing.

  1. Add Value

Editors insert themselves to play up drama and tension. Reporters have a point of view and may be biased based on their sources. Both are outside your control. The best way to avoid surprises in how your clients’ quotes appear — or don’t appear — is to anticipate the reporter’s story and craft your message points to add value. Statistics and anecdotes can add context and color. Think about how your issue affects the heads, hearts, and wallets of the audience members, and illustrate your message points with examples and metaphors to which the audience can relate.

Just as organizations rely on their directors to lead with their expertise in their industries, your trainees will rely on your expertise to guide them through the news media landscape. You need to help your clients strategize how they might help reporters write better stories. Keep in mind how journalists do their job to think through how you can you help them do it faster and better. Your clients may be expert sources, but it is your chops and preparation that will ensure their expertise gets recognized.

For more information, see this refresher from Live Wire:  http://livewiredc.com/2013/08/a-quick-refresher-on-the-art-of-media-relations/ or check out the PRSA recap of the last Live Wire event: https://theprsanccblog.com/2013/10/30/teaching-old-dogs-new-tricks/

Nicole Duarte is Senior Communications Manager at the Center for Community Change.
Connect with her on LinkedIn at: http://www.linkedin.com/in/nicoleaduarte