Small companies often try to stretch their budgets by doing their own PR, or sometimes hire people without enough experience at the job. Sometimes this works out. Sometimes it causes unnecessary headaches in dealing with the media. At times, it can even spoil opportunities for good free publicity. I’ve had experience working daily news and features, and there are some very common mistakes that are made over and over again that, at a minimum, make my job much harder. Some are obvious. Some may surprise you. In no particular order, I present them.
Not answering your phone or email when contacted by media. You may wrongly think that you can defer these communications to a time more convenient to you. Don’t. Experienced PR reps have voice mail messages that say, “If you are a reporter on deadline, call me on my cell at XXX-XXX-XXXX.” This is because they know that media opportunities sometimes come up quickly and vanish just as quickly, and they need to be available to take those calls. No, you don’t have to sit by your phone or abandon your lunch companions to call back within five minutes. But neither can you afford to wait until the end of your work day, or another day.
Deprioritizing media interaction. Very often I find myself waiting to interview my expert until he or she is “out of meetings” at the end of the day. Because I am a professional, I never point out that they are pretty much ruining my schedule, forcing me to write a rushed story, and forcing my editor to possibly hang around the office after quitting time to get the issue out on time. But that is what is happening. Sometimes meetings are unavoidable. Life is that way. But many times I get the feeling that I am being put off until the time alotted for the boss’s daily liesure web surfing and Facebook time. Studies show that a lot of otherwise productive time is wasted in pointless meetings, anyway, so consider maybe pushing back, rescheduling, or canceling a meeting so you can give a reporter optimal time to write AND fact check an article that is going to give you or your company very important exposure.
Putting out a press release and getting on a plane. A subcategory of “They’re in meetings all day,” is “They are traveling all day today, can we do this tomorrow?” The answer, in daily news, is no. You can’t do it tomorrow. If you have big news, plan your press release for a day when you can answer your phone. The smartest companies schedule a block of time, or the whole day, for media interviews. What you think will happen is that news outlets will wait until you are available to write their articles. What actually happens is they write the article without talking to you. You don’t want that.
Mistaking the media for part of your PR organization. Just because a media interview is an opportunity for free publicity doesn’t mean it follows the same rules as your internal publicity. Once you give that interview, you are on record and the reporter can write absolutely anything she wants. Draft review is something you can request, but it’s an extreme courtesy. Extreme. A reporter offering draft review is like a chef offering a personalized tour of the kitchen before serving you your meal. It’s not improper to ask, but once you get in the kitchen, you had better DAMN WELL not start making soup. Capiche? Same thing with a reporter’s draft. If you find an error, let them know. Do not, under any circumstance, attempt to edit for style or try to make it sound like one of your company press releases. Do not suffer any illusions that the reporter must wait for your approval or for a green light from your company’s lawyer. Most news outlets will turn you down flat if you request draft review, so don’t spoil it if you get the chance.
Not keeping your web site up to date. Once, after a misunderstanding involving factual material posted on a company web site, I was told that the company is not responsible for the accuracy of the web site. Um, well, yes it is. If you can’t keep your web site up to date, then take it down. Of course not having a web site in this day and age is even worse. So just keep it up to date. Make it someone’s job. You never know when a reporter might be looking at it and taking material for a story, or trying to find ideas for a new story.
Failing to put press releases on your site, or taking them down selectively later. I can’t tell you how common it is that a company puts a press release out on the wire, and then doesn’t post it on their web site. That is a mark of senility, my friends. Whoever is in charge of that decision should have their driver’s license revoked for public safety. I know it seems like a small thing, but when you’re gathering news and information from the internet, the extra mouse clicks it takes to track down a press release that you know is out there somewhere, as opposed to simply getting it directly from the company, is significant. And it leads to swearing.
Gray 10 pt type anywhere on your web site. I don’t know what is up with putting important scientific information in gray 10 pt type. Is that taught at some sleazy, offshore college of web design or something? Stop that, you’re killing my eyes. And don’t tell me how to resize or change the color on my web browser. If I were to do that with every offending web page, I would destroy my wrists from carpal tunnel. Just think about readability, ok?
Don’t sound bite your reporter to death. I occasionally come across the philosophy that one shouldn’t give too much technical information to a reporter because they will get it wrong. Think about that for a minute. If you REFUSE to explain a technical or scientific concept to a reporter in detail, how can she possibly get it RIGHT? You are pretty much guaranteeing mistakes. Furthermore, the scientific info you are protecting her from is usually posted somewhere on your web site, or published in a journal somewhere. You are just making more work for her and causing her to blaspheme against her god. I recently had a PR person apologize to me, after I had made a mistake and run a correction, for “information overload,” and she explained that’s why she advises her clients not to give out too much scientific information. That gave me despair deep in my soul. The mistake didn’t happen because of “information overload.” The mistake happened because I am human, and although my ability to receive, process, and regurgitate information is at this point pretty high, I do occasionally make mistakes. The best way to prevent mistakes is to respond to my query promptly, so I don’t have to rush my article. (Hey, isn’t it neat how all of this fits together?)
Distrust of the media. I understand that sometimes reporters get it wrong, or the article doesn’t turn out as flattering as you’d hoped, or whatever. But holing up and refusing to speak to the media, or doing so in a controlling, adversarial way is not going to make things any better. In writing feature articles, when I get the vibe that this is happening, I end the interview and cross you off my list. You need me more than I need you. In business and science, you don’t achieve solely based on merit. Getting into magazines and newspapers, especially in your field, will get you noticed, and being noticed will increase your chances of getting that next grant or wooing a venture capitalist. In contrast, losing you will cost me nothing but a little bit of time. I can find ten scientists to replace you who are ready and willing to to give an open and candid interview. Not too long ago, I saw a press release from a company I had experience with. I had the opportunity to pitch it as a story, but I recalled that CEO had tried to bully me, and I shrugged and let it go. Don’t be that company!
Too many phone calls. I fortunately haven’t received a lot of pitches by phone, but, dude, I’m on deadline all the time. Unless you are bleeding and need an ambulance, please don’t interrupt me. (Although, honestly, if you are bleeding and need an ambulance, you should probably call 911, but I don’t want to discourage anyone’s belief in my wisdom/healing powers.)
That’s it for now. Happy publicity!