Archive for the ‘Media Relations’ Category
This was published in the May 2013 Auctioneer Magazine. Used here by permission. Here’s a PDF of the article. — Carl
By Carl Carter, APR
Your mother was right. It matters how you present yourself. Sit up straight. Be courteous. Speak correctly. Show up in clean clothes, and shine your shoes.
The same applies to our marketing materials. When people read our brochures, press releases, web sites and even emails, they don’t give us a pass because we aren’t professional writers. In their minds, they compare our work to that of people who are professionals, and that puts us at a disadvantage.
But we can at least follow the same general rules of grammar and style the pros use. Here are some resources that will help you do that.
Associated Press Stylebook
Nearly everybody reads the news in one form or another. And when you consider that the news is written and edited by thousands of different journalists in widely varying environments, the style in which they write is remarkably consistent. That’s because most of them rely on “AP Style,” as defined in this book, which has been the style “Bible” for decades.
You can get a copy for about $12, so there’s really no excuse for not having one.
Here are a few examples:
- It’s email, not e-mail or electronic mail. Don’t capitalize it.
- Don’t capitalize a title unless it precedes the name.
- Numbers. These get complicated. In general, spell out one through nine, and use numerals for 10 or more. But you’ll want to read the entire entry for the exceptions.
- It’s percent — not per cent or %. And it’s 6 percent — not six percent. This is an exception to the numbers rule above. See what I mean about it getting complicated?
Nobody can remember every rule, and you shouldn’t even try. I’ve been using the Stylebook daily since the 1970s, and I still have to refer to it constantly. Just keep it handy and get in the habit of checking the style whenever there’s doubt. You’ll probably find that it’s best to make some exceptions. For example, tight ad and brochure space might dictate that you abbreviate “square feet” and other terms that are spelled out in the Stylebook. Or you may decide to use “percent” rather than %. That’s fine. Just decide on a style and stick with it throughout all your materials.
(Note that the Associated Press stylebook is updated every year as the language changes, but you don’t really need the latest edition. A three-year-old copy that you actually use beats a current copy that sits on the shelf.)
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk & E.B. White
You’ve heard of this book. You probably even have a copy, though I bet you can’t lay your hands on it. Next to the Bible, I don’t know of another book that gets more lip service and less actual use. I’ve given away a lot of copies over the years, and I try to re-read it myself about once a year. Here are a couple of my favorite nuggets, along with comments from my own experience:
- Omit needless words. I love the way Strunk & White explain this: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects in outline, but that every word tell.”
- Keep related words together. In writing about upcoming auctions, resist the temptation to put any words between the subject and verb. If you’re saying “The home has a full basement,” you’ll weaken it by putting any phrase between “home” and “has.”
I’m not going to dwell on this, because you already know it’s true. Get in the habit of looking up any word that causes to hesitate. There’s simply no excuse for using the wrong word or spelling it incorrectly. Don’t fret over whether it’s Webster’s, Oxford or American Heritage. They’re all good enough if you use them, and they’re worthless if you don’t.
By Carl Carter, APR
Originally published Feb. 2013 Auctioneer Magazine, used by permission
I rarely meet an auctioneer who doesn’t have a story (or 10) about a reporter who misquoted him or garbled the story of a high-profile auction. I just smile, shake my head and say something like “unbelievable.” I’m sympathetic, because there are a lot of ways an incorrect story can hurt an auction or a company — just as a “good” story can help bring in bidders or future sellers.
At the same time, I can usually see what went wrong. There are a lot of potholes to step in when talking to journalists (and I’ve stepped in a lot of them). But you can avoid the most common mistakes simply by understanding four basic things about reporters and letting your common sense guide you.
1. He doesn’t want to hurt you — or help you. The single most helpful thing to keep in mind is that a reporter is just a guy doing a job. He’s not controlled by corporate advertisers or political bosses. He’s not looking for a scalp. At the same time, he’s not looking to do you any favors, either. If he’s a competent reporter (and believe it or not, most reporters are), he just wants to do a good job — and that means getting a good story that meets the needs and standards of his publication. He wants to get his byline, get home to see his kids and collect his paycheck at the end of the week. So follow the old Dale Carnegie advice and think in terms of his interest. He needs a good story, so tell him one!
2. He’s overworked, underpaid and probably scared. From the New York Times to your “Mom & Pop” weekly, newspapers have been shedding reporters at alarming rates. So that reporter you’re talking to is likely looking around at a lot of empty chairs. According to the Paper Cuts blog, more than 1,850 newspaper jobs disappeared in 2012, and that’s been going on for more than a decade. The reporters who still have jobs are often expected to write more stories, take their own pictures, and promote their stories on Facebook and Twitter. Some are even being handed camcorders and told to post videos. And many have taken pay cuts as well. He doesn’t want your sympathy, but he’d appreciate your being cooperative and making his job a little easier. In short, he’s human.
3. He’s thinking local — VERY local. When I first started publicizing auctions in the 1990s, local media were still making money hand over fist. A mid-sized daily newspaper would typically cover news from a city 80 or 100 miles away, or more. But as readers have turned to the Internet for their national and regional news, local media have realized that the only thing they have to sell is strictly local news. And that usually translates to news about a single city, county or metro area. An editor in Memphis probably isn’t going to even glance at a press release about that property you’re selling two hours away in Little Rock. (If there’s a solid “local” angle that directly affects his readers — for example, if the seller is a prominent Memphis business leader — you have a chance. But if your pitch for the Little Rock sale is that “we’re hoping to attract bidders from Memphis,” you may want to just back off and try again another day.) Show respect for his needs, and you’ll score points that will earn you the benefit of the doubt in the future.
4. He wants the basics, but not much more. You live with the details of the auction business. You write contracts to cover all the things that could go wrong, because the wrong language can turn into a no-sale or a lawsuit. The reporter lives in a very different world — one where his editor’s expecting two more stories before quitting time. And his story needs to be short. He has no time for your detailed explanation of the difference between a sale that’s “reserve” and one that’s “subject to confirmation.” He doesn’t want to know the sale price with and without the buyer’s premium. He just wants a number. The simpler you make things for him, the more likely he is to get it right. Trying to explain too much just opens the door to confusion and problems.
Reporters are people too. If you remember that, your dealings with media will go a lot better.
Copyright 2013 by National Auctioneers Association
You may have heard yesterday about the decision by Advance Communications to stop printing three of Alabama’s newspapers daily. Instead, The Birmingham News, Huntsville Times and Mobile Press-Register will print on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Their primary vehicle for delivering the news will be AL.com, Advance’s web site combining its Alabama media. Advance will also cut print publication of the New Orleans Times-Picayune to three times a week, with most news going to NOLA.com.
These cuts were more personal to me than previous ones. I spent the first 10 years of my career with The Birmingham News, and many of the reporters and editors there are friends.
You may be aware that these changes follow the pattern of Advance/Newhouse’s changes in Michigan in 2009, which include ceasing print entirely in Ann Arbor and moving the Flint Journal, Bay City Times and Saginaw News to a mostly-online model with print editions just three days a week.
It’s important to note that Advance, which is owned by the Newhouse family, is the richest and most stable media organization in the country. I expect them to be a bellwether.
To complicate this further, a number of papers are continuing to print daily editions for newsstand distribution only, but ceasing to deliver them to homes.
The pain is just starting. The Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California predicts that within five years, only four papers will still be printing daily: The New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
I expect this trend to accelerate from here for three reasons:
1. By following its Michigan model in Alabama and Louisiana, Advance is telegraphing to other publishers that its strategy is working. That will lead others to follow Advance’s example.
2. A number of newspapers are in various stages of bankruptcy. Notably, Tribune Co. — owner of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, WGN in in Chicago, among others — is hoping to learn in June whether it can emerge from Chapter 11. These are shedding the debt from their print operations, and while most will continue to print (at least some of the time), they will introduce wrinkles that continue to de-emphasize print in favor of digital. Some will print only a few days a week. Others will print but eliminate home delivery, severely reducing the audience for print ads.
3. Newspapers are losing $27 in print advertising for every $1 they gain in digital. Up until now, the print revenues have dwarfed online revenues, so they’ve been milking the cash cow for several years. Now, that cow is pretty dry, and they’re facing the reality that the costs are on the print side. They’re not going to keep the costs without the revenues.
Here’s a list of metropolitan dailies that have failed since 2007, according to the web site, NewspaperDeathWatch.com:
Rocky Mountain News
King County Journal
Union City Register-Tribune
Halifax Daily News
South Idaho Press
San Juan Star
When I changed the name of my public relations agency to NewMediaRules a few years ago, I was convinced that the media landscape was changing in ways that would require professionals to constantly adapt. But the changes I’ve seen in the last five years have exceeded anything I could have anticipated or predicted.
Now and then, you get one just right.
What I didn’t anticipate was the difficulty of predicting the direction of these changes. With the decline of newspapers and television and the growing role of digital media, the direction seemed pretty well set. For one thing, it seemed perfectly clear that the sharp cutbacks on local news staffs would translate into few opportunities for local news coverage. For a while, that seemed to be the case. But now, the opposite is true. Oops.
To give myself the benefit of the doubt, opportunities for local coverage did decline — for a while. But several major factors — including the growth and credibility of hyperlocal media, the resurrection of RSS technology and the explosion of tablet computers — have changed all that. In fact, while I expected to simply track the continuing trend that started five or six years ago, I’ve found myself feasting on new opportunities for my clients.
I’ll confess, it caught me by surprise. A change this big has happened only three or four times in my career, but I think the most recent changes are the most dramatic.
I try to keep NewMediaRules.net posts as useful as I can, but this is one of those cases when I have to hold back to protect my own competitive advantage as well as that of my clients. Suffice it to say that things began to turn on their head around mid 2011, and as new data became available, I spotted a trend that my colleagues seem to have missed so far.
With a couple of simple changes in the way I approach the writing, distribution and promotion of press releases, I’ve been able to gain more local and trade media coverage for my clients — especially auction companies — in the first four months of 2012 than I’ve ever seen in a similar time period. Yet, it’s working in an environment where there are fewer reporters, with less space for their stories, than ever.
This is good for everybody. Clients who are competing for business can say, in all candor, that competitors can’t match the effectiveness of the public relations element our campaigns.
I realize that by not giving the secret to these results, I risk sounding like a huckster on a 2 a.m. infomercial, but sometimes it just turns out that way. Don’t worry, though. I’m not peddling books or CDs.
Here’s the best advice I can offer without giving away the goods: Stay flexible. Don’t get too attached to one way of doing things, or to one view of how things are supposed to be working. The only reliable prediction is that the rules will keep right on changing.
This is not a happy headline:
Ouch. It gets worse. Here’s the story that went with it. What went wrong?
For starters, press conferences are obsolete and have been for at least 20 years. Clients and CEOs love them and are always pressing to hold one, but smart media relations professionals generally pat them on the head and hold their hands until the urge passes with no damage done. (The best strategy for talking them out of it is to usually tell them it’s a waste of money, which is always true.)
The press conference was born at least a half century before the first personal computers appeared. Print reporters took notes in tall, skinny notebooks (to be honest, I still use these; old habits are hard to break) and either dictated a story over the phone or ran back to the newsroom to write up the news. Photographers (TV and still) got their shots and headed for the darkroom to develop the film. In that environment, it provided some efficiency.
Today? Not so much. Here’s why:
- It’s arrogant. When you hold a press conference, you’re saying, “We’re so important, we’re picking the time and place and expecting you to be there.” Nobody likes that attitude. Not reporters, not editors, not producers. Sure, you can get away with it if you’re Apple. But not if you’re Spotify, which had nothing much to say at any rate.
- Too much stuff can go wrong. Even in the old days, a press conference was risky. In the 1980s, when I was a public relations manager at BellSouth, we spent weeks preparing for a huge press conference, with the CEO and the governor both addressing media. Then, about a half hour before the press conference, there was a minor accident at the Savannah River nuclear facility, which processed nuclear materials for use in nuclear weapons. Every reporter in Georgia headed to Augusta to cover the possible disaster, and nobody had the slightest interest in our press conference. The public relations manager responsible for the event was left in Atlanta to tap dance for a less-than-impressed CEO and a bored governor.
- Reporters hate being herded around. Reporters — at least the good ones — want to get their own stories, their own way. They humor the politicians in Washington D.C., because they know everybody else will cover the story and it’s embarrassing if they miss it. But in the corporate world, they’d generally rather get a root canal than cover your event.
- Nobody has time anymore. In case you didn’t get the memo, the one-day news cycle died 20 years ago. Newspapers and television stations have fired their reporters in droves. The reporters who are left don’t have time to get in the car, work their way through traffic, and stand around waiting on your CEO to arrive. Their time is better spent back at the office, collecting quotes by phone and email.
Do yourself, your CEO and your client a big favor. Next time they say “let’s have a press conference,” just say no. “Hell no” is even better.
I haven’t mentioned much about the ongoing decline of newspapers in a while, but the situation continues to decline steadily. (Maybe I’ve just been remiss because the subject depresses me.) Indeed, there was a lot of happy talk going into 2011, suggesting that revenue growth would resume and and the newspapers would stabilize. It doesn’t seem to have happened.
Newspaper jobs are disappearing faster than ever. Erica Smith’s Paper Cuts blog reports that newspapers cut more than 3,775 jobs in 2011, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors tells us that nearly one-third of newsroom jobs have been eliminated since 1989.
Advertising sales aren’t coming back as hoped. Digital advertising was up 8.3%, according to an analysis by Alan Mutter, but those revenues make up only 14.3% of the total. Mutter predicts that when all the numbers are in, we’ll find that the numbers didn’t top $24 million, which would make 2011 the worst year since 1985.
Most print newspapers will be gone in five years. That’s what USC’s Annenberg School tells us in a new report: “Is American at a Digital Turning Point?” The Annenberg Center predicts that the only surviving print newspapers will be the very biggest (specifically, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the Washington Post), and possibly some local weeklies.
This has enormous indications for the many companies that continue to rely on local newspapers to reach buyers. If you’re in a business that relies on local buyers, what’s your game plan for adapting to this?
We seem to have a rash of public figures embarrassing themselves by lecturing reporters who dare to ask hard questions. Looks like it’s time for a refresher course on the rules of the game.
- Reporters don’t work for you, so they don’t take orders from you.
- They get to ask whatever they like, no matter what you’ve told them is “off limits.”
- They’ll quote your answer, whether it’s on or off topic. If you choose to rant, they can and will put the rant on TV.
- If you refuse to answer, they’ll quote or show your non-answer. If you storm off, they’ll report and show that. If you don’t want to look like an ass, don’t act like one.
- You don’t get to decide what the story is. They do.
- Nothing is really “off the record.” If you’re talking to a single reporter, he or she may agree not to use something in return for getting background information. But they can still use it. Don’t say anything — even off the record — you can’t live with in tomorrow’s paper.
- Reporters are people too. Like the rest of us, they’ll like you more if you smile and treat them with respect.
- The media always get the last word. Always.
(Published in Auctioneer, Sept. 2011, page 34)
By Carl Carter, APR
Sooner or later, almost every auctioneer will get a call from a reporter. The publication or station may be intrigued by your upcoming auction of a first edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Or maybe they’re just doing a feature on the auction business in general.
Sadly, it seems most of those auctioneers will fumble the opportunity. Some will alienate the reporter by acting defensive and suspicious. Others will vent about how the press has treated them badly in the past. Perhaps worst of all, some will indulge in such shameless self promotion that the reporter tunes them out.
And a few will get it right. They’ll give the reporter just what he needs in a way that makes them look good, helps promote their upcoming sale, and — most importantly — gains the reporter’s confidence, leading to future opportunities.
I’ve been talking to reporters for a living for 27 years, and for the last 17 of those years I’ve been actively promoting auctions. I’ve found that a few simple principles can dramatically improve your odds of being happy with the story. I can’t teach you everything I’ve learned in that time, but here are four things that can make a huge difference.
Do some homework.
Don’t feel like you have to start answering questions just because a voice on the phone started asking them. Ask if you can call back in a few minutes. (The answer will always be yes.) Then go to the publisher’s web site and read some recent articles by the reporter. You’ll learn something about the reporter’s style and gain insights that will help you respond more effectively.
When you return the call, comment favorably on one of the stories. Don’t pretend you were already familiar with his work — unless, of course, you were. It’s fine to say, “I couldn’t place your name, so I took a peep at your site. Looks like the City Council is keeping you busy dealing with that rezoning stuff.” Reporters actually appreciate it when you put a little effort into preparation. You’re sending the message that you care enough to give them what they need.
Remember what the reporter wants
The whole process gets easier if you remember that the reporter is just a working guy like you, trying to do a good job. He’s not out to “get” you or hurt your business. Nor does he want to understand your company in intricate detail. He just needs a couple of good quotes for a story, which will probably be less than 500 words long. (Note: This article is about 750 words.) That doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance, history and multi-step explanation.
Remember also that the reporter is taking notes. (Surprisingly few reporters record interviews, and many take notes by hand, which is usually slower than typing.) If you use short sentences, the reporter can keep up. But long, tangled sentences get lost in the note-taking, because the reporter can’t get it all down. All those brilliant thoughts and subtleties are lost. So talk slowly, in short but complete sentences. Give him time to catch up.
Stick with your core message
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard somebody say, “They didn’t quote what was really important!” So here’s an “insider” secret on which you can always rely: Say what you want to see in the publication and then get off the phone as quickly as possible. Why? To avoid diluting your message. It’s all about the math, really. If your “core” message is 80% of what you say, it’s probably going to get quoted. But if you ramble about secondary or complicated matters, you’re going to be quoted on those instead. And those are the comments that are mostly likely to get confused and distorted.
Establish a two-way rhythm
Keep mental timer on yourself, and if you find that you’re dominating the conversation in the interview, take a breather. If the reporter’s just being quiet and letting you talk, don’t assume it’s because he’s lapping up every word of your wisdom. He may just be letting you “blow yourself out” in hopes that you’ll eventually say something useful. If you’re not sure how you’re communicating, stop and ask. I’ll often say something like, “Is that what you were asking?” If it’s not, my candor will usually net me a “do-over.”
Will following these guidelines guarantee a great outcome? Absolutely not. But they will tilt the game in your favor.
Brad Williams had an enviable public relations job a couple of months ago when he became PR head of coupon giant Groupon, but it didn’t last long. After only a couple of months, Williams quit.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Williams didn’t say anything except that he and Groupon “mutually decided it wasn’t a fit.” But Ragan’s PR Daily fills in some of the blanks. Groupon CEO Andrew Mason got thin skinned when media criticized some of Groupon’s ways of measuring results, and he sent a memo to employees lambasting the media.
Any competent PR professional would have advised Mason that such a memo to employees would quickly leak to media, and that it’s rarely a great plan to criticize how media cover you.
But there may have been an even bigger problem: Violation of the legally required “quiet period” preceding a stock offering. When you’re about to have an IPO, as Groupon did, the Securities & Exchange Commission mandates a “quiet period” in which you don’t say anything that might affect the stock price.
Now and then, you’ll find a CEO who thinks the PR director is just a hack to be kicked around. But in a publicly traded company (or one that is about to be), sound public relations counsel is critical to success.
Says Ragan: “The lesson is that PR leaders are like any other senior managers in a company: They are hired for a reason. Executives across industries need only to look at the Groupon situation to see why the PR talent they’ve hired is so important.”
Save the reporter time. News media have cut their staffs dramatically, and reporters are stretched so thin you can see through them. Give the reporter what he or she needs, the first time.
Don’t start conversations you’re not willing to finish. If you send a press release that leaves out essential facts (especially who, what, when, where and how), your release will probably go straight into the trash. If your story is so thin that it’ll fall apart if the reporter asks a question or two, you don’t need to be pitching it anyway. Even worse, you’ll get written off as a squirrel.
Think about whether you’ve ever read a news story like the one you’re pitching in that publication. If they haven’t written stories like yours before, they probably won’t start now.
Respect their policies and decisions. Many media have policies for what they will cover. Often, they won’t cover a certain type of story because it’s too common or because they’ve been burned. It doesn’t matter whether a rule is fair or not. The only correct response to a policy is, “I understand. Thanks for your time.”
Never argue. Dale Carnegie said “you can’t win an argument,” and that’s especially true when dealing with media. They own the press or the airwaves. They set the rules. By arguing, all you’ll do is create an enemy and close off future opportunities.
Be friendly but not familiar. The reporter’s not your buddy and doesn’t want to be. He just wants an easy story. Give it to him or leave him alone.
Things that will kill your story and make you unwelcome in the newsroom:
- Telling the reporter how much you’ve spent on advertising. Even if you get the story you’re hoping for this time, you’ll likely torpedo your future prospects. (Small weeklies are an exception, because in many cases the editor, ad salesman and reporter are all the same person. But on a daily, a business journal or a TV station, you’re just going to alienate the journalist.)
- Complaining about coverage. If you don’t like the headline, the placement, the tone or anything else, just keep your mouth shut. It’s OK to point out if something objective is incorrect, and that’ll usually result in a correction. Otherwise, just deal with it.
- Playing one news outlet against another. Every time you tell one reporter that his competitor is planning to run the story on a certain day, you can count on it blowing up in your face.