PR and the Rise of Digital News

Anyone who has observed the media for the past decade has seen a dramatic change in the way news is reported and disseminated.  For the most part, this is due to the rise of digital as the preferred way for Americans to get their news.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, “digital is currently second only to TV news as the most prominent news platform.”

The study was published by Pew in an article on its website, “10 facts about the changing digital news landscape.”  Fact #5 stands out for PR practitioners:   “Social media, particularly Facebook, is now a common news source.”

How does this affect the practice of PR?

Advertising dollars are spent where most people will see the ads, and that is increasingly online.  Advertising pays the bills.  As more advertising money is spent online, many traditional newsrooms are cutting back on staff – not just at newspapers, but at radio and television stations as well.

What this means is that PR people can face stiff competition when attempting to get positive media attention for their clients through traditional media outlets.  That’s usually not a problem for experienced practitioners.  However, it’s important to consider that the audience they are trying to reach may be getting their news somewhere else.

This is basic strategic public relations:  analyze the client’s target audiences and where and how these audiences can most likely be reached.

Nowadays, that may be online.

Posted by Margot Dimond

Questions Top PR Firms Ask Their Clients

At the first meeting with your new PR firm, you may find yourself answering a lot of questions.  In the following post, our guest blogger, Lucy Siegel of Bridge Global Strategies, says there are five crucial questions you should be asked – and why they are important.

PR firms offering the highest quality of service ask their clients a lot of questions.  That’s the only way they can understand the best approaches to meeting their clients’ PR goals.

This blog post will focus on some of the questions a PR firm should be asking a client.  First, though, I want to emphasize that no questions should be off limits on either side.  We ask our clients a ton of questions in order to do our jobs as well as possible, and we expect and encourage clients to ask us anything they want to know.

1. What’s the background and history of your company, your founders and your CEO?  Some clients don’t understand why this question is relevant, especially when the assignment involves public relations for a product and not corporate PR for a company.

“Just focus on the product; you don’t need to be concerned with the company’s background,” some clients will say.  But PR involves piecing together a compelling story about a product or service that will resonate with the company’s various audiences (potential customers, communities, employees, suppliers, etc.).  Sometimes the story about the company can enhance the product story.

2. What are your goals for PR?  This question should always be asked by agencies and is crucial for starting any PR program.  Your goals may be simply to raise visibility as a precursor to brand building and sales.  Or you may be looking for a way to increase sales leads directly, to position the company in a new market, or address negative impressions of your company or product.  Getting media coverage, increasing the number of likes and followers, increasing the number of shares of company blog posts and articles, etc., are not goals for PR; they’re a means toward reaching the goal.

3. What do you picture as an ideal outcome of the work we’ll do?  Your answers to this question reveal a lot to your agency.  Sometimes company executives have unrealistic expectations about what PR can accomplish.  It may be highly unlikely that the PR team can get your product written about by the Wall Street Journal or any other top-tier media.  This is an issue that should be discussed at the beginning of a client-agency relationship because it’s very important for you to have realistic expectations about what to expect.  Unfortunately, some agencies deliberately mislead potential clients about their ability to deliver that type of outcome.

There may also be a disconnect between the outcomes you’re looking for and the goals you’ve expressed, which a good agency will point out and discuss with you.

4. Who, what, when, where, why and how?  These are the basics to any story, and the elements that public relations depends on.  They’re the questions journalists and bloggers will ask the PR agency staff working on your account and the focus of content marketing, social media and search engine optimization.  For example, here’s a vital “what” question:

  • What makes your product or your company different from your competitors’ products? If you’re looking for media coverage from your PR team, this is a crucial question.  The media is geared to gathering and reporting news.  If there’s nothing much to differentiate your product or company from others, it will probably be very difficult to get interest from the media in covering your story.  Other methods of PR may be more effective in those circumstances than media relations.

Just as parents think their own child is special, companies are often too close to their own stories to be objective.  Sometimes what the company feels is unique is really not a big enough difference from the competition to qualify as a true differentiation from a news viewpoint.  Trust the feedback your PR agency gives you.  The agency is able to be a lot more objective than your company’s staff, who are living and breathing your business day in and day out.

If a PR agency knows there isn’t a lot to differentiate you from the competition, the agency team can focus on creating news.  This can be done in many ways, including establishing new and different corporate initiatives within your community or for your employees, developing new data through a company-sponsored survey, or developing a news-making company-sponsored event.

For more on the definition of news (something that’s hard for many people to grasp), you may be interested in the this post I wrote some time ago, which directly addresses what the media consider to be newsworthy and what they don’t.

To better understand the challenges of getting media coverage in today’s media environment, you may also be interested in this blog post:

Clients must be forthcoming and honest in answering these basic questions, even if some of the answers don’t put the company in the best light.  If the agency doesn’t know the truth, all of the truth, it puts the agency’s PR team in a very bad position to work effectively.  Journalists will probe for answers and do research on their own.   If they’re given dishonest answers to their questions, they’ll think less of the company the agency is representing, as well as the PR agency people.

Sometimes internal corporate staff feel that it’s better for the PR agency not to know negative information so they won’t be able to spread it around.  But knowing honest answers doesn’t mean the agency PR team will provide that negative information to the media unless the client and agency have agreed that’s the best approach.  Some questions don’t have to be answered directly.  When a company just provides a rosy picture of the company and/or products, and leaves the PR team in the dark about the actual situation, it’s a recipe for PR failure.  One reason why:  the best approach for answering difficult questions from the media is to plan ahead for those difficult questions to come up and how to answer them.  PR professionals are well-prepared to help with those questions and answers, but can’t be helpful unless they know the whole truth, both negatives and positives.

5. What’s your budget?  This is a question that every PR firm should ask before preparing a proposal for you, and one that you should answer honestly.  Many potential clients tell us, “we don’t know what the budget is – we want you to tell us what we need to spend.”  What’s wrong with that picture?  The size of the budget will determine how fast your goals can be reached, and a PR program can be tailored to cover different levels of work.  An agency is put in a difficult position when that question goes unanswered.  If the agency makes an assumption that the budget is more than what the company can actually afford, it’s a waste of the agency’s time.  If the agency guesses on the low side, the proposal may not include as much PR activity as the client needs to meet PR goals.  Frequently we’re told, “Just give us a few different budget levels to choose from.”  That entails a lot of work with no compensation, all of which is in vain if the company decides on another agency or chooses not to move ahead with PR at all.  While developing proposals is part of the cost of doing business, asking for multiple proposals for the same project isn’t fair to PR agencies.

The reason many companies don’t like to reveal their budgets is the fear that they will be taken advantage of.  It’s a common corporate assumption that the agencies bidding on PR work will spend the maximum, whether it’s necessary or not.  However, in asking about budget, most agencies simply want to have information that will help them decide the type and scope of PR program that will work best given your budget.

Some of the questions PR firms ask clients and potential clients can only be answered by top management.  That’s one reason why PR professionals (internal and external) need access to clients’ top management executives.

Every company wants a top PR firm, one that can deliver results.  However, PR Professionals need a lot of information to be successful.


Lucy Siegel is president and CEO of Bridge Global Strategies, based in New York City.

Promoting Company News? Think Outside of YOUR Box

News PhotoAt our firm we are very fortunate to work with clients who are pretty savvy about what is – and is not – of interest to the media.  But this is not always the case.

“The media” is an all-encompassing term, of course.  There are stories that would interest business reporters, health reporters, technology reporters, etc.  But there are certain general truths about a company’s efforts to gain attention in the media, and the guiding principle should always be:  Why Should They Care?

We like to say in media training that everyone listens to the same radio station:  WII-FM, or “What’s in it for me?”  If your story doesn’t have some element of that, it’s not going to fly.

For example, say your CEO is the keynote speaker at the annual gala of the nonprofit he or she volunteers for.  That’s really great, and everyone at your company – and in the charity – should hear about it.  It should be on your website, in your e-newsletter, and maybe the speech should be recorded and promoted on a YouTube video.  But unless your CEO is already famous, no one else cares very much.

The same goes for professional awards.  The people who care are the ones giving the awards and the ones receiving it, and that’s about it.  Yes, the Nobel Prize is noteworthy, but very few of us win that one.

Unfortunately, many people want to push this kind of “news” out to the general public through the news media.   They insist on sending a news release – then don’t understand why their news is ignored.  In this case, however, one news release being ignored might not be the worst that can happen.  If you repeatedly send this kind of information out, everything coming from your email box may be trashed without being read because you have gotten a reputation of not knowing what news is.

How do you avoid the “non-news” trap?  Read the news; listen to the news; watch the news.  What types of stories do they cover?  Have you noticed anyone in the media covering the type of story you want to send out?

It’s very difficult to tell people that the “news” they are so excited about isn’t really going to be covered by the media.  Nobody likes to be that messenger.

But somebody has to do it.

Posted by Margot Dimond

Your Crisis Communication Plan

Do you have a crisis communication plan?  Crisis planning is essential for any company or organization – but especially for one providing products or services directly to consumers.  With social media, small incidents can go viral, making company reputations one step away from shattering.

Sometimes it’s the response – or lack of response – to a real or perceived problem that causes the crisis.  Any delay in responding, or even a tepid response, can add fuel to the fire.  It’s important to show concern for those affected – whether they are employees, customers, or bystanders.  (Think of what happened to Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, after his initial response to the Gulf oil spill.)

Having a plan already in place makes damage control much easier.  With the understanding that specifics will change with each type of crisis, here is a basic overview of the essential elements of a crisis communication plan:

1.  Have a Crisis Communication Team.  The team should include key people in the organization who can develop a plan of action and decide on the spokespersons in case of an event.  Everyone on the team should have – and regularly update – a management roster with every type of contact information.  The crisis team should meet on a regular basis to keep everyone in a state of readiness.

2.  Identify Designated Spokespersons.  The main spokesperson should always include the CEO or someone of equal authority, plus anyone in a management position in the area where the crisis occurred.  All designated spokespersons should have media training with an emphasis on crisis communication.  Sending someone in front of a bank of television cameras without this type of preparation can backfire – even with the best of intentions.

3.  Establish a System of Communicating with Employees, Clients and Other Stakeholders.  The system could include email alerts, an online social network platform for web-based crisis communication or even a special crisis web page.

4. Designate a Media Center.  The site for media interviews should be some distance from the crisis communication office, which may be a hub of activity.  Depending on the nature of the crisis, policies and procedures should be set for media access to people involved in the crisis.

5.  Gather the Facts.  As soon as possible, the team should gather all of the facts surrounding the crisis and issue a prepared statement to the media.  They should also release new facts as they are confirmed.

6.  Establish the Message and Key Talking Points and Prepare the Spokespersons. A crisis situation is stressful; this is not the time to “wing it” with the media. Before doing interviews, spokespersons should be rehearsed on the message, key talking points and  questions that could be asked.  There will always be information that cannot be rehearsed, but it is important to be as prepared as possible.

7.  Monitor Media coverage.  Consistently monitor both online and offline media coverage throughout the crisis to make sure your message is being communicated accurately.  If not, you may have to adjust your strategy and messaging.Posted by Margot Dimond

Your TV Interview: Make Every Word Count!

TV InterviewWhat is your media message?  In other words, what is the main thing you want your target audience to know about you or your organization?

Now – Can you say it in under 9 seconds? That’s about all the time you have in a typical TV interview sound bite.  So it’s important to make every word count.

Sound impossible?  Not if you practice.  Like most everything else, being good at media interviews is a skill that you acquire through training and practice.  And practice is especially important if you want to distill your company message into a usable sound bite.

One of the main challenges in being interviewed by the news media is learning how to tell your story in a clear and concise way.  You can complain that you aren’t given enough time to do your message justice, but you aren’t going to change the medium.  It is what it is, and if you want media coverage, you will have to adjust your communication style to be compatible with media time constructions.

Most television news shows are 30 minutes.  Take out commercial time, weather and sports, and the reporters don’t have much time at all to tell their audience the news of the day.  Brevity is essential.

So let’s say you are fortunate enough to have attracted the attention of the media, and a TV interview is scheduled.  This is your opportunity to get your message out to a large number of people at once.

You will be interviewed by a reporter (or in some cases, a camera operator), and he or she may have background information on you and your organization, but that’s not your audience.  Your audience is the person at home watching.  You must be able to clearly explain your point of view to that person – the one with very little background information – in 9 seconds or less.

You must make every word count.  And that takes practice.

Posted by Margot Dimond

Is that all we can expect? Or did we choose the wrong PR firm?

As the owner of a professional services firm, I decided late last year that we needed to do a better job of promoting our services.  I know other firms similar to ours that receive quite a bit of attention in the media, and they seem to be expanding at a faster pace than we are, so it definitely seemed like the thing to do.  We interviewed several firms – small, medium and large – and chose the largest firm because it seemed to have the most to offer.  They touted their contacts at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and gave us every indication that we would be featured in those national newspapers.  Unfortunately, after six months our total media coverage has been a small feature in a local business publication.  We are very disappointed and have decided to end our public relations program entirely.  Is this a common occurrence?  Why did this happen?

In answer to your direct question:  This is not a common occurrence, but it does happen all too often.  Unfortunately, it usually happens to business owners who have never before used any type of public relations service.  If your knowledge of public relations and what it can accomplish comes from what you see on television or in the movies, you may think that PR people can pick up the phone and news people will come running.  If only it were that easy!

It is rare that a small firm or a startup gets covered in major national newspapers, and for a public relations firm to dangle that idea in front of you was very misleading.  If, in fact, they promised you editorial coverage, they are in violation of the requirement to “accurately define what public relations activities can accomplish,” as listed in the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, the professional membership organization for PR professionals.

Rather than giving up on having a public relations program, why not think about what you really want to gain from it?  You seem to want to expand your business.  By that, do you mean simply to have more clients?  Or do you have a specific type of client that you would like to work with?  Once you have determined the type of client you want to reach, you will need to have your PR firm work with you to design the right kinds of messages and media outlets to effectively reach them.  At that point, you should expect to see some kind of Action Plan with tactics, activities and timetables.

Your public relations program – whether undertaken internally or by an outside firm – should be viewed as an ongoing enterprise.  It’s all about reputation building and reputation maintenance, and that takes time.

Should you hire an outside firm, or go the DIY route?  Here are a some guidelines.

Posted by Margot Dimond

Why is our PR person always in such a hurry?

I am an assistant professor at a major research university, and I often get calls from our communications director wanting me to share my particular expertise in an interview for a news story.  She’s very insistent on my responding right away, which is very annoying.  Why can’t they wait for a convenient time for me to do the interview?  Is this standard practice for public relations people, or should I confront her on this?

It depends.  Do you want to be in the story?  Or do you want to be left out?  The reason the communications director is so insistent is that the reporter has told her that he or she has a tight deadline, and if you don’t do the interview before that time, you will not be quoted.  They will quote someone else.  No matter how important your expertise is – or how much it will contribute to the story – rarely will a media outlet delay publishing a story to fit in with your schedule.  There is always someone else they can quote instead.  So please go easy on your PR person.  She is on your side.

Why did they use that quote?

Does this sound familiar?  You’ve created a new product, and you finally get a media interview to promote it.  This is your big opportunity to let the world know what you have to offer.  Finally, you think, your business will get recognized.

Except it doesn’t work out quite the way you thought it would.  The news person shows up for the interview, and you talk in great detail about your product.  You may even provide a tour of your company headquarters.  In fact, the reporter is there for over an hour, and you can’t wait to see the story.

But when you do, you are disappointed.  The story contains only two quotes from you – comments you don’t even remember saying.  But worse than that, the reporter didn’t seem to understand the importance of your breakthrough product.

Maybe that’s because you never told him.  Sometimes it’s not good to know too much; it can keep you from explaining things clearly and concisely.

Remember:  The reporter is not your audience; the reporter’s audience is your audience. Tell them what your product (or service or invention) could mean to them – either now or in the future – in terms they can understand and relate to.

Do that, and you’ll be happier with the results.