Ten Deadly Sins of Media Relations By Ernie Reno, President Avatar Communications Group As a professional media and public relations practitioner, and a former journalist, I spend a considerable amount of time helping clients place editorial content in print, electronic and Internet media. This months column focuses on ten common mistakes that companies and their public relations people make when dealing with reporters.The list was compiled by noted technology writer, Andy Walker, executive editor of DigIt magazine. Its one of the most comprehensive I have found in my research on thesubject, and serves as an excellent primer for pr neophytes as well as a usefulreminder to corporate and agency media relations vendors. Avoid these mistakes andyoull increase your chances of success.1. Follow-up calls."PR people placing follow-up calls after sending out releases or emails - thats one ofmy all time classic peeves," says Walker. "In general, follow-ups are a no-no.Journalists receive hundreds of releases via fax and mail each week. We get evenmore unsolicited email. Worse, follow-ups are typically conducted by junior levelpeople. Experienced PR people dont bother - theyre too embarrassed to make thecalls themselves. I also find that smaller shops or in-house PR departments avoidwasting our time with follow-ups [unlike] the way big agencies with letters in theirnames do."His advice: "Recognize time limitations. If we spent one minute per [release], wedhave no time to report or write stories. Most of us read the headline and first graph -so trust us. If you dont hear back, assume were not interested." On the other hand,"pitches are different. If its targeted and you show you understand our audience andcoverage, were more likely to be open to a follow-up. But people who repeatedly followup non-targeted releases go straight to my blacklist. In those cases, we plug emailaddresses or agency names into our spam filters."2. Lackadaisical response."Another top peeve is PR people who dont get back [to journalists] in time," continuesWalker. "PR people spend a lot of time trying to get our attention. So when we turn thatattention to a specific company or product, youve won the battle. You made it throughour barriers - were now motivated to pursue your idea. It makes no sense at thatpoint to ignore our requests or to take days getting back to us."His advice: "Get back to us within the same day," Walker pleads. "Fifty percent of allPR people take between 48 and 72 hours to get back to me. Why? There are a lot ofreasons - including bureaucracy, lengthy approval processes and too many clients.We understand that many PR people are overloaded. We also realize we might not
always fall near the top of your priority list. For example, were a newer magazine - sowere lower on the ladder. But you could still send a quick email or leave a voicemailexplaining the holdup. That shows you appreciate the pressures we face - and thatyoure working on it."3. Lack of contact info."Surprisingly, a lot of companies still dont put press contacts on their websites - oreven on releases," Walker says. "Trust me - this is a lost opportunity. For example,we needed a photo of a tablet PC for our [first] issue. I tried eight different vendors.Three of those didnt have easily accessible contact info online. Needless to say, Ididnt call them." Whod he call? "I pulled phone numbers and emails from the Fujitsusite," Walker says. "They had two or three contacts on their press page - and theirpeople got back to me within an hour. Ultimately, their tablet PC ended up on ourcover."His advice: "Always make your online press room easily accessible. Put it near the topof your homepage. Also, make sure PR contact info is only one or two clicks away.Dont make us dig up releases to find it."4. Newsroom naivete."Not understanding newsroom realities - thats a big one," according to Walker. "Itseems that few PR people have journalism experience these days. They dontunderstand the day-to-day operations of news production." He offers this example:"Nobody seems to understand the mechanics of image resolution anymore. Magazinesand freelancers run into this all the time. PR types seem to think we can just cut-and-paste pictures from websites - even though the resolution is too low for print. Theresult could be that your mention gets pushed down, or that someone with adequateart gets better [above-the-fold] placement."His advice: "Take a tour of a local newsroom," suggests Walker. "Get in there and seehow the job gets done. If you cant do that, consider hiring more PR people who usedto work in the media. At the very least, do some research or send somebody to a newsproduction class or seminar."5. Misspelling names."Journalists get releases directed to the wrong person all the time," says Walker."Sometimes, the person isnt even at the [magazine] anymore. Also, misspelling ormispronouncing names is a sure sign that you havent done your research. If you canttake the time to research us, why should we take the time to hear what you have tosay?"This is a widespread problem, according to CNN.com technology editor JeordanLegon. Though his PR handlers were reluctant to grant an interview for this story,Legon did concede that his name frequently gets mangled by those seeking coverage[i.e., its "Jeordan," not "Jordan"]. His feeling was that PR pros often make faultyassumptions about their targets prior to distribution. --
He suggested that PR pros use media directories to double-check such things as beatassignments, name spellings and pronunciations.6. Breaking promises.Dig_Its Walker believes inexperienced or heady PR pros often over-extendthemselves - particularly at functions like trade shows. "I cant begin to tell you howmany PR people make and break promises at high-tech trade shows," he explains. "Itsall a big rush and they cant keep up with all of the contacts or commitments theyvemade. Theyre delighted to meet us, and theyre thrilled that theyve gotten ourattention. They promise follow-up calls, stories, product previews and even exclusives.But it never happens. No access - nothing"His advice: "I think a lot of this has to do with an inability to say no - especially when[PR people] are talking to us face-to-face," ventures Walker. "My suggestion would beto focus on the handful of journalists you really want to talk to - instead of placatingeverybody. Then follow-up with them methodically. And never, ever break a promiseyouve made to a reporter. We never forget promises - and we hold grudges forever,especially if youve gone out of your way to get us excited about [an idea]."7. Gatekeeper-ism."Shutting us out is the quickest way to make an enemy in the media," warns Walker."So is giving us the runaround-or ignoring an outlet." He offers this example: "We ran150 product reviews in our inaugural issue. We wanted to review 30 of Sonysproducts, but it was like pulling teeth. After five emails and three phone calls, I stilldidnt get a call back from their internal PR department. We were at the edge ofdeadline, so I emailed all of their product managers - still nothing. I then sent an emailto the VP of marketing for Sony Consumer Electronics. He promised two Sony DVDcams - thats all they would send."The upshot? "We never got the product," vents Walker. "I then requested an editorialmeeting [with them]. I got an email about it three months later. Too late - by then Ihated Sony."His advice: "Be a facilitator - not a gatekeeper. If you cant work with a reporter on astory, say so up front so you dont waste anybodys time."8. Favoritism and "media apartheid.""The big problem I have with PR people is being ignored outright," Walker continues ina similar vein. "Being ignored on purpose really upsets journalists - especially if wefeel its because our outlet isnt big enough." He elaborates: "PR people classifyoutlets into tiers. If youre new and unknown, they push you way down on the list. Youget shoddy response times and lousy behavior."His advice: "Treat outlets equally," Walker suggests. "This isnt a static business-[magazines] grow, and journalists have long memories. Were all in highly cyclicalcareers - we change jobs frequently. Or, we work for different outlets simultaneously.For example, I freelance to the Toronto Star, En Route magazine and CityTV." The
point? "Word spreads. If we get treated poorly by anyone PR person or company, Ican assure you that will be the topic of conversation the next time we get together withother journalists for a beer. In fact, weve all had gripe sessions where we talk aboutthe worst PR agencies." Like who? "My opinion is that the worst agency is Edelman," proffers Walker. "Theyrejust too big to give good service. You have to go through gatekeepers just to get to thegatekeepers. Theyve also broken tons of promises involving the [Microsoft] Xboxcampaign. We were promised one to review, and again - nothing." The result? "Itsironic, but Sony pulled through on that one. We reviewed the PlayStation2."9. Tunnel vision."Some PR people are too close to their company to do journalists any good," believesWalker. "They fail to manage the clients expectations because they cant see bothsides. The truth is that the best PR people are intermediaries - not emissaries. Theyserve both sides equally."His advice: "Step back and look at things as a news consumer. Ask yourself how youridea would appeal to readers - not your executives. For example, releases packedwith jargon and insider terminology shows that youre not thinking outside thecompany. It shows that you have no idea what journalists do. Instead, be a translator.Open up the lines of communication-that ensures that we both get what we want. Ifyou think of media relationships as win-win - not win-lose - youll get a lot more outof us."10. The spam syndrome."Good media relations is not a numbers game," asserts Walker. "Sure, spam works -for the short term. You can throw numbers against return all you want. But with a verysmall amount of extra effort, you can really improve your results."His advice: "Dont treat journalists as names on mail-merge lists. Talk to us individually.Target your pitches. Research our coverage. If you do a great job at that, well comeback to you again and again," Walker concludes. "At its core, PR is a human[endeavor]. Your cachet is grounded in relationships - not numbers. Your relationshipwith the media is your most critical asset. Without that, youre just a telemarketer."Please feel free to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome yourperspective.Until next month ... to your success.Ernie Reno, is founder and president of A vatar Communications Group, a local publicrelations and corporate marketing firm. Reno is an accredited practitioner of publicrelations and a member of the Public Relations Society of Americas CounselorsSociety.