If you’ve ever worked in PR or communications, raise your hand if this scene sounds familiar:
INT. YOUR OFFICE - END OF WORK DAY
YOUR BOSS/CLIENT/COWORKER enters. He reveals that he’s spent the last X number of weeks, months, maybe even years on an exciting project that is finally done.
BOSS/CLIENT/COWORKER: "I am here to discuss the rollout strategy for this very exciting project that I expect to get lots of press attention."
YOU: "Wow. I had no idea you were working on this project. It does sound very exciting. I can’t make any promises, but we will certainly do our best to get reporters to cover it."
BOSS/CLIENT/COWORKER: "Great. We need it to go out tomorrow."
Your jaw hits the floor. It’s almost five, you still have a dozen calls and emails to return and NOW you have to figure out how to deliver “lots of press” on an issue you’ve never seen before...by tomorrow???
YOU: "If you want to get press on this, I’m going to need more time."
BOSS/CLIENT/COWORKER: That’s impossible. Tomorrow’s the deadline that we’ve been working round-the-clock for days/weeks/months to meet.
YOU: "Why didn’t you involve me sooner? I could have worked with you to make sure the project was camera-ready for roll out."
Your boss/client/coworker looks at you like you’re talking a foreign language. Why would they have included you before now? They already know how the public is going to respond: They’re going to love it. And getting press will be easy (They know this because they believe that anyone who has ever read a newspaper is qualified to do your job.)
BOSS/CLIENT/COWORKER: "What’s the big deal? We just need you to put out a press release."
You resist the urge to throw a stapler at your boss/client/coworker's head.
If this has never happened to you, consider yourself lucky. If it happens in the future, feel free to show them this blog.
To be clear, there is no such thing as “just putting out a press release.” In fact, I always wondered what the proponents of “just putting out a press releases” thought that entailed.
I’m pretty sure at least a few of my former colleagues believed that I had access to a magical service that – once we agreed to the text of a release – automatically delivered it to the attention of anyone with an interest in the subject. Yes, any press secretary worth their salt will have extensive press lists (I do), but -- as I tried to explain to one incredulous colleague – if you want me to get a tiny industry newsletter that goes to 100 ranchers in one particular county in one particular state to cover a press release, you need to clue me into the existence of said newsletter.
Just writing a press release doesn’t get you press. You have to get that press release into the hands of reporters who might cover it at a time when they have the capacity to cover it and – even then – unless you’re George Clooney, the President of the United States or someone else with a corps of reporters whose sole job it is to document your every move, you aren’t guaranteed coverage. In fact, I’d argue that sending out a press release is increasingly one of the most ineffective ways to get press. (Yes, there are other ways to get press.)
Getting press takes work, planning, research and creativity. We might be able to write a press release in a couple hours, but just writing the press release won't yield the results you want. We know this. We also know that your not knowing this means you'll blame us (not your press strategy) when the hastily assembled press release doesn't yield the press coverage you want.
I'm not telling you this to scold you. I'm telling you this because trusting your press staff and giving them an opportunity to show you what they can do, is how you motivate them to do their best work. (Press staff like to get press.) On the other hand, creating a situation that sets your press staff up to fail is demoralizing and encourages them to "dial it in."
Personally, I think the word "just" should be excised from all conversations with press staff. (1) It's pejorative in that it fails to acknowledge that getting press takes work, skill and even talent. (2) Nothing "just" happens when it comes to communications. As one fictional reporter yelled in the series finale of The Wire (most likely to a fictional press flack on the other end of the phone) “Just because it happens doesn’t make it news.”
“Just” talking to a reporter doesn’t guarantee they will quote you. Just as it doesn’t guarantee they will cover the issue you want them to cover the way you want them to cover it. Heck, "just" because a reporter covers an issue you are working on doesn’t guarantee that he’ll mention your involvement. Tweets don’t get retweets "just" because you tweet them. YouTube videos don’t go viral "just" because you post them, and "just" putting out a press release doesn’t guarantee that the reporters you blind copy it to will read it. (Odds are they won’t since 100+ other flacks probably blind copied them on press releases that day too.)
PR is regularly ranked as one of the most stressful jobs for the simple fact that it is a profession without guarantees. The end result is always out of your hands. You can do everything exactly right and get no press. The reporter most likely to write on your issue might be swamped or on vacation. Your quote might get dropped because – heaven forbid – Sarah Palin said something that will get more clicks. Even if you convince a reporter to cover your story the way you want it covered…stories get bumped, cut-down and/or lost in the news cycle. I once placed an op-ed that – on an average day -- would have been one of the biggest stories in the country…too bad it ran the same day that Bill Clinton single-handedly rescued two young women from North Korea.
A good communications strategist knows how to navigate this environment. They know how to position an issue, talk to a reporter or phrase a tweet to give it the best possible chance of finding an audience. I’ll write more on this soon, but for the moment, try to remember: it’s not easy and if you've never done it, you probably don't know how it's done.