Don't Try This At Work: No-No's for PR


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by Daniel P. Dern

(c) Copyright 1992, 1997 Daniel P. Dern

This originally appeared as my "PR Tips and Techniques" column in the Computer Media Directory, March 1994. CMD was a quarterly looseleaf of editorial contacts and other info.

"COPYLEFT/COPY'MIDDLE'":

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HOWEVER: If you want to make any use of this piece where you are earning revenue (e.g., on a Web page with banner ads, or a service or site that charges user fees) or where you should be paying me (e.g., in a magazine) or at least obtaining my permission, contact me at ddern@world.std.com.

Because I wear hats as both independent PR writer and free-lance journalist (switching hats so often accounts for the bald spot), I often experience the other side of things -- how the press views PR, and how PR views the press.

It's instructive, to say the least. Having been recently attended two major trade shows in the past month where I preregistered as press, I thought I'd relate a few typical practices that you DON'T want your PR group or agency to do -- and some suggested solutions:

1) Unqualified faxing.

The phone rings, and, without preamble, a voice asks, without preamble or identifying information:

"What's your fax number?"

2) The eager appointment-maker.

"Hi, this is Amelia Erhart and we're calling to see if you'd like to make an appointment to come by our booth during Penguin Expo to chat with our senior executives."

On the surface, these both indicate PR groups that probably haven't done their homework. The sub-text, quite frankly, is that someone in PR doesn't know what they're doing, at a much more basic level.

Call #1 represents a penny-foolish investment in negative press relations. Usually, these calls are being made by some innocent junior or temp worker, who was handed a press list and told to make calls. As a rule (I ask), these people have no idea what's going on, or what the goal is, other than to send faxes.

What it accomplishes is aggravating the press.

Solution: media-train whoever's making your press show calls. Try this script instead:

  1. "Hi, I'm calling from _________ to see if we should send you information about our Video Toaster MIB that we'll be (ANNOUNCING, DEMOING, ETC.) at the upcoming Penguin Expo in River City, Iowa."
  2. "Would you like us to fax, mail, courier or e-mail the information to you?" (and then confirm the proper address, etc.).
  3. "Is there someone else in your organization we should contact (also, instead), and is there anything else we can do."
Most of the press understands that PR people are simply doing a job, and will respond reasonably to a polite, by the rules query.

As for Call #2, for pity's sake, pre-qualify before wasting everybody's time:

  1. "Will you be attending Penguin Expo '92 in River City next week?" (A lot of press get pre-registered who won't be attending.)
  2. "We're introducing our new LAN Toaster MIB -- is this an area you're currently covering?" (Establish what you do, and whether this is part of the reporter's beat.)
  3. "We're trying to line up our schedule for press appointments -- are you interested in setting one up at this time?" (Some press don't precommit.)
3) Over-hype. "We're announcement something really revolutionary -- you need to come see it and write it up for your magazine."

I got one phone call last week like this -- and actually saw a PR guy buttonhole an editor outside the press room with this pitch. Really.

I don't know what the phone call was about, other than some new approach to vendor-distributor relationships. The other one I saw was for a company selling physical cable interconnects. Do they know what their PR agency is doing in their name?

Presumptuous claims like this are an open invitation for the press to declare open season and itemize all the ways in which your announcement isn't all you claim it to be -- and perhaps drag a few other unwelcome facts in while they're on the subject.

As one editor commented, "Don't declare revolution unless you're prepared to be guillotined."

*

Let's move away from show-specifics to a few more PR gaffes that are easier to avoid than fix after the fact:

4) Unapproved Users.

Don't give out a user name unless you've cleared this both with the user AND their organization's PR or Public Affairs office.

If the user balks -- legitimately -- then you've wasted a journalist's time. This can lose you your place in line, and also cost you future credibility and opportunities. The press keeps track of who doesn't deliver.

If the user does talk without sanction from their PR chain of command, you've potentially damaged their career. Many companies look unkindly on employees who talk to the press without clearance -- even if they haven't said anything inappropriate per se.

Nor is it the press' job to confirm with a user whether they've been given permission to speak. I tend to, because I don't feel it's fair for someone else's oversight to wreak damage on an innocent party's career.

More directly important to your own career, users speaking out of turn can damage important vendor/customer relationships -- a high price to pay for a bit of press coverage.

Recommendations:

  1. Always get explicit clearance from the customer's Public Affairs department.
  2. Send a confirming letter to the named user and Public Affairs for CYA.
  3. Do basic media training before allowing a user (or anyone, for that matter) to speak with the press (e.g., what can and can't be said, defining "off the record," don't say anything you aren't willing to see in print, how and when to say "I'll have to get back to you on that," etc.)
  4. Offer to provide a short summary of the user company, if appropriate.
  5. Don't over-offer to send product literature, interviews with your company's managers, etc.
5) Out-of-date Press Lists, and other Press Release Faux Pas.

Keep your press list current and lean. It wastes paper and gives the impression that you don't know what you're doing.

Example: I'm still getting mail addressed to me as the editor of the LAN supplement for MIS Week -- and MIS Week hasn't been with us since the summer of 1990. [Additional note, July 1997 -- I'm still also getting stuff in my capacity of NetGuide columnist, which I haven't been for a year or two, and also on behalf of one of the British Internet magazines, which I similarly haven't written for in over two years.]

I also get a lot of press releases I have no need or interest in. I'm not sure how to turn them off.

I'm on some lists multiple times. I got seven copies of one mailing. Sometimes I return the extras with a form letter asking to be unduplicated.

Recommendations:

  1. Review your list at least every quarter. Certainly do a basic review before doing a trade-show oriented call and mailing. participation.
  2. Stay current with who's where. Scan the mastheads periodically; subscribe to something like the Computer Media Directory (sic). [Note, 1997: Of course, even these lists often get severely out of date.]
  3. Consider doing a list confirmation mailing every six or twelve months, at minimum with a return postcard check-off "YES/NO Keep me on your press list." You'll save money and make friends.
To close out, here's a few more press release tips:
  • Lighten up on the envelopes and stuffing. I don't need bulky envelopes AND cardboard for an announcement of your third quarter financials. Let's save more of them trees.
  • Label mailings on the outside, e.g., "New Product," "Big Contract!" or "What We're Doing At Penguin Expo 92!" It'll help get things routed.
Do (or don't do, depending) all this, and I can all but guarantee you'll have better relations with the press.

(end)


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Last modified: Tuesday, 16-Oct-2001 11:08:15 EDT