The Press Is Not the Enemy

The Press Is Not the Enemy

Article by: Jeremy James

Posted on: September 20, 2016

There is a natural tension that exists between the PR function and journalism. That tension is the simple fact that, in a business communications context, a PR person’s job is to gain positive press coverage for the client and a journalist’s job is to find the truth of the story, even if it is unfavorable to the company the PR person represents. Clients tend to worry about reporters seeking negative drama or looking at a set of facts and drawing a negative and, from the client’s perspective, wrong conclusion.

When the PR function is operating optimally, negatives are not dodged by company spokespeople. Rather, they are discussed candidly with the PR people so the PR people can advise the best course of action. Sometimes this is spin on a set of facts that, while not ideal, can be viewed as a normal part of business and can be positioned as “being handled appropriately.”

Here’s an example: Some years ago, we had a client who was far and away the leader in its product category. They discovered that one of their products, a product that was in consumers’ homes in the millions at that point, had a rubber part that, over time, became glazed due to a chemical reaction and began to show intermittent failures. They came up with a fix that would cost the consumer nothing — and, happily, would cost the company relatively little. Even though, as the category leader, this company and its products were followed by the tech press quite closely, the press had yet to learn of this problem. PR was involved on what to do from the very beginning. It took some months to get the fix manufactured in volume so we had both time to plan and contingency plans in place should the news come out before the fix was in place (it didn’t). In the interim, the company was taking back products individual customers complained about. A very responsible thing to do, but expensive.

Once the solution was in place, we took a failing product, the simple fix and a product manager on tour. We embargoed the information so all the press would break it at the same time the company announced the issue and the fix. The press response — and, more important, coverage — was unfailingly positive. Proactive, honest, but carefully planned crisis management. No playing coy with the press.

As an aside, the failure of the rubber part was due to a supplier changing its formula for the part without notifying our client. Our advice, and the company’s own instinct, was not to throw the supplier under the bus. The PR was about addressing a product issue, not blaming someone else for a part’s problem.

Coming clean is nearly always the best course of action. But that doesn’t mean you don’t carefully plan out how you will come clean. It is always best to have in place the answer to the “Now what?” question. The product failure story above is an example of Doing It Exactly Right. Obviously, bad news can be far worse and there are situations in which coming out unscathed is simply not an option. But the principle of (well planned) candor and dealing with the press on the up and up holds.

When a PR person is well armed and a company is mature in its understanding of and approach to PR, the PR person can deal with the reporter in good faith and help the reporter get a story that is balanced and complete. When PR people are able to deal straight with reporters on all stories — those that are positive and those that have some sub-optimal elements in them — both the credibility of the PR person and of the company they represent goes up. And coverage from quality journalists tends to be fair. The client then can rejoice about positive coverage and feel good about a balanced and thorough telling of stories that nevertheless have elements the client wishes didn’t exist.

The journalist is not the source of the negative; something about the company’s situation (financial, product, management, etc.) is the source of the negative. Appreciating this fact and supporting the PR function in Making the Best of It is a central element of ongoing positive PR.

And at the core of this is PR people understanding the journalist’s job, not treating the journalist as an adversary, and advocating internally for an outcome that will be best when the company, through its PR function, helps the reporter do his job.

Why You Shouldn’t Worship the False Idol of PR Tactics

Why You Shouldn’t Worship the False Idol of PR Tactics

Article by: Jeremy James

Posted on: August 1, 2016

Just because a tactic is “cool” doesn’t mean it should be executed. Every tactical idea should be evaluated through the filter of the program objectives and strategies. If it doesn’t pass this test, don’t do it — no matter how exciting or cool it seems.

Excerpt. See the full article at PR News.

Do PR People Deserve Their Low Reputations?

Do PR People Deserve Their Low Reputations?

Article by: Jeremy James

Posted on: June 7, 2016

I started my career as a journalist. In those early days, I had an editor — an old-school newspaper guy with a drinking problem, a young girlfriend he knew in his heart he was not going to keep, and an eight-year-old Mercedes sedan he proudly pointed to as some sort of sign of accomplishment — who had an extraordinarily low view of PR people. We were not allowed to quote PR people by name. They were “a spokesman” (it did not matter if the PR person we quoted was a woman) and none of us ever filed a story quoting a spokesman that the editor did not berate us for failing to get to an actual source. It is not for nothing that PR people are called flacks, right?

In Episode 4 of the first season of the Netflix series “Narcos,” the drug lords are grappling with the implications of Colombia’s new law allowing extradition to the U.S. DEA agent Steve Murphy, who provides what New York Post writer Robert Rorke calls “mordant commentary,” says: “As for the Ochoa brothers — they went with a fancy PR firm. And got ripped off because, well, that’s what PR agencies do.” Not sure that’s true. Doesn’t seem like a sustainable business model. But it’s a good line. That’s what screenwriters do.

Ironic that a function focused on reputation should have a bit of a reputation problem — at least in the popular mind. But it’s not surprising. PR, executed at the highest level, is entirely contrived but looks completely natural to anyone on the outside. When I say ‘entirely contrived,’ I don’t mean falsified. I’m not talking about lying here. I’m talking about being very very deliberate in message development and delivery. My editor, back in the day, had a kind of ill-informed but intuitive grasp of this fact. He knew that a PR person’s job was positive spin. Disclosing truth was secondary.

Today, of course, when news and entertainment and politics have metastasized into merely individual aspects of the same unpleasant furball, everyone knows what spin is. Everyone knows anyone speaking in an official capacity for any major enterprise — whether it is business or government — is vigorously spinning some advantageous POV. Ripping off clients? Not so much. That’s just a screenwriter violating the rule of writing what you know.

So then PR people and the agencies they work for are a necessary evil, right? Well, I have seen a lot of really crappy PR in my life. I have heard a lot of really bad PR advice (though most of that has come from engineers who, being really smart in engineering, imagine they are smart on everything).

I answer my own question thusly: PR people are necessary because the people reporters want to talk to have jobs other than talking to reporters. The good PR people understand the reporter’s task, and are as much advocates to their clients for the reporters as advocates for their clients to reporters. (I can imagine people on the client side going, “Wait. What?” I will address this point in a future blog post.) I have only known a couple evil PR people in my life and, frankly, they practiced deceit because they were in deeply over their heads, had no idea what to do and were desperate and afraid.

In my experience, PR people come in three varieties: 1) the doe-eyed communicator just out of school who does most the work at large agencies (I will address this flaw in the traditional agency model in a future blog post); 2) the driven media relations soldier whose professional self-concept is tied up in landing coverage (these people are a treasure…and often quite monomaniacal about their jobs); 3) the smart, thoughtful people who live for strategy and substantive conversations with smart reporters. This latter category — yes, I put myself here (call me immodest) — hate working for badly run enterprises with also-ran products. Because, good PR people, while they absolutely are spinning, are spinning the truth. And it is hard to find positive things to push for badly run enterprises with also-ran products.

So, sure, there are plenty of PR people who have earned their low reputations — just as their are plenty of business executives, politicians…and husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends who deserve their low reputations. There are some reporters who aren’t worth admiring either. These are the ones who care only about drama and conflict and view every set of facts through the lens of sensationalism. Hate those guys. They are crappy reporters.

Without question, the power of effective PR is the resulting earned media for the client. Powerful earned media comes when you get a good, solid, experienced journalist (this is most of them) and a solid PR person with a good client. Both value each other. The PR person is not an annoyance to the reporter but a valuable resource. She or he helps the reporter do good work and the reporter writes (or records) a story that is (actually) accurate and fair.

And no one is getting ripped off.