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PR Help Wanted: Problem Solvers

What do you tell someone who is thinking about going into PR? My initial response to the person who floated the idea – in this case, my 11th grade daughter – was to ask: “Do you like solving problems?”


That wasn’t the answer she was expecting. But the job outlook for PR specialists is slightly above average, according to the US Department of Labor, in part because the challenges they address are not going away any time soon. Here are a few of these “problem” areas:

Market complexity. PR agencies aiming to promote a client’s message still reach out to leading journalists. How to connect with them remains a key challenge. But there are more players to track, including niche bloggers, designated or self-appointed opinion leaders, companies with their own content engines and the public at large, likewise empowered by the Internet and social media. Analyzing this fractured landscape and helping clients navigate it will be a growing part of what PR agencies do going forward.

Increased risk. With more voices and channels comes less control over what is being said and a greater chance that an organization’s message will have trouble reaching its intended audience. Did that latest blog article or Tweet from our competitor undercut our value proposition? Are sock-puppet accounts biasing discussion threads in the user forums? We reached the editor, but what about all those questions in the comments section? How to mitigate these kinds of risks is another big part of the PR business of the future.

More opportunity. In some ways, the PR industry today is tapping into its roots, with greater attention to its “public” mission and the need for ongoing, two-way “relations.” Amidst the noise is opportunity. One model focused on interviews with select journalists who spoke to a large but passive audience. The new model includes reaching out to influencers (sometimes former journalists) with noisy but well-informed tribes of followers. There is a large upside to figuring out how best to engage with these relatively open gatherings of the public or market segment that a client is looking to reach.



Cinderella Story

When filling out a NCAA bracket, many of us have a tendency to lean toward the assumption that the big names in basketball (think: Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan) will make their way through the big dance onto the Final Four and ultimately, one of them will claim the crown.  These are the teams with a strong brand behind them –their coaches and star players are often featured on the sports networks and it’s not uncommon to hear their names referenced during conversations throughout the regular season.  However, schools like George Mason and Richmond’s own VCU have taught us that taking a chance on the unfamiliar may prove to offer a far more favorable risk-reward opportunity.  When selecting a PR agency partner, companies should take this mentality into consideration.  From our perspective, here are a few advantages of a boutique PR agency to keep in mind when setting a bracket strategy for agency selection:

basketball_Salvatore Vuono

From tip-off to the final buzzer, seasoned professionals are on the court

You can count on the fact that the team that pitches the business will be the force behind your account.  You’ll have direct access to senior team members, including the CEO/president of the firm.  Even when working with junior team members, you can rest-assured that they are closely collaborating with and learning from their superiors who have many years of experience.

Hands-on Coaching Approach

Boutique agencies work with a limited number of clients and therefore, each account, no matter the budget, is of utmost importance.  The firm may not have the time or resources to pitch a new account, so they will do what it takes to keep their current clients satisfied.  Since the staff is dedicated to fewer accounts, they’re able to allocate more time and attention to helping you achieve your goals.

Fine-tuned Skills

Large firms have large staff and therefore, are capable of taking on a diverse portfolio of clients.  Due to limited team resources, boutique agencies must often be more selective in the type of clients they take on.  Quite often, these firms are built upon a particular niche.  This allows the team members to be fully immersed and specialized in the industry they represent; demonstrating extensive knowledge in one area versus general knowledge in a variety of areas.

While there is no debating big name agencies provide talented teams and creative in-game strategies, the offerings of a boutique PR firm may just be the key to a slamdunk for your communications’ objectives.

Don’t Grant Favors to the Media

The encounter between Representative Michael Grimm (R, NY) and Michael Scotto, a NY1 reporter, after President Obama’s State of the Union address was an ugly scene. Maybe best forgotten. Yet it stands as a lesson in how not to deal with reporters, with deal being an operative word.


Let’s first review the facts. Scotto interviewed Rep. Grimm live in the gallery of the House of Representatives. After capturing his reaction to the speech, he asked about an ongoing investigation into his campaign finances. Grimm declined to answer, stood to the side, and after hearing Scotto report on his unwillingness to talk about that topic, strode over to Scotto, got in his face and threatened to not only “break” the reporter “in half” but also throw him over the balcony.

All of this was caught on camera, creating a PR disaster for the congressman. He eventually apologized. But of interest here is his first response. In this New York Times article, Grimm initially justified himself by describing the interview, twice, as a “favor” he had granted to Scotto and NY1.

That’s a problem. However exalted the title (president, congressman, CEO, mayor, etc.) if you or your client approach media engagements as moments of condescension, as occasions to bestow a blessing upon them and their audience, you plant seeds of destruction. Not simply because pride has that way of going before the fall, but for another reason. If you don’t approach the media as an equal, you are less likely to get fair treatment.

Fairness is more likely to occur when two parties reach an understanding. Deals may vary. One includes irksome caveats. In another, everything is on record. Some may break down, with one side violating the terms. Coming to any terms, however, is all the more difficult when one side assumes a lordly air.

Being tightly wound, prone to outbursts and hypersensitive to certain lines of questioning is another problem. Rep. Grimm would have done himself a favor by simply walking out of the House Gallery – or by avoiding the interview (and potential ambush) in the first place. But there’s a more general lesson here. Don’t pretend to grant favors if you’re really in the business of trading them. And if what you or your client want is due respect, approach the media as an equal, agree on the ground rules and pay due respect yourself to the pen’s famous might.


Figuring Out Journalists: Three Tips for PR Pros

The more you know about your target media, the better chance you have of placing an article. That is a good reason for getting to know journalists individually.

At another level, it helps to be aware of common characteristics and larger trends. What traits or dispositions do journalists share? And how are they coping with the industry’s simultaneous contraction in size and expansion into the digital realm?

MediaJigsawStuartMilesHypersensitive, overworked, influenced

I touched upon one of common traits in a post last month, quoting former New York Times technology writer David Pogue, who said buzzwords were a “universal pet peeve,” at least among fellow tech journalists. Maybe that applies even more broadly. By definition, journalists are word experts. Even as they often grow jaded and distrustful of their sources and authority, journalists remain sensitive – at times hypersensitive – to the use and abuse of language. For that reason it is best to approach them accordingly, with direct, plain and truthful words.

Every profession has its “enterprising” and “lazy” practitioners. Most fall in between. Yet journalism has acquired a reputation for inefficiency. In a recent Bloomberg opinion piece Megan McArdle attacked that line of thought – “Lazy Journalists Aren’t to Blame for the Death of Print.” What’s to blame, she said, was the loss of ad revenue, not the output of journalists, who are as efficient as ever. There are fewer of them, to be sure. And over the past decade, many have had to scramble to maintain print products even as they shifted into digital-first mode. Journalists can be hypersensitive; they also are often overworked.

What else do we know about journalists? They can be biased. Which reminds me… In a previous life, as a third-tier subject matter expert in Washington DC, I once agreed to sit for a recorded interview with ABC’s Nightline. Duly made up and under the glare of camera lights, I began answering questions – and re-answering them. After the third or fourth try, I realized that what this producer was after: A cleaned-up version of something I’d said in passing at the outset. Not all journalists “pre-write” their stories and go searching for quotes. But most have inclinations, if not biases, and are already under the influence of a story line.

What to do?

Your job is to become another influence. The templates that journalists carry around with them are often as much timesaving reference points as ideological crutches. Figure out what that prevailing narrative is, then position your news or story pitch within that framework, using simple and direct language. Whenever possible, include a range of evidence – sources, quotes, trend lines and other data. Let your target journalist connect the dots.



What Works – and Doesn’t Work – When Pitching Tech Journalists

In more than a decade of technology journalism, I read – or scanned – hundreds of emails from PR agencies. Why was one pitch any more successful than another?

A PR rep always had a better chance of connecting if the pitch aligned with my current tasks. So being aware of what was on my plate helped. In that sense, I agree with former New York Times technology writer David Pogue, who recently blogged: “Rule #1 for PR folks: Know your target.”

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles_FreeDigitalPhotosThree Things to Avoid

There’s another angle to Pogue’s know-your-target rule. He thinks that if PR reps did their homework, they would be aware of his pet peeves, which include buzzwords. But Pogue also contends that buzzwords are a “universal pet peeve” among tech writers, which points to a broader rule.

Professional writers dislike bad writing. Most PR pros get that, and so they work hard to clarify their pitches and related press releases. But it never hurts to remind. What follows is a quick look at three elements of bad PR style: overused marketing lingo, unsupported superlatives and gratuitous adverbs

  • Buzzwords. Which words bug which writers will vary. A mass-market journalist may put a word like WiFi on the black list, as Pogue did in 2008. A trade journalist will be OK with the jargon – but will want to know which version of the IEEE 802.11 (WiFi) spec a vendor is promoting. The problem is imprecision. Take the classic “end-to-end solution.” Which ends? Where are they? And who owns them – vendor or service provider? As for solution, that word is ambiguous. Does the solution involve software, IP routers, optical transport – what is it precisely?
  • Superlatives. Whether by nature, training or learned experience, writers tend to be a skeptical crowd. Calling your end-to-end solution the “best” is the equivalent of a dare. You’re the first? Fastest? Most reliable? OK, prove it. Journalists may have little time to follow up, but if you want to win their trust, avoid goading them into second-guessing you. If you are breaking new ground, let the facts speak for themselves. 
  • Adverbs. So your end-to-end solution “seamlessly” or “successfully” integrates with something else. That’s not surprising. Could it have integrated in any other way, say “defectively”? Adverbs such as “extremely” or “significantly” beg the same question as superlatives: can you back that up or prove it, please? The list of empty and superfluous adverbs goes on. In a random sample of recent pitches and press releases, I stumbled upon the following: positively, highly, especially, readily, clearly and cleanly. Were any necessary? Don’t think so.

Pitches and content marketing

Journalists are a special case. An editor may be vexed by words that could win over a prospective customer. After all, getting a prospect’s attention traditionally has called for copy that builds enthusiasm and excitement – even hype. But that tradition is changing.

Content marketing – a topic for another day – calls for the kind of precise, factual and clear language that passes high editorial standards. In that model, a compelling pitch to a business prospect resembles a persuasive pitch to a journalist.


Reporting in the Social Era: Takeaways from Leading Biz Journalists

I recently attended a PRSA – National Capital Chapter Professional Development session at the new National Public Radio (NPR) headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Five leading journalists from top-tier national and D.C.-based publications offered their perspectives on how PR professionals can support reporters in a changing editorial landscape that accommodates our around the clock, on-the-go, social society.  Here are a few of the takeaways:

UrgentiPhone-DGWe’re Not in Kansas Anymore

The editorial world is not what it once was.  Readers are accessing content on their small mobile devices as they’re on the run from one place to another.  With so little time to capture an audience’s attention, rarely will a text-heavy piece suffice.  Reporters are seeking to perfect the art of storytelling through incorporation of all things visual: images, graphics and video.

While strong narrative will always be imperative, multimedia can be the missing component in the creation of a compelling story.  Reporters are now stepping away from the keyboard to learn new tools and tactics, such as shooting high quality photographs on an iPhone or producing a video.  Greg Otto, assistant editor for the Washington Business Journal, said, “It’s important to hone our skills and find the best way to tell our story.”

Moving on Up

Deadlines are shifting; no longer can a reporter sit on a story for an entire day, analyzing the various ways they could approach the news before filing at 5:00 p.m.  Now, it’s all about reporting as it happens.  The 24×7 newscycle creates a constant struggle for reporters to always be the first to report because if they don’t, someone else will.  And that someone could simply be a bystander on the street that breaks the news via Twitter.  The focus is now less about providing in-depth commentary, and more about getting content up early, often and during peak web traffic.

The Communicator + Reporter Dating Game

The value of a strong, trusted relationship could not be stressed enough among the panelists.  They urged PR professionals to proactively connect with reporters, when they are not trying to pitch them, to spark a collaborative partnership.  Let them know about your clients’ areas of expertise early on so that when they need a knowledgeable source right away, they know exactly who to call upon.

When describing the initiation of relationships between PR professionals and journalists, Scott Hensley, digital health correspondent and editor for, joked there may be a need for a PR  “I may be open to new relationships, though I already have a lot of steady ones,” he added.



Formulating Your Game Plan: The Keys to Success in Football and PR

Game-plan-2With summer fading, most of my thoughts are focused on two things: the always hectic final quarter of the year and football.  With co-workers, clients and media back in the office after summer vacations and tradeshow after tradeshow, fall is a busy time for most PR professionals.  As the weather cools down and work heats up, I spend my weekdays at the office and weekends (along with the occasional Monday or Thursday night) glued to the TV screen, cheering on my favorite NFL and college teams.  With my mind so focused on this mix of business and pleasure, it’s hard not to notice the parallels that exist between a results-oriented PR campaign and the game plan for a Super Bowl contending team.

Strategy is at the Core

Well before players hit the grid iron, they have a well-thought-out, calculated plan of action in place.  They’ve studied the competition and know what they’re up against; they’re aware of their own strengths and weakness.

Strategy is also the most essential element of a public relations campaign.  Before drafting the headline of a press release or picking up the phone to make the first pitch call, it’s vital to understand the ultimate goal and the most effective avenues that will lead to it.  This requires research on market trends and what the competition is doing, as well as an analysis of the challenges and key differentiators.

Tackling the Tactics

The game clock has started ticking.  The team is on the field, carefully executing the plays they’ve been practicing.  While they’ve worked hard to prepare, they know that the other team has the same goal in mind and will try equally as hard to do what it takes to achieve it.

Remember you’re not the only fish in the sea.  As PR professionals, we face fierce competition when it comes to capturing a reporter’s attention.  They receive hundreds of emails a day so to be successful at getting our clients in the news, we must develop compelling content that separates us from the competition.

Just like the team’s quarterback, we can expect that things won’t always go as planned and we must demonstrate the ability to make last minute adjustments at the line of scrimmage.  If a reporter does not accept your first angle, use the intel you’ve gathered from your research on the reporter and his readership, and try pitching a new angle.

Play-by-Play Analysis

Win or lose, after the clock stops it’s time to go back to the drawing board.  The team must analyze the game to determine what went right and what didn’t.  They’ll learn from the plays that resulted in success, such as 107 yard kickoff return that ended with a touchdown, as well as plays that didn’t quite go as planned like multiple turnovers that resulted in touchdowns for the other guys.   This reflection will help the team formulate a stronger game plan for the next matchup.

At the conclusion of each PR campaign, it’s vital to measure the results against the goals initially set-forth.  With a play by-play-recap of the campaign, we can identify the successes and failures and realign our approach to ensure the desired outcome is repeated or achieved in the future.

Whether you’re on the field or in a PR agency, execution of a strategic game plan is the key to achieving success.

Hail to the Redskins – New Richmond Residents!

Training_centerThe reigning NFC East champion Washington Redskins unveiled their new $10 million dollar state-of-the-art training facility in Richmond on Monday, July 8.  The team will call the Richmond-based Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center home during their three-week training camp, which kicks-off Thursday, July 25.

No stranger to pomp and circumstance, the Redskins welcomed community leaders and members from across the Commonwealth to a lively grand opening celebration.  The ceremony began with a performance from the Richmond All-City Marching Band, parachute jumpers gilding through the air and onto the new field and the singing of the National Anthem by former American Idol finalist and Richmond native, Elliot Yamin.  Guest speakers included former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones, Bon Secours Virginia Health System CEO Peter Bernard, and Washington Redskins Senior Vice President and Executive Producer – Media Larry Michael.

The new training facility will offer both entertainment and an economic boost for the Richmond region.  Fans from across the country can see their favorite Redskins in action before the season begins at no cost.  During Richmond’s inaugural season as training camp host, it means getting a unique first look at how RGIII has bounced back from his knee injury, or how well 2012 stand-out rookie Alfred Morris will perform his second year on the field.  The value of the training center has a far greater reach than simply entertaining fans and preparing players for their next run at a Super Bowl championship.  The facility will bring an estimated $40 million investment to the city of Richmond and hundreds of new jobs.  The economic impact of the training camp alone is estimated to be around $8.5 million a year.

For those of you that don’t know, I am a die-hard football fan so having an NFL franchise training camp right around the corner is like music to my ears.  I had the privilege of being a part of the on-site media relations team for the grand opening celebration.  It was an incredible experience to witness the immaculate facility, which was constructed in only a mere five months, weeks before the doors open to the public.  Let the countdown to training camp begin!