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The importance of what lies behind a headline

By Danny Sullivan

I just read John Rogers’ AP report on the PR phenomenon that surrounds “Octomom”, the California mother who successfully gave birth to eight babies last month. It seems the initial widespread news reporting of the “miracle” story has quickly given way to almost universal derision of the woman for her irresponsibilty in having more children and her attempts to gain financially from the story. Indeed, the mother’s publicist, who had represented her for free, was forced to end his work with her after receiving death threats. Unbelievable.

But this example shows how quickly the double-edged PR sword can turn on you. If the mother had opted for privacy following the birth, the breaking news stories would have come and gone, she would likely have had to lie low for a few weeks until the buzz died down, and might then have been left in relative peace to get on with changing all those nappies. Instead, it appears she opted to capitalize on the PR, and is now paying the price for doing so. Ultimately, the realities of her full story did not meet with the same reaction as the initial focus on the miracle of eight surviving babies.

I’m not sure it would have made any difference to Octomom’s situation, but there is a lesson to be taken from this. Focusing on a single key message, whether it be eight babies or a “world-first” technology, can be a tremendous way to generate headlines, but there always comes a point at which your story’s surface will be scratched and the deeper details will be revealed. Whether you’re planning a product launch, publishing the results of a study, or announcing a new business strategy, make sure that whole story stands up to scrutiny or the initial headlines will always be superceded by the truth.

[Tags] Octomom, octuplets, messaging, marketing, public relations [/tags]

Media train, but don’t overdo it!

By Danny Sullivan

Last week was a particularly uncomfortable one for four ex-banking bigwigs here in the UK. They faced a public grilling from British MPs about their roles in the events that led to two of the country’s biggest banks needing to be rescued with taxpayers’ money.

The extensive media training that each received was widely reported on, and was even raised during the session itself. “Are you expressing sympathy because your PR advisers have told you to do so?” queried one MP.

Thank goodness not many PR folk will ever have to prepare their organisations to face such a high-profile public dressing-down, but media training is still an important element that serves its purpose well, no matter the profile of your company.

Unless you are partly responsible for the near-collapse of a major bank, you probably don’t need to go through the kind of rigourous training that the four chaps in London doubtless endured in the lead up to the grilling. In general, media training should not lead to the detriment of personality.

The golden rule of speaking to the media centres on the fact that they can only print or broadcast what you tell them, so stay on message. Yes, certain subjects and situations require more focus on key messages than others, and the bigger you are, the more careful you need to be. For the majority of tech companies, however, building a successful ongoing rapport with their target media is just as important as ensuring your top three messages make it into print.

Stifling an engaging and entertaining orator to try and exert control over the resulting coverage will serve only to irritate the media or, at the very least, make for an unmemorable interview. Far better for the interviewer to encounter an executive who is happy to explore additional areas of discussion in a more casual manner. This may mean that you lose some of the focus of the message, but you’ll have left behind a much happier reporter, and hopefully one who’ll want to come back and talk again some time.

The value of shooting the breeze

By Danny Sullivan

At inmedia, we frequently position ourselves against those whose perspective is that PR is “all about relationships.” And, while I wholeheartedly stand by our mantra that it is the ability to convey a story and not the relationship that dictates PR success, it cannot be denied that relationships are still important. They are even more relevant from the perspective of a PR firm’s clients than for the PR firm itself. PR firms come and go but, assuming a company sticks around, its relationship with its target media will last forever.

This week, one of my clients traveled to New York to meet face to face with a group of editors from a key trade publication that covers his company’s market. Was this meeting at the request of the editors? No, we brokered it from our end. Was it for an article they were working on? No. So why was this meeting happening? Simple. It was for the relationship.

While our client had some exposure to the publication, the relationship was very much the domain of inmedia, the PR firm. This is, of course, perfectly understandable – the very reason you have a PR firm is to maintain your relationship with the media, and this remains a core part of our business – but huge value can be gained on all sides from extending the media relationship to include the client at a deeper level.

So what happened in this meeting in New York? Well, they shot the breeze. Discussed the state of the industry, talked a bit about the company and what was going on with it, but no hard pitches for stories, no Q&A, no pressure to come up with the goods.

So where was the value in this meeting, you might ask. Why not ask my client, who left the meeting full of enthusiasm for the people he had just met, and excited about the future prospects for working with them. Or why not ask the editors, who expressed delight at the meeting and a desire to do so again at some point in the near future. Value was seen on all sides from a meeting that accomplished little in hard results.

Sure, inmedia could have handled this meeting ourselves, but our preoccupation with achieving results for clients would no doubt have created a different atmosphere. Sometimes stepping back from the day-to-day hard selling of stories and constant attempts to generate coverage can result in a far more rewarding result – a blooming relationship.

Could recession spell the end for print?

By Danny Sullivan

“It is early days, but it’s already clear that 2009 will be a crucial year for news media.”

Cautionary words from the Financial Times’ chief exec, John Ridder, as Brand Republic reports today that the business newspaper giant is laying off 80 staff, while still intending to expand its online presence. Coupled with other recent news of woes at major newspapers, including the New York Times and Canada’s Globe and Mail, one wonders if the writing is finally on the wall for print-based media.

Okay, maybe it’s not that likely. Granted, there is still a significant demand from the public for a physical medium by which to consume the news, but the survival of news media depends on more than subscriptions. Advertising is the key, especially among the technology trade media, where the majority of print magazine titles are free to qualifying subscribers, but it seems that companies increasingly seem to prefer the online option when it comes to spending their advertising dollars in a downturn. Certainly, the consensus is that print advertising is set for significant decline this year.

Douglas McIntyre on 24/7 Wall Street seems to think there’s a good chance that 2009 could see the end of a host of big names, with a drop in advertising seen as the key factor. “At least a dozen major magazines had ad page decreases of more than 20 per cent last year,” he states.

Perhaps it’s too early to speak of the death of print but, without advertising to support it and little sign of when this might change, the prospect becomes more real every day.

Embargos: What’s all the fuss about?

By Danny Sullivan

Following Michael Arrington’s pre-Christmas attack on PR embargoes, I think it’s a topic that is still worth exploring, particularly for those unfamiliar with how to use them effectively.

Why would anyone agree to embargo a news story in the first place? An embargo is supposed to be a tool that makes things easier on the time-constrained reporters who cover breaking news, allowing them the time to build their story ahead of the release date. The company providing the embargo realizes the added benefit of helping insulate coverage of their story against the possible negative impact of bigger “on the day” news, and can also gain more detailed coverage as a result.

So it’s like an exclusive? No. An exclusive is given to a single outlet, whereas an embargo is a set date and time for release of the news that can be agreed upon with any number of media.

But how can you ensure that the embargo is not broken? Herein lies the rub. An embargo is not a legally binding contract and is entirely based on trust. As such, embargoes should only be taken up with media that can be trusted to adhere to them.

The growing problem with using embargoes in today’s online society is that there is now much more to be gained from breaking them. As Arrington explains, ”Traffic and links flow in to whoever breaks an embargo first.” This added incentive to break the agreement means that the trust element is ever more important.

So, are embargoes no longer a worthwhile option for the PR professional? On the contrary, I would argue that they are still just as useful as they have ever been. The point is not to use an embargo without due care and attention. Sending a news story to 50 media contacts with “Embargoed until…” marked on the header is not going to cut it. At a minimum, agreement has to be reached through personal contact with each target before any information is imparted. But it is also important to ensure that those contacts you are reaching out to are the least likely to break the story - for example, they should have an ongoing interest in your company and products, or you should have already dealt with them successfully in the past. Media that value the relationship they have with your company are much less likely to break an embargo than those that have little real knowledge of your story and will think nothing of damaging the relationship in order to be first with a story.

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