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Smashing myths / Many public relations people are headed in the wrong direction
By Marc Jampole
Every profession has its myths that are eradicated through time and advances in knowledge. In the 17th century, physicians thought they could break fevers by opening a vein and letting the patient's blood flow out. And in the 1920s, some prominent physicians prescribed deadly radiation treatments to promote longevity. In the medical profession, these and many other myths have long ago given ground to rational, scientific analysis.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for public relations. To an alarming degree, public relations practitioners, especially at agencies, continue to make important strategic decisions based on myths developed in long-dead eras.
Here are three of the myths we run into most often:
Myth 1: Always release bad news and never release good news on Friday afternoon. This myth is based on a superficial analysis of old surveys of newspaper readership that suggests that fewer people use the news media on Saturday.
But what if the target audience is educated, operates a business or has a high income or net worth? All of these audiences use the news media at least as extensively on Saturday as they do on other days. If these audiences are important to an organization, as they might be to companies selling to other companies, companies selling luxury goods or nonprofits in the middle of capital campaigns, then releasing good news on Friday may be a good thing and releasing bad news on Friday may not achieve the goal of reducing widespread dissemination of the negative facts.
Consideration of a very important audience, employees, usually argues against a Friday release of bad news. When an organization releases bad news on Friday, your employees have the entire weekend to stew about it at home without the guidance of management. If maintaining the commitment of employees or persuading employees to take certain actions is important to an organization, as it so often the case in merger battles, bankruptcies, downsizing programs and other "bad" situations, then a Friday release may hurt the organization. Even if the organization holds meetings with employees to let them know the bad news before the announcement, it is still sending them home to two days of negative news coverage and rumors, instead of reinforcing to them its messages about the bad news the very next day.
Myth 2: You have to write long case histories to attract feature coverage of how your organization helped a client or customer. We run into this myth virtually every time my public relations agency begins working for a technology client. In all cases, the company is deep into completing a six- or seven-page case history that tries to demonstrate how the customer solved a problem by using the client's product or service.
To prove that this is another public relations myth, merely peruse some of the thousands of pages of case histories that appear in print and Internet news media every month -- virtually all of the case histories are written by reporters. In most cases, the reporters like to do their own research, although they are appreciative of the information and contacts that an agency or company can provide.
What persuades a reporter to do a case history is not a lengthy narrative, but the hook -- the angle of the story that makes it interesting, unique or trendy. Telling the reporter what's newsworthy shouldn't take more than a few paragraphs. If the hook isn't in the headline or first paragraph, it's likely reporters will never understand why the story is important, because they don't have the time to read deep enough into the story to find it. Reporters are busy, and they're inundated with mediocre story ideas; so an organization must tell them right away why the case history is important. Once that task is accomplished, there's no need to tell them anything else until they ask for additional information.
A company will attract far more positive news coverage if it develops six intriguing, newsworthy case histories of one-page each, then identifies the reporters with the optimal interest in each, than if it writes one six-page case history.
Myth 3: I have friends in the news media who will cover the story. The underlying assumption behind this myth is not only fallacious, but also suggests that reporters are driven more by friendship than by their analysis of what is newsworthy. Yet, more than half of our clients tell us that most agencies have promoted "friends in the news media" as a major reason to engage them as public relations consultants.
What that statement says about journalists is that they are unprofessional and do not pursue excellence. What does it do to a sports team on any level when coaches play favorites instead of putting the best players on the field or floor? Typically, it tears the team apart, the team loses and, depending on the level of play, either the coach is fired or ends up surrounded by a lot of angry parents. A reporter playing favorites is just as doomed to failure, and that's why the overwhelming majority of reporters do not do it.
Every journalist has a constantly evolving set of screens by which she or he judges if a story is worth covering, including: the media outlet's definition of what is newsworthy; the editorial scope of the media outlet; the outlet's regularly scheduled formatted stories, such as profiles, lists, case histories or news round-ups; the specialization of the reporter; and the current trends in the reporter's coverage area.
With that fairly long list, friendship is never really an issue.
These are examples of many myths perpetrated by many PR professionals that reduce the effectiveness of PR campaigns. At the heart of all these myths is a failure to analyze the current needs of the target audiences. These target audiences may include the public; but for many organizations, important audiences are just as likely to include an industry, investors or large donors, a job title at targeted businesses, employees or other groups with special viewing, surfing and reading habits.
And in every case, the news media itself must be considered one of the most important of all target audiences, since the story will not appear if the organization fails to persuade reporters to cover it. An analysis of the needs of this very important target market before beginning any public relations campaign will yield better results than reliance on old myths.
(Marc Jampole, of Squirrel Hill, is principal of Jampole Communications Inc., a Pittsburgh-based public relations and advertising agency. Reach him at 412-471-2463, www.jampole.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday, November 23, 2004