Opinion: How NOT to deal with the media

Susi Banks
By Susi Banks | 21 May 2014

Media communications used to be a straightforward business: put out a corporate press release and wait for the results. Not any more. In the US recently, Coca-Cola went so far as to announce that the corporate press release is dead.

Time-poor reporters and editors barely have time to read their emails, let alone click on attached press releases from PR companies and wade through the spin to see if there’s a story in there.

The key to grabbing the media’s attention is to keep your communications short, try and get the subject of your email in the subject line and have something interesting to say. Explain in one or two paragraphs why you are contacting the journalist. Of course, there are times a press release is welcome, such as when a story is complex and a lot of data is helpful. But these occasions are few and far between.

From a journalist’s perspective, trying to get interesting and intelligent comment from spokespeople when writing a news story or feature can be harder than it sounds. Even when a journalist is basically writing a puff-piece about a company, it’s not unknown that company principals or media contacts can shoot themselves in the foot – and consequently the company they represent.

A few years ago there was a European trend starting to emerge in Australia whereby big retail fashion stores – Zara, H&M, Top Shop – would dress two mannequins in store display windows identically; in effect they were twins. I pitched this story idea to the fashion editor of broadsheet newspaper where I worked who wanted to know the thinking behind this. A well known PR company in Melbourne offered me expert commentary on the subject. I made it clear that I was looking for the source of this exact trend. The expert’s reply when I telephoned them? “I’d really like to know the answer to that too…”

Demanding to see a copy of the story before it is published, even before giving a journalist quotes, is also not the way to go about it. This happened to me recently after I’d already agreed to email questions to a source after speaking to him on the phone. I’d told the contact I was writing a “good news” story about their company. When I emailed back that I’d be happy to show him any quotes attributed to him or statements about the company, he then requested a story outline, direction, other companies or sources referenced. I filed the story idea in the “too hard” basket, and it was a missed opportunity all round.

A reporter is not working as your PR or marketing agency. The job of a journalist is to write the story – not to make you look good. On the PR side, your job is to assess whether any publicity garnered is likely to be beneficial. There is no point making unrealistic demands before the ball has even started rolling.

But in defence of PR practitioners, and I know some excellent ones, they are often in a difficult position, being the “meat in the sandwich” between their client and the media. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid asking the stupid questions as the client may insist and ask you to report back to them with the media’s answer.

As has been previously reported, sending a live animal or goldfish is never a good idea. Even if you ascertain that the reporter is in the office that day and the goldfish won’t end up floating dead in a boxed water bowl over the weekend, chances are they won’t appreciate a new pet foisted on them for PR purposes. In general, shy away from gimmicks and don’t send irrelevant promotional material or gifts. If you are in doubt, ask yourself the question: “Would I like to receive this?”

And always double-check the name and address of a reporter and the masthead or network they work for. Many a time nice bottles of champagne intended for The Australian Financial Review are delivered to The Australian newspaper, and vice-versa. But hey, thanks for the free champers.

For the record, journos like food and alcohol. It’s not rocket science.
Susi Banks is a former journalist with The Australian and has worked at ad agencies in Sydney and London.

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