Doing PR The Wrong Way

It’s eight months since I stopped working for BBC News & Current Affairs and returned to my ‘other’ career as a communication coach and trainer. But one of Auntie’s great legacies is to have somehow retained my home email details in her Outlook global address book. Without going into unnecessary technical details, this simply means that here – at my home in London – I am still the recipient of reams and reams of press releases. I think I’m also in a unique position to critique them because of the two distinct hats that I wear. Number one, I was a BBC journo and gatekeeper of the airwaves for many years. Two, I help clients in various fields of persuasive communication – from sales to presentation and pitching skills to assertiveness in the workplace. So with both hats on, here’s my message to those in the PR industry who are still writing these things: Stop! You’re doing it all wrong.

I decided to write this article about twenty minutes ago, when I received not one but two emails entitled, “Response to Government announcement about new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point C”. The email offered me expert insights from a very clever person at a highly regarded academic institution. The only thing was – I needed to open the email and do a fair bit of reading before I knew what exactly that insight was, whose insight it was and for which august body he or she worked. In a busy newsroom, ain’t nobody got time for that.

Two days ago, another such email arrived. Somewhere amongst the noise of my inbox, I saw the following words in the header:

Bid to offer new migraine hope Botox funding request as Glasgow hosts major summit

What? I opened it and read it. The story soon became clear – it was about a very noble attempt to get NHS funding to give Botox as a treatment for migraine sufferers in Scotland. And now the email was open, the headline looked like this:

Bid to offer new migraine hope

Botox funding request as Glasgow hosts major summit

“Well”, I thought, “at least that makes more sense now.” Ok, it’s not the headline I would have chosen (‘bid’ and ‘hope’ don’t exactly make this a strong story), but each to his own etc. Then it hit me. Even I was missing the main point here. And it’s this. Nobody opens these emails. In a busy newsroom, even the catchiest email header is usually glanced at and ignored. Unless maybe it arrives in the middle of the night or on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

Technology may be unrecognisable compared with two decades ago when I started out as a reporter. But one thing remains the same: press releases get ignored. At the time, they were churned out endlessly by a sweating, tired old fax machine over in the corner of the newsroom. Now they land in our inbox and they’re so insignificant that we can’t even be bothered to delete them.

The excellent and impressive former boss of Which? – Richard Lloyd – once asked me to go along and talk to his press team about what they could do to get better coverage in the media. He and I had worked together successfully on a number of projects and I was to give the view from the ‘other side’. I told them you have to treat it like a job application. Would you ever mail merge a standard cover letter and CV to a raft of different companies in the hope that one of them offers you the job of your dreams? Would you then chase it up by phone without thinking about WHO you’re talking to, WHAT their company does or HOW it operates? And what about when the time comes to be interviewed for these jobs? Would you just prepare one ‘spiel’ and come out with the same patter at each interview? In the same way, it follows that you can’t really hope for much success if you just bang out press releases to as many people as possible, with a note-to-self to follow it up with a phone call in a day or so.

The way to get coverage is similar to pretty much ANY of the techniques I help my clients with when it comes to persuasion. First of all, set yourself a goal. What precisely do you want to happen here? What does success look like and how will you know when you’ve achieved it? And then you ask yourself what the ‘other side’ wants. Put yourself in their shoes. Get out of your seat, sit somewhere else and try ‘being’ that person for five minutes. See the world through their eyes. What are their priorities – and how can you make their life easier? Effective persuasion starts with listening, a lot of listening. Then, once you’ve heard what they need, you can tailor your offering to each individual. Try also to take a moment thinking about the medium you’re talking to. A live radio station will not cover your story in the same way as a weekly newspaper, for example. Tailor your ‘treatment’ of the story according to what you know about your target medium. Show that you’ve thought about how it may sound. Or the visuals. Or the headline. It takes more time, but it’s worth it.

Oh – and one more thing: we’re all human – even journalists. As humans we are instinctively drawn to each other via our senses. If you just send emails, you appeal to just one sense – sight, through reading. If you pick up the phone, and follow up with an email (yes – in that order!) you appeal to two senses – hearing and sight. Better still, if you can forge a relationship with them by going to meet them, having a coffee and chatting things through, well – let’s call that a warm-blooded, multi-sensory experience. The digital revolution doesn’t have to mean the death of humanity. So who are you going out to meet tomorrow?

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