Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Public Relations

I was supposed to have gone to downtown Dallas today for a news conference at City Hall about an upcoming book festival I'll be part of, but I woke up today not feeling well at all, so I bowed out of it. I'm sure that some of it had to do with a raging case of the don't-wannas, which may have created psychosomatic symptoms, but some of the symptoms had been around in a minor form since this weekend before really hitting today, plus I was running a low-grade fever, and I didn't suddenly start feeling better as soon as I decided not to go, contacted the people involved and got their response. Usually when it's just the don't-wannas, I start feeling better with relief as soon as I'm off the hook.

I think part of the don't-wannas is the fact that my PR Spidey sense was telling me it would be a waste of time. You don't expect much news coverage from a press conference to announce an event that's already been made public (as it's been on the library's web site for ages). Really, press conferences are among the least effective PR tools and only work well for certain occasions. You do a press conference if you have crucial and timely information that has broad interest from the media and where all the media need to get the same info at the same time. Then it's most efficient to get all the key players in the same room at the same time and go for it. Unless it's the kind of thing where they know that's the only way they'll get the info, and they know that dozens of other news organizations will be getting the same info in the same place, the media generally hate news conferences. They're static, they're not very interesting, and, again, everyone's getting the same information, so if a reporter comes up with a brilliant question that introduces a new angle to the story, every other reporter gets access to the answer. About the only time a news conference to announce an event works is if it's something like the announcement of the next host city for the Olympics.

And, really, this in a nutshell is why I hated working in public relations. I love the idea behind PR, the theories and the strategy, coming up with new ideas for promoting something, and developing relationships with the media so I know just what information they need. However, too much of the practice of public relations in corporate America and in the agency world is focused on what people think should be done and on feeding egos, and therefore it's not very effective. So, because, for example, executives have seen news conferences on TV, they decide they want one because their news is so big and they want to be the one on the podium with the cameras clicking and reporters shouting out questions. But because they aren't major world leaders, the most they can expect is maybe two or three reporters, and that's only if the PR person has great relationships with the press and can cry and offer to buy drinks later if the reporter will just please show up and help save her job. They'd have had far better results with a lot less expense and stress by setting up one-on-one interviews with those three reporters and giving each reporter something tailored to that media outlet.

Unfortunately, too many PR managers or agency heads buy into the delusional thinking, which makes life rough on the people doing the work, and there I think there are two skills that, unless you're working for someone with a clue, are contradictory. If you really understand how the media work, what makes a good story and how to pitch it, you're going to be reluctant to do about 90 percent of the work that goes on in PR because you know it's pointless, a waste of time, and is only going to irritate reporters. If you're all gung-ho about doing that pointless work, you probably don't get it and have no idea what you're doing (which is why so many people burn out in the lower ranks of the profession). There's a very small group of people who get it and who can still tolerate doing the pointless work, and that requires a specific personality type. Sadly, the focus remains on that pointless work because of egos and delusions. Not every company or story needs to be in the New York Times. Sometimes a nice piece in the neighborhood section of the local newspaper will be far more effective for the company's needs. But the New York Times sounds so cool, so the PR person has to prove she at least tried to pitch the story to them, which then means she's cried wolf to a major newspaper, and that means that when she does have a real story that actually would appeal to them, they aren't willing to take her calls.

I have placed a story on the front page of the New York Times, and it took knowing what the reporter usually looked for, knowing about something going on that would appeal to her, sending a fax about it, then waiting for the phone to ring. But I only had that fax number because the reporter knew I wouldn't be bugging her with useless information she wasn't interested in. If my boss had made me contact her for every little thing, just so we could tell a client that we'd contacted the New York Times, it wouldn't have worked. There's too much time spent on writing pointless news releases and making calls that are essentially spam, just because that's how it's done. But with some creative thinking, some relationship building, and some restraint, you could get far better results for topics that are actually worthy.

If the writing career tanks and I have to go back to having a real job, I might look for something in a non-profit whose cause I believe in. Or else I'd start my own firm and see if I could succeed in honest PR -- take only clients who really have a story to tell, be honest with them up front about what they can hope to achieve, and refuse to do stuff just to make it look like there was activity. It would be kind of interesting to see if I could apply my theories about book publicity while pitching someone else's books, since I think the publishing world is about as bad as the agency world for doing things just because that's the way they've always been done rather than because it's something that has real results.

But I'd really rather just write books, so I guess I'll get on that.

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