Thursday, June 07, 2007

PR Media Relations Basics for Clients

By Ned Barnett, APR

The following listing of media relations basics for client firms; it is based on three-plus decades of working in PR, seeing what reliably succeeds for clients and seeing what essentially works one-time-only (based on distinctive or unique circumstances).

To put this list of basics in perspective, I have presented the information as advice to a just-past-startup manufacturing client which has developed a brand-new “alternative” product. This client functions as a wholesaler, selling through retail distributors, with consumers as the end-users. If your business model is different, some of these recommendations will have to be adapted – but most apply across a wide range of business modes. After all, the essential nature of “basics” is that they apply reliably to a wide variety of clients and business circumstances.

1. Although many decry the needs for press releases in this digital age, you need a core press release announcing and positioning your business to the media and the marketplace. This is important, though not always for the same reasons as those that once justified press releases. This “core” launch release should tell your story to the media briefly, succinctly and effectively. However, a launch press release isn’t enough – the initial release package needs to include two different elements:

o Your launch release should be provided in digital format (and never in PDF – it is helpful to allow reporters and editors to cut-and-paste it – and this applies not just to the initial press release, but to ALL PR-provided materials).

o Though it may sound odd, reporters are almost allergic to the idea of retyping anything – but if you give it to them in digital format, that will make getting coverage in print more likely.

o With this initial release, you'll also want to include high-rez digital photos of the product, the product installed, the company logo and its founder/inventor.

 Rather than attach a photo (if the release is emailed to the media), include a link to those high-rez photos available for media download.

 In addition, include a concise and accurate photo caption and (if appropriate) a further link to permission-to-use statements signed by those in the photos.

 This gives reporters and editors all the tools they need in order to use these photos.

o Your media contact’s email address – not just the phone number – should be included on all releases and correspondence. So much of media work is done via email now that this is essential.

2. To go with impressive and effective launch (or other) press releases, you need to have an equally impressive online press room. A good sample of an effective online press room can be found on the site of a former client of mine (this press room is effective, content-wise – I won't speak to design as that was beyond my ability to influence). This website can be seen at In addition, for an important feature often overlooked in online press rooms, check this out at What you need here for your own online press room includes:

o All of your press releases (in reverse chronological order – most recent at the top).

o The media is a "follow-the-leader" pack animal, and will be impressed by previous press coverage – having achieved solid coverage from other sources at other times makes the media more trusting of you, and more likely to also want to cover you. Therefore, be sure to include:

o All of your favorable press clips (again in reverse chronological order). A strong hint here: do not assume that press coverage will stay online at the media’s website – create a "screen capture" of the article on your website, so it will never go away.

o All of your favorable broadcast interviews, in streaming video (for TV) and streaming audio (for radio), live on your website. Also, again remember this.

o A backgrounder on how you discovered/invented the product. This should be something substantial – 1,000 to 2,500 words is good, though as little as 500-750 words could work in a pinch. You want reporters to cut-and-paste from this and include it in their write-ups. Note – this applies to start-up manufacturers – adapt this “product-specific” item to your own business.

o A backgrounder on the company itself. As with the product creation backgrounder, having these online will invite reporters to cut-and-paste and use this in their write-ups.

o A bio on you and your co-inventor. Note: For other companies, this means bios on the founders (if still active), as well as current corporate C-level leaders.

o Frequently asked media questions (if you don't have them, make them up – the way you want to be asked) along with the answers. As you gain experience in talking with the media, update this so it reflects the questions reporters actually ask.

o Kudos from happy retailers/dealers (remember, you're also looking for dealers, so let's not forget them), with contact information so reporters can verify the comments, and follow up with other questions as appropriate. You’ll want to get their permission – in advance – before you turn the media loose on them. Note: Adapt this to reflect your channel.

o Kudos from happy/satisfied end-users, with contact information so reporters can verify the comments, and follow up with other questions as appropriate. You'll want to get the end-users' permission to give out contact info, of course, but that shouldn't be difficult ... most people are flattered to be asked – and those who aren’t shouldn’t be bothered.

o High-rez digital photos of the product, the product installed, the company logo and its founder/inventor.

o Case studies. Take testimonials that you or your dealers have received – or can generate – and beef them up into online case studies that reporters can crib from for their articles. Remember – reporters generally feel overworked, and prefer to work with material they don’t have to retype. If you make it easier for them, they’re more likely to cover you.

o Praise from local, state and national civil defense, construction and disaster-relief experts (we can solicit this). Note – this applies specifically to this client, but more broadly, this section should include endorsements from credible third-party individuals whose recommendations cannot be bought.

o Links to articles that put the traditional approach to solving this problem in a bad light, especially when compared to your innovative solution. Note: This should apply to any links that will help the media more thoroughly research your product and its place in the market will be useful here.

o Now that you've got the basis of a solid online press room (one that will be updated in "real-time" whenever you have new press releases go out, or new press coverage generated), put THIS online press room on a CD disk to create a digital press kit you can send out at very low cost with your product sample and initial press release.

3. Direct-pitching the right media targets (i.e., those who directly cover your primary target market) is solid and sound PR, and it can be made to work very effectively – but, by its very nature, this approach is limited ... there is so much more that you can do to generate favorable coverage, including (but not limited to):

o Pitch radio talk shows. Yes, I know that you can't "see" the product on the radio, but you will still generate interest – lots of interest. It is also very low in cost to do so. The benefits include:

o More name recognition – for instance, I got a low-budget Christmas DVD on talk radio in the month before Christmas last year, on a truly shoe-string budget, and reached more than 9 million radio listeners ... with the issue/problem you solve, we can do better, and we can keep going back to that well over and over again.

o When you know in advance, you can send a blast email to your dealers and their customers (hint: you should have email addresses for customers) telling them that you'll be on a given talk show at a certain time – and, if the station streams their talk programs online, you can give them a link as well. This builds credibility and supports word-of-mouth referrals.

o By mentioning your website a minimum of three times in each interview, you'll build traffic to your website, which will also build word-of-mouth.

o A streaming-audio copy of each radio interview has useful benefits in your website press room (they show reporters that you can handle questions) as well as on potential-customer sites.

o Talk radio interviews (especially on smaller stations) are useful training for more high-value media interviews, especially if these interviews are “deconstructed” in a media-training format – note the mistakes you’ve made, and consider how you could better answer difficult questions.

Note: Talk radio is too often overlooked as a useful medium. Except for products that are purely B2B, talk radio can help directly or indirectly, in a variety of ways, to enhance the overall PR effort.

o You should create a series of focused-issue press releases on key topics related to your product, and to the problem you solve, as well as to limitations of the “traditional” solution. These releases are not likely to be picked up by conventional print publications – they have other purposes. To achieve these other purposes, you should then place them on a commercial newswire so they take on a life of their own, on the Internet. From a purely press relations perspective, this is very effective; secondarily, this helps support your reseller-recruiting and direct-to-customer sales efforts. If you think print publications or other media will pick the releases up, email them directly to reporters (rather than counting on the wire service to reach them) – sound media contact lists can be created at low cost making use of Contacts on Tap (, an annual subscription service that is an order of magnitude less expensive than buying commercial media-contact lists.

o Wire service distribution of press releases is what I call the "breadcrumbs strategy," since these releases "live" online and will be found by reporters Googling your company – and if they find the releases (vs. you giving them the releases) they'll give these news items more credibility.

o It's a "dirty little secret" of the news media that many online publications run press releases – often unedited – but put a reporter's or editors byline on them instead of running them as press releases. This “borrowing” transforms these fairly low-credibility press releases into high-credibility "third-party validation" articles.

o If you do it right, the cost of PR wire placement is relatively nominal, but the impact is strong and powerful – doing this right involves using the smallest available distribution market (i.e., “Florida” instead of “US-1” national distribution. The Internet is global, and – since you don’t plan on these releases being used directly in publications – there is nothing lost.

o In addition to putting these releases on the wire, and in addition to direct-emailing them to carefully-targeted reporters, editors, news and talk show producers, you should consider shotgunning them out via email to a much wider range of prospective media types – this WILL generate more coverage (the focus of the release, and how well it's written, will determine how successful each release is) at a negligible additional cost.

o Target the appropriate specialized vertical-market trade journal reporters as a "media" group – these names won't be as easy to come by as more broadly-focused reporters and editors, as they're not "traditional" media, but given time and effort, we can come up with these lists. Note: This can have broad applicability – too often, key “experts” are mistakenly overlooked in PR outreach.

o Target small bricks-and-mortar-oriented business media – lots of small businesses need your kind of product-created protection, too, and they have problems/issues with the traditional solution as well. Note: This is specific to the client in question; adapt it to apply to secondary markets for your product or service.

o Target small contractor construction media. Note – this client has a construction-related product – apply this to the trades that cover your market niches.

4. Other more marketing-related PR ideas include:

o You should have a referral-incentive program, whereby you can incentivize existing customers to refer new customers. Your dealers should love this, since it means (primarily) more local business. Note – this is one of the most overlooked marketing strategies, yet it is easily created and easily supported by PR outreach efforts (ezines, etc.)

o You should stage publicity-generating events, such as donating and installing your product at prominent local non-profit orphanages or hospices or other warm-and-fuzzy/feel-good places ... as long as the management there will agree to go on camera and say how wonderful you are. If you split the cost with the local dealer (for instance, you provide materials, they provide installation) and let them in on the local phase of publicity, it should be another win-win. Note: Again, this is client-specific, but the basic strategy of providing goods or services to a popular charity in exchange for a media photo op and endorsement is a sound strategy.

o You should look at PR efforts aimed at potential dealers. Since you need and want dealers, who are gatekeepers to the bulk of your potential customers, this should be a priority, too. Note – apply this as appropriate to your distribution channel.

o As noted above, you should create email contact lists of customers and dealers, prospects and referral sources (as well as targeted media) – then each time you know you're going to be on TV or radio, let them know in advance; and every time you get a favorable clip, you can send them a link to the article on your website (ditto for streaming video/audio of broadcast interviews).

o Consider alternate sales targets (including off-season and out-of-market targets). Note: This is very client-specific, but it is usually important to seek alternate and off-season markets to “level-load” the business.

o Each of these alternative business markets has media markets open to product reviews, case studies, etc. You can penetrate those markets off-season to keep your business from being totally seasonal in nature.

Bottom line: Some of these are recommendations that can fit into even a low PR budget (the website press room is a "must" – and blitzing radio talk show hosts/producers and shotgunning out releases to supplement your more focused media pitches are both strong low-budget recommendations).

However, other ideas could be made to work in ways that will build any business – but to be successful, you need to set priorities and focus on those things that, within your current budget, can make an impact. That’s what PR is all about – making an impact. When done within a rational new-business budget, PR becomes a positive investment creating a strong ROI – that’s what this outline focuses on.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Are Press Embargoes Dead?

By Ned Barnett, APR
PR/Marketing Fellow, American Hospital Association

Embargoes, once a valued tool used by most press relations-oriented PR professionals, are dead. Those who attempt to use them today are asking for trouble – or worse. Some who bemoan the demise of embargoes blame bloggers, but the real culprits predate the bloggers and strike at the heart of the 24/7 Internet-fueled endless news cycle.

Embargoes were long used by PR professionals who sought to “prime the pump” on coverage by giving selected reporters advance word on a news announcement – with the agreement that the reporters wouldn’t publish until after the announcement went public. This would help ensure favorable coverage – and would give the reporter time to research and write about the topic.

Here’s a classic example of how they once worked – several years ago, I pitched an embargoed story to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal. He agreed to respect the embargo – he didn’t leak the story or rush to publish before I made the coordinated, formal announcement – yet he researched the underlying news story and wrote his own take on it, waiting for the ball to go up. As scheduled, we dropped the announcement at midnight on a Tuesday; at 12:01 a.m. that same Tuesday morning, the Wall Street Journal popped their very detailed story online (it also made the morning printed version), making them the clear winners in the sweepstakes to be the first to publish major news. In this example, the embargo worked – I got a reporter interested, and he wrote an excellent article timed to hit the streets only moments after I made my formal announcement. I won – I got the coverage. He won – he got a big jump on all of his competitors at the New York Times and Washington Post.

However – although that particular incident happened just a few years ago – it now seems almost like a quaint fable from a more innocent, long-ago time. Today, embargoes are dead – thanks in part to bloggers (who routinely ignore embargoes, making a mockery of this time-honored journalistic convention) – but there are other reasons as well.

Embargoes were dead long before bloggers arrived.

They were already dying even as the 24/7 cable news cycle was just being born, heralded with the advent of Matt Drudge – along with the less public, and more than a bit grudging, acceptance by major news media that the Internet was a growing source of “news” for a significant market segment, a trend that began more than a decade ago.

Embargoes were already dying when “news” in Silicon Valley was measured in nano-second time-frames, and when literally hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital money and IPO funds rode on who had the best, latest and most dramatic “news” – and when the media competed on the emerging Silicon CEO’s own 24/7 working lifestyle.

By the time that “social media” emerged to reshape the post-9/11 Internet, the embargo was already dead … but the “social media” put the final nails into the embargo’s coffin. Angry leakers no longer had to find a sympathetic reporter with his or her own axe to grind – the disaffected employees, stockholders, clients or customers – or underhanded competitors – could just go ahead and post their often-distorted version of the news themselves, usually anonymously, and often with tremendous impact. And they did. And they do. Today’s corporate and organizational media PR professional is no longer looking for ways to schedule the release of news, s/he is struggling to stay ahead of the tidal flow of unauthorized news leaks.

When anybody can (and does) post news on places like MySpace, YouTube, or on Internet bulletin boards frequented by angry investors – and when bloggers, podcasters and private individuals with multi-thousand-name email push lists (among others) can began breaking news on their own … usually at somebody else’s expense … embargoes became both dead and immaterial.

Add to this is the fact that increasing numbers of editors and reporters have blogs or email push-zines of their own, and routinely “scoop” their own publications – generally with management’s blessing. In fact, it was very likely a reporter who leaked the biggest story of the decade to the first of the major Internet news sources.

The Monica Lewinsky story broke on Drudge a decade ago, literally within hours after Newsweek put a long-term hold on Michael Isikoff’s in-depth exploration of a presidential sex scandal. There’s no proof, but “informed assumptions” point to Isikoff as the frustrated leaker. However, anybody at Newsweek with a grudge against the editor (or against President Clinton) could have leaked this story to Drudge. The point is clear – the Internet has made it possible for anybody to leak anything – and with all records now kept in digital format, anybody with access to those records can leak “the real thing.” Against “the real thing,” there are few PR defenses – and no point in trying to embargo or schedule the release of volatile breaking news.

Since the Lewinsky scandal made Drudge a national name, internal sources with grudges or agendas are all acting like Presidential Administration Officials (people who leak sensitive information when it suits them, to push their own agendas, usually at the then-current President’s expense). What was once common only in Washington has now invaded America’s version of “Fleet Street” – members of the media are constantly getting great tips, leaks, leads, back-door documents, etc., and then using them to create news. This creates a dilemma for PR people who have to both anticipate – and defend against – these kinds of news-generating leaks.

If, as a media-relations PR professional, you don’t put volatile news out yourself, now (while you can still control it), trust that if this news is really newsworthy – hence “worthy” of an embargo – it will be leaked … and used.

For all these reasons, the embargo is dead. It’d demise began with the rise of Matt Drudge a decade ago, and the final stake-through-the-heart has come from the rise of blogs as a legitimate alternative news source over the past 3-to-5 years. PR people used to controlling the release of information following more gentile rules need to take note – and act accordingly. The embargo is dead – the 24/7 endless news cycle lives – and there are people out there who really are out to get you. Act accordingly.