Alex Singleton

How to follow best practice when you’re told to spray and pray

Here’s a problem that practitioners new to PR can face. They know – from reading books, blogs and magazines, and going to events – that some of the stuff they’re told to do at work is bad practice.

But when their boss, a colleague from another division, or a client tells them to do counterproductive things – such as spraying irrelevant press releases at thousands of journalists, or asking journalists “did you get my press release?” – well, how can they avoid doing such things? Indeed, someone just last week put it to me: “When the people in charge just will not listen – what do you do? Any advice on how to deal with that problem would be great.”

This is a tough question. But it seems to me that a large part of success in PR, especially as practitioners get more senior, is educating others – both people in your own organisation and externally – about how public relations works and what level of quality and resources are required to achieve success.

Clients (internal and external) get all sorts of wrong steers. Lots of nonsense is spouted by people who don’t know what they’re doing. These include the claim that public relations offers “free publicity” that’s “three times as effective as advertising” through a seemingly magical device called “a press release” in which self-indulgent, jargon-infested drivel will somehow make front pages.

It is not helped by the fact that many PR people will agree to issue a press release not because it will work but because it will get someone off their back. This is the road to ruin: it sets entirely the wrong expectations.

Yes, agreeing to send a worthless press release makes life easy in the short term. But it creates future problems. First, it damages your reputation with your client (because your activities don’t seem to actually deliver results, and even if they claim that they don’t need it to land anywhere, except on their website, they are inevitably two-faced about that and later grumble that it didn’t make the media). Secondly, it damages your reputation with journalists (they block you for being a spammer). Thirdly, it throws away an ideal opportunity to suggest that you get involved upstream in their work (people generally do appreciate the idea that a PR person is going to engage strategically and early on).

The key to saying no to something is to have some alternative proposals up your sleeve – that way you don’t just look difficult or incapable, but knowledgeable. Frequently, when someone asks you to issue a press releasing announcing that “we are putting the customer at the heart of everything we do”, or asks for their executive team portrait to “go viral on Instagram”, that’s not what they are actually after. It’s just that, in the absence of a proper strategic plan for PR, they feel that something needs to be done. The most effective PR practitioners see the gap and propose a strategy and series of techniques that will actual deliver useful business objectives.

Of course, all this is rather difficult if you’re in your first job after university and you’re experimenting with what works. But if that’s you, here are some thoughts on how to improve your status – and ability to push back against idiocy.

First, a track record of success makes it easy to use your own techniques (best practice) rather than follow those wrongheaded but commonplace ones. If you’re getting people onto BBC One and into the FT, What Hi-Fi or whatever you’re supposed to be trying to do, it’s easier to suggest that you should be set objectives and left to use your own techniques.

Secondly, it can be difficult for more senior colleagues to see you as an authority. This is why it is so vital that you invest in a postgraduate qualification. I have no commercial interest in recommending this course of action, but I believe it can offer a real boost to your career. And even someone with a bald patch, like me, believes there is still so much to learn. I did a CIPR crisis communications diploma last year – getting a distinction was genuinely one of the proudest moments of my life. Do you think such qualifications help people take your opinion more seriously? It certainly does. It also shows your employer that you’re seriously committed to your career and makes you look more valuable as an employee.

Thirdly, if you’re part of a big team, are there wiser souls – such as ex-journalists – who you can seek advice from? They might be up for delivering some training across the whole team.

Fourthly, if your organisation has a training budget, go on a course and do the deal with your boss that you’ll report back what was taught. In some organisations, people who go on training are asked to present to the rest of the team, which is a good way of engaging in a conversation about what best practice looks like, without looking like you’re challenging someone’s authority.

Fourthly, it’s worth noting that results are not necessarily what all managers are trying to deliver. They may be trying to have a quiet life and they may find that box ticking enables them to prove outputs and justify what’s down on a time. It works for them, but if you’re ambitious it’s not exactly a useful form of training for you.

Finally, the unfortunate truth is that some bosses in PR are micromanagers, who cannot help but obsessively trap you into doing bad work. That’s life. Success and happiness in your career means you need to change your employer.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: February 22nd, 2016, In Categories: Media relations

Do results from media relations seem random? They shouldn’t be

Newspaper

A COMMON experience that new people doing media relations find is that success seems random. They churn out press releases and ring up lots of journalists. But some stories work and most don’t – and it’s not clear why.

Media relations, when done correctly, actually delivers pretty predictable and reliable results. But it requires a few things to be in place.

First, you can’t do media relations reliably if you don’t understand the titles that you’re pitching to. A good media relations specialist will have a researched and chosen a selection of important journalists who are really relevant to their employer. Crucially, the media bod will have read each journalist’s back catalogue of articles (going back several years) and check out new pieces as they are published. That way, the media person will have a pretty reliable idea of whether a story is likely to work before they pitch it.

Of course, at the low-end, commodity end of media relations this doesn’t happen. The property correspondent at a business publication tells me that she receives lots of press releases announcing new hotels being opened in Spain, but she actually writes at a higher level about major trends in commercial property and so doesn’t find those pitches relevant. PR people who haven’t done their homework keep pitching guest articles to The Economist, which quite obviously doesn’t take them. This approach is the cause of PR people saying that they find journalists to be rude, but the alleged rudeness is actually the fault of bad practice by PR people.

Secondly, it’s no good if you position yourself internally like a servant who waits for the bell to be rung – and then enters the room to be told to issue a press release on something. In fact, it is a vital function of media relations staff to guide colleagues away from talking about themselves in self-indulgent press releases that no self-respecting publication will use.

Instead, it’s important to be involved right at the start of the process, advising on what will actually be of interest and of high enough quality to make Newsnight or The Times. Indeed, this stage is arguably the single most important part of media relations specialist’s role, because doing it well sets you up for success. But to be any good, you need a really developed nose for what constitutes news – which will only happen from extensive study of the media outlets you want to appear in.

Thirdly, spray and pray commoditises your content. What good publications normally want are exclusive stories and exclusive comment. It de-risks your work if you can give a major and relevant outlet your story exclusively. They’ll run it bigger and it will give them the opportunity to hold it over until a day when they can give it the space it needs. This is not always the right approach but does improve the reliability of success.

Fourthly, if your boss insists that you ring lists of journalists who you’ve spammed to ask them “Did you get my press release?” – well, then you have boss who doesn’t know what he’s doing. You are essentially telling the journalist that (a) you’re an amateur and (b) your employer or client has such a low opinion of their status as a journalist that you’re going to waste their time by not treating them as high-quality contact but as a tick box on telesales calling list.

Fifthly, a budget is essential. This is the problem many small agencies get into: they don’t explain the necessity of, and don’t get agreement about, a budget in addition to their fees. And so – with no budget – all they can do is sent low-end press releases and letters to newspapers. The truth is that high-end media outlets are interested in covering high-end new stuff – such as economic analyses, properly commissioned polls, trends backed up by data. If you’re a FTSE100 company your annual report and major appointments will be covered automatically – but don’t expect this if you’re an SME.

As you can see, there are a range of pitfalls that media relations people fall into – and it’s why many new entrants in PR try to run from doing media relations as quickly as possible, and why many PR people say their job is stressful. But if you avoid these pitfalls, the results quickly become more reliable – and the job becomes much more fulfilling.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: February 18th, 2016, In Categories: Media relations

Roxhill is the best media database for corporate communicators, lobbyists and financial PRs

Roxhill database

FOR YEARS, Gorkana has enjoyed the reputation of being the ultimate, reliable media database – and, indeed, its data quality is impressive. But now there’s a new kid on the block, called Roxhill – and blue chip companies are starting to switch to it. Founded by former Gorkana personnel, it’s a product with first-rate data quality, some nice features and a user interface that’s the best on the market. It’s also more competitively priced than its older rival.

Roxhill is aimed fair and square at the “serious” end of the market: financial PR practitioners, public affairs people and corporate communicators. The focus allows the Roxhill team to concentrate on ensuring the data quality of the sort of journalists who work on newspaper business desks or as lobby journalists, for example. It covers broadcast journalists as well as writing ones.

One brilliant feature is a very slick search facility that lets you search journalists according to subjects they’ve recently written about. That means it’s really easy to find people who’ve written about airport expansion, but who don’t have, for example, transport in their job titles. No other product, in my opinion, implements this feature as effectively. The software has excellent views for each journalist, helping you to see what they’re actually focused on and should help comms teams more effectively research potential journalists to talk to.

I should say at this point that I have been quite sceptical of media databases in the past: they’re no substitute from actually developing real relationships with journalists. So if there’s a point to them they need to be really, really accurate and have to help you research journalists, not just create a massive mail merge list. Roxhill passes these thresholds easily. And, in fact, Roxhill calls itself a “media intelligence” tool – more of a tool to help upmarket PR practitioners do research, rather than just a database.

When I have asked for a journalist to be researched they’ve updated the data same day. Service is really responsive. But the data, out of the box, is in the top league of comprehensiveness: on Sunday I was wanting to ring the deputy news editor of one major newspaper. His paper’s phone system has crashed but the journo’s mobile number was there (something that’s less available in lesser databases).

Gorkana – recently bought by Cision – is an excellent database. But Roxhill is more modern, faster to use, costs less and offers a quality of data I think you’ll be delighted with.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: December 13th, 2015, In Categories: Media relations

How to structure a press release properly

THE CONVENTIONAL way a news story is written is using a structure called the “inverted pyramid”. This is also how effective press releases are written. So what is this upside-down pyramid? Well, it just means that the weighty, most important information is at the top, and the lighter, less important facts are underneath. It allows the journalist to stop reading part-way through and still understand what the story is about.

Traditionally, a press release incorporates the who, what, when, where and why of the story. That is:

  • Who is it about?
  • What happened?
  • When did it take place?
  • Where did it occur?
  • Why did it happen?

Let’s look at a good press release from Dyson, which follows this design. The headline explains substance of the story:

Dyson doubles number of UK engineers

It starts with the when, who and what. The who and what should always be in the first sentence:

From April 2010, Dyson is doubling its UK engineering team from 350 to 700. Bucking the trend, Dyson is increasing research and development investment and recruiting during recession.

Next we get the where, with more of the what:

The new engineers, many from university, will work at Dyson’s Wiltshire laboratories, where machines are conceived, researched and designed. New positions include graduate design engineers, mechanical engineers and acoustic engineers.

Later one, we get the why:

James Dyson said: “I am extremely proud of the new technology developed by our engineers in Malmesbury. It is vital that Dyson – and the UK – continues to invest in the nation’s engineering talent if we are to stay ahead.” If you follow that sort of structure, you’re on the right path.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: July 31st, 2015, In Categories: Media relations

The case for length in press releases

IT IS certainly true that some press releases ought to be short. But many – if not most – should be long. After all, if a story is so unimportant that the PR representative cannot find more than a couple of hundred words to say about it, should it be issued in the first place?

Short press releases often go hand-in-hand with ideas that lack any weight. The most effective media operators routinely issue press releases that, in the old days of paper, would have taken up two to four pages of one-and-a-half-spaced text.

For example, I took a random Apple press release advertising a new product from its website: it came to 1,296 words. Even a new staff appointment press release from BP taken at random came to 726 words.

People say to me: why would a journalist want to wade through 900 words, when it could be condensed into 300? That’s a good question. But think of what happens on the first two occasions when a journalist is likely to read your release. The first is when it appears in her inbox. If she is busy, she will not want to read the whole release, just ascertain whether it is a potential story.

Journalists are used to skim reading. As part of their job, they tend to read every issue of all the publications relevant to their brief.

Of course, they would have no time to write themselves if they read every word of every article. Instead, they get used to reading the headlines and the first sentences or first paragraphs. And so they will try to do the same with your press release.

The question is this: is your story understandable from the headline and first sentence? The length of the rest of it, at this point, is irrelevant. The second occasion she will read your release, she will make a proper decision about whether to write about your story. She will read the full thing and try to assess whether it “stands up” and is as interesting as she suspected.

If you have only written 300 words, you will struggle to sell it to her. She will think: “How will I write a 450-word news story about this? There isn’t much to it.”

This post is based on an extract from The PR Masterclass (out now from Wiley)

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: July 30th, 2015, In Categories: Media relations