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Why editors put the fear of God in publicists.


In a spacious office high above the city sits a publicist inhaling his eleventh cup of coffee. It's 10:00 am on a bright Tuesday in July. The birds are singing. The publicist is about to pitch a story. He reviews his client's virtues and recalls the Rocky (US movie) theme song. Deep breath, dial the phone, the unsuspecting publicist proceeds ...

Two minutes later reality turns awry. A raging beast informs the publicist that a story of similar genre ran yesterday. Uh, oh. Well, isn't that unfortunate. Better to pick up the shreds of dignity before the cleaning crew arrives.

And so it goes for public relations professionals. It's what they don't tell you in journalism school: Media is a business of egos. Unfortunately, some industry envoys use their position to intimidate. Ego aside, however, those publicists who call on deadline, pitch a story worthless to a reporter's audience, or are not easily available must brave a deserved wrath.

Words of comfort? Sure, the anxiety of dealing with the media wanes with experience. But it never entirely disappears.

More words of comfort? You can get editors' attention without developing an ulcer. The secret is what your mother has been telling you for years: Use common sense.

Know Your Purpose,

Know Your Pitch

Knowing what it you do for a living is critical in getting editors' attention. Frederick Andrews of the New York Times describes publicists as "facilitators who put reporters and sources together." Sheila McCann, senior vice president for Janet Diederichs & Associates, Chicago, Ill., agrees. "The role of publicist is that of a liaison between the client and the media. More than just selling an idea, you are building a relationship."

Where does it all begin? Like the classic love stories of the forties, it starts with a good pitch, usually in the form of a letter. Former NBC producer Michael Klepper who now owns his own New York, N.Y. public relations agency and is author of "Getting Your Message Out--How to Get, Use and Survive Radio and Television Air Time" says, "I think what started me out in public relations was that I was the recipient of pitch letters that were self-serving and poorly written. No matter who the editor is, less is more. They don't have time to read voluminous material. A one-word lead summarizing what you are talking about makes it easy for them."

This approach earned Klepper eight minutes on the US TV "Today Show." The pitch letter read: "Plastics! How can we get rid of them? Some environmentalists say we can't. Ralph Harding says we can. He is executive vice president of the Society of Plastics Industry. He has just returned from europe where they easily dispose of plastics in modern incinerators." Instead of "sincerely" or "yours truly," Klepper signed it: "I'll call you in a week to see if the 'Today Show' would be interested in talking to him."

Klepper says, "The pitch letter should be newsy, not groveling. It shouldn't read 'respectfully submitted' or 'I need this one' or 'my client is breathing heavy.' You are never asking for a favor, you are submitting good topical, newsworthy material that is directed to a decision-maker."

Follow up the letter with a phone call of equal caliber. Computer Publicity News describes phone contact as a form of "personal service, not personal pursuit." And I might add: personal preparation. Getting editors' attention is like Chinese cooking--preparation is 90 percent of the game. Ingredient one: knowing your subject matter inside and out.

Lynn W. Adkins who is Chicago, Ill. correspondent for Money Magazine and a free-lance journalist for US News & World Report, Marketing Week and World Trade Magazine says, "The well informed, well prepared, polite publicist, I always have time for. However, when someone is not prepared, I ream them out and I tell them they are not prepared and that they have stolen one of the most precious things that I have and that is my time."

Have you ever posed a question to a store clerk only to be met with a blank stare? Did you then shake your head in frustration and burst into a temperamental lecture on why the service industry is slipping?

Adkins sympathizes with you as she reveals similar experiences, "I deal with publicists who call me up to talk about something and I ask them three questions, and they don't have an answer to any one of the three. They are not aware if this is a privately or publicly held company. They do not know whether the company they are representing is a subsidiary or the main parent company. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth for both the PR firm and the client because I presume the client has not had the intelligence or wherewithal to check out the PR firm. I figure the client must be pretty stupid to choose such a sloppy organization."

Read, Listen and Watch

Equally important to knowing your subject matter is studying the people and venues who benefit most from it. That means doing your homework. When Adkins was bureau chief for Dun's Review (now called Business Month) she received an influx of movie and entertainment news from publicists spelling Dun's Review as Dun's Revue. Let's hope these lost, uninformed souls never called to follow up on a release.

Gene Honda, assistant program director for SLIT-FM radio in Chicago and host of the popular radio talk show "Sidelines," says, "I don't care if people listen to out station, but they better know who does listen because that's critical. The Public Service Directors Association publishes listings of radio shows and station formats. That's important for publicists to know. That knowledge catches my attention." Honda compares a misdirected pitch to a record promoter telling him a rap song is perfect for his soft music format. "The promoter's only concern is to get the record played, not understanding at all who we are," he says, "A person who doesn't do their homework and who doesn't know what kind of presentation we do here tells me two things: Someone is not doing their job and some client got cheated."

Familiarizing yourself with media goes beyond reading a business audit report or a list of editorial departments. Alan Zachary, senior vice president of Ruder-Finn in Chicago says it involves understanding what and how a subject is covered. "For example," he says, "if a client wants to be in Forbes, that's fine except Forbes has a journalistic tradition of trashing companies. My responsibility is to know that and prepare the client accordingly. And the only way to know how Forbes covers companies is to read the publication consistently and to talk to colleagues."

According to Adkins, it is also extremely important to understand how a publication works internally. "For example, if you approach the headquarters people of some publications, you will never approach the bureau people again. It is politics. You really can get into trouble if you pitch a story to the wrong person. It is the job of the PR agency to gather this information and then give it to the people who deal wtih media."

Would you marry someone you didn't know? Probably not. Public relations is a marriage of two minds working together. It can be that good and that long lasting when you do it right.

Therefore, when you target specific editors, get to know their style, beat, deadlines, background, interests, experience and information needs.

Al Smedley, senior vice president and midwest regional director of media relations for Hill and Knowlton practices this kind of PR accountability. "When I was younger, it was called a morgue, then it became a library, now it's an information service center. We have Nexis and if I am going to meet an editor, I will get all stories written by the writer in the last year. I take the time to read those stories because they reveal the writer's style preferences."

Says Roger Ryerson, senior vice president for Gibbs & Soell, Chicago, "The more you understand the news angle and the publication you are pitching it to, the easier it is to approach an editor. Otherwise, it's a fishing expedition and that's frustrating for an editor as well as for a publicist."

Walk in the Media's Shoes

You quickly understand how to approach editors when you envision their desk. Color it chaos. Blanketing it are piles of mail, unread memos from higher-ups, phone messages galore, work in progress, research material, reference books, deadline dates scribbled on little yellow notes as well as framed faces jockeying for attention after the five o'clock hour. What's the message here? Cutting into an editor's time is allowed if your respect the lack of it.

"The key is to be particularly solicitous of their time," says Alan Zachary of Ruder-Finn. "They get hundreds of letters and calls a day. Capture the substance of the news value in 30 seconds or less." He suggests immediately asking if the editor has time to talk. If not, find out the most convenient time to call.

I Just Called (De Dum De

Dum) to Say (De Dum De

Dum) I ...

Stevie Wonder sets PR wisdom to music as he immediately vocalizes the reason for his call. That, according to Tony Garcia, sports columnist for the Arlington Heights, Ill. Daily Herald and Daily Illini, strengthens a proposal. "Tell me what you want up front. Do you want advance event coverage? Do you want to see a subject covered regularly? Is it a one-shot deal? Do you want me to interview someone? Don't challenge me to figure out your objective."

On the average, an editor can conduct four conversations or review 50 news releases in an hour. No small wonder why editors often prefer written material first and only. There are, however, reasons why editors want publicists to use the phone: time-sensitive information, exclusives, invitation reminders to press conferences or special events, and as an introduction for a new client.

Send highly technical or in-depth information over the transom, as well as mass releases, first appeals for a story and general information updates. Unsolicited faxes, however, are a big no-no.

Go with Confidence

Armed with knowledge of your subject, your target media, as well as the rules of professional courtesy, you need only go forth with confidence.

Laurie Scanlon, senior account supervisor in the Travel, Tourism and Entertainment Group at Edelman Public Relations makes talking to the media a motivating experience. How? Confidence inspires confidence. "Our job as publicists is to do everything before we make that call to an editor," she says, "because if you have confidence behind your client and behind your information, you are going to do a great job."

Joe Barr, editor and publisher of Chicago Advertising & Media, agrees. "If a person is really nervous to talk to me, then I don't have a great respect for them. I want them to be confident. That means they have a good story to tell. And if they have a good story to tell, I want to hear it."

Media relations is an art never wholly mastered. Here are suggestions to help refine your craft: Abandon hype for objectivity; make resources such as research, expert interviews, photographs, competitive information and quotes readily available; listen carefully; be sensitive to tone; stay relaxed; be creative and be available.

Save yourself the agony of discovery by avoiding these jewels of experience: Don't talk over editors' heads, don't beg, don't make it a 60-second commercial, don't over-promise, don't feel a reporter is doing you a favor and don't ever put media on a pedestal. Aaron Cushman, president of Chicago-based Cushman and Associates, reveals this to be the gravest error of all. Says Cushman, "For people in our business to put media on a pedestal is absolutely ridiculous. They have a business to perform, we have a function to perform and to presuppose that their needs are greater than ours or vice versa is ridiculous."

In the event you do find yourself cast in a "Nightmare on PR Street" scene ... bid your farewells graciously, taking heart you don't have to live with the beast.

Michele LoDestro is a professional writer and communication consultant in West Chicago, Ill.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:LoDestro, Michele
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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