Substance Over Spin

Jul 29, 2020

Despite all of the metrics and data at our fingertips these days, public relations is still more art than science when it comes to attaining the ultimate goal: media coverage.

Sure, reports that show impact after the fact are indispensable and all the information at our fingertips has made the task of gathering this analysis much more comprehensive. The number of unique visitors per month (UVM) to news sites, conversion rates, click-throughs, etc. are all important. But what it is measuring and analyzing is the media placement the PR team has earned.

When it comes to media outreach, it is all about the intangible ability of the PR specialist to communicate a story, pull someone in, and generate enough interest that the journalist wants to learn more. There is no algorithm or artificial intelligence that has cracked that code.

In the media relations world, you need to master subtlety, conciseness, creativity, patience, and common sense. Who are the reporters you are contacting?
What is their preferred method of being contacted? What’s their beat? What have they written about recently?

Yes, we have tools that make this research much easier than it used to be. Honestly, I can’t imagine doing this job 40 years ago. The legwork had to have been exhausting. But, when it comes down to it, you are the one making the connection and, hopefully, securing the interview and/or placement.

As any PR vet will tell you, there is one thing serious reporters hate: spin. It’s an easy trap to fall into. The clich√© among reporters is that anyone contacting them on behalf of a company, be it for a thought leadership article or an interview, is trying to use them as a mouthpiece for the company, product or executive they represent.

While your job is certainly to raise awareness for your client, you cannot be a part of their sales team. You are telling their story and demonstrating what makes them relevant and interesting. Members of the media will automatically roll their eyes at hyperbole, spin and overt self-promotion.

During my years in PR, I have seen examples of this plenty of times. You work with a client who insists on promoting a product launch to a reporter at a national publication, who inevitably responds (if they respond at all) with one word: “pass.”

The same goes for thought leadership. If you offer an interview by saying, “Ms. XYZ can talk to you about how their widget is revolutionizing the world of widgetry,” any reporter worth their salt will hit delete immediately.

If you say, “The world of widgetry has faced a multitude of issues during the past year due to end users dealing with (for example) data breaches. Ms. XYZ can offer concrete steps these companies can take to become more secure,” now they’re listening. If you can recruit one or two of your client’s customers to attest to the effectiveness of this approach, it drastically increases your chance of garnering interest from the media.

When it comes to byline articles and op-eds, the same rules apply. If Ms. XYZ writes a piece littered with references to how great her company and its solutions are, it’s not going to fly with most publications from trades to large national publications. I have seen self-promotional op-eds turned down many times. I have also seen them rewritten with the self-promotion removed, and that same publication reversing course and running the article.

This is all a balancing act. You have to meet the journalist’s standards and the client’s expectations at the same time. For both, it comes down to clear and honest communication.

You need to be armed with the reasons a reporter should be interested in your pitch, and you need to make sure your client understands that issue-driven not product-driven coverage is what will give them credibility in the industry.

Maybe someday companies will be able to enter information into an AI platform that writes the perfect pitch. Human-to-human media relations will become a profession of the past.

But let’s not dwell on that. I don’t want to give Zuckerberg any ideas and I want to keep my job.

The bottom line is we are storytellers, not spinmeisters. It takes nuance and authenticity. If you can pitch substance over spin, the results will speak for themselves.