Welcome to the Savvy Business Person’s Guide to How To Be A GREAT Media Relations Client. At first glance this may seem like a rather ostentatious topic to be writing about. Why should anyone worry about being a good client let alone a great one? You paid for a service, you should expect certain results from that service. The weight of bringing success is on your PR firm’s shoulders, not yours. That is what you are paying them for, right?
With Public Relations, and Media Relations in particular, this is not the case. While the majority of a campaign’s success is based on the quality of work put out by the hired firm, it is the client who controls the likelihood of that success. Unlike with many aspects of marketing and sales, Media Relations cannot and should not be automated. It is not something out of a RonCo. Infomercial. Simply put, you cannot “set it and forget it.” It is in this where a great client can make a campaign and a bad one can ruin it before it even starts.
Most “bad clients” are not that way on purpose. It all goes back to that fundamental confusion as to what PR and Media Relations actually are. With a little understanding and openness for success any client can become a great one. The good news is that it actually takes very little work, the bad news is it does take some amount of work.
There are five fundamental steps you, as a PR client, should take in order to optimize the success of the campaign you are paying for; Share Information, Be Patient, Listen, Be Open to Criticism, and Be Responsive.
One clause in every contract my firm puts out is that the client is responsible for the accuracy of all content released to the press and other relevant publics. When it comes to Media Relations, information is god and everything else bows around it. For all the market research, industry conversations, and data a Media Relations professional may be able to scrape up about a client and its offerings, it is THE CLIENT who ultimately knows what is real and what is hyperbole, what data may infringe on their existing relationships they have or could an impact on new ones. It is the client who knows all of this. The only way a Media Relations team can be aware of any of that is if the client tells them.
There is a silent fear I have seen in many clients. The fear is the assumption that since a great deal of what we do is speak with the press, EVERYTHING we are told, by the client, automatically is deemed “for the public.” This is NOT the case. While it is very important your Media Relations team knows all the details about your history and what you are currently doing in the market, it is equally important (if not more so) that they know what you plan to do in the future AND what information you do NOT want to share.
Don’t forge that your PR team is on your side. You hired them as an ally not an agent for the press. Knowing what you plan to do or release in the future is valuable information because it can directly affect how your Media Relations professional messages what you are doing in the moment, so when the future news or transition occurs there is a natural flow in your branding and the new announcement feels like progress. It is also important for them to know future plans so that the media is monitored in case a competitor beats you to the punch. This will allow for a proper and timely market response to relevant competitor news, diminishing the negative impact of coming second to the market.
A great PR client is an open book in this regard so their PR Team is ready and in sync with sales and marketing. A bad PR client will withhold any information until the last moment. This stresses the Media Relations plan, forces rushed messaging, ill prepares the media relationships you have been building, and creates a large time period of missed opportunities, while potentially giving competitors a roll out advantage.
Why is it important to share the data or type of information you, as a client, do not want to be made public? If your PR rep is not aware of this information, they can either inadvertently make it public or not protect you when asked directly by the press or your market base via social media.
Let’s say it is known internally that you are in final stage negotiations for a merger or client acquisition, but you are under an NDA against any mention that talks are occurring. Around the same time there is an industry relevant news story going around in which you, as a client, would have great insight on. The news story happens to involve that company you are in talks with. The PR person writes a pitch on the issue at hand, you give internal approval to distribute, the pitch goes out and gets picked up. Now even though the pitch itself is only addressing the issues behind the story, it still goes against the reasoning behind what the “negotiation partner company’s” actions actually were, it painting them in a very negative and public light. Had the Media Relations team been aware of the current talks with said company, then there would never have been a pitch for the story to begin with. In the case where an NDA with another company is involved, then you just need to say “no news involving this company” and not give a reason.
The best way to avoid this is not by silence, but by being upfront, listing those major items in the works and which cannot be spoken about in any form. Once this is known by your PR team you do not need to worry about inadvertently disabling a deal with an ill targeted pitch.
Most of the time the sort of stuff clients don’t want made public are along the vein of annual sales, number of customers, or in some cases cost of services. Be sure to tell your PR team these items at the very beginning of your relationship with them. This will allow them to craft responses to these questions as they come up by the press or other public. It also gives your team the needed knowledge of when to intervene during interviews between the press and client. If the conversation starts going in a known ‘bad direction” the Media Relations rep monitoring the interview can speak up and be the “jerk who derailed a line of questioning” keeping the client clean of any confrontation. If your PR person is unaware that you don’t want to talk about sales numbers, they won’t be able to stop a question from being answered.
Simply saying “no comment” is probably the worst thing you could do. No Comment means, there is a lot to talk about here, you just don’t want to. This is when a good journalist will keep drilling until you break or say something you really don’t want to. Let this be PR’s problem, not yours.
The one caveat to this requirement of sharing of information is if you or your company is knowingly doing something illegal. There is no Client PR confidentiality, so if you are enslaving children in SE Asia to write code for you new fremium app 1) STOP! 2) Don’t tell your PR person. When it inevitably goes to trial you won’t be protected and they will most likely be the one’s who notified the authorities or the ones sitting next to you at the defendant’s table.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and the cliche “Rome wasn’t built in a day” did not catch on in a day and neither will your branding. Being aware of the time a successful media relations campaign takes and accepting some things just can’t be rushed will keep your blood pressure at a healthier level and allow you to focus on time appropriate successes.
If you are constantly looking to the horizon and wondering why you are not seeing the results you expect yet, you are more likely to end a PR campaign without legitimate cause and negate the actual progress being made. This will either result in the decision to not engage in PR again, which will diminish market visibility potential against your competitors OR you will hire a new firm or internal person who will need to start everything over again. The problem is no matter who is doing your Media Relations work, even if you opt to do it yourself, the time required for success remains statistically the same.
The time it takes to; formulate a pitch concept, write the pitch, make any client suggested changes, get formal approval, distribute to the press, follow up with the press to identify coverage opportunities, facilitate needed interviews, have the actual interview, ensure journalists have all needed additional information, the time for the journalist to actually write the coverage, there being an editorial opening to schedule the story, and the story actually going live, can take a week or it could take months depending on these variables. This is the general process for every single press hit that goes out. It is also the same process for every potential press hit whether it makes it to print or dies. When looking at a single cross section of Media Relations efforts it becomes clear that this is not an instant gratification business tool.
These long turnarounds can happen for any client no matter the complexity. For example I recently had a very simple straight forward consumer outreach client where the goal was getting product reviews on blogs. Blogs, when compared to print publications have very quick turnaround times, from pitch to publication. Unlike print publications, which generally have their content locked in weeks or months in advance, blog coverage is subject to change on a dime. So in this case we wrote the pitch, sent it out, received a good response for sample requests, sent out the samples, and confirmed the bloggers received the samples within 5 days from start to finish. From this point to the first review being published took nearly 2 months. What started out as an expected quick push became a rather involved and longer form project due to blogger vacations, long product reviewing periods, bumped coverage due to other posts, and so on. The end result was still great with detailed and highly positive reviews, but the process to get to that point took time.
If you are a client without an understanding of the realities of the process, if you are impatient in how a successful campaign reaches fruition, you look at every pitch, every release, and every press hit, in the singular. You will relive the waiting game of this process over and over and over again and it will drive you crazy.
The rewards of being patient allow you to see things in its entirety. Media Relations is not about a single release or a single piece of coverage it is about the sum of all of its parts. What starts to happen after the first three months or so is that at any given time, every stage of that process will be happening simultaneously.
Your media relations team will start formulating the next pitch, as you are approving the one in your inbox, a pitch that was distributed last is being followed up upon, as interviews for different outreaches are taking place, and articles are running from a pitch that went out a couple of weeks ago. It is an ever producing machine of content which hinges on the active participation of all involved. It will ultimately result in all those long term goals an impatient client yearns for, but a patient one actually achieves.
Another client of ours had a very unique and difficult challenge when we launched them. They were a new technology entering a highly competitive market with a media base already suffering coverage fatigue towards their particular corner of the industry. Our client, had no advertising, limited marketing, no clients, and no third party entities willing to speak on their behalf. Getting media attention in even the smallest form of a single quote or paragraph mention was extremely difficult in the early stages of the campaign. The first three months resulted in some coverage but nowhere near where we had planned. We were making a clear forward progression, but it was a slow progression. Our client understood the process however, and allowed us to continue representing them. Things changed around the fourth month. All those little seemingly insignificant (and some significant) media placements started to pay off. A greater trust in the company’s messaging started to emerge in the press, a realization of the value added their technology could supply to a struggling industry started taking primary focus over the question of “who are these guys?” From here things started to snowball. Within 18 months the client was featured in over 400 industry stories, had nearly 200 bylines in the company’s name, and recognition among their target customers started to pour in. This really became clear when we received a call from the CEO at a major industry conference excitedly declaring he felt like a rock star because of people coming up to him, who knew who he was and what his company did as a result of what they had read. This was a huge win and because of the lack of any market outreach other than Media Relations, a clear example of the power it really has. Had the CEO called us after the first two months and said, “Look, this isn’t working out, I don’t see this instant success I was expecting,” none of the actual success that came in time, would have happened.
Whenever I speak with potential clients I tell them that they are the experts on their company, their product or service line, their technology, and their customer base. These are the things that essentially make the company what it is. It is this internal expertise which makes them a relevant entity within their own industry. The reason they are looking to hire a Media Relations or PR firm is because WE are the experts on how to take that fundamental corporate ideology and translate it into press friendly newsworthy content.
Just as a Media Relations team relies on the client for all that internal information, the client needs to rely on its PR team’s ability to effectively strategize a campaign. The client needs to trust there are actual reasons behind strategic decisions and listen to what those reasons are.
As much as I would like to say I am right 100% of the time in terms of PR strategy that would just a bombastic overstatement of hubris. Just because something makes sound logic from a Media Relations perspective does not mean it is in the best interest for the client company at that time. It is the role of the client to actively listen to what their firm is planning so that they are able to step in and correct the path when it starts meandering into those areas which do not compliment the client’s overall business objectives.
The first step to this is asking questions. A great client will not hesitate to ask questions when they do not understand a concept or reasoning, they will ask questions as to why one approach to outreach is preferred over another, and they will ask when an unfamiliar PR industry term is used (there are a ton with new ones being made up every day). A decent PR firm will encourage and answer those questions at any point of the relationship. If you, as a client, are properly educated in the “what” and “why” of a proposed campaign, your ability to actively participate and add value to that campaign goes up exponentially.
Though weekly status update meetings with your Media Relations team may, at times, seem just like lip service to prove work is actually being done they really serve a legitimate purpose. They are filled with all the information you need, as a company’s PR point of contact. PR and Media Relations are not isolated branches of a company’s business outreach plan. It is one strand of the interconnected branding web which is Marketing, PR, Advertising, and Sales.
By actively listening, a client is able to ensure that messaging and branding is consistent across all strands of outreach. This may entail correcting how the PR teams speaks about a product or it may mean updating the sales team about areas of emphasis.
The only person who is empowered to get a top down cumulative branding view of an organization is the corporate representative, most often VP of Marketing, charged with being the PR liaison. This becomes integral when playing out multifaceted campaigns.
A great Media Relations client who actively listens and asks their needed questions to properly understand strategy is better positioned to more accurately share those branding and outreach decisions with those other strands of corporate visibility. They are then better positioned to implement a consistent companywide means of presenting information. Should a company be launching a new product, under the auspices of a great Media Relations client, every point of outreach from advertisements to sales pitches to product reviews should be positioned in an identical manner.
If however the client only half listened to what their Media Relations team said, offered no insight into the greater company branding goals around the product launch, and did not share the Media Relations outreach plan with sales, marketing, and advertising, then real disaster can strike.
In this scenario the company releases their new product. A potential customer reads a review talking about it in one way, they see a banner ad on a website talking about it in a completely other way. They have a few questions and call the sales team. The questions asked are based on what the potential customer read and saw, but that messaging is incongruent with the pitches the sales team has been training with via the direct mail marketing material. At this point the potential customer is confused and frustrated with unanswered or poorly answered questions. Even if the product is something they want or need there is already a mistrust in the quality of the service and support they would get once they become a customer. To avoid this they are more likely to go to a competitor where everything is consistent, direct, and easy to understand.
Be Open to Criticism
Of all the things you can do to be a great Media Relations client, being open to criticism is probably the hardest. While it is important that whomever you have representing you has tasted and enjoyed your Kool-Aide you do not want them drowning in it. When it comes to Media Relations having a “Yes” person is the best path to missed opportunities and unpleasant surprises. One of the first things I do with every new client is present them with a comprehensive questionnaire going over everything from product details to business structure to executive skill set breakdown. We give them limited notice ahead of time and go over each answer with them in real time to see how they respond with no time to prepare answers. We then tear everything apart. Anything that seems like a flawed argument, inflated claim, unrealistic goal, and so on. I make it clear from the beginning this is not a time to focus on the positive aspects. There will be time later for that. The purpose here is to get everything out in the open and see how much pressure it can take. For the client this is not fun. It is however, needed.
When confronted with product or branding criticism from your Media Relations team there are two ways you can go. The first is grin and bear it with the knowledge all of this is ultimately for the purpose of enhancing and protecting the company. The second is to take the attack as personal and immediately clam up refusing to share anything and basically ignoring all the things you don’t want to expose.
The problem with the second option is, while you may not be exposing your perceived weaknesses with your PR people, that doesn’t mean the press or potential customers won’t see them on their own and start asking them directly once a campaign as gone public. Again the key thing to remember here is that your Media Relations person is on your side. They are not pushing you to be obnoxious, though it may feel that way at times. They are pushing you to find all those elements which the media and consumer base may discover and come up with their own incorrect conclusions about you. It is far better to have a PR person uncover a rhetorical gaff in logic than a tenacious reporter or snarky twitter account. When your PR person finds them, you can curse their name under your breath, discuss how to fix the error, and move on. When the press or the people make the same discovery that error is highlighted and celebrated with #EpicFAIL.
Being open to criticism can be hard and a shot to the ego but its worth your patience, because once that is out of the way then the focus can be properly aimed at all the positives a company has to offer without the fear of risking it all on the stability of an over-exuberant claim or unfounded statement.
Sharing data, patience, listening to what your PR firm has to say, being open to criticism is not enough if a client is not responsive to the requests of their representation. Unlike with, product development or roll out and seemingly I the face of the long turnaround times from pitch to press, Media Relations is an extremely time sensitive business tool. A delay in approval or failure to act on the part of the client can result in missed media opportunities or project failures. To fully see the success of a Media Relations campaign the client needs to be responsive in a timely manner.
Often a particular press pitch will be the result of the news of the day. Something happened somewhere which is directly relevant to what the client does. Suddenly there is a lot of media focus on this arena. The goal here is to get the client involved with the discussion, what went wrong, what went right, how does this confirm what the client has been saying for months, etc. There is a very small window of opportunity to participate. Today may be a big new this morning but tomorrow, who knows what can happen. In these cases, often a PR firm will identify the news, draft a pitch and get something over to the client for approval, so that it can go out to the press ASAP. Usually these pitches are marked with a label of “urgent” when sent to the client for approval. The longer the delay of response, the less likely the client will be included in the news. It is important to respond, even if a particular pitch or story angle is not something the client wants to be involved with, so that the Media Relations team knows to drop it and move on, especially if the media start proactively reaching out to them. It is important to respond quickly if the client likes the argument but not the pitch. This type of issue could be fixed quickly over the phone with a five minute call. It is also important for a client to be responsive if a pitch is good but a particular executive is unavailable for interviews. This sort of internal issue can be sorted after media contact, such as through an alternative executive for interviews or via an offer for an email based interview.
If, however, the client opts to keep silent until everything is sorted out internally OR simply drags their feet in responding to these types of opportunities then the opportunities dies and the PR reps have wasted an entire morning rushing a push when they could have focused efforts to cultivate other media opportunities.
It is crucial to be responsive even for long form media plans such as product launches. Preparing a product launch requires a lot of details to be in place on all sides of the announcement spectrum, from within the company as well as from external vendors, such as Media Relations firms. Though this planning usually starts months in advance it is still time sensitive. Everything, ideally, will go live the same day, the same time. This means the Media Relations team need approvals on the press release, the market foci, and the pitches. They need access to either executive calendars or a communication process to ensure interview requests actually get on those calendars. They need confirmations for all scheduled interviews and notification on any schedule changes. For any written material without a formal client approval, they cannot be made public. For any audiences not confirmed as the target for a given product or project or identified as a new target demographic, a client opens themselves up to having a big event but missing the attention of those people they want most. For every interview not confirmed or appointment changed without notice, the client loses that press opportunity and potentially the ability to work with that journalist again (depending on the journalist’s temperament).
For all the work and planning a client hires their PR or Media Relations firm to do, without that feedback and response from the client a lot of those plans can fall apart. This does not mean a client needs to micromanage or be involved with every aspect of every stage of a PR plan to ensure success. What it does mean is that when deadlines are known or time issues arise, treat them as what they are, the life or death of a particular faction of the media plan.
Your PR team should make these time sensitivities known to you, but if they don’t or the system in which they let you know is ineffective for your needs then work with them to create a better internal communication plan. More often than not all this means is sending a few sentence email or holding a 5 minute phone call. A relatively small amount of work resulting in a substantially higher likelihood for campaign success.
As with any relationship be it personal or professional you get out what you put in. When it comes to being a Media Relations client, what you need to put in is minimal but important. These are not things you need to actively do every single day. Most require an open mind and a few minutes of actual work as it comes up. PR and Media Relations are tools to help you and your company increase the likelihood of long term success. The person or team you hire are on the company’s side. Their action or inaction is specifically geared to assist in the elevation of your goals.
To be a great Media Relations client, don’t hold back information, even the bad stuff. Have patience, understand and respect the process of getting a message through the press to your target audiences, always ask questions, listen to what your Media Relations team is saying and why they are saying it, be open to internal criticism so as to ensure you minimize external criticism, and be responsive to the needs and requests of your team. If you follow these suggestions you will allow your firm, team, or employee to hit the full potential of their Media Relations plan. From that point on the success or failure of the campaign rests on Media Relation’s shoulders and not your own.