As a novice freelance journalist, when not on a deadline, I strived to lead with what I coined my “D” rule: Don’t Follow the Pack; look for the story behind the story. That meant when other reporters were interviewing celebrities, I would approach individuals who weren’t news makers.
One article, in particular, helped my career. The lede was mainly based on a conversation with the official whose job it was to make sure the pool had exactly the correct amount of water in it so there would be no splash back from water hitting the sides of the pool, which could add fractions of a second to swimmers’ time.
The complete results of the competition were reported several paragraphs later. That story caught the eye of editors at my paper and those at other New York City dailies, leading to opportunities for me.
When I crossed the border to public relations, I brought my “D” tactic with me. Agency account supervisors viewed my approaches suspiciously, but clients loved them. They didn’t always agree with me, but most appreciated me going against the grain of hackneyed PR tenets.
Here’s what I did that shook up staid agency practices:
PR’s Basic Tools
- I limited expensive press conferences as much as I could unless there was really major news – not what self-absorbed account executives thought was major news. Let’s be realistic. Most news emanating from PR agencies does not fall into “must cover” news, except perhaps for trade pubs. Usually, clients agree with my news judgment; occasionally, the client’s office politics demanded a major press conference.
- With the exception of introducing major new products, I discontinued the use of expensive press kits, substituting handouts in inexpensive folders. I used the money saved for media activities. . Reporters don’t have the space to keep every element of a press kit. Usually, they keep the lead story and, maybe, a bio of a person they might interview.
- Press releases had to be written two ways: A straight news release and a feature version, giving journalists different options and suggestions of approaching a story.
- Each pitch letter or phone conversation with an assignment editor or reporter included several different approaches to a story.
- Captions for photos and images were written as news releases, so photo editors could rewrite them according to their space limitations and style of their media outlets.
- I always ignore the ridiculous communications schools’ pitch rule that calls for short pitches. On accounts that I controlled or played key roles on, pitches to reporters and assignment editors were not limited to a couple of sentences. Pitches are written as feature stories. I’ve never had someone tell me that my pitches were too long, despite the teachings of PR professors. In fact, many reporters and editors like them because it saved them time and let them consider various approaches.
- I believe in inviting a handful of journalists from major media outlets to “round table” discussions with clients, instead of major press conferences. I always included at least two wire service reporters and a journalist from a feature syndicate.
- Occasionally, I will set-up an interview between a client and only one major outlet, knowing that the importance of the story would be followed-up by others because of its content.
- I always make it a must to include the usually unknown and greatly ignored desk editors to press events. I also invite the largely unknown and ignored night and overnight staff. Even though I know that many could not attend, they appreciate the invite.
- I always include all secondary news organizations to press events and arrange special round table discussions with clients for them.
- Several times a year, I suggest traveling out of state to meet with editors of feature news services that are ignored by New York-based agencies.
Hired Gun Slingers and Celebrities
Hired gun slingers – who account executives employ to promote products because of their TV skills – are on my “no-no” list. Often, the same individual is used by different account groups (at different times) to promote different products.
Instead, I use individuals who actually are experts or have a background and knowledge of what they are promoting – perhaps a sports physiologist for a sports-health program, a substance abuse executive for discussions regarding treatment methods, nationally known caffeine experts to discuss products containing caffeine, a former mayor of a city, who was a school teacher, to discuss education, etc.
One of the hardest hurdles to overcome involved sports-related accounts. The default position was to hire a well-known current athlete, which as a former journalist made no sense to me.
Current athletes are available to reporters almost every day. There is no reason for a journalist to interview them just because they are endorsing something. But too many account executives on sports-related accounts are star-struck. On accounts that I didn’t control, convincing AEs not to use the “star of the moment” could sometimes be difficult, but usually they listened.
One time, an especially aggressive AE suggested to a client the star of the moment for a publicity campaign that included many radio and other interviews. I knew the athlete couldn’t’ speak English well-enough to do interviews. The AE didn’t. He was so anxious to show me up, he took the word of the athlete’s agent and unknown to me suggested the athlete to the client, who then asked me my opinion.
No harm came to the account because of my relationship with the client who had a good laugh about the situation, as did the AE’s direct supervisor. No one reported what happened to the top brass at the agency. We didn’t want to see the AE fired but wanted to teach him a lesson in humility and in listening to well-grounded advice.
Leading by example, I did a test run on an account that I managed for many years. Instead of using current athletes, I brought back well-known athletes in various fields that were out of the limelight, sometimes for decades, the caveat being that a baseball player had to be used for a baseball program, an Olympic medal winner for an Olympic-associated program, etc. Because nostalgia is such a big part of sports coverage, the results were fabulous and proved my point.
Often, I suggested using non-athletes for sports related programs – sports trainers, sports announcers and executives of sports-related companies for media interviews, always with great success.
Ours is an aggressive business where too many people are after the same gold rings. Early in my career, my first PR job was at Earle Associates, I was given the following advice by the owner, when I told him I was leaving for another job:
“Find a way to take credit for your ideas and work; if not someone else will.” A long-time, high-ranking executive at Burson-Marsteller on whose accounts I worked for 23 plus years gave me the same advice, adding, “You’ll never get ahead here if you let other people take credit for your work. And they most certainly will if you let them. Find a way to do so, even if it means upsetting some colleagues.”
My advice is to find a way to differentiate yourself from your account team members. Don’t get caught in the “team concept” trap.
In our business, where so many client programs look alike to journalists and so many account executives come from the same communications schools, employees must find a way to attract management’s attention in order to emerge from the cookie-cutter mold and climb the promotion mountain.
There are various ways to do so – being a good presenter, being a good manager of budgets and being adept at office politics. But the best way to get recognized by agency management is by being praised by clients and making sure management knows about it. And the best ways to receive praise is by being innovative and demonstrating to the client and management that you can think out-side of the box by crafting programs containing elements that are not the norm.
And be a credit hog. Make sure that others do not take credit for your ideas and work.
Also, remember: During your annual presentation to your day-to-day client contact bosses, always share your successes with your direct client contact and praise the help provided, even if it was minimal or disregarded. Doing so will be more important to good client relations than a stack of print pub clips or TV hits.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.