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Answering Questions, Correcting Mistakes and Watching The PR World Go Around

I want to have some fun this week. So in lieu of boring you with a long article about how I think you should do your job, I’m going to (finally) answer some questions, (actually) correct a mistake and take a look at what’s going on in the PR world this week. Let’s start with the fun stuff.

The Strange Story Behind Microsoft’s Internet Toilet

Is Microsoft working on an Internet-ready portable toilet? That’s the question that has had techies and hygiene experts in suspense for two weeks now.

On April 30, Microsoft’s UK subsidiary put out a press release hyping the world’s first Internet toilet, the iLoo. The story got wide play around the world and was the news was fodder for than a few jokes. The iLoo appeared headed to a park near you. But stop the presses. On Monday, Microsoft said the press release was actually a hoax. This came after some negative news reports on the proposed InternetCan. Stop the presses again! On Tuesday, Microsoft reversed course and said the iLoo was indeed a legitimate product, but after the poor response from the public, the company said it wouldn’t go forward with the project. This is of course has led to a many an article detailing Microsoft’s PR blunder.

This is just the latest in a series of strange PR messes Microsoft has gotten itself into. The company was nailed last year for running what was supposed to be an ad featuring a happy Windows user who had switched to the Microsoft operating system after being an Apple user. The ad was intended to be a play on Apple’s wildly successful “switch campaign.” But it backfired when it was revealed that the person who wrote the ad was actually a flack and the picture used in the ad came from a photo archive.

Microsoft’s biggest PR headaches are usually centered around security problems with its products, but the last two biggies appear to be the result of poor PR planning. But when you’re Microsoft, you can basically get away with this stuff. That’s a nice position to be in, but one few of us will ever find ourselves in.

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PR Disaster Hits The New York Times, or, Why You Should Complain If You’re Misquoted

It’s only May, but The New York Times may have already sealed the deal when it comes to this year’s biggest PR disaster.

In a lengthy front page story on Sunday, the “Gray Old Lady” detailed how one of its reporters, Jayson Blair, plagiarized and faked stories for months, possibly years. Blair’s last deception occurred in late April when he plagiarized a story about a San Antonio family that lost a son in the Iraq war. Blair had poached the story, rewriting as if he had interviewed the family in person. Blair was never in even San Antonio.

Blair apparently is a pathological liar, going so far as lying about the death of family member in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and then going into counseling to handle the grief. When sent on assignment to handle the D.C. area sniper shootings, Blair stayed at home in Brooklyn, all the time acting as if he was in Maryland or Virginia (read The Times piece for the complete details, it’s an amazing story). One story blew-up in his face and caused local law enforcement officials to call a news conference to debunk Blair’s reporting (which Blair had bragged about in a D.C. area newspaper, going so far as saying he had beat The Washington Post in their own backyard).

The backlash in the media has been as harsh as anyone could imagine. The paper’s publisher and editor in chief have said they couldn’t do anything to prevent what happened, but even the paper’s own investigation reveals that Blair was constantly in trouble because of his stories. For a paper that can create major PR disasters, it’s a sick payback.

The interesting thing about all of this is that Blair was making up quotes left and right. He was quoting real people, but he never actually interviewed them. These people caught the errors, but never called Blair’s editors or anyone at The Times. Many people he inaccurately quoted or produced quotes out of thin air for have since said they figured it was a losing battle. Who takes on The New York Times?

What’s sad is that a few complaints from the subjects of his articles could have prevented a lot of damage. If The Times editors wouldn’t hear the people out, journalists from other media outlets would have been more than happy to do a little fact checking and take a shot or two at The Times.

This is an area I’ve covered before: If you are misquoted, let the journalist know. If it’s not material, just a case of semantics or the writer jiggering words to make the quote flow, let it be. But if the quote is something you would never say and contains misleading or false information, call the reporter and tell them you want a correction run. Tell them you will be contacting their editor as well. And if on the off chance you are quoted by someone who you’ve never spoken to in your life, call their editor immediately.

I recently misquoted someone, due to a Freudian slip while transcribing my notes, and I felt terrible about it. What upset me the most was the fact that the person who I quoted took almost four days to contact me and make me aware of the mistake. I know they read the story the minute it was in print, so why did it take so long for them to contact me?

Even if you go to the media with a story, you have the right to be treated fairly. Make sure we keep our end of the bargain by providing accurate quotes and accurate facts. If we don’t, call us on it. It will help prevent another Jayson Blair from getting into the game.

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You Don’t Want To See Me When I’m Angry

Once again I’ve found myself amazingly annoyed with a certain company’s PR department.

Every time I cover this particular company it’s a royal pain the arse. Every on the record quote has to be approved by the company’s lawyers and the PR people waste my time going off the record trying to coerce me not to write the story. Not only that, but if they email a statement, they always add jerky off the record comments.

But the kicker, the worst part of it all, is that the PR people bug my editors and try to get them to kill the story. In effect, they go over my head and try to debunk what I’m writing about before it even hits in print. I give these people credit though: They’re true flacks. These are the type of people who give PR a bad name. I also realize their job is to protect their company’s image.

None of that matters though because what they’ve done is to consistently antagonize me. It’s one thing to plead a case, and it’s another to get angry, but to question my integrity and my reporting by going to my editors and complaining because I’m writing a negative story; that’s just petty. I don’t trust these PR people anymore and that makes my job, and theirs, more difficult.

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Alright, I Should Have Titled The Article, “Anatomy Of A Crappy Press Release”

Two weeks ago I penned an article entitled “Anatomy Of A Failed Press Release.” In the article I detailed how a press release from a firm named Bridges TV had failed and why it failed. Well, I was wrong. The press release got a lot of attention and articles about the company are flowing out of media outlets around the world. I jumped the gun on criticizing the effectiveness of the press release, but I stand by my comments about it being a bad press release.

I should have realized that the company would make some waves – Bridges TV is trying to launch a television network aimed at Arab Americans. The company is definitely newsworthy, there’s no doubt about that. And that’s why, despite a terrible press release, the company has gotten a lot of ink lately. It’s not often that you’ll find a company that succeeds despite itself, but in this case, one has. Congratulations.

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7 Worst Things PR Has Done To Me In The Past 7 Days

1. Emailing me a statement and including off the record quotes without clearly defining what is and what is not on the record.

2. Complaining to my editor before the story was even written.

3. Resending me the same press release for tenth time and tacking on the question, “Are you interested?” when it’s obvious that I am not.

4. Emailing me a press release with a return receipt attached. I always click “No” when my email program asked me if I want to send a return receipt.

5. Sending me a press release as an attachment.

6. Inviting me to attend an event one day before the event. A little lead time would have been nice.

7. Requesting that I pull articles from an archive. Do your own research. Most media outlets have libraries that you can call and ask them to pull an article or story and there are plenty of services available that you can utilize to find back articles.

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The Mailbag

Q: Are small but clever or relevant tokens to journalists AFTER they’ve covered a story considered prohibited gifts?

A: It will depend on the policies of the media outlet, but a token of appreciation is normally OK. Keep the value of gifts under $30 and you should be fine. What you want to do is avoid sending gifts that have a resale or cash value. I wrote about someone offering a discount on purchased goods, and that is cash value.
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Q: I am writing an ebook and wanted to send a letter to targeted magazine editors, about my ebook available at my website. This would be sent along with a sample that they could use for photographic purposes, or just to see the quality of my work. (retail value $20.00) Would this be considered unethical or a “bribe?”

A: This is fine. The product in question couldn’t be reviewed and returned like a piece of electronics, so it makes sense to send a sample and write it off. Covering the last two questions, I wrote a piece about a company that sells tea and they sent me a couple of boxes of the tea after my first inquiry. This was acceptable and made sense since I was going to mention the quality of the product.
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Q: I read your email “Be Careful When Bearing Gifts.” Our policy is that all gifts be turned over to the “box.” We in turn give the items to a local non-profit company. They in turn auction the items to raise money for their programs.

A: This isn’t a question, but it raised a good point. When I was in the newsroom at The New York Post, they employed a similar program. Companies sent everything from toys to computer software and one of the business reporters would take everything and stick it in a box under his desk. At the end of the year, they auction off the gifts and donate the money to a local charity. I think a lot of organizations employ this idea, and it’s a good one.
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Q: What is your view about bolding and/or underlining key information and or statistics in a press release? Does it help a journalist, or have any effect good/or bad whatsoever?

A: I think bolding or underlining key information in a press release is fine, just be careful not to be repetitive. For example: If you send out a press release with the headline, “80% of Americans Hate Chocolate,” then the key statistic is already out there. What I would suggest is if you’re sending out a press release that includes a lot of statistics, bullet point the important stats. I think it’s more persuasive that way and gets the point across in a cleaner fashion than using bold and/or underlining. In addition, keep in mind that press releases posted on the wires is distributed as plain text (no italics, bolding, etc.).

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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