I wasn’t surprised to lear Jeff Battcher was once an athlete. As the Director of Media Relations for BellSouth, Battcher often had to display the grace and skill that we’ve come to expect from athletes. Whether it’s taking a handoff and plowing through the pile to score a touchdown with a journalist or coming out of the bullpen and putting out a fire, Battcher’s job required he patience of a veteran athlete, if nothing else.
“The most essential part of my job is making sure that I have relationships with folks in the media,” Battcher told me after being promoted to Senior Director of Media Relations at BellSouth. With his the new job title, Battcher became the public relations point man for the national media for the 74th largest company in the world, the dominant local phone company in the southeastern United States. BellSouth had over $26 billion in revenues in 2002. How does a company like that begin to get its public relations message across?
Using a degree in communications and status as a local athletic legend, Battcher landed a job as the sports anchor for the ABC affiliate in Macon, Ga. “I was married for about a year and making $19,500 a year with bad benefits doing TV. I was thirty-one and thought it was time to get a real job,” Battcher said. That real job ended up being a sales position at BellSouth Mobility, a wireless unit of BellSouth. Battcher started selling cell phones and then worked his way up through the ranks to become a regional sales manager. “My break came when I went from Macon to Atlanta and became the regional marketing manager. Part of my duties were handling public relations.”
During his first year in Atlanta, the city was host to the summer Olympic games and with BellSouth as the telecom sponsor and the games in the company’s hometown, the company was in an enviable position. Using his experience as a sports anchor, Battcher was soon talking up the company on TV networks around the world. Battcher soon found himself promoted, this time going to BellSouth Cellular; he did “normal public relaitons stuff” for a few years.
“I found, like a lot of old-line companies, we weren’t very aggressive with PR. I tried to get the [local] PR people in different markets to respond to opportunities. My idea was always, ‘How can we get the cash register to ring?’ If you’re going to do an interview, I’d tell the people to bring a cool, sexy cell phone or talk about the latest pricing plans.”
Battcher’s aggressive public relations work soon paid off; his next promotion was to Assistant Director of Media Relations for all of BellSouth. His days were spent ensuring that BellSouth’s corporate message is honestly and fairly portrayed in the media..
“In my role, it’s all national media,” he said. “Anything dealing with the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer, I handle as well. I speak on behalf of the company. It’s pretty much like being the White House Press Secretary.”
Managing the media time of executives like BellSouth Chairman and CEO Duane Ackerman, while important, could be difficult. “I don’t set-up many interviews with Mr. Ackerman because I’ve done so in the past and a lot of times, I’ve found that nothing ever appears.”
Battcher’s name graced almost every national press release, good news and bad news alike. When the company was forced to layoff workers at the beginning of the decade, Battcher had to handle all the calls. And when the company bucked the industry trend and reported solid financial results in 2003, Battcher got to talk about the company’s success. As the first and last line of defense when it comes to the media, how does Battcher deal with aggressive reporters who call him and throw unsubstantiated rumors his way?
“You have to build trust with the media. Everyone uses the word spin, but I don’t think in true media relations there really is a word ‘spin.’ The way to build trust is to be perfectly honest. A lot of times there are things I can’t say or talk about, so I have to be honest about it. Building trust is sometimes a long term process. Sometimes you have to do it baby steps and get a feel for what the person is like.”
But Battcher realized that sometimes it’s a losing cause. “There’s been occasions when reporters have their own agenda and you can pretty much sniff that out these days. Depending on how well I know the reporter, I may just tell them [when they ask a question] that it doesn’t matter. There’s no sense in wasting my time.”
And Battcher’s time is valuable. Each morning he had a staffer email him any and all publicity that BellSouth receives. He often read the stories on his way to work on his Blackberry. And he kept a close watch on the reporters who cover his company and used services such as Factiva to track coverage of his company, as well as the competitors.
“There’s not doubt that I know the home phone numbers of all the reporters who cover BellSouth at the] top ten or fifteen media outlets in the country. You have to know how to get a hold of someone if you see something incorrect in a story on a Sunday afternoon.”
While national media outlets generally have telecom reporters, regional newspapers usually have people covering numerous beats and that can cause problems.
“I don’t fault reporters at regional publications because they have a lot to cover and they can’t be experts on everything. But the regional media is very important because that’s where our employees come in. They may read something in a regional paper about rumors of layoffs or something, so it’s important that we get our message across to the regional papers.”
Battcher says that since he’s been at BellSouth, he’s been fortunate that everything he’s said off the record, has stayed that way. “There’s going to bad days and mistakes made. If I’ve got issues with a story, I’ll call the reporter to see what happened.” And even if there are issues with an off the record statement being made public, Battcher tries to handle the situation with a little bit of cool.
“Maybe it’s just my personality. I’m unbelievably forgiving, but I’ll never forget. I have to be careful sometimes with certain reporters and sometimes I won’t be as generous in trying to help me. But you have to separate personal feelings. The truth is, I like all the reporters I deal with. I understand [the reporter’s] role and want to be helpful. That’s what’s served me well.”
What’s also served him well has been the dedication he has taken to his job. Battcher says that in his position, he’s had know a lot of about his company, and about the employees as well.
“You’ve got to know a little bit about everything going on in the corporation. You have to have good relationships with the corporate officers. There are also parameters when dealing with the media — you have to know what you can and can’t say.”
Battcher says that to tackle a job like his, you have to possess two things: Curiosity and a love for the media. “You have to have an innate curiosity of the company you work for and being generally interested in what’s going on with it. You have to love the media, love reading newspapers, and love dealing with reporters. If you don’t like doing it, you need to think about another career.”
And if you’re going to stick with public relations, you should choose a good company.
“I’m very, very fortunate that I work for a company and a management team that is the most honest and integrable in the industry. The most important thing at this company is doing things right and being above board on everything. I know I have to worry about a lot of stuff other people do [when it comes to their company]. When I say we do things right, I know it’s true.”
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/.