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PR Fuel Mailbag: Public Relations and Blogs, Antagonizing the Media, and More

It’s time once again to dip into the old PR Fuel mailbag and see what PR Fuel readers have to say about the world of public relations. In this installment, we talk about public relations firms’ antipathy toward blogs. Plus we’ll learn about the some of the dangers when it comes to antagonizing the media.

Loyal PR Fuel reader J. Michael Lenninger, Sales Manager for the Saint Augustine Catholic magazine, has more than 25 years of corporate communications experience. He writes the following regarding public relations firms and other companies missing the blogging boat:

“I can understand why more companies aren’t using blogs:

1. Conservatism rules. By nature, most public relations folks are conservative when dealing with corporate values, image, and advertising. This is too leading-edge for them and too hard to explain to top management, who still have someone read and respond to their email for them. Yet the extroverted, expressive side becomes frustrated with not being able to try new things.

2. Something fun can’t be effective! Again, the fear of offending TPTB (“the powers that be”) in the corporate world keep public relations people from coming out in an honest, fun way.

3. The fear factor. Wait until some crazy concept is broadcast on a blog site, or a PR person pokes fun at some corporate icon, and watch the sparks fly! Most public relations people have to jump through so many hoops before publishing. Think of all the approvals they would need to get: legal, marketing, brand, advertising, executive, department heads. Bureaucracy doesn’t encourage unique thinking. Many public relations people have lost their jobs because of an inappropriate comment they made.

4. Measuring success. If you can’t count the clippings, how can you measure the results? Most PR people know that counting clippings, measuring column inches, and then applying the open column advertising rate to the total is old hat. How many products did we sell? How many people visited our site as a direct result of the blog? The bottom line is the bottom line. How much money did we make or how much money did we save?

5. Time factor. To do something consistently well, on a daily basis, updating your blog almost every hour takes time and commitment and manpower, which means increasing an already overstretched budget. Most PR practitioners are pushed to the max and wear multiple hats. If they can’t keep their websites updated, how can they possibly maintain a good blog?”

PR Fuel’s Response: Lenninger hits the nail on the head here, raising an interesting question: How do we change the public relations process at large companies and organizations?

The amount of red tape some people have to go through just to put out a press release is embarrassing. Everyone from sales to legal, marketing to the executive suite has to sign off on a press release at some companies. If that’s the case, how could a company expect to publish a blog–essentially a daily, bite-sized newsletter–aimed directly at customers, consumers, or the media?

The simple answer is that the public relations process needs to be streamlined to include fewer cooks. If a company/organization has a well-crafted public relations message, and like a good politician actually stays on that message, the need for constant top-down filtering becomes that much less. This is one of the biggest problems I’ve encountered from people in the public relations industry: mixed messages.

I believe a good public relations staff can articulate a company’s message and do so without constant interference from management or other departments. Public relations reps don’t tell salespeople how to do their jobs; it shouldn’t work the other way, either.

Another important thing to remember is that the media landscape is drastically shifting. Newspaper readership is decreasing; network news reigns supreme but is limited in its coverage scope; cable news has some serious credibility problems; and the internet has long since come into its own as a serious information dissemination medium. With this changing media landscape, public relations firms should be more proactive and reach out more directly to their target audience by using more traditional marketing methods and newer methods (like blogging) in their campaigns. By doing this, PR firms sidestep the need to rely on the media for all your publicity needs.

Yes, public relations reps should try to work out any problems you have with individual reporters or editors or with individual media outlets. If you continue to suffer bad press from the same people–and you think it’s not justified–you need to battle this. Antagonizing the media will be impossible sometimes, especially in local markets with one dominant media outlet.

Historically, the media have stayed away from attacking each other, except in very localized ways when circulation/viewership battles occur. But the changing media landscape has meant an industry  increasingly turning its attack dogs on its own I know few reporters who would love nothing less than to be able to slam their competition.

Recently, there was a story in the Washington Post about an incident at the Alexandria Country Day School, a private school outside of Washington, D.C. In a nutshell, kitchen staff at the school mistakenly gave students small cups of a drink they thought was fruit punch, but in fact contained alcohol. Teachers realized the mistake quickly, and no child was harmed. Nonetheless, the school knew it must inform parents, so Alexander Harvey IV, head of the school, quickly fired off a letter to parents the same day.

‘We ask the students to be honest and admit their mistakes, and we should do the same,’ the letter said.

Harvey said he’s heard no complaints from parents about the incident, and the vice-president of the Parent-Teacher League praised the school for its quick and honest response to the situation.

This may all seem a bit trivial, but consider this: the school, with 240 students, charges anywhere from $14,200 to $15,600 a year for tuition. Taking a $15K average annual tuition cost, that works out to $3.6 million in tuition revenue per year. When you’re paying $15K a year for school, you want your kids not only to get a top-notch education, but to do so in a safe environment with competent staff.

Clearly an honest mistake was made, and thankfully there was no harm done. (If nothing else, maybe the kids who tasted the drink will stay away from alcohol when they get older!) The school responded quickly, honestly, and in a meaningful way. It was a smart public relations move, protecting the school’s  business and keeping their customers happy, not to mention any additional good will built in the process.

The only disappointing news is that the story ended up in the newspaper, and on the front page of the Metro section of The Washington Post, no less. (Slow news day in the ‘burbs?) By the same token, parents who read the story may come away feeling good about the school and its administration. I certainly did. The article was, in the end, basically an endorsement for how the school handled a mistake.

It’s interesting to note that this story spread like wildfire across the internet and that CNN and other TV networks came calling. I fired off an email to Harvey praising him for his actions, and he sent back a nice response. Harvey and the school deserve additional praise for how they handled the incident suddenly turning into a news story. By talking to the media, the school once again fostered good will by being open and honest about a mistake. The school could have taken a “run and hide” approach, but the story was already in the hands of the media.

It’s often a simple public relations tactic–dealing with the issue at hand in an honest way–that helps limit damage when mistakes are made by a business, organization, or yes, even a school. It didn’t take a trained public relations professional to come up with this approach either, just an educator looking out for his students. Remember this the next time a client or colleague wants to duck an issue.

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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