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Excerpt: Full Frontal PR

The new book from powerhouse PR exec Richard Laermer teaches how to get people to pay attention to your product. Here he shares his 27 Commandments for PR professionals.

- April 4, 2003

1. Don't bribe journalists. If your story isn't good enough for the media, or if your pitch isn't hitting home, regroup, fix the problem, and patch all the holes. Bribing a journalist is buying your way into the publication, and if that's what you want, make life easier for both of you and buy an advertisement. The best way to get a journalist to take your story is to prepare and hone the pitch so it delivers your message and addresses the media's real needs.

2. If you're happy with the way a story turns out, don't send a gift thanking the reporter. Your intentions may be perfectly honorable, but once again, a gift is problematic for a journalist. All you're doing is putting her ethics up for debate, because if she ever chooses to cover you in the future, a case can be made that you endeared your way in. Send a handwritten note expressing what a pleasure it was to work with her. That's best. It'll take longer to get there than a call or an e-mail, but it's the way to go. Also, if you decide to take a reporter out for dinner, discuss who pays for the meal beforehand. It's much simpler and more clear-cut for everyone.

3. Strike the word favor from your media-relations vocabulary. You hear it day in and day out—PR and business people saying that they'll make a call because so-and-so at this paper owes them a favor. Eliminate the notion that the media owes you anything, and your expectations will be manageable. Just because you gave a reporter a story once, and he covered it once, doesn't mean he owes you. (And the silly notion that someone did something "bad" to you in print or neglected to include you, and that you therefore merit something wonderful in the future—pshaw… drop it.)

In most lines of work, you can offer favors, at least tiny ones, such as free parking in the office lot, gratis use of a spiffy electronic device, and so on. But asking journalists to cover something just because you gave it to them is asking them to compromise the very product they make and distribute to thousands of their own consumers. Any journalist or producer is way too far out in the spotlight and, theoretically, too ethical, to compromise his product to pay you back for a supposed favor.

4. Don't let your boss or colleagues tell you that they'll handle getting the media coverage if you're the one with the connections. You've gone to great pains to build the media relationship, so you should decide the best way to deal with someone. Friends in the media? Sure, that's a reality. But a friend, secondhand? Rarely, if ever. What your higher-up thinks is a friend usually is someone he talked to at a cocktail party.

Time and time again, a client has beseeched us not to talk to a reporter because she, thinking she had an "in" with the reporter, was going to handle it herself. And every single time, either we've had to step in to clean up the mess, or the reporter, with whom we've had a longstanding relationship, has called us to say, "Why is this person bugging me?" It's nothing personal. A friend, it's said, "is someone you don't owe anything to." Tell the CEO you'll handle it because you want to do your job well.

5. Don't believe that whatever you're doing is too important to disclose. Entrepreneurs, inventors, and generic know-it-alls always seem to be in a very unhealthy form of "stealth mode," tediously toiling away on their next big idea in a locked lab guarded by nondisclosure agreements. But, of course, they want to be famous, too. The first thing to remember is that no matter what you're doing, provided it isn't curing cancer or AIDS, someone else is doing something more important than you are.

As a nation we were duly reminded of this when, in mid-2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell left each meeting at the supposed "pre-peace talks" anticipating, for the benefit of the press, what the next meeting would be like, without granting one detail of the prior meeting. Dull, misinforming, and self-important. If the media wants to know about it (because you called them, remember?), then give them the full story. Never solicit coverage and then give only half the news. It's pretentious and off-putting.

Anyway, if the idea is that great, it will take years before anyone's able to replicate it. Plus, the mere fact that you're first makes you the best. If it is that easy to copy, then maybe it's not such a good idea, after all.

6. Don't miss a deadline. Don't miss a deadline. Oh, and one more thing: Don't miss a deadline. The media live and die by the clock. If you're working with a reporter on your story, always make her schedule yours. If you're late with information, she's late with the story to her editor. This makes her look bad, and then the space in the paper or broadcast that was reserved for her story will have to be filled quickly, and then the whole production goes up in smoke. That means your next chance (or three) with the reporter goes up in smoke, too. It is always easier to kill a story than to write one.

All right, let's say you did miss the deadline. Here's when we say to 'fess up quick. Despite all your attempts to put your best foot forward, you've screwed up, but whatever you do, don't let that story die. Try a little tenderness and apologize to the frustrated reporter (and mean it).

What can you do to make it better, you ask?

E-mail or fax a note that she can show her editor, one that explains the problem and acknowledges your responsibility in causing it. If you can still come through with the information by the publication's deadline, move mountains to do it. And, of course, promise never to miss a deadline again. Can you keep that one?

7. Don't pitch one of your stories that just appeared in a competing newspaper or magazine and pretend you didn't see it or have anything to do with it. When that little fib comes back to haunt you—and it will—ouch, does that smart! It's true that not everyone at The New York Times reads The Wall Street Journal, and vice versa. On the other hand, The Wall Street Journal swears BusinessWeek is its prime competitor, and each member of its reporter team studies it like the dickens. Therefore, it's a big mistake to think that the reporter won't notice that the same story you're pitching just showed up on the competition's front page.

Even if he doesn't notice, do yourself a favor and avoid getting into this situation to begin with. If a journalist who doesn't know better buys into your story and presents it to his editor, he's in for some serious trouble, and so are you. Honesty is the name of the game; you'll never win a reporter's trust with deceptive tactics.

That doesn't mean that you can't pitch to two competing papers if you have a timely story. Journalists won't always get back to you when they promise to or run your story when they were planning to—or ever, for that matter. The important thing to remember is that if one writer from the Times bites, you should let his alter ego at the Journal know that up front. If you're honest about it with the Journal scribe, you ensure that his editor won't beat him up for running a day-late, dollar-short scoop.

If you're really good at this PR stuff, you could give him an opportunity to cover your story from a different angle. You could also tell him not to cover it at all if the whole issue becomes too sticky. In any case, the next time you call your pal at the Journal, he'll know you're a pro. And that's what counts with reporters.

Sometimes two competing journalists will run the same story, and they both get heat for it. In this instance, the best thing to do is offer a very humble apology and take their wrath on the chin. What's done is done. Walking the ethical side of the line in PR will get you far, even when you make mistakes. In an industry filled with wonderful one-hits and people trying to make a name for themselves doing all sorts of weird things, rules of conduct are always broken. He who treads safely will stand out and gain influence over the long haul.

8. Don't break a deal. If you offer a reporter an exclusive, make sure it stays an exclusive. If you set up a press embargo for Friday, don't try to change the date to Monday or Tuesday later on. Success in PR is based on verbal agreements, so honor them, and there will be more deals for you to close in the future.

9. Never lie. Don't even exaggerate. This one doesn't need much explanation, other than to reiterate that lying about a product or service makes a journalist who reports it look like a dolt. Not to mention the obvious ethical problem on your end. Don't do it! But if it does happen, if you or someone in your company does lie, well then, call back, apologize, and make amends quickly. Say the devil made you do it, if you have to.

10. Don't give journalists only one option for using your story. If you are collaborating with a reporter on one angle, and it isn't working, don't just sigh and say, "Ah well, maybe next time." Find angles anew—there are always more. If you don't, you may as well just sit around and wait for the reporter to kill the piece and with it your opportunity for press coverage.

11. Don't ever believe that you can say anything off the record. If you don't want to read it the next morning in the paper, don't say it. Many people like to exchange off-the-record quips with journalists to buddy up to them. But you are only creating problems for the writer when you spill dirty little secrets. Here's why: Journalists don't have to honor off-the-record statements. Their job is to report the news, and if your off-the-record scoop is news, they need to tell it. But it's not quite that simple for a journalist. He has to decide whether to break your trust and run with the information or spend his day trying to find three or four other sources to validate your rumor. Either way, it's a lot of work for him, and he doesn't really want to be in that position, anyway. So do yourself and the journalist a favor: Don't go there.

12. Never say that you don't know, or that you can't answer a question. Just don't. No comment is a product of Hollywood. It's an incriminating answer: By not commenting, you're saying a whole lot. If you aren't comfortable disclosing something, segue to safer territory and tell the inquisitive reporter that when you have the answer to the question, she's the first one you'll call with the information.

If she asks you a question on a subject you can't talk about it, such as a legal or Securities and Exchange Commission issue, tell her so. If your hands are tied—you'd get sued or thrown in jail for talking too soon—then you have to explain it just like that. Acting coy is not a good idea here.

13. Don't leave voice messages and e-mail unanswered. If you want serious press, you must be accessible and helpful. Never leave the media hanging, waiting for you to get back to them. If you do, they'll just move on to the next story they're working on. You'll only get calls if you return them!

If you're truly swamped and cannot answer, ask someone from your office to call and say, "She's truly swamped and cannot get back to you today, but she does want to speak with you. So how's midnight tonight for you?" You'll get a chuckle on the other end of the line, but you'll have scored points for making an honest effort to be accessible.

14. Never be egotistical. Even if you're the person being interviewed, it's not all about you. If your ego gets in the way of your story, journalists won't want to deal with you, and if the story actually does make it to press, rest assured that they would use sarcasm to describe you and your big idea. Definitely not what you're after.

15. Don't play hard-to-get with your answers. Journalists are looking for straight facts, and great PR people are only too happy to supply the answers. The idea isn't to be a spinmeister, weaving a web of confusion, but to be there to answer questions and get a story in print. All of the facts discussed may not be beneficial to you, but they're probably quite necessary for the whole of the story.

16. Don't make a sport out of getting the upper hand on the media. Some people feel strongly that "us versus them" is the way to play the game. Don't be that way. Everyone has a job to do. If you feel you need to have the upper hand with someone, you're doing it wrong. You're there to help the reporter fill the giant, gaping hole in his story by supplying all that great information about your company. The idea is not to be a giant thorn in his side, so don't play games at all. And if you feel a game coming on, go home and take an aspirin.

17. Expunge buzzwords and jargon from your vocabulary. Don't even think about using them. Using industry-speak or buzzwords is surely the quickest way to make the media (and everyone else) glaze over with boredom. The venerable New York Times is written for the comprehension level of an eleven-year-old. Make sure that what you say is easy to understand and doesn't require a five-minute explanation. Your sole job is to make things simple, so don't let language be your downfall. Take to heart the sweet words of Oscar Wilde: "Simply edit, my dear."

Sometimes it helps to try out words on friends. We say ask your local teenagers whether they have a clue about what you mean—they're a little older than the New York Times reading level, but they'll do. And, of course, you can always ask yourself in the mirror, like we do: What am I really trying to say? How can I say it more quickly and clearly?

18. Simply do not let the media walk all over you. You are not a doormat. Journalists are like anyone else, and if you let them walk all over you, they will. Set some guidelines and let them know you aren't a pushover. You're there to contribute your share of a mutually beneficial relationship. If it doesn't seem to be a two-way street, get off at the next exit. As Cindy Crawford once muttered about men, journalists are like trains; you can always find another one coming 'round the bend.

19. Don't let the media put words in your mouth. Ensure that journalists and producers infer what you imply. Sometimes our words can be understood differently from how we intend them, so be certain you're explaining yourself clearly and be positive that the journalist understands your meaning.

If, in fact, you did explain yourself clearly, and the interview that's published or broadcast is inaccurate or misleading, call the producer or reporter and try to make the point again. The media can correct or retract statements that hurt you and your company. If you are dead set on a correction or retraction, make your case boldly, and show them that you mean business.

20. Don't think like everyone else, because you'll always be viewed as "regular." The way to get real coverage is to be grand, bigger than the rest and willing to say the unexpected. Take the same collection of facts that everyone else sees and assemble them with pizzazz! Looking at the world through PR-colored glasses takes practice, but seeing the other side of the world, and disclosing what you've found, builds the big buzz. In general, it pays to be cultured, knowledgeable, somewhat well rounded, and not normal. You want to be memorable when you're making calls and sending e-mails to those who receive thousands of them daily.

21. Don't shoot down your media opportunities by thinking your big idea isn't doable. Just about anything in the world is doable. To cite one small example, Barbra Streisand played a 13-year-old when she was 41! Just as long as the authorities aren't involved and you aren't slogging around in the depths of moral turpitude, you're set. A smart PR guy once told us that the best way to approach PR was to try to figure out how to get your logo on the next orbit-bound space shuttle and work it from there. If you set your sights high, your fortunes will follow, and so will the camera crews!

22. Don't miss an opportunity to participate in the larger story. Always read and watch the news if you're trying to be a part of it. There's always a bigger trend to keep an eye on, and maybe your small business or big idea is relevant to the conversation. That's your "in"! Jump on it, make the calls, and become part of the news. Just remember: Staying informed is the key to being a part of the big picture.

23. Don't let ornery journalists discourage you. We have a saying in our business: "The smaller they are, the smaller they are." (You probably can figure that one out on your own.)

Look, you're going to get plenty of nos. That doesn't mean a thing. Patrick Dennis, writer of the megahit novel Auntie Mame, sent it to about a hundred publishers—when there were that many (sigh) —before someone decided to pay him a pittance to make that book appear. The rest is history.

No matter how good your pitch or story is, you'll get more nos than yeses. That's just the way it goes. Know that for each no you get, though, there's a yes right around the corner. It only takes one story to get the ball rolling. Most PR professionals hate pitching, because most people are just plum worn down by rejection. Rejection will always be a part of the sales routine. You can't take it personally. It was the story they said no to, not you, but if you go in there intent on closing and you really want it, you'll get a lot fewer nos than everybody else.

The point of this comment—not to be New Agey here—is that you are going to be the one to make "the story" a reality. Waiting for your mobile to ring is a clear indication that you will be a victim. Every one of us has had bad days in the PR world. So what? My grandmother used to tell me: "Float five things up in the air and some will fall and others will stay aloft." It's a bizarre, somewhat old-world philosophy, but it works!

24. Don't think a news outlet is too small for your great idea. Gloria Swanson said it best in Sunset Boulevard: "It's the pictures that got small!" Day in and day out, our clients say they don't want to waste their time speaking with Wireless Review, Call Center magazine, or because they're too small or no one reads them. Press begets press, darn it, and if you turn coverage down, you've set yourself up to fail. The big secret is that most journalists read the small news outlets like to find great stories before they hit the mainstream. Do you think they dream up all those stories on their very own?

25. Never go to an interview without an agenda. And don't try to fake it, because when you mess up you'll smack yourself squarely in the forehead. Before you talk to the media, you should know what you want to say and what the story is. Going in without an agenda will lead to a conversation with no direction and no story because there isn't one thought for the journalist to zero in on. Be focused and get that message out at any given (or earned!) opportunity.

26. If you are on national TV, and you feel like making an off-color joke, don't. Even if you think that somehow it will ingratiate you with the host or hostess, don't. Particularly if it's about another guest, no matter how light-hearted it is, just don't. You'll never get asked back. Other producers who are watching will scratch you off their lists, too.

27. You've been so perfectly behaved throughout this chapter that we decided to add one more commandment, the one that truly counts: Don't say no to these ixnays. They are time-tested and worth paying attention to. Use and obey!

Richard Laermer is the founder and CEO of RLM Public Relations, with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and which currently represents Barnes & Noble, Allergan Inc., Reed Business Information, SparkNotes, LookSmart, Message One, and Fujifilm, among other technology, health care and publishing firms. He has written for The New York Times, the New York Daily News, USA Today, Us Weekly, and other publications, and he's the "PR guru" on the public radio program Marketplace. Excerpted from Full Frontal PR by Richard Laermer with Michael Prichinello and copyright © 2003 by Richard Laermer. Reprinted by permission of Bloomberg Press. (You can buy Full Frontal PR at Laermer will be teaching his popular course on PR in Los Angeles on May 7.

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