Newsletter

The Results Are In: You Don't Need Spin to Get Good Coverage

It’s easy to see how some PR pros fall into the trap of spinning a story when they’re vying for the attention of journalists.

After all, it’s not easy stand out in a competitive media market — a market that increasingly appears to value sensationalism over substance.

Back in my reporting days, it wasn’t uncommon to see releases that exaggerated research findings for the sake of a snappy headline, or ignored key data in order to make a point.

Unfortunately, this practice has only gotten worse.

But what if I told you that you don’t need to spin or hype to get your story told in the media? In fact, you have as good of a chance to get coverage if you stick to the facts — and that playing it straight will help advance your organization’s credibility and reputation at a critical time?

That’s the key takeaway from a research report that looks at how press releases about scientific research are covered by journalists.

While the finding that spin doesn’t pay should be encouraging to all of us who value the truth, other aspects of the research are troublesome. 

That’s because the report shows that many journalists merely report what’s spelled out in a news release about research.

In too many cases, journalists fail to dig into the research itself — relying on the headlines and takeaways highlighted in the release.

Brian Resnick, a reporter for Vox, summarizes the findings quite well:

“To be honest, the research on how scientific press releases translate to press coverage doesn’t make my profession look all that good. It suggests that we largely just repeat whatever we’re told from the press releases, for good or for bad,” Resnick writes. 

“It’s concerning. If we can’t evaluate the claims of press releases, how can we evaluate the merits of studies (which aren’t immune to shoddy methods and overhyped findings themselves)?”

That’s where you come in.

As a PR professional, how you choose to present information in news releases is critical to how the story ultimately presented. You’re the first (and sometimes only) gatekeeper between the information that your organization is disseminating and what makes its way into news coverage.

And because this research suggests that spin is no more likely to get covered than straight facts, there should be no incentive to gin up your results in order to get covered.

This doesn’t mean you should make your releases boring or that you should refrain from emphasizing interesting angles.

Quite the contrary. 

Good, effective PR people do their organizations — and the journalists they work with — a favor when they can identify a newsworthy angle and tell a colorful story

In turn, they help the public better understand the world around them.

But we also have a responsibility to do it truthfully.

That’s really important these days, when it’s increasingly difficult to find truth from the mouths of our politicians and media outlets.

That gives you a lot of power — and a lot of responsibility.

Use it wisely.

When a Crisis Hits, Don't Panic. Have a Plan

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In a today's media world, speed is critical.

To effectively spread the word about your work, you need more than a strong message. You also need to be able to deploy this message to the right people at the right time.

If you move too slowly, you will miss opportunities to gain attention and change minds.

And if your organization is at the center of a controversy, the inability to respond quickly can have disastrous consequences.

If you’re slow footed, you’ll lose customers or donors. You’ll also risk damaging your hard-earned reputation.

But you can take advantage of breaking-news opportunities and respond promptly to crises if you plan ahead.

One way to do this is to create a rapid response protocol.

A rapid response protocol will give your organization the process and the tools it needs to take advantage of breaking news opportunities or prepare for an unexpected crisis.

If done well, your protocol will also include some pre-written talking points and key messages that you can grab and use during fast-moving news events.

Here are some of the key questions we ask when we help organizations develop rapid response protocols:


Who are your designated spokespeople?


When news breaks, you need to have the right people prepared to speak on your behalf. Figure out who those people are ahead of time -- rather than when the bullets are flying.


Some organizations choose one person as a key spokesperson. Others have a trusted group that might include the executive leadership, board members, the head of communications or other key leaders.

No matter your approach, make sure you know that you can reach at least one of your spokespeople on short notice and that they are well equipped to speak about your organization and its work.


Which issues do we care about most?


If your organization is looking to take advantage of events in the news, it's important to spend some time discussing the types of issues you care most about. By doing this you'll be able to create filters and alerts that will help you identify opportunities quickly.

It will also help you develop draft pitches ahead of time that you can customize and deploy on the fly.


What are your key messages?


Your rapid response protocol should include a handful of key messages that connect with the issues your organization cares about and that convey your values and mission.


These messages become the raw materials for written statements and social media postings -- and can serve as a guide for your spokespeople if they're speaking to reporters.


And, by working through them ahead of time, you can cut down on the amount of time that's needed to get approvals for news releases and written statements.


Who are your highest priority media targets?


You don't want to waste time deciding which media members and outlets need to be contacted.

Develop a short list of your highest-valued media members and spend time cultivating relationships with these reporters and editors.

These relationships will be incredibly valuable when events are moving quickly.


What is your process for releasing information?


Who has to sign off on written statements, news releases and social media postings? Is there a way to ensure that you can get these approvals quickly during crises or breaking news opportunities?

It's important to talk through this process ahead of time to make sure you're not stuck later.

If you need to wait on a your board chair to approve a statement, for example, you might get stuck if she's away or he has his phone turned off at his daughter's dance recital.

Work through what happens if a key decision maker is unavailable. You might need to give multiple people the authority to approve what's released publicly -- or to flatten your process to ensure that there are no hold ups.


What resources do we need?


Some organizations do not have the resources in house to respond quickly to breaking news.

If this is the case, you might need to have a consultant or agency who can enlist work on your behalf. It's important to identify that resource ahead of time -- rather than scrambling to find someone during a crisis.


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Once you've answered these questions, it's important to put your protocol in writing and ensure that it is in the hands of the right people.


Some organizations identify a rapid response team that can deploy during breaking news events.

Each member of this team should have a copy of the protocol -- as well as a list of email addresses and cell phone numbers for people they need to connect with quickly.


Finally, it's important to make sure your protocol is reviewed regularly to ensure that your key messages are up-to-date, your spokespeople are prepared, and your media list is up-to-date.

How to Select the Right PR Firm

When you’re looking for outside help, the number of choices can be daunting.

When you’re looking for outside help, the number of choices can be daunting.

For many smaller and mid-sized organizations, media relations isn't a stand-alone function.

It's an activity that is either a small part of someone's job or is tag-teamed by multiple people.

Often, that's enough to get the job done.

But there are times when your in-house resources simply aren’t enough and you need to hire some outside help.

Finding a consultant or freelancer, though, can be a daunting task.

But by answering some key questions up front -- and being selective -- you stand a good chance of getting the help you need (and at a price you can afford).

Knowing When to Hire

So when should you consider outsourcing your media relations work?

Here are a few situations when it might make sense:

  • You are embarking on a new strategy or launching a new product. An outside firm can use its experience in media relations to help you identify key messages and execute a campaign that will help explain your new initiative to your target audiences.

  • You’ve been thrown into the center of a controversy and you don’t have enough in-house support to develop a communications strategy for handling the crisis—and for handling the media inquiries that accompany it. Without the right help, you run the risk of damaging your nonprofit's reputation and its ability to raise money.

  • You are looking to help an expert develop her voice as a thought leader, but she doesn't have much experience writing opinion pieces, delivering speeches, or appearing before the camera. An outside firm can work with you to identify opportunities, develop ghostwritten pieces, or provide media and speech training services.

  • You are looking to generate media attention outside of your local market and decide that you need the support of an outside firm that already has the contacts and credibility to help your organization get noticed by out-of-town or national media members.


In each of the cases above — and in many others — an outside agency or specialist can help you achieve results that would be difficult to achieve with your existing resources.

Questions to Answer

How can you make sure you find a firm or individual who won't waste your time or squander your money?

If you do your homework, you can often find experts who specialize in the type of media work you need (such as crisis communications, media training, or ghostwriting). And some firms specialize in working with organizations like yours.

To find the right expert or firm, it helps to answer a few key questions up front:

  • What are we looking to achieve? It always helps to know your goals before you start shopping for a consultant or firm. Once you've honed in on what you want to achieve, search for companies and people who specialize in meeting your needs. If you’re looking for help with a national campaign, for example, a local firm might not be the best fit. If you’re looking to develop your presence with a specific audience, you might search for companies that have experience with media outlets that hit that audience.

  • What is your timeline? Are you looking for something short term? Or do you need ongoing help? Having an idea of your needs will help you provide potential consultants with the parameters they need to bid on your project.

  • What is your budget? Before you start your search, have a sense of how much money you are willing to invest in the effort. Many consultants can design a scope of work for you that fits your budget. And if they aren't able to provide you with what you need for your budget, they likely aren't the right fit for you in the first place. Often, you can weed out a lot of bad fits by talking budget up front -- and you can avoid getting proposals that are out of scale with what you're able to afford.

Finding the Right Fit

Once you’ve answered these questions, it’s time to go shopping.

But it’s often difficult to know where to start. To narrow your choices, think about the type of partner that best fits your needs.

For most, your choice will fall into one of three categories:

Big firms

Name-brand marketing and PR firms often have a wide range of capabilities. For instance, they can not only design your strategy, but they can also train staff, write press releases, and conduct media outreach on your behalf.

If your needs are extensive, such a firm might be your best bet. But there are often drawbacks. Some larger firms put their less experienced staff members on projects for nonprofits or take a more cookie-cutter approach to their work. If you’re looking at a bigger, full-service firm, take the time to find out who will actually be working with your organization and whether they have experience working with nonprofits and connecting with reporters who cover your areas of interest.

Specialty firms

If you already have some internal resources for its media relations or has a specific need or project, a speciality, or boutique, firm might be your best bet. A specialty firm might not have the range of capabilities of a full-service company, but if your needs are more specific or short term, it can often give you exactly what you need. You're also more likely to be working closely with a high-level expert than a junior staffer.

Freelancers

If your budget is smaller, or if you simply need an extra set of hands to carry out your strategy, you can hire a freelancer. Freelancers often need more direction and specific assignments. But they are also often able to provide you with what you need, quickly. And they can often do it for a lower cost than a firm.


Still need help? I'm happy to help you identify your needs and give you advice on finding the right consultant.

Drop me a line for guidance.

A PR Professional's Guide to Journalism Matchmaking Services

Services like HARO and ProfNet can help you get in front of reporters working on active news stories.

Services like HARO and ProfNet can help you get in front of reporters working on active news stories.

You don't have to rely solely on your own pitches to get quoted or cited in the media.

Sometimes, you can get coverage by connecting with journalists when they are looking to find an expert as they report their own stories.

But how can you make sure you get the reporter's call when she or he needs a source in your subject area?

One way is to sign up for an online service in which reporters and bloggers solicit sources for their stories.

These matchmaking services offer you a chance to get daily queries from writers who are working on assigned stories.

The best-known service is HARO -- or Help a Reporter Out. Three times every day, HARO delivers an email to sources that includes dozens of queries from reporters who are looking for experts. 

The reporters provide descriptions of the stories they are working on -- and the type of expertise they are seeking.

Potential sources can reply to each relevant query and say why they should be considered as an expert for the story.

But while HARO is the biggest and best-known service, it is far from the only game in town.

Other options include:

ProfNet -- ProfNet is built for public relations professionals who want to find opportunities to pitch their organizations to journalists. You can set up an online profile and set preferences for the types of queries you are interested in seeing.

When journalists are looking for sources to help them when covering breaking news stories and events, they’ll browse the database and — if you match what they’re looking for — reach out to you for comment.

SourceBottle -- SourceBottle is an online matchmaking service that connects journalists with sources. It includes a searchable online database of active queries, which makes it easy for time-strapped PR professionals to find queries that line up with their areas of expertise.

PitchRate -- PitchRate provides queries — mainly from bloggers and websites — that are looking for experts to comment or provide written materials for publication.

Each of these services can be quite useful for showcasing your expertise, connecting with reporters, and building relationships.

But they can also cost you a lot of time if you don’t use them smartly.

In my next post, I’ll provide some advice on how to stand out from the crowd when you’re using HARO, ProfNet, or another PR matchmaking service.