Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How to stop being a press release vending machine

gumball machine
Are you wishing you could change the way your communications team is viewed by your clients and by reporters? That depends on whether you have a reputation as a press release vending machine, because, as the man said, "Change is inevitable--except from a vending machine."

If you're on the press release diet, you've taken a big first step to avoid vending machine status, by using a blog, rather than releases, to announce your news. You may be facing pressure from your internal clients or your own team to keep the status quo, despite your good intentions. But you can change the culture in your company or organization so that you feel less like a vending machine of press releases, more like a trusted advisor to your internal clients, and less like a pest with reporters. Here's how:
  • Start with what's in it for your clients: If you're on the press release diet, you may be able to tell your internal clients that they'll have more control over the message, a longer format, faster announcements, more multimedia options, or fewer approval hoops to jump through....and they still may be able to get media coverage, to boot. Those are all examples from one municipal PR department's experience after a year on the press release diet; its clients are happier now. Figure out what motivates your  clients and start pitching this idea from that vantage point. 
  • Don't forget what it does for your relationship with reporters:  Reporters are the ultimate customer for your releases, but unlike your clients, they get them from all sides. The mentor who talked me into leaving journalism and into media relations many years ago said there was just one rule for being effective: "Do for the reporter what you wished someone had done for you when you were a reporter." It didn't involve burying anyone in press releases. At the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, where a blog called Beaker has replaced releases, scientific communications manager Heather Buschman writes that "many journalists are growing weary of the dry, formulaic press release. I can’t say I blame them. We believe that blog posts are becoming the new press release....we find that reporters are increasingly turning to places like Beaker as an information source."
  • Get your team's act together. I first came up with the "instead of a press release" list of viable communications options when my team started grumbling about vending-machine syndrome. We had our own staff brainstorm about what else could usefully be offered, instead of a press release. Then everyone in communications got the list, both to use as a guide for conversations with clients and to share with clients so they'd know what to ask for. All that helped stop the automated onslaught of releases. Make sure you and your team are delivering consistent messages about releases or anything else you no longer recommend. If you don't make press releases the first offer, they may not be the first thing requested next time.
  • Alert management. As communications director, one of your roles is to alert senior management when you're shifting gears. Let them ask questions and share your strategy--then ask them to reinforce it when their teams complain. Here's a good comparison: Are you holding news conferences any more? If not, use the change to explain this shift in approach. How can you expect your clients to know what to ask for if you're not keeping them current with your tactics?
  • Breed some healthy competition. When you're able to convince someone to let you take a more effective approach, reward that good behavior. This is one time when a good internal blog or email about "what we've done for you lately here in communications" can work wonders. (My favorite was called "Got You Covered," a useful double entendre.) Such a summary can create internal buzz, share what's working and give your clients some internal visibility; for many, that's what they wanted in the first place, instead of a news release. It's also a sure-fire way to get more clients interested: Show them what you've done to raise the visibility of the folks in another department.
Have trouble putting these ideas over? Need an in-house training session on alternative ways to boost your media relations without annoying all the reporters? Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

(This post updates and expands on one I published early in 2011.)

I've got two unique professional development options coming up for you: A November 27 day-long workshop on public speaking and presenting for introverts, with both content and format designed to focus directly on what introverts need and their special advantages as speakers. And a December 7 lunch-and-learn for communicators who want to make the case for a training program for your experts. Part brainstorm, part briefing, this will help you develop the data, examples and encouragement you need to convince those who need convincing. You'll get discounted registration if you sign up early, as usual. Please join me for these sessions.

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