Thursday, August 22, 2013

What you can learn about media relations from The Haggler

My delight on a Sunday morning is to tuck into The Haggler column in the business section of the New York Times, and not just for the crazy tug-of-war between companies and the customers they purport to serve. The Haggler, aka David Segal, is one of those reporters who like to divulge the ways of PR people, spokespeople and other media relations practitioners, both when they do it right and when they fall down.

Many who practice media relations bemoan the difficulty of getting to know the reporters who cover their topics; reporters recommend it, but rarely have time to participate in anything that looks like a learning session. Enter the Haggler, who is sending you not-so-coded public hints, tips and all-out pleas, enough to guide any novice or seasoned pro. I've been collecting my favorite columns with media relations advice, and they constitute a great mini-manual, complete with examples:
  • Put the primary source in front of the reporter: In The Auto Loan That Went Haywire, you get a twofer: A bad example and a good example. The bad one involves an inquiry to McDonald's in which the PR rep simply stopped answering follow-up questions once a non-answer answer had been provided. The good example: The column's central question about a messed-up loan from Mercedes-Benz Financial Services, in which the query got a call back from a customer service vice president, not a PR rep. Read her response: It's nice, direct, complete, prompt, and answers the question. Imagine.
  • Think through your tone before you respond: In Skip the Romance, She's Going to Court, the president of a dating service under siege from customer complaints "started off with plenty of mea culpa, but then segued quickly into customer culpa, if you will. And there’s just no upside to customer culpa." It's a case of reacting to the question without considering what the tone sounds like. Sounds to me as if this rep never learned how to respond, rather than react, to media questions.
  • Don't let your lawyers do your media relations: In When Customer Service Isn't Even Half-Baked, a truly messed-up consumer situation with Whirlpool got even worse when the company's response to the Haggler inquiry involved sending the customer a refund offer with a confidentiality clause baked into it. And it gets worse. We can only agree with the Haggler here, who said, "It’s tempting to call this ham-handed, but that seems unfair to ham."
  • Stonewalling could lead to crowdsourcing: In Summoning the Power of the Crowd, the Haggler hits a stone wall in getting a response from Radio Shack, so he uses his column to ask the CEO publicly to respond, and to give readers the spokesperson's email address so they can join him in demanding the response. This of course helped the response resume, albeit with mind-numbing excuses reprinted in full for the readers. It used to be that reporters with sources they respected didn't display all the workings of your interactions with them, let alone your email address. Then again, there was little here on the part of the spokesperson to gain that respect. It's a good reminder that you're always on the record, darlings.
  • Make a name for yourself: In Samsung and a Reader's Printer Problem, the technology issue was smoother than the PR issue. In response to the Haggler, Samsung's PR firm, Weber Shandwick, offered up a rep with a name who told him to attribute a written statement to "a spokesperson," and declined to name the spokesperson. This ignited a big debate in journalism circles, captured on Steve Buttry's blog, which quotes numerous reporters on how they'd handle such shenanigans, with the consensus being this: If you're going to offer a statement, attach a name to it. Personally, I'd never heard of this tactic myself, which is why I read the Haggler to keep up on the latest bad PR trends.
I've got two smart workshops for communicators this fall, and you get good discounts if you register this month for Be an Expert on Working with Experts on October 8, or The Keys to Confident Public Speaking on October 17. Join us and register today!

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