Crucial Media Contact in Good Times and Bad:
How to Get Your Message Across by Evelyn Cunico, a Chicago area writer and IWPA member
Tough times command communication. Keep talking to the media, no matter what!
That was the overriding message in John Cullen's presentation entitled, "How to Get Your Message Across in Tough Times (and in Good Times)," at the IWPA meeting at the Courtyard by Marriott in Chicago on April 20.
Cullen, a public relations consultant with his own practice, is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. His experience includes a partner at Janet Diederichs & Associates and vice president at Ketchum Public Relations.
During 20 years in the military, he also worked on public relations campaigns for the U.S. Army. We all know the challenge, "Join the Army. Be All That You Can Be."
So, it is not surprising that Cullen shoots PR from the hip. Cullen snatches up a daily newspaper, as if it were a well-read 50 cent Bible, and in his self-described evangelistic style, challenges attendees with rapid-fire bullets of questions.
"Who is in the biggest trouble in the news?" asks Cullen. One member of the audience answers, "Enron!" Another answers, "the Catholic Church."
Cullen responds with another question, "What's the first thing they did? Pulled the covers over their heads. Good? Not good." Cullen proves his point. "Don't hide just because things are bad."
Cullen advocates a symbiotic relationship with the media. Mutualism is key. The "media world" offers a great opportunity to a public relations spokesperson.
"A reporter's job is to get to the truth from all sides," says Cullen. "Your job as a spokesperson is to educate reporters to your side. Reporters will turn to a readily available news source. It is in your best interest to help the media."
What can good public relations do? "Build and maintain reputations. Ease change. Inform and educate. Prevent disorder. Sell products and ideas. Retain and attract employees. Slow rumors . Promote truth."
Some companies claim they cannot afford public relations, Cullen says. But public relations is there, whether the company wants it or not, Cullen emphasizes. So, the company better take control and shape that public relations into its best image.
The best way to shape image is to keep talking. Get the word out. Public relations is a game that the most organized win. If you're out there and no one else is playing, who wins? You win.
Get the word out means either report the news or make news, according to Cullen. To report the news, inventory your facts. Create story angles. Develop key messages. Train a spokesperson. Write your materials. Pitch the media.
To make news, own an issue. For example, take an issue that is mildly controversial. Survey experts in your company on the issue. Then report on it. Share expert opinions. Share a survey. Gather and report customer opinion. Comment on breaking front-page news.
What you should not do when activity is down, says Cullen, is pull the covers over your head. Don't cut the promotional budget just because you believe that you cannot afford to tell people about your product any more. Remember that promotion comes first, before sales.
What is the most important guiding principle of interviews with the media? Know what you are going to say and deliver that message, says Cullen.
Start with your Single Overriding Communications Objective (SOCO). SOCO is a big picture thought. It should be put into your own words.
Present the key message. Then present three proofs for the message. Why three? Because, Cullen says, three are all you can remember in a media interview. Then, state the significance of the proofs. Deliver your message in 13 to 15 seconds. "That is a perfect sound bite," says Cullen.
To illustrate the SOCO approach, Cullen turns to current events
"Crisis communications," which Cullen describes as a "problem that has gotten out of control, but can be contained," is an important area of public relations.
Examples of crisis communications are: executive wrongdoing, sexual harassment, environmental contamination, extortion, and attacks by activists.
There are three things that people want in a crisis, says Cullen.
It is crucial to cooperate with the media in a crisis., Cullen emphasizes. It is always better to say something, as long as you know what you are going to say. Never say, No Comment, "unless they are walking out with boxes of information," Cullen advises.
Make two lists. One list is what you know to be true. This will be a short list. Talk only from this list. A second list is what you have been told, but which may or may not be true. This will be a long list. Never talk from this list.
Finally, Cullen says, remember that being prepared is your best strategy. With practice, interviews with the media become easier. Balanced media coverage can build mutual understanding and acceptance. Above all, keep talking.
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