Corporate Media Relations, In Real Life

“Annie Hall” is a favorite old movie.

In a favorite scene, a Columbia professor who teaches “TV, Media and Culture” stands in line in a crowded theater lobby, loudly and pompously trying to impress his date by quoting Marshall McLuhan.

The real McLuhan magically steps into the picture and shuts him up by saying, “You know nothing of my work! How you got to teach a course in anything is amazing!”

The punchline: If only real life were like that.

Something similar happened to me recently. Fade in to more than a year ago. Asked by Ragan Communications to talk about media relations to PR professionals, I cited a decades-old pamphlet, “The Executive’s Guide to Handling a Press Interview,” to say the basic principles of effective media relations hadn’t changed since.

Dick Martin, a legendary long-time AT&T PR executive, had published the following tips in 1977:

• Tell the truth • Remember your audience • Begin with your conclusions • Be brief • Avoid jargon • Keep control of the interviews • Don’t try to answer hypothetical questions • Don’t lose your temper • Don’t repeat negatives • Remember, local news isn’t local

All, to me, were still valid. The last point was prescient, since it was made long before the Internet existed. It referred to local news stories that had broader impact if syndicated by AP or UPI. Now shift scenes to this past March, when I actually met Dick Martin.

He had just keynoted the “PR Women Who Changed History” event in New York, where he eloquently spoke about the life of the late Marilyn Laurie, AT&T’s first and only female chief communications officer. You can view a video of his talk on the Museum of PR’s Facebook page.

I excitedly introduced myself afterward and told Mr. Martin that I had used his 1977 pamphlet as the basis for a presentation about the immutable principles of good media relations. He looked at me like I was crazy.

Urbane and polite, he didn’t exactly say, “You know nothing of my work! How you got to be a spokesperson for Verizon is amazing!” Instead, as he furtively looked for the nearest exit, he simply said, “I don’t know about that. I think a lot of things have changed about media relations since then.”

So I thought long and hard about what to say when the Museum of PR invited me to speak to students attending a PR Summer School event last month. The topic was how to be a corporate spokesperson. Undaunted, I used the same slide of Dick Martin’s media relations tips. Good messaging is good messaging, I said, still believing the points he made in 1977 are just as valid today.

But, I acknowledged, so much else has changed in the meantime. Coincidentally, it’s changed in the same way Marshall McLuhan predicted it would in the 1960s. “The medium is the message” referred to a world connected by technology. This, McLuhan theorized, would change the nature of what’s news, and what our relationship is to all the things that will be communicated to us. He was right. Technology and the global village created by the Internet have changed the nature of news, and the nature of our lives.

Avoiding politics, I pointed out recent evidence of this in the world of major league baseball.

About the nature of news. A story ran on TV evening news — which has precious little time to inform viewers about important world events — about a fan claiming a ball thrown into the stands by a Chicago Cubs player. A camera caught a man grabbing the ball and giving it to a woman seated next to him after it was muffed by a young boy in the row in front of them. Social media went into immediate witch-hunt mode. Literally millions of people viewed the video on Twitter and condemned the man. The Cubs PR team reacted with blinding speed — the speed of good PR these days being measured in mere minutes in this era of 24/7 news cycles. They posted a tweet of a Cubs player handing the boy two autographed baseballs in atonement.

Only later — after initial news reports — was it learned that the man in the video had collected many baseballs from his seat in back of the dugout during the year… and that he’s known for giving the baseballs he collects to children sitting nearby. Earlier that same game he had given that same boy an errant foul ball. More and more, this is now the nature of news: lacking perspective, rushing to judgement, pandering to page views.

About the nature of ourselves. Do you know what niche area of PR will be extinct in 20 years? Media training. Consider 24-year-old Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Josh Hader’s locker-room interview after this year’s All Star Game. As he played in the game earlier that evening, the Twittersphere surfaced racist and misogynistic tweets from his account seven years earlier. Again, the speed with which it became a story was mind-boggling. While the game was underway, baseball PR handlers descended into the stands to advise his parents to turn their Hader-emblazoned jerseys inside-out so they wouldn’t be harassed. Meanwhile, the players themselves consulted cell phones in the dugout as they followed the saga of Hader’s seven-year-old tweets.

Immediately after the game, facing dozens of reporters and cameras in a confined space in the locker room, Hader handled the interviews expertly: he sincerely apologized, took ownership of the situation, looked everyone in the eye and answered tough questions directly. He even volunteered to attend sensitivity training and gave some context (quoting rap lyrics) for his tweets as a 17-year-old.

Media trainers would advise that this is the first rule of damage control: go ugly early. Get all bad news out quickly and begin taking steps to fix things. Hader seemingly knew this instinctively. His demeanor on camera, at the worst moment of his life, may well have been the product of having grown up in an age where people no longer have to be “trained” how to behave on camera.

The best video training technique these days is simply to turn a cell phone camera on yourself and record. You self-correct after seeing the video. With video now part of everyone’s everyday lives, and some people having lived this way since childhood, we have become different people because of it.

In this new environment, I offered students three takeaways that, even in 2018, harken to basic principles of media relations that Dick Martin might still agree with.

1. Respect Journalists.

In a recent Washington Post column about “the sorry state of corporate media relations,” Steven Pearlstein writes that in many companies what is widely referred to as “earned media” now takes a back seat to “owned media.” Companies use websites, Internet search engines and social media to build their brand identities and communicate directly with stakeholders.

True enough. Owned media is a strategic marketing and sales weapon. But earned media — getting a story told by a third-party who has no vested interest other than uncovering the truth — can be a weapon of mass destruction. Earned media deserves PR attention now more than ever. Building trust with reporters and helping them do their jobs can authentically enhance a brand’s value in a way that money still can’t buy. Ignoring the power of earned media can quickly ruin reputations. Look what’s happened recently to Uber, Facebook and Wells Fargo. And to the entire business of Theranos. As the number of true journalists sadly continues to decline, every one who remains deserves an increasingly higher degree of respect.

2. Learn the Numbers.

“Follow the money” isn’t just good advice for investigative journalists; it’s also good advice for corporate communicators.

You can differentiate yourself from many PR peers and enhance your career by taking the time and effort to learn and understand your company’s finances. To become a strategic adviser rather than an order-taker, it’s essential to view your company from an owner’s point of view and to understand the financial issues that drive business decisions. While most everyone values lifelong learning, often “creatives” or “word-people” avoid learning about finance.

Here’s an easy fix: study earnings release disclosures, and read 10Ks and annual reports. At the very least, ask finance colleagues about their jobs. Invite an accountant to lunch.

3. Advocate for something you love. This is by far the most important rule for any spokesperson.

I work for Verizon. Every day, the company connects millions of people, companies and communities with powerful technology. Here’s a video of my colleagues sharing their favorite lines from Verizon’s Credo, the set of principles pictured here that describes the company’s core values.

Throughout my career, I’ve been privileged and honored to have been able to work with some of the best journalists in the world. I’ve been equally privileged and honored to have been able to do so while speaking on behalf of Verizon employees. If, in real life, you’re not proud of the PR work you’re doing, you’re advocating for the wrong company or client. Get out. Now.

You’d be better off going home and watching a favorite old movie.

Originally published at varettoni.blogspot.com on August 10, 2018.

Posting here about writing, books, tech, family, baseball. More about me at bvarcommunications.com