Apr 20, 2012

Dear Gracie: When Clients Want to Distribute Non-News

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Dear Gracie,

Some of my clients repeatedly ask me to pitch announcements that I don’t think qualify as “news.” I know if I do pitch the information, journalists will be annoyed and I could damage my media relationships. How do I explain this to my clients?

Peeved Pitcher

********

Dear Peeved Pitcher,

13 ProfNet experts share their experience:

Why Non-News Is Bad News

“One of your most important roles as a public relations professional is to advise your client,” says John Goodman, president of John Goodman PR. “If a client wants you to pitch a non-news story, you have to tell them ‘no.'”

What complicates this is, too often, PR people try to appease a client and tell them they’ll pitch a story hoping it might work or knowing it won’t work, says Goodman. This damages a PR agent’s reputation with reporters and reflects poorly on the client.

“Determining what is not news is relatively easy; telling the client can be a hitch,” agrees B. Andrew Plant, owner of Plant Communications.

This might partially be due to the fact that it is often easier for PR professionals from outside firms to say “no” to reporters compared to in-house staff, says Susan Tellem, partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations. Outside PR consultants have the luxury of being more objective, since PR staffers might fear losing their jobs if they object to a non-news release.

That’s why it’s extremely important to manage client expectations from the beginning, says Giselle Caamano, senior account executive at Deveney Communication. Regardless of whether or not an announcement is newsworthy, always provide clients with any feedback you receive from media contacts. This helps both parties re-evaluate strategies for next time, and for PR pros specifically, helps manage client expectations.

It’s important to have established trust with your client already, before you need it, says Plant. “That way, you can say to the client ‘Look, this is not a news item and distributing it will not serve you well.'” Use this as a teachable moment to help clients understand what is and is not news, and how releasing non-news might aggravate reporters and hurt future chances, he says.

Journalists are annoyed by non-news releases because it requires them to waste time reading, deciphering and sometimes deleting the inquiries, explains Nancy A. Shenker, founder and CEO of theONswitch.

If we bombard reporters with things that have little merit, they will block our emails in the future, or worse, call us on the carpet, says Tellem. “Then we have the delicate dance of playing both sides against each other,” by telling reporters “the client made me do it.” It is not an acceptable outcome for anyone involved, she says.

“As PR and marketing professionals, we need to be viewed as resources for the media,” says Jason Ouellette, vice president of PAN Communications. “If we’re issuing non-news and expecting people to pick up on it, our news becomes noise within the industry and then we have a bigger hill to climb.”

“The consequences of distributing non-news are alienated and exasperated media reps who may not notice future items from this or other clients,” echoes Plant. “You also may be creating a monster: a client who tells you what is and is not news, and determines what to distribute without your counsel.”

What Qualifies as “News”?

When having the “cold-water talk” with your client, be frank about what is and is not news, says Alison Cohen, senior manager of media relations at Education Development Center (EDC). Tell your clients to ask themselves the following:

  • What makes my issue, project, results or information newsworthy?
  • Is it original or new?
  • Is it especially timely?
  • Is it of interest to a large, diverse audience?
  • Are there two sides to the story?
  • Can I explain it in one or two jargon-free sentences?

Determine if the news story is truly different, and if it sets your client apart from other competitors, agrees Caroline Sherman, vice president of Alpaytac Marketing Communications/Public Relations. See if there is a connection to some timely trend that directly affects the client’s industry, or if there is some kind of benefit for the target audience.

Anything highly self-serving or promotional would be considered non-news, says Sherman. Announcements about product features that have been long been integrated by competitors is considered a “me too” broadcast and therefore non-news too.

For example, information about new products or services, events, strategic partnerships, holiday specials, startup funding or website launches should be weighed critically before being distributed as news, particularly for small businesses, says Bill Corbett, Jr., president of Corbett Public Relations.

“For smaller companies, I’ve found it relatively easy to explain why non-news is not worth a release, since they tend to be more cost conscious,” says Aline Schimmel, principal of Scienta Communications. “Reminding them that a two-page release can cost over $1,000 usually does the trick.”

At some point though, if clients continue to insist, you may have to have a ‘stand your ground’ moment, says Plant.

PR firms have the option of creating policies to ensure that only newsworthy information can be issued, even if a client insists otherwise, says Corbett. With other available avenues for distribution, the information can still be disseminated without ruining any reputations.

If the client insists on distributing the announcement, also consider positioning it as an “FYI” to lessen the risk, suggests Sherman.

“There are plenty of opportunities to promote your client and their news, but in today’s PR world, the challenge is to figure out which medium you want to distribute it through and what the goals of each are,” says Ouellette.

Finding Alternative Forms of Publicity

“As an outside representative, you need to have a good handle on not only what the media tabs as ‘news,’ but also what will be of interest to your client’s prospects, customers and partners,” explains Ouellette.

While agents should never distribute non-news to journalists directly, they could consider sending less-than-newsy information out via a paid wire service, says Henry Stimpson, principal of Stimpson Communications. It assures publication on the Web.

“There are now times when a news release you’d never send to a major news organization is still worthy of posting around the Web, simply to get the attention of anyone searching online for specific words or phrases,” agrees Donn Pearlman, president of Donn Pearlman & Associates and former Chicago journalist. The criteria for quality “news” has changed recently due to search engine optimization.

Also, try getting information into the public eye by using blog posts, video posts, website posts or LinkedIn group posts, says Ouellette.

For example, North Park University’s website offers ways to elevate events or topics to a wider audience when writing a news release is unnecessary, says John Brooks, director of media relations and news at the university. “I’m not looking to make every campus event into a news story,” he says. Instead, the university website has tabs on its homepage like “Coming Up” and “Worth Knowing,” which promote local happenings.

Sharing information via social networks and YouTube can still generate buzz and have an impact, says Corbett.

“I have found that insistent clients really appreciate our linking their ‘news’ to Twitter and Facebook users,” notes Brooks.

Also, consider disseminating information in company newsletters or through member mailing lists, adds Cohen.

“Using our website creatively and using social media for non-news is a much better option than doing nothing at all, especially with insistent clients,” says Brooks.

“Depending on the type of announcement and who it is applicable to, these can be just as, if not more, effective methods,” says Sherman.

Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

PR agents might ultimately need to create and find news for clients, says Shenker. “Many clients focus exclusively on the activity of writing and deploying releases, rather than looking within their businesses for opportunities for innovation.”

Only by launching new products, hiring new talent, winning awards, hosting events and making changes can a company create a stream of truly newsworthy happenings, continues Shenker. “PR without innovation and change is simply a bunch of ‘blah blah blah.'”

“Sometimes non-news becomes news when you wrap it into a larger future story,” says Schimmel. “For example, reporters may not be swayed by a drug company’s formulation or technology achievement, but if a future announcement of clinical data or regulatory successes was to come about as a result of that earlier formation or technology achievement, then it can all be packaged together.”

“You may be able to work with the client to finesse the piece so that it is news, maybe by adding other sources, or pivoting a bit so the information is part of a larger trend or current event,” says Plant.

For example, at North Park University, revised or new academic programs, or campus events, do not qualify as news, “especially when we’re the ones saying how important it is,” explains Brooks.

So for a new or revised academic program, Brooks asks faculty members to connect him to other people, not necessarily from the university, who can testify to the value of or need for the academic program change. And for events, Brooks reaches out to attendees and finds out what they learned from it or what motivated them to attend.

“I’m looking for quality testimony that enhances the story and makes it much more interesting to read than the boring, non-news release I could write!”  he says.

Gracie

Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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