|By: Weldon Boone||Originally Published in the August 1989
issue of The Outfitter Magazine.
Today more than ever, Associations come in contact with the media. The kind of relationship we build with reporters can mean a lot in terms of the image we portray. The following article appeared in the Association of American Executive publication, Association Management, date and author unknown. Its approach is aimed at the print media, however, the principles apply to members of the electronic media as well.
A few weeks ago a letter from a trade association arrived at the office of a nationally-circulated magazine, addressed to the publication’s editor - a man we’ll call Henry Jones. The letter, suggesting an idea for an article, was delivered promptly to the editorial offices - but once there it got scant attention. The reason: Editor Jones had been dead for more than a year. His successor, Bill Smith, decided that anyone with a mailing list so far out of date couldn’t be relied on to provide timely information.
Moreover, a matter of personal pride was involved. Bill Smith felt the annoyance any individual would experience at receiving a letter addressed to the person he replaced in a job more than a year earlier.
This far-from isolated example is typical of the mistakes trade and professional associations sometimes make in dealing with news media when they fail to follow time-tested publicity principles.
How to avoid the pitfalls
Most major associations know these principles well. They go out of their way to avoid making slips in their relations with the press. But there are occasional lapses or inadvertent errors. This is particularly the case among associations whose budgets do not allow for a full-time or part-time staff member with press experience and with responsibility for dealing with news media.
What are these pitfalls? How can they be avoided? ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT put those questions to a number of editors whose day-to-day jobs involve working with public relations practitioners and handling press releases from companies, associations, and organizations of all kinds.
Being aware of what to do and what not to do can help you make sure your association keeps its best foot forward in dealing with media men and women.
At one time or another, every association has a story or a news development that warrants attention in the trade press or in general-circulation newspapers and news-magazines. The surest way to get that attention, editors agree, is to let the story stand on its own merits. Don’t try to oversell it. By and large, press people are alert, intelligent, and honest. It is their job to know what their readers want and to get that information into print.
Get the facts out at once
By the same token, every company, institution, or organization occasionally will be plagued with unfavourable developments or events that may tend to tarnish its public image. The best way to proceed in such a case is to get the facts at once. Often an unpleasant occurrence, disclosed as soon as it happens, will get little notice in the press. But if the information is bottled up, it may be uncorked later by an aggressive reporter and get blown up into headlines.
Association executives responsible for working frequently or occasionally with the press can benefit from this comment from John Hohenberg of Columbia University’s School of Journalism: "The responsible communicator", says Professor Hohenberg, “is as scornful as any reporter of propaganda masquerading as news and refuses to deal in such shoddy merchandise because it undermines his standing with the press. He works hard to…let out bona fide news as quickly as possible. If it is good news, it will benefit all concerned. If it is bad news, it is best told quickly, directly, and honestly by the originating agency.”
Get acquainted with news people
Don’t wait for either an emergency or a newsworthy happening in your association to occur before you make the acquaintance of some key people on your local publications or on the specialized magazines and newsletters serving your industry or profession. You will benefit from knowing these editorial people. When they need information in your particular field, they will know whom they can turn to.
A Chicago trade-magazine editor comments: “One of my friends in a public relations agency representing several trade and professional groups calls me every two or three months to say “Let’s have lunch. I haven’t any story to suggest to you. But I’d like to find out what projects you have in the works and whether I can be helpful in any of them. Perhaps my clients will have something to contribute.” This man can be sure I will turn to him - with subsequent benefit for some of his dozen or so clients - whenever the occasion arises.”
News writers and editors are as sensitive about their jobs and job titles as anyone else. Thus, it’s unsettling for a journalist to get a letter or press release addressed to him as John Jinkins when his name is Jenckens. Titles change rapidly in the news business too. The man who is listed as “staff writer, business” one week may be promoted to “assistant business editor” the next.
An alert communicator will check his mailing list at least every three months to be sure names are spelled correctly and that titles are up to date. It’s no amiss, either, for the person in an association communications post to drop a brief congratulatory note to the newsman who has moved up one or two rungs on the editorial ladder.
Put your best foot forward
A Washington magazine editor complains: “An insurance organization sent me an interesting press release about some innovations in health insurance. I asked for more detailed information and background so I could build up this development into a full-scale article. A big batch of additional material arrived promptly. But the duplicating job was so poor that much of it was illegible. I threw it away and forgot the story.” Quite obviously, this material went out from the insurance association’s headquarters without scrutiny by the public relations manager, who would have demanded a better duplication job.
When sending out press releases accompanied by one or more photos, specify glossy prints no smaller than 5X7 inches, and preferably 8X10. Make sure the pictures are sharp and of top quality. Consider this comment from a newspaper man in a southern city:
“My art department asked for a photo of an executive to accompany an article. A query to the company’s press office brought a tiny head-and-shoulders photo obviously a dozen years old. Someone should have told this inexperienced public relations man that publications need fresh, glossy prints, preferably in the 8x10 size.”
Make sure that identification is stamped or written on the back of the photo itself, not on a loose sheet clipped to the photo, or even a slip pasted to the bottom of the picture. Frequently these identifying papers get lost or torn, and the photo becomes useless.
If you send out a letter saying that a press release or photo is enclosed, have your mail room double check to make sure that such is the case. More than once, editors have complained that there was no enclosure accompanying a letter mentioning an “attached” or “enclosed” release.
Put your association’s identification - proper name, street address, and phone number - on every communication you send to a publication. This can prevent frustration if a letter gets separated from a release. Your phone number provides a ready source of further information if an editor needs it.
Try to address your releases to the editorial staff member who handles news in your specific field. If you don’t know who that person is, call the publication in advance and find out - and add his name to your list of press contacts. Simply sending your releases to “Editor” means they will be passed along to the reporter most closely involved with the subject in question. The reporter is far more likely to give favourable attention to a note addressed to him personally than to a hand-me-down letter that went first to someone else.
Many writers and editors will appreciate a follow-up letter containing documentation of material given over the phone. This can be particularly important where names and figures are involved. Such a letter will show your concern for accuracy and can also protect you in case there are typographical errors when material appears in print.
All of these suggestions are based on common-sense practices that editors have found useful over the years. With advance knowledge of them, you can make sure your association gets its story across to best advantage.