Effectively fielding questions from the press can really help your organization boost its public image, while failing to cooperate can sometimes be disastrous. Before the journalists come calling, develop a strategy for how you will handle media inquires. Are you equipped to reply promptly in order to meet publishing deadlines? Should you appoint one spokesperson or hire a PR company? This article outlines tips for setting up a media strategy.
If your organization has a publicity department, a single spokesperson from that team is the best person to handle these queries. Alternatively, you can maintain a roster of specialists and refer inquiries to the most appropriate one. Make sure that telephone operators and others who refer calls are aware of the correct press contacts; avoid frustrating journalists by passing them from one person to another. Alternatively, all press inquiries can be handled by an outside public relations firm. When the firm is not able to deal with an inquiry directly, they refer the question to an appropriate specialist.
The Internet has made it easier for journalists to obtain information. It also puts the onus on companies to become more transparent in their dealings with the media, and to ensure that their online presence is current and easily navigable. Internet Webcasts have emerged as a means of briefing a group of journalists at one time.
Interviews of this type can reap rewards for both your organization and the journalists involved. Although it is important to encourage openness, it can be equally valuable to maintain a degree of exclusivity so that journalists highly value an interview opportunity. Find the right balance for your company's situation.
To obtain fair coverage in the press, it's important to handle press inquiries promptly, honestly, and efficiently. If no one is available or prepared to supply information in a timely fashion, a journalist may simply publish anyway, citing that no response was received to requests for comment. In certain circumstances, this can reflect unfavorably on an organization. In many cases, companies must deal immediately with inquiries—such as when a news story breaks involving the organization or industry, or some topical issue is affecting the company's area of expertise. In these situations, journalists will often seek clarification or comment from the company. Press inquiries also occur when journalists wish to use a press release or feature article sent to them, and require further information on a company or its products.
Always respond promptly to press inquiries, because journalists must meet publishing deadlines. Journalists should be able to reach a named contact; make a substitute available when necessary. Appoint one spokesperson to handle all inquiries when possible, to guarantee that the organization speaks with a consistent voice. Include the name of the spokesperson in all press releases, feature articles, and press packs, and make sure that the switchboard is aware of the press contact or any substitute at all times.
It is important to keep the spokesperson fully briefed on current activity. If a spokesperson cannot provide all the necessary information, a commitment to get back to the journalist within an agreed time should be made. Journalists also should be given reasonable access to specialists or senior executives when necessary.
A press conference is a press event organized and held by a company or organization which seeks press coverage of a particular news item. A press conference provides an opportunity for an organization to meet journalists and editors in person, and to deliver a detailed briefing—often on a new product or corporate development. These events should be reserved for important developments and must provide real benefit to the press for attending. Otherwise, the press conference will be seen as a waste of time, and journalists will be reluctant to attend subsequent, more important press events. Significant developments which might call for a press conference include the launch of a major new product, a significant corporate event, or a news story such as a takeover involving your organization.
An effective press conference provides mutual benefit to the organization and the press. When journalists have the opportunity to meet contacts or get detailed information that would otherwise be hard to obtain, they will see a conference as worthwhile. From a company's point of view, a successful press conference provides the organization direct, in-person access to journalists and editors who normally may only be accessible by telephone or email. It also increases the likelihood of receiving effective coverage in the right media. If you are faced with arranging a press conference at short notice, consider holding a Webcast on the Internet, inviting selected journalists to join the event.
A press pack—also called a press kit—is a collection of information provided to journalists to encourage and facilitate a story about a particular news item. It can be issued to press, television, or radio journalists, in conjunction with press releases, press conferences, interview campaigns, or feature articles; or it can be distributed on its own. An effective press pack builds understanding of an organization by providing essential background information that is current. The contents of a press pack can cover a variety of topics, including:
- the company, its products, and its services;
- important recent developments;
- key members of the management team;
- strategic directions and goals;
- financial and market information.
The information in a press pack may form the basis of a news item or feature article, or it might be used to source background information. Supply a comprehensive press pack for journalists and editors whenever you hold a press conference, launch event, interview, or press visit. Be sure to include specific information that is relevant to the event. Routinely send a press pack to any new press contact that is important to your industry or market. The general background information that would be included in a conventional press pack can also be made available on the press or media pages of your Web site.
Planning and preparation are important to ensure the success of a press conference. These guidelines will help you prepare for a productive event:
- Invite journalists and editors from publications that reach your most important customers and prospects.
- Supply time and location details; consider publication cycles in the timing of your conference.
- Try to confirm who will be attending.
- Give the press plenty of notice.
- Plan the conference so that editorial coverage will appear in the next issues of the most important publications.
- Explain the reasons for the conference in advance, and make sure journalists understand the importance of the event.
- Provide press packs that include background information, specific information on the subject, photographs or graphics, and other relevant material.
- If required, secure the availability of senior executives or other specialists for interviews, or to answer detailed questions.
- If necessary, provide facilities for journalists such as telephones, Internet connections, and working areas, so that they can produce and transmit material quickly to meet deadlines.
- Provide appropriate refreshments.
- If important press contacts cannot attend, send them a press pack and consider arranging a separate meeting.
A press interview with a senior executive or specialist provides an opportunity for the organization to provide details, in person, on a significant corporate development, to a targeted journalist or editor. The press appreciates this more selective process, especially when given the opportunity for an "exclusive" story. Ideally, this situation provides mutual benefit for the organization and the press—the company gets its message across to the right people in a precise way, while journalists have open access to key figures, providing scope for a better story.
Interviews can be arranged either at the request of the press, or as part of a company's planned public relations program. Consider facilitating a press interview in situations such as;
- the launch of a major new product, service, or corporate direction;
- a significant corporate event, such as the opening of a new factory;
- a news story—such as an acquisition or merger involving your organization—which will have a significant effect on the market;
- the announcement of financial results, especially if they differ from expectations;
- the appointment of a new senior executive, which might affect the prospects or future direction of your organization.
When arranging selected interviews as part of a public relations program, identify those journalists, editors, and publications that reach your most important customers and prospects. In some cases, it might be beneficial to grant an exclusive interview by limiting your efforts to only one publication, or perhaps to one publication in each sector. Make sure that the company representative to be interviewed is fully briefed on the subject of the interview, and always provide press packs to the journalists. These press packs should include background information, specific information on the subject, biographical details, any pertinent graphics or photographs, and any other relevant material. As with a press conference, if journalists must produce and transmit material quickly to meet deadlines, provide facilities such as telephones, Internet connections, and working areas.
Press packs are only useful if they are current, informative, and easy to use. They should look professional and be well-organized. In an effective press pack, information appears typed and double-spaced. The names and telephone numbers of key personnel are provided, as well as a contact name for further information. A selection of product or personnel photographs or graphics should also be included.
Distributing press packs properly is also important. They can be given directly to journalists and editors at events or press visits, or sent separately by mail or e-mail. Whenever possible, press packs should be directed to a named individual. It is important to distribute them all at the same time. Maintain a list of contacts to whom you have distributed press packs, and make sure to send updated information on that same product (or other topic), whenever it is available.
If a public relations problem occurs, it is never a good strategy to ignore press inquiries and hope that journalists will go away. They rarely do, and the lack of cooperation from your company could lead to negative reports in the press. If you do not provide information to journalists, they have to rely on their own assumptions, and this almost always creates problems. Cooperating with journalists when there is an issue does not guarantee sympathetic treatment, but it will lead to more objective reporting.
Journalists cannot attend every press conference to which they are invited. If the subject of your press conference is not very newsworthy, journalists will consider it a waste of their time. You will risk losing these journalists' attention when it comes to subsequent, more important events. It pays to be ruthless about the value to journalists of a press conference.
If you are issuing background information to journalists, always perform a comprehensive review to ensure that it is current. Journalists base their stories on the information they have. Press packs and other background material must be updated whenever information changes.
Bland, Michael, Alison Theaker, and David Wragg.
Institute for Public Relations: www.instituteforpr.com
International Public Relations Association: www.ipranet.org