As public relations consultants, we work for the clients. They don't work for us. It's our job to make things happen -- to get the job done, no matter what it takes.
Many years ago, I learned the true meaning of "accountability for results." Dick Phillips, my mentor and boss at the time, taught me that when you have no results, you can't blame the client for never getting back to you on this, never approving that or for any other reason, even if it's a legitimate reason. Accountability for results means you have to find a way. No excuses.
At every level, successful PR people must be resourceful.
During my career, I've worked with some highly resourceful leaders and staff. One in particular thrived on pulling off the seemingly impossible. She was intelligent, quick and clever. She met every challenge with ingenuity and perseverance.
Need an airplane banner to circle the 17th floor of a downtown Phoenix office building at 8 a.m. tomorrow? No problem. How about a marching band in full regalia too? Within a few hours, it was a done deal.
When we were handling a client crisis involving a fatality, she single-handedly obtained a copy of the 911 recording from the Arizona Department of Public Safety before it officially became public record and was released to media. This was a major coup and an extremely valuable asset to the crisis communications team.
I remember a close call when the mayor of Scottsdale was scheduled to make a presentation at the opening of a new bank. There were hundreds of guests, and top executives from the home office had flown in from Ohio for the celebration.
A few minutes into the event, the mayor called to cancel. My associate didn't take "no show" for an answer, worked her magic and convinced the mayor to come. I didn't hear the whole story until after the event, and all the client ever knew was that everything came off perfectly. Bravo to the people who take responsibility and really come through.
Unfortunately, in my recent experience, resourcefulness in new PR talent is waning. Not everyone needs to be a superstar in accomplishing great feats, but my advice to newcomers is to turn it up a notch and think smarter. Here are some beginner basics.
Don't Ask Stupid Questions
There is an old cliché that there are no stupid questions. Not true. Today, we have more information, tools and resources at our fingertips than ever before. Stupid questions waste your recipient's time and brand yourself as ... well, stupid.
Do your own research to find answers and expand your knowledge, especially about your clients, their competitors and their industries. Other than to verify accuracy, never ask your account supervisor (or heaven forbid, the client contact) a question you can find the answer to on the client's website. This also goes for job interviews.
Think Independently and Take Some Initiative
Stereotypically, millennials are perceived as lazy, entitled narcissists addicted to social media. This statement is backed up by research and explored in a recent CNBC article on why millennials get such a bad rap in the workplace.
While I've had the good fortune to supervise (as well as learn from) many amazing, hard-working millennials who are deservedly prospering in their PR careers, I've also encountered the stereotype.
Understand that public relations representation is a service business. It means you provide the service. You do the work. You make the deadline. Think independently and take some initiative. Don't expect anyone, especially your client or supervisor, to serve everything up to you on a silver platter.
Don't Hide Behind Technology
In the CNBC article, Lindsey Pollack, millennial workplace expert, suggests that tech-savvy millennials are apt to take the quickest, easiest route in their communications. I'm all for that, but when email or social media doesn't work, there are times you will need to make a phone call.
When you're not getting a response, go ahead and make the call before your supervisor tells you to do it. Some people are easier to reach than others. Some keep their phone number hidden, so you'll have to be creative and dig deep to find it.
Don't call news media outlets when they're on deadline. If you're savvy enough to reach an editor or reporter on the telephone, get to the point quickly and keep the pitch short. Know your stuff and have facts at the ready.
Onward and upward.
Digital-driven content marketing specialists have long been proponents of repurposing content through multiple channels. Oftentimes, the public relations - basic media relations - component is overlooked.
PR-generated stories, commentary, opinions, tips and how-to's also have the potential to be repurposed and re-pitched for maximum benefit.
According to a 2014 Nielsen research study to understand how consumers use different sources of information, PR is still way more effective than content marketing. "In all the factors measured, expert content or earned articles performed far better at convincing consumers to buy than user reviews or branded content.
"It just goes to show that even though companies might be publicly investing a ton of resources into building their own publishing capabilities, when it comes to purchasing decisions, customers are pretty savvy about going to independent sources."
As an example, our work on behalf of University of the Rockies, a graduate institution specializing in social and behavioral sciences, is to establish faculty as industry expert sources in third-party outlets. While new content is continuously developed, we constantly seek opportunities for our evergreens - the perpetually relevant stories that stand the test of time.
The Psychology of Smiling
University of the Rockies experts provide thought leadership and know-how on topics ranging from tackling the challenges of the multigenerational workforce to tips for taming the inner bridezilla. Among our spokespeople, Dr. David Solly, a quick-witted, media savvy professor, has emerged as the guru on all things pop culture.
Two years ago, we collaborated with him on a fun little story about the psychology of smiling, explaining how smiling stimulates responses in the brain and offering tips for feeling better in any situation. We proactively pitched the story, generated heaps of media coverage and booked him for in-studio interviews. Denver's 9 News (NBC) guest appearance for a segment about overcoming Monday morning blues is among my favorites.
That was just the beginning. Since the initial pitch, we've repurposed that story over and over and over, resulting in more quotes and more coverage over the past couple years. His commentary even became a chapter in "52 Small Changes for the Mind," a hard cover book by Brett Blumenthal.
Just last week, we responded to a national consumer publication on a query about "How Faking A Smile Can Make You Feel Happier." Opportunities just keep coming, even years after the story was written.
In a good way, our client calls this story and others like it "gifts that keep on giving." Happy clients make us smile. Here are some tips and ideas for repurposing PR content with little effort for maximum reward.
Research Editorial Calendars -- It's PR 101. Look for topics where the story might fit, and keep in mind that many magazines have long lead times, working three to six months in advance. As an example, we identified and pitched the smiling story to Family Circle eight months in advance for its "Bye Bye Stress" issue.
Create a Seasonal Angle -- It was an unusually bitter cold winter in much of the country this year. Bad weather brings on dreary moods and was a topical angle for pitching the smiling story, especially in the Midwest and Northeast markets, on tips for beating the blues.
Monitor ProfNet and HARO -- ProfNet, which costs to subscribe, and Help A Reporter Out, which is free, are online communities connecting journalists with sources for their stories. There are hundreds of queries posted several times a day. Sometimes queries are anonymous, sometimes not. Most are on tight deadlines.
Make It the Perfect Pitch -- Customize every ProfNet and HARO response specifically to the reporter's query. If the reporter wants 10 questions answered, answer them. If the reporter needs an interview today, make sure your spokesperson is available. One of the biggest complaints we hear from journalists is that pitches miss the mark.
Build a Story Bank -- We find it extremely worthwhile to maintain a comprehensive story bank of each expert's approved commentary, news releases, by-lined articles, photos and videos at the ready for quick repurposing and responding to media queries on a fast track.
Onward and upward.
I have always been a night owl. As a child, I used to sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to read books.
Professionally, in my first job as a correspondent reporting on small town Cedar Lake, Indiana, I covered town council, planning & zoning and many other evening meetings. My deadline was 4:30 a.m., so it was commonplace to stay up all night writing.
Even now, whenever I have a comprehensive plan to develop, a complicated story to write, or any project where I need to really hone in and concentrate, I do it at night.
Acclaimed author Diana Gabaldon is oftentimes quoted, "...things come and talk to me in silence." I get that. I call it going to my "zone," a quiet, uninterrupted place with no distractions or time limitations, at least until dawn.
Everybody has their own circadian rhythms, influencing their own best times of the day for creativity. In a creative workplace, I don't think it matters if you're an early bird or a night owl. Just do the work when it works best for you.
Your Late Night Emails Are Hurting Your Team
That said, I recently came across a compelling Harvard Business Review article about how "Your Late-Night Emails Are Hurting Your Team." Maura Thomas, an international speaker and trainer on productivity, attention and effectiveness, said, "Being 'always on' hurts results.
"When employees are constantly monitoring their email after work hours -- whether this is due to a fear of missing something from you, or because they are addicted to their devices -- they are missing essential downtime that brains need. Creativity, inspiration and motivation are your competitive advantage, but they are also depletable resources that need to be re-charged.
"Incidentally, this is also true for you, so it is worthwhile to examine your own communication habits." Wow. Before reflecting on her advice, I was constantly sending nocturnal emails to my team, not so much in expectation of a late-night response, but to get it off my list. The article made me realize how selfish I'd been. Here's how I'm handling late-night emails now.
Internal Team Emails -- Unless it's an emergency, wait to send until business hours. If it's a crisis requiring immediate attention, make a phone call or send a text.
Customer/Client Emails -- Day-to-day proactive emails from the agency go out during business hours, regardless of when they are written. (Even before my email revelation, I thought it was braggadocious to initiate late-night emails to clients.)
We do have several clients who frequently send emails to us all hours of the night. That's fine. If I'm on, I'll respond. If not, it can wait until morning. In the case of an emergency, the client needs to call us.
Media and Constituent Emails -- It's always best to send unsolicited emails, especially pitches, when recipients are at their desks. If a reporter emails at night, respond immediately regardless of what time it is.
Earlier this week, a reporter we'd been waiting to hear from to arrange an important interview emailed at 11:15 p.m. I happened to be on and responded immediately, which put us at an advantage in coordinating and confirming the interview with Nashville, two hours ahead of Phoenix, the next morning. Score!
Onward and upward.
While most of our client's spokespeople have been formally trained, we recommend a quick refresher before every media interview. Here are some quick tips for media interview success.
Focus on Silver Bullets
Even on a fast-track, take a few minutes to prepare. Envision the story and determine three key messages to be communicated. Work the messages into answers and repeat those messages throughout the interview.
Always Remember That You Are Being Interviewed
Listen carefully to each question before answering, and think about what you are going to say before you say it. Don't say anything you wouldn't want published or broadcast. There is no such thing as off the record...ever. Remember that you are always on -- be aware of what is said in idle conversation.
Avoid Being Misquoted
There's no way to guarantee accuracy, but put the odds in your favor by keeping answers simple and concise. Don't use industry jargon. Don't make off-handed comments or jokes. Ignore silence, when you've given your answer and communicated silver bullets, stop talking.
If you don't know the answer to the question, say so and offer to get back with the reporter. Ask about the deadline...and make good.
Keep in mind that the reporter doesn't know near as much about your area of expertise as you do. Take the time to explain in simple language. Reporters are often looking for ways to "anchor" their stories with substantive information and sources. Share facts and figures.
If You Make A Mistake
If you make a mistake during the interview or later realize that something you said was incorrect, it's better to follow up immediately rather than take a risk of having it inaccurately reported -- or, even worse, being outed for it.
Dealing With Reporters On A Hidden Agenda
In some cases, the reporter will have a specific idea of what they are trying to get you to say. If the interview seems to be headed in the wrong direction, you may interrupt the reporter to clarify your position. Never tell them they are "wrong." Use statements like "our research indicates..." or "the company's position on that is..."
Don't let reporters put words in your mouth. Sometimes they'll paraphrase your comment with "so you're saying..." If it's inaccurate, say so. It's easy to become angry with hostile reporters, and that's usually what they want. Keep cool.
Your Role As Spokesperson
As a spokesperson, it is your responsibility to best represent your brand. Use positive language. Don't criticize or ever even mention the competition. Regardless of the circumstance, don't get frustrated. It's in your best interest.
Understanding Reporter's Needs
Put yourself in the reporter's shoes and be aware of their deadline pressures. Keep in mind that reporters work fast.
Media Relations Etiquette
Never ask when the story is scheduled to be published or broadcast. Never ask for an advance copy of the story. Never ask for the reporter to send you a copy of the story once it is published.
Here's to outstanding media interviews and fabulous, positive press.
Onward and upward.
Dominos are fascinating. When the fine art of domino toppling is executed properly, the positive energy of one leads to a cascade of tumbling pieces that fall perfectly into place. It's like a brilliant public relations strategy that, when properly implemented, produces the desired results.
As explained in Domino Toppling Basics, "You need a lot of dominos and a lot of patience for successful domino toppling. It requires hard work, dedication and perseverance to get things just right." The same goes for public relations campaigns.
Lately, we've been talking about the domino effect -- the cumulative effect produced when one event sets off a chain of other events -- and how it relates to pretty much everything in our industry. Oftentimes in a good way, sometimes not so much.
The rapid spread of Internet content viewed by a large number of people in a short amount of time (also known as going viral) is a true demonstration of the domino effect in communications.
As a recent example, Top Class Actions, a source of class action lawsuit news for consumers, broke the "Beneful Dog Food Kills Dogs" lawsuit story on its website. On behalf of our client, we proactively shared the news with dog bloggers, which lead to a big story on The Dogington Post as well as the likes of French Bulldog Times, Doberman Talk, Yorkie News Network and many other canine-oriented outlets.
Talk about a story with legs. In 24 hours it was trending on Google, picked up by mainstream news media like The Daily Beast and reported on Newser, an online news curator that links its articles to the original source. Newser also happens to be a content partner with many national media outlets, including USA Today, designating our story as Headline News of the day. That's the domino effect in a very good way.
Consequences of One Mistake
Just one mistake can set off a chain reaction with far-reaching repercussions and consequences. I cringe to share this anecdote, but it recently really happened.
Our client was holding a series of six events throughout metropolitan Phoenix. All of them were of hyper-local media interest, and some were well-positioned for television news coverage. Based upon information provided to the agency, we developed and distributed a media advisory.
The first few events went very well. However, when I showed up for the fourth one, no one was there. What? Turns out I was at the wrong address. It was the address on the media advisory, but thank goodness no onsite press was expected at 7:30 in the morning.
Sure enough, as I was high-tailing it to the correct location, FOX10 News calls, not at all happy about showing up to cover an event that wasn't happening where we said it would. Of course, I apologized profusely, sent him to the right place and went into damage control mode, issuing a corrected media advisory and contacting each media outlet in person.
In investigating the situation, seems an administrative assistant had transposed two addresses on the event locations list. That's what we'd been working from, thus distributing inaccurate information to media. Not good, not to mention extremely embarrassing. Fortunately, assignment editors forgave us and reciprocated with excellent features.
Cause and Effect
Most of the time, our strategic thinking, know-how and hard work pay off in a good way. Like all humans, sometimes we make mistakes.
Regardless, like amazing displays of multiple dominoes painstakingly arranged in intricate, impressive lines and patterns, planning -- including planning for the unexpected -- is essential in successful public relations programs. In toppling dominoes and in our industry, we have the power to set things in motion, and the effect can be awesome.
Onward and upward.
Twenty-five years ago, Robert Fulghum published All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, a credo that became a New York Times best seller. In the past several weeks, I've learned all I really need to know from six minority-intensive, low-income schools that overcame obstacles and successfully beat the odds against them.
For their academic achievement and outstanding performance, these schools received gold awards and were named "Beat the Odds Schools" by Beat the Odds Institute, our client. There was a congratulatory whole-school celebration at each school attended by distinguished guests and covered in the media. (Yes. That was our role, and I'm proud that these schools received the recognition they deserve.)
Beat the Odds is based upon the inspiration and methodology from business guru and best-selling author, Jim Collins, who wrote Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make The Leap...and Others Don't. Research on why some schools succeed, regardless of demography, and other don't unearthed six key factors. These keys to success are as applicable to public relations as they are to schools.
Clear Bottom Line
From the study: Emphasize the achievement of every student in every classroom and take responsibility for that performance. No excuses. Don't even think about playing a blame game. If things aren't working the school needs to change.
My take: Every successful public relations program has a "clear bottom line," a clear cut mission on what to accomplish. We must be accountable for results and keep pushing regardless of roadblocks.
From the study: Most schools track results only through test scores on mandated tests, which typically come at the end of the year, when it's too late to turn around bad outcomes. Track student performance data on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis and make adjustments as needed.
My take: Analytics and assessments are essential in tracking trends, identifying opportunities and measuring results on behalf of our clients. This happens on a daily, hourly or sometimes minute-to-minute basis. Plan for the unexpected. Be prepared to make quick changes.
The Strong And Steady Principal
From the study: Principals help schools succeed not when they are flashy superstars, but when they stay focused on student success. They manage the school improvement process by being neither too rigid nor too flexible -- and do so largely with what they have.
My take: The same is true of public relations principles, whether they are an agency owner, corporate PR leader or an account supervisor. It's easier said than done, but we must focus on outcomes utilizing the resources we have.
From the study: Beat the Odds schools create effective work teams comprised of people with a wide spectrum of talents who tackle projects together. Top management is involved, but responsibility for school improvement is distributed among all teachers and staff.
My take: Leadership is important; however, accountability should be shared among everyone on the public relations team, not concentrated in a few people at the top. Collaboration leads to greater creativity and a sense of ownership among the group.
Stick With The Program
From the study: The magic isn't in a particular program -- there are many good ones. The magic occurs when the school finds a program and sticks with it. The key is the commitment and breadth with which the program is implemented.
My take: "Sticking with it" doesn't mean blindly doing the same thing over and over. It's believing that the goal is achievable and relentlessly pursuing it, overcoming obstacles, with know-how, ingenuity and confidence.
Build To Suit
From the study: Public schools are often thought of as industrial-age factories for education. Beat the Odds schools figure out ways to customize instruction and intervention so it exactly suits each student's needs.
My take: In public relations, seldom does a single activity achieve the goal. Instead, it's the same key messages delivered from a variety of sources to reach specific target audiences that produces the desired result. Boilerplate, one-size-fits-all public relations plans don't work. Plans need to be strategic and tailored for each client to meet individualistic needs.
Onward and upward.
According to a CareerCast.com report making the rounds, public relations executive comes in at #6 on the list of the Top Ten Most Stressful Jobs of 2014.
Jobs in the military, firefighter and airline pilot are at the top of the list; however, public relations executive is more stressful than a police officer, ranked #9.
In all of my years in public relations, I've never had a gun pulled on me in the line of PR duty. I've never put my life on the line for a good story (although, if it were an option, am quite sure I'd consider it.)
The CareerCast post explains that, "...not all workplace stress emanates from on-the-job danger." Jobs such as public relations executive; event coordinator, ranked one notch above PR at #5; and newspaper reporter, ranked #8; are "among the most stressful because of tight deadlines and scrutiny in the public eye."
PR Is Unpredictable
Demanding deadlines are standard operating procedure and, in my opinion, not so stressful if managed properly. Not everything for every client, supervisor or media is due right this minute, but do not put off today what you can do tomorrow.
Tomorrow or on any given day -- or for that matter any given minute -- we have no idea what's coming our way.
A reporter you pitched six months ago needs the interview by end of day. Drop everything. A producer has an in-studio slot open on tomorrow morning's broadcast. Drop everything. Your client is in crisis and needs immediate counsel. Drop everything.
I'm reminded of a client with a propensity (sometimes justified) for "drop everything," especially on Friday afternoons. Initially, it was stressful, but once we identified the pattern, we assigned an account representative to be on-call specifically to field these requests. Problem. Solution. Stress (pretty much) averted.
In preparation for the "drop everything" unknowns, plan ahead and be on top of what you do know. One of my pet peeves are people who constantly complain -- and completely stress out -- over how much work they have to do and how little time they have to do it. What a waste of time and energy. Stop grumbling. Hunker down and meet the deadline. Things take as much time as you have.
In addition to many other characteristics, traits and skills, the best PR people are well-organized and outwardly level-headed, no matter what the stress factor.
The CareerCast report observes that, "Jobs that require you to face unpredictable conditions, immediate dangers and high-stakes situations rank among the most stressful of 2014. These are careers that require a unique kind of mettle, but only if you are bold enough to pursue them." Here's to a brilliant and bold new year.
Onward and upward.
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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. One of the things I am thankful for is The Associated Press Stylebook.
The stylebook is a sacred source of fundamental guidelines for spelling, language, punctuation, word usage and the journalistic style of writing. Journalists abide by it, so it is an absolute must for public relations professionals.
I admit to AP dependency. I'm a stickler for AP Style and worship clarity, brevity and consistency. Just ask anyone who has worked with me in the past 20 years.
Very early in my career, my metro editor, Verne Peyser, an intimidating character who was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, ripped me for every mistake. One time he climbed atop his desk smack dab in the middle of The Arizona Republic newsroom on deadline to cuss me out for a one word AP Style error.
"Expletive, expletive, expletive," he screamed. "Haven't you ever read an expletive, expletive newspaper?" Yikes.
My mistake was improper usage of "over," which is spatial, instead of "more than," as in quantity. I was horrified when the rule changed earlier this year. It is now acceptable to interchange "over" and "more than."
The blogosphere blew up with strong negative reactions from AP Style aficionados, although there were some who said we all ought to just lighten up and get over it. AP smoothed things over by clarifying that it is not mandatory to use "over" to indicate a greater numerical value.
The debacle got me thinking. In our digital age of acronyms, abbreviations and emoticons, does AP Style even matter anymore? Does anybody really care about spelling, punctuation and sentence structure these days?
My conclusion: You won't go wrong by getting right.
The outpouring of fervent discussion about the stylebook's latest changes (it is updated annually) indicates that it does matter to editors, reporters and professionals with a vested interest. Sure, there is a contingent that couldn't care less. Let them keep to their sloppy habits.
In less formal writing, such as blogs, social media posts and definitely tweets, where it is impossible for good sentence structure in 140 characters, there's wiggle room. In press releases and news stories, correctness should still prevail.
In public relations, we need to speak the same language as journalists. It's commonplace for reporters to chastise PR people and complain about abominable press releases. Stand out from the crowd by getting it right and making it easy for them to report our stories. There is everything to gain, as the saying goes.
Good writing and adherence to AP Style demonstrates professionalism. It's respectful and a reflection of how good some of us are at our jobs. Speaking of jobs, if you are looking to land one with a reputable PR firm, be prepared to take an AP Style writing test. If you have "knowledge of AP Style on your resume," you better at least know the basics. (It's shocking how many say they know it then fail miserably when put to the test.)
Read the newspaper. That old editor of mine used to make me read -- not just skim but really study -- every page of the newspaper every single day. It doesn't take long for writing in the same style to become second nature. Of course, today's digital versions work just as well.
Look it up. If you're not sure about the proper capitalization on fraternal organizations; when to use fragment or fragmentary; if full-body scanner should have a hyphen or just about anything else, take 10 seconds and look it up. In addition to the printed version, The AP Stylebook is online, and there's a mobile app that allows marking favorites and making individualized notes.
Ask The Editor. Not even the stylebook, with more than 500 pages, has all the answers. When in serious doubt, submit a question on the AP website's "Ask the Editor."
I'm reminded of a controversy in our office way back in 2008 about "on-site." Is it one word? Should it be hyphenated before a noun? Always hyphenated? One of our brilliant account executives posed the question to "Ask the Editor." We got the 'always hyphenated' answer. A recent Columbia Journalism Review story referenced our query, pointing out that change happens, language evolves and the trend is now toward "onsite." One word.
Educate your clients and executives. Clients and supervisors reviewing news releases might not even know what AP Style is, let alone why we use it. I'll bet that the first time they see their title in lowercase they'll want to change it. Don't sacrifice integrity. Just explain why it's done that way. And you might have to reference a newspaper to show them.
Have fun. Working among peers with a common commitment to good writing and AP Style is exhilarating and enjoyable. We all have fun when we challenge one another in the spirit of pride in our product.
Onward and upward.
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I recently attended the Valley Publicity Summit, hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists, where local editors and reporters weighed in on their best and worst media pitches and other pet peeves with PR people.
When Ilana Lowery, editor-in-chief at Phoenix Business Journal, asked that we please not be annoyed when an intern is assigned to our story, I about jumped out of my chair.
Are you kidding me? Having a cub reporter cover your story is a godsend, a gift.
In my experience, junior reporters are more open to guidance. They're anxious to get the story right (perhaps in fear of their harsh editors) and give us communicators an ideal opportunity to do our jobs. They seek a lot of input. Sure, they ask a lot of questions that more seasoned reporters probably wouldn't, but with patience and hand-holding, their stories can be great.
At the Summit, Al Macias, managing editor at KJZZ, added that an intern's story is more highly scrutinized by an editor. So true. It's commonplace to receive many calls from a junior reporter to clarify information. And that's exactly what we want to ensure accuracy.
I'm reminded of a national client that expanded operations to Houston. Of course, the local president expected big coverage in the Houston Chronicle. Cracking the Chronicle was tough. Editors didn't take well to outsiders, and we pitched multiple angles for months and months. Finally, we got it.
In preparation, I high-tailed it to Houston and spent hours of the president's valuable time coaching her for the interview. The reporter showed up right on time the next morning, but when I met him face-to-face, my heart sank. Here stood what looked like a teenager.
When I introduced him to the president, I saw her eyes roll a little. Nonetheless, she conducted the interview professionally and respectfully. Afterwards, she challenged me on why we went through all that for a kid.
The reason: All ink prints the same.
It doesn't matter who writes the story, great coverage in a major metropolitan newspaper is great coverage. Several days later, Houston Chronicle published a glowing feature on the front page of the local section. Pleased with the outcome, our client never gave a second thought to the by-line.
In addition, I made a terrific new contact, who continuously came back to us for expert commentary and story ideas when he was hired on full-time. Today, that intern "kid" reporter is an editor at The New York Times.
Onward and upward.
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Whether it's local, regional or national, industry-driven or more broad-based, third-party award recognition is an excellent PR opportunity for gaining notoriety, reinforcing credibility and enhancing one's reputation.
To reap the rewards, winning is everything.
Of course, winning entries for every competition must have substance and exude brilliance in fulfilling the award's criteria. Beyond that, winners and losers are separated by good writing and presentation.
Oftentimes, awards are in the realm of a PR person's responsibility on behalf of our clients and our own organizations. I developed a knack for winning -- and learn even more as a judge.
The #1 secret to winning is incredibly simple (although not necessarily easy) and a mystery why more entrants don't get it.
Write for the judges. Answer every question, provide descriptions or whatever the criteria calls for in precisely the order it is requested. No exceptions. Don't tell your story the way you think it should be told going off on a tangent, forcing the judges to dig through your copy to find an answer. Make it easy for them, even if it is more difficult for you to write.
For example, an Executive Summary may call for 400 words or less describing the organization's innovation. Explain: What makes this program or initiative unique? What was the purpose or goal to be reached? What benefits and positive changes has this program or initiative achieved? What are the indicators or metrics that show the innovation was effective?
Keep responses concise, addressing each question consecutively and succinctly. The program is unique because ... The goal was to ... Benefit and positive changes achieved are ...The program was effective based upon ... It's amazing how many award entries don't follow this basic model. Here are a few more tips:
Eliminate unnecessary words and superfluous information. Staying within the word count can be a real challenge. Don't even think about going over. As in all good writing, keep it tight and edit every word, every sentence for clarity and how it supports the entry's key message.
Don't keep repeating. Nominations that say the same thing over and over in every section and for every question are annoying and confusing. Keep the copy fresh, vibrant and compelling throughout.
Give it some white space. I once judged a PRSA entry that had no spaces between sentences or paragraphs. The entire two-page summary was one contiguous paragraph, which was near impossible to read, let alone comprehend. It met the guidelines for no more than two pages using no smaller than a 10-point typeface and one-inch margins. But it was awful.
Less is more. Along the same lines, PRSA limits entries to one hardcover, three-ring binder no more than three inches thick for supporting materials. With a complicated Special Event entry, we once pushed the limit with too much background. The binder (barely) closed. One of the judges commented that it would have taken less time to attend the two-day event than to review the entry. Lesson learned.
Engage a third-party critical reader. In developing award entries, we are frequently so close to the content that we don't have the capacity to review it objectively. In addition to providing feedback, have a third party proof, proof, proof.
Don't wait until the last minute. Never mind. One of the downfalls of creating a great entry is wanting to make it better and better right up to the deadline.
Read the fine print. Remember the adage to read everything carefully before doing anything. Make sure the entry meets all the criteria to the nth degree. Note that even established competitions have been known to change their categories, criteria and rules from one year to the next.
Onward and upward.