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Posts from the ‘Amplify’ Category

Amplify: Good Clients Make Good P.R.

July 7, 2014

Jeff Weintraub


When someone once asked Yogi Berra what makes a good baseball manager, he replied, “A good ball club.” Similarly, if you asked me what makes a good public relations professional, I’d say, ‘A good client.’

Here’s an illustration. In September 1987, I had just started a job in Chicago with a Jewish advocacy organization, and it was exactly on the eve of a visit by Pope John Paul II to the U.S. One of our leaders from Chicago was going to Miami to be part of a small delegation to meet the Pope. Could I, my boss asked, call some local Chicago media outlets to see if they might be interested?

Until then, I had never done any sort of media relations work for anyone (I was a writer and editor working on the other side of that divide). But I made some calls (this was before e-mail), and, much to my surprise, all the local TV stations and daily papers interviewed my guy and ran nice pieces about the meeting. Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, everyone around me assumed I did.

The lesson: sure, it helps to have someone who knows which calls to make and can shape how a client presents itself. But there’s no substitute for a client with a good and highly relevant story to tell, especially one that contributes to an issue that’s playing big in the news already.

Like most local news outlets trying to insert themselves into a big national story, the Chicago media were looking for any hooks that would be relevant to the Pope’s visit. And they got it when they heard that a Chicago Jewish leader would be part of the Pope’s audience. It was a small part of everything else the Pope was doing during that trip, but it just happened to give media what they wanted: a local angle. Who knew? Certainly not I, at least not then.

Now, I don’t want to be accuse of false modesty. I’m not saying that we in the public relations game don’t do anything and that we just wait to get lucky (which I was in September 1987). In fact, much of what we do is to try to find elements of a client’s story that we think will connect nicely to dominant narratives already bouncing around the media. When we do, we maximize the odds that some journalist (and maybe many) will want to include our client’s views and information in their pieces.

It’s not about our relationships with editors and reporters, as so many of our clients assume and some p.r. professionals misleadingly suggest. Yes, it helps to know some people on the inside of various news organizations. But that means nothing if we don’t have a story that they’re likely to want to hear and repeat. Some of my biggest hits were with journalists I’d never met.

We can’t usually know for sure what will sell. I’ve had client stories that I thought would interest no one but that got a lot of attention and others I thought would be hot that no one would report. But there are some rules of thumb that help us get the most out our pitches:

  • Relevance. You don’t have to be a careful consumer of news to know that there are, on any given day, a half dozen or so national stories that eat up the lion’s share of media attention and conversation. The same probably goes for any other news segment: local news, specialized trade outlets and so on. It helps to understand what those big stories are, especially before they hit, whether they have any staying power and where, if at all, a client’s story can fit into them. It may be that the client has nothing relevant to say about those stories. In that case, it’s important to find out what is being said about other, quieter stories and who is producing that coverage. What, you must ask, can a client offer that will help illuminate that story more and better educate audiences who care about that story?
  • Credibility. Is the client an expert on this issue? Does it have relevant information that few others can claim? Do people really want to hear what this client has to say? Without such credibility, it’s hard to induce any reporters to pay attention.
  • Illustrative examples. It’s not enough just to have an opinion or to speak in general or in the abstract. Media organizations want to be able to cite concrete examples of experiences or initiatives that help illustrate what the issues are truly about. Can you point to activities or scenarios (preferably recent and photogenic) that can help journalists illustrate the story they’re writing? That’s where you will score.
  • New information. It’s not called “news” for nothing. Reporters want to be the first to get information that no one else has, and if you’re the one who can supply them with it and it meets most and maybe all of the criteria above, you just might get coverage.
  • Something that answers “Why should I care?” As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, what you and your institution think is important may not be what most people think is important. You have to address the issues that most people care about — something in the broader public interest. How will what you say affect, for example, the economy, people’s personal needs, the direction of our geopolitical aims, the well being of the local community, or, as was the case in 1987, the state of Catholic-Jewish relations? Answer those questions and you will heighten your chances of getting coverage.

Again, this is all rule of thumb. It’s impossible to predict exactly what will sell and what won’t. But I can guarantee that unless two or more of these elements are at play, you’ll have a shot at some coverage.

Amplify: A Media Relations Object Lesson From Donald Trump

March 28, 2014

Jeff Weintraub

396px-Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore.croppedI DON’T USUALLY spend a lot of precious time thinking about Donald Trump, but his dust-up last month with a public relations consultant offers an unexpected object lesson about basic media relations.

The incident surrounds an article about Trump by McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed, the online news / entertainment / click-bait (or whatever you want to call it) site. According to the New York Post, after a request to allow Coppins to interview him during a trip to New Hampshire (“Trump was there to deliver a political speech widely seen as being aimed at running for president in 2016 and not for New York governor this year,” the Post said.), Trump turned to his media advisor, Sam Nunberg, to ask whether or not he should do it.

Trump said his first reaction was not to do the interview, saying, “I understand what Buzzfeed is.”

“But Sam said to me, ‘This guy is a friend of mine. It’s going to be a great story. I have confidence it will be fair.’

So I actually did the interview as a courtesy to Sam.

“But I said to Sam, ‘If this guy writes a fair story, that’s fine. But if he writes a wise-guy story, you’ll be fired.’ And I said to Sam, ‘OK?’

“And Sam said, ‘OK.’ ’’

Coppins wrote what is actually a pretty interesting, but not terribly flattering piece. I can see how Trump might consider it a “wise-guy” story, but then, as you’ll see, Trump provided some undeniably weird material, which Coppins recorded. Was it accurate? I don’t know, but it all seems plausible.

“After the article appeared, Trump acknowledged, ‘I called [Nunberg] in and said, ‘Sam, you’re fired!’ Trump said the article was filled with ‘inaccurate reporting’’ and presented flippant or out-of-context remarks.”

[Sigh] Where to begin? Based only on what I read in this Post article (there might be more to the story, but I sort of doubt it):

First of all, it might surprise you to hear me say that I have a little sympathy for Trump on this. But only a little. He was apparently conscious enough to know what BuzzFeed is, and, based on that, was hesitant to give an interview in the first place.

I don’t blame him. While I think there is a time and place for BuzzFeed’s offerings – hey, it can be fun to read sometimes – Trump is too colorful a character to expect any media outlet, much less this one, to leave out his unsightly blemishes.

Second, his advisor, Sam Nunberg, was a bit naïve, to say the least, to think that a relationship with Coppins would produce a puff piece. I can hear the editors saying, “Dude [I don’t know why, but I imagine Buzzfeed people say “Dude” a lot, but I’m stereotyping], bring me back a good one. Something juicy.” The truth is, there aren’t many news outlets that would think differently. Trump’s entertainment value, particularly when he deludes himself into thinking he’s a viable candidate for public office, is just too hard to resist.

To be sure, Nunberg had to go with his gut to a certain extent. I’ve been there, too. We have to evaluate what we think is likely to happen when we engage with a reporter – even if he or she is a friend. To a certain extent, we always have to take a leap of faith that the reporters will live up to their assurances to be fair and thorough.

Still, ultimately, the control is completely out of our hands. Contrary to what our clients and the uninformed think,wWe p.r. people do not “control” reporters (at least not in the U.S. – things are different around the world). We try to maximize the chances that things will come out well . Sometimes — but not often– we get burned.

If my client was as sensitive to unfavorable coverage as Trump seemed to be in this case (amazingly for a guy who’s so in love with getting into the media), I’d say, “You really shouldn’t be doing media at all,” or, at the very least, I can’t guarantee you anything, so don’t do it if you have a queasy feeling.

More strategically, what did either Nunberg or Trump think they were going to get out of BuzzFeed, even if the article had pleased Trump. While it promises wide circulation, I’m not sure BuzzFeed would give Trump the credibility he needs to mount a campaign for public office – or whatever the hell he thinks he’s trying to accomplish.

I feel a bit sorry for Nunberg, but he had to know that working for Trump was never going to be easy. But I also feel a bit sorry for Trump, who, after all, trusted his advisor to give him good guidance. He should have known better himself, especially considering that he gave extraordinary, behind-the-scenes access to the reporter.

I also feel sorry for all of the rest of us who seek out good and serious news reporting and who too often see news organizations eating up valuable media real estate and air time with Trump’s crazy rantings.


Trump photo by Gage Skidmore

Amplify: What Makes a Winning Op-Ed?

November 24, 2013

Jeff Weintraub

loudspeakersGETTING AN Op-Ed placed is no cinch anymore – if it ever was – particularly in the highest-profile daily papers and online outlets.

There are fewer such papers than a generation ago and intense competition to get in them. (I’ve heard editors of some of the bigger national papers say they can get 75 to 100 submissions a day for maybe a couple or three slots.) While online publications theoretically have an infinite amount of space to devote to Op-Eds, they can be pretty selective, too.

But someone has to get published, and if yours is the right piece at the right time, it might just be you. Though there are no guarantees with any formula, here are elements that I think will improve your chances and help you try to amplify your message.

Have something to say. This should be self-evident, right? I mean, isn’t that the primary purpose of an Op-Ed? Well, I’ve handled countless Op-Eds that really didn’t seem to offer a coherent idea or perspective so much as a catalogue of disconnected thoughts or personal accomplishments. Very simply: that’s not what works.

Make one good main point – maybe two, at the very most, but even that’s pushing it. The rest of the piece should be made up of proof points (statistics, anecdotes, quotes from other experts, and so on) that support the larger big idea.

Offer Credibility. The more expert and authoritative the writer is about the topic, the more likely she will get published. Op-Ed pages are bulletin boards of the best and most informed thinking, so it’s best you really know what you’re talking about or bring some special authority to the subject.

That doesn’t mean you have to be famous, just credible.  It may appear to the regular Op-Ed reader that most of the pieces are by well-known government leaders, entertainers and other brands; that’s certainly true in places like the Huffington Post, which trades heavily on such names.

But, as David Shipley, the then-editor of the New York Times Op-Ed Page, wrote a number of years ago, “Does it help to be famous? Not really. In fact, the bar of acceptance gets nudged a little higher for people who have the means to get their message out in other ways — elected officials, heads of state, corporate titans.”

As someone who has pitched pieces by top government leaders, major corporate execs, well-known academics, and even a king, I can tell you that, while such names will probably ensure a first read, their celebrity status alone isn’t enough. But if you’re, let’s say, a  small family farmer with on-the-ground knowledge of a particularly topical agriculture issue and you have something compelling to say about it, you just might get published.

Be Compelling. And just what is “compelling?” Well, it’s highly subjective. But, to quote Shipley again, “[S]ay something forthright and unexpected. Op-Ed real estate is too valuable to be taken up with press releases.”

If you look at many of the pieces that appear on the best Op-Ed pages, you’ll notice that, first, they offer a fresh take or a counterpoint on an issue. There was a piece just a few days ago, for example, by Jason Kass called “Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet.

The occasion for the piece was World Toilet Day (more serious an observance than you’re probably thinking). While other organizations and experts probably tried to submit pieces around World Toilet Day that gave rather sober and unsurprising arguments for the need for more and better sanitation systems in the developing world, Kass’s obviously jumped out.

Kass, identified as “an environmental engineer and the founder of the organization Toilets for People,” succeeded by taking a somewhat contrarian view, challenging the conventional wisdom, and, most gutsy, even the most prominent of global development leaders, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With vivid examples (another ingredient of “compelling”) he said that many of the cutting-edge sanitation innovations are too complicated and expensive to solve the widespread challenge. Though it may have ruffled some feathers among the major international development organizations, it proved to be a winner, at least to Op-Ed editors.

Part of being compelling often includes timeliness – talking about something that’s on everyone’s mind today, not last week or even last month. Take part in the conversation while it’s happening.

Answer The Question: Why Should I Care? This is a question every journalist, on behalf of his or her audience, must answer before deciding to cover a story or run an Op-Ed piece. What relevance does this point have for the rest of society? Is it just a promotion of a product or an accomplishment (something I see often in unsuccessful Op-Eds, speeches, interviews, etc.), or is does it have some important bearing on broader trends and concerns?

One Op-Ed  that met this latter criteria over the last year came from none other than Angelina Jolie. That was the one in which she disclosed in the New York Times that she had a double mastectomy to preempt the onset of breast cancer.

If she had only offered a poignant story about how her mother battled (and lost to) breast cancer (speaking of compelling) and the surprising medical intervention she chose, it probably would have been interesting – certainly to the celebrity pages. But what would it matter to the rest of us? Would we care? Would it have been published? I doubt it.

“But,” she added, “I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.”

Why should we care, indeed? And, even more so than most Op-Eds, her message was amplified through the enormous follow-on media coverage.

Follow a Few More Simple Rules.

  • Be brief. 750 to 800 words at the very most. (Unless you’re Henry Kissinger, who seems always to get more space than most anyone I can think of.)
  • Get to your main point right away – only in couple of paragraphs in. You don’t have a lot of space.
  • Fight the big fight. Don’t get bogged down in arcane side debates that only you and three other people care about. (See: “Why Should I Care?”) Win on what’s make-or-break for your side.
  • Avoid repeating opposition views. You’ve only got a little bit of space, so use it to make your argument, not to repeat others’. In other words, play offense not defense.
  • Be civil. “Jane, you ignorant slut!,” (if you’re too young or forgetful to know what I’m referring here, watch this at 1:09) is not a winning line other than on comedy shows. Nor is it effective to impugn your opponent’s motives when you don’t really know what those motives are. Stick to the merits of the debate. (See: “Fight the big fight.”)

You can apply most of the advice here to many other aspects of your communications. But when it comes to Op-Eds, these are the ingredients of a recipe that might just win you the blue ribbon. Good luck.

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