Monday, October 22, 2012

Lessons in PR: Communication isn't simple

Communication. Pretty simple word. But pretty tricky business. Ever tried to communicate to a family member, friend or significant other how they hurt your feelings in a tense situation, only to have it backfire? Okay, now that 99% of you are nodding, I’ll get on to my point…

Everyone, it seems lately, thinks they are “PR experts”. But public relations isn’t about having a lot of friends or throwing fun parties. It is about expert communication, especially with the press (and, in this age, on social media). I find myself, almost daily, cringing at PR faux pas—from basic to potentially fatal.

While hiring a professional to represent your brand is the best way to avoid this sort of deadly foot-in-mouth syndrome, I understand that this is often cost-prohibitive. If that’s the case for your company, there are some basic PR/communication rules that I drill into my staff and interns daily, and that I happily share. From me to you: lessons learned thanks to my 10+ years’ experience interviewing thousands of designers, politicians and retailers as journalist; 3+ years as a publicist giving press interviews and representing brands on social media… but, mostly, thanks to my relentless journalism professors at the University of Connecticut.

  1. Fact check. Think you know how to spell the proper name of an organization or person? 98% of the time, you’re probably right. You do. The problem is the other 2% of the time. If I spelled a proper name wrong on a college journalism project, my journalism professors would make me write it correctly, by hand, 500 times. Actually, it may have been less than 500; but having spent a couple nights sitting in the dorm lounge writing a name over and over until my hand ached: I still double check the names of even clients I’ve worked with for years.
  2. Listen. As a reporter, I learned the most in interviews when the interviewee suddenly went off on a tangent in response to an innocent question… often revealing more than I ever imagined asking. This is a basic of any business communication: listen carefully to the question before opening your mouth. Example: I once served on a non-profit board and, when I hadn’t received end-of-year financial reports, I asked the executive director for them. The executive director’s reply was shockingly angry and defensive. How dare I accuse her of misappropriation of funds? Well, actually, that hadn’t crossed my mind. But once she threw it out there, told me to call her lawyer, and told everyone within earshot that I’d made such an accusation; it definitely crossed my mind (and everyone else’s). Enough said.
  3. Condense. Short is, indeed, sweet. Say what you have to say. Then wait an hour and go back to edit. In PR, wordiness has always been a cardinal sin. Today, it’s deadly for a publicist or any business person. Who among us isn’t suffering from information overload? Case in point: The average attention span of someone opening an email? 8 seconds. The average attention span of a goldfish? 9 seconds. Need I say more?

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