Posts Tagged ‘media relations’


Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

A little exercise for you: Next time you open your paper or surf the news online, count the number of times that stories concerning the Harper government carry e-mailed comments attributed to government or party spokespersons. Then count the number of times that such comments do not come with the e-mail qualifier.

I counted at least half a dozen news stories last week alone where a government spokesperson provided comment by way of e-mailed media lines. If you add Twitter to the mix, the majority of official replies to direct queries or emerging stories now come in digital format.

Live, on the record (or even on background) conversations between a reporter and a media relations officer or spokesperson are now the exception. E-mailing replies to media queries has become the standard operating procedure in federal media relations shops across the country.

Much has been said about the current government’s centralized message-control that would spur this robotic approach to media relations. What’s worrisome is that the practice is becoming more prevalent in other organizations, private and nonprofit alike.

Whenever an organization is now pressed by a reporter on a fast-breaking story with problematic undertones, the default response is to e-mail talking points that more often than not have only a vague familial connection to the questions being asked or the issue.

This is one of the subtle unintended consequences of the rise of digital communications: the convergence of enabling technology (digital messaging), long-standing suspicion (and fear) of the media, and dwindling resources and growing time-pressures in traditional newsrooms–call it media relations 2.0.

So, what does media relations 2.0 mean for corporate communications?

Deflecting or bridging are well known media relations techniques, and there was a time when media lines were crafted to help spokespeople deflect and bridge their way to a particular corporate take on an issue.

The difference is that in the past, these lines were used as part of the two-way dynamic of interviews and question and answer sessions that tested their validity and often overtook them. In media relations 2.0, talking points have become take-it-or-leave propositions.

But just because organizations are getting away with this, and everybody seems to be doing it, doesn’t make it a good communication practice.

For one thing, this new approach to media relations only contributes to suspicion and mistrust on both sides of the hack and flack divide.

It is a sign of an organization that can’t see the strategic forest for the tactical trees when talking points grudgingly inserted by reporters like non-sequiturs in news stories are viewed as more valuable than developing relations of trust with those same journalists.

Basically, in the media relations 2.0 paradigm, marking each and every story with unadulterated corporate DNA is more important than ensuring you have the reputational capital to carry the day when an e-mailed or Tweeted reply just won’t be enough.

Media relations 2.0 is also fundamentally unimaginative and reactive.

At its core is a mistrust of the mainstream media and a lack of understanding of its role and importance in framing public perceptions, and more fundamentally, of how it works.

As a result, great corporate stories remain untold or are poorly told, or are told by someone else.

The upside is that unlike the old-fashioned media relations I engaged in as a government flack in the late 90s, media relations 2.0 is safe–there’s no danger of being misquoted or losing control of an interview.  The problem is, it’s like the safety of standing on the sidelines during your high school formal: no one turned you down, but neither did you dance.


Friday, March 30th, 2012

In an earlier blog, I wrote that social media can transform how organizations operate. One important way it can do that is in helping create mainstream media (MSM) buzz in support of their brand. For any organization, this involves taking advantage of a changing media landscape which is characterized by: 1) a growing MSM online presence; 2) changing news cycle; and 3) reporters’ growing reliance on social media channels for story ideas, breaking news, background and fresh voices.

Today, not only is real-time monitoring of social media chatter a must for news organizations, but traditional media organizations have begun using all of the tools in the social media toolkit to maintain market share and relevance.   Strategies such as search engine optimization of stories, social amplification, and increased use of shareability-enhancing video, are being used by MSM to leverage social media traffic and influence and push their own online and traditional content.

In response to this changing media environment, organizations that in the past monitored traditional media channels and coverage as part of their environmental scanning, are now turning their attention to the monitoring of media chatter on social platforms.  They are also using social media platforms to engage in conversations with reporters and news outlets, or push out statements, news releases and background information.

The most popular of these platforms is Twitter.Twitter is ideally suited for the real time nature of the modern news cycle. In fact, the immediacy of Twitter has contributed to changing the news cycle.

Before the rise of social media, radio was the medium that provided the greatest flexibility and ability to cover breaking news. Twitter has now outgrown its role as amplifier of mainstream media news to become a “news breaker” as seen in story of Osama Bin Laden’s killing by U.S. special forces.

For organizations looking to use social media to enhance their MSM reach, Twitter can provide an important and direct channel to news rooms but it also means competing for attention on what is becoming a very crowded platform.

This means your interactions must be fresh, interesting and newsworthy. And it means building your network and community BEFORE you launch your campaign.  Invest in getting to know editors, reporters and producers.

Tips on using Twitter for MSM relations

  • Use Twitter Search to identify reporters that cover or are interested in your issues and start following them
  • Listen. Use Twitter to learn about specific journalists’ interests, needs, styles
  • Build an early  rapport, engage in conversations, be genuine
  • Respond to queries in a timely fashion
  • Provide value; become a trusted source for information, story ideas
  • Be available for on-the-record comment, including online
  • Use Twitter to inform reporters of upcoming media opportunities (press conferences, product launches)
  • Post your news releases on Twitter
  • Do not use Twitter to pitch your stories directly; paticularly if you have no rapport with a reporter
  • Don’t neglect personal, face-to-face interaction with reporters

Success in this new environment means being nimble  and responsive, and it means understanding the reality of the modern news room: fewer resources and more pressure to break stories. Failure to do so means running the risk of being left behind when your story breaks.

In practical terms, this means all organizations have to take stock of their internal media relations procedures and streamline decision-making.  It  means empowering front-line communications staff to engage with reporters, frame the story and provide comment.

In this new environment, organizations–private or public–no longer have all day to ponder the text of a statement,  news release, or Tweet. Overly cautious or bureaucratic media relations procedures will fail in the hypercompetitive real-time world in which MSM outlets operate.


Friday, November 18th, 2011

Too often initiatives are planned, products are  launched and campaigns kicked off without a clear story to support them, and the results, predictably, are forgettable.

The good news is that more and more, communications planners are developing storylines around events to provide some semblance of narrative grounding.  The bad news is that the storyline generally remains a poorly understood communications buzzword with the result that many of these are so focused on corporate spin that they read like works of fiction.

Developing the narrative around an event, product, or initiative should be much more than just a writing exercise—it should be an exercise in strategic communications.  And it should result in a communication product that is clear, crisp and most important, credible.

Our approach to storyline development revolves around working with our clients through a facilitated process to ensure that their narrative will resonate with all of their key audiences and support their strategic objectives. 

In order to convey purpose and direction clearly and credibly, a storyline must be grounded in the strategic considerations behind a particular initiative.  And while it should highlight the strengths and value of the initiative, it should also address any important challenges it faces. 

Sugarcoating or overlooking fundamental communication challenges when developing a storyline is like a doctor lying to their patient to spare their feelings–noble intentions perhaps, but with potentially catastrophic results.

We see our role much like that of a print reporter. In developing the storyline we work with our client to answer the five Ws of journalistic writing (Who, What, Where, When and Why) and tease out positive storyline elements as well as address potential problem areas head on.  

In all instances, but most importantly in the case of public events, we start by getting to and understanding the real story behind an initiative–which may not necessarily be the one our client wants to tell–and then framing our client’s story in the most positive and newsworthy fashion.

The outcome we strive for is a one page CP-style story that frames the initiative clearly and succinctly while highlighting key messages and addressing concerns. 

This type of storyline can be readily adapted to produce core communications products such as key messages and media lines, while providing the outline and narrative structure for everything from op-eds to speaking notes and speech modules. 

In addition to generating a compelling external narrative, an additional benefit of our approach to storyline development is that it helps organizations to clarify strategic and tactical priorities.

By taking what is often an abstract writing exercise and translating it into a hard news story, this approach helps reveal potential opportunities and challenges that might otherwise have been overlooked in the communication planning process.


Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Every once in a while, a story breaks that stands as a monument to bad media relations.  Last year it was former Newfoundland premier Danny Williams’ decision to have heart surgery in the US while leaving an ill-prepared deputy preem Kathy Dunderdale to deal with the ensuing media questions about the quality of health care in Newfoundland.  This year it’s the story of Quebec mining executive Bernard Coulombe’s interview with the The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi that provides our “teachable moment” .

Coulombe, Executive Director of the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec, learned a hard lesson in media relations when he granted an interview to Mandvi, a comedian  posing as an investigative reporter digging into the dangers of asbestos fibres.   The three minute spoof news item aired earlier this week on the Comedy Network and brought howls of protest from Coulombe who said in a news release that he was ” disgusted that he was made the subject of such an inappropriate parody, whose only purpose was to discredit him and make the people of the region look like ignorant imbeciles.”

But putting out a news release after the fact only served to bring even more unwanted public and media attention to Mr. Coulombe’s on air performance.  In granting the interview in the first place, and squaring off with someone who did not operate under the accepted rules of mainstream journalism, Mr. Coulombe placed himself and his company in a vulnerable position. 

Mr. Coulombe or the Jeffry mine’s PR flack failed to follow one of the most basic rules of media relations: When the phone rings, find out who’s calling!  A simple Google search would have brought up the name of the Comedy Network alongside that of the Daily Show, a dead give-away… one would think.


Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

The decision by Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams to undergo heart surgery in the US has re-ignited the debate over the quality of  health care in both countries. But if the way the Premier chose to communicate his decision also raises questions about his media savvy and judgement, it does offer some useful lessons along the way.

One of the canons of effective media relations is to frame the story before it frames you. Unfortunately for Mr. Williams, this story got away the moment his appointed spokesperson, Deputy Premier Kathy Dunderdale, faced the press without as much as a hint of a substantive answer to work with.

The questions raised by the secrecy around the Premier’s condition and medical choices are legion and were wholly predictable. By putting Ms. Dunderdale  in front of reporters  with little more than bland reassurances for a script, the Newfoundland Premier raised even more questions and ensured that others–commentators and doctors among them–would answer them for him, resulting in a damaging and embarrassing  storyline.

So what lessons can be drawn from this communications fiasco?

The predictability (and legitimacy) of the questions around the Premier’s health  should have informed the  communications strategy.  The focus should have been on quickly and credibly answering these questions and framing them within a storyline that revolved primarily around human considerations (his health and well-being) and government stability, so that the story did not become an assessment of Newfoundland’s (and Canada’s) health care system.


  • The Premier should have spoken to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador directly, not assigned the task to an ill-prepared Deputy Premier
  • He should have anticipated criticism around his decision to opt for surgery in the US, explained his reasons and reiterated his confidence in his province’s health care system
  • Most of all, he should have  answered questions about his long term prognosis, reassured his constituents that  capable hands would be on the wheel in his absence, and that he would soon be back to carry on the good fight

Getting ahead of the story would have allowed Mr. Williams to frame it in a more favourable and sympathetic light. Had he done that, he might be receiving get-well wishes instead of brickbats today.

Mixing Messages

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

In my last blog I wrote that the federal Liberals had a competitive advantage over the Harper Conservatives because they weren’t saddled by the “rigid command-and-control mentality that … characterizes Conservative communications strategy”. But a failed Liberal PR stunt earlier today suggests that a little planning,  control and message discipline still have their place in effective communications.

 This is what CBC reporter Rosemary Barton had to say about it:

Running communications for a political party is a trying task at the best of times.

Even more so when you’re competing with…yourself.

Picture it: the Hall of Honour of the Centre Block. Liberal MP Wayne Easter and the party’s spin-machine, Warren Kinsella, camped outside the door to the Conservative caucus meeting. Clearly waiting to do something.

But, what…

Three sombre -looking Liberal staffers stand behind Easter with 8 x 10 photos of Conservative MPs who have, according to Easter, denounced the whole cheque-signing “scandal”.

Easter explains how this is must be stopped.

Wouldn’t be a bad little stunt if only: in the room right next door the Liberal caucus is launching the Pink Book on women’s issues.

Cameras and reporters gathered around Easter.

And although there were other reporters and cameras in the room for the launch, one media event can’t outdo the other.

Suddenly, Ignatieff’s director of communications, Jill Fairbrother arrives in the scrum and abruptly whisks Easter away.

She didn’t look pleased.

And the “stunt” ended awkwardly.

A sign of duelling communications strategies?

For the record, Jill Fairbrother says the two events were intended to take place 20 minutes apart, but ended up being at the same time because the Conservatives left from the back door.”

 The problem is not so much crossed wires or the Conservative caucus’ disappearing act but that the Liberals planned two “competing” media events on the same day.   

Planning a PR stunt designed to embarrass Conservative MPs on the same day that the party’s Women’s Caucus releases its platform recommendations was bound, at best, to limit media attention to both. At worst, it ran the risk of crowding out coverage of an event designed to showcase, among other things, the role and place of women in the Liberal party.

Talk about mixing messages.