Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Comedy of Preventable PR Errors

PR professionals ask me all the time, "How do I get my client featured in one of your magazines?"

The answer isn't rocket science and just takes a little bit of common sense.

However, not everyone is using their noggin.

Case in point:

About 10 days ago, I sent out a query on (the site that connects journalists with story sources). The story was for one of my military publications, and the angle was pretty straight-forward: I needed sources to discuss how people in the National Guard can find military-friendly employers. I deliberately sent the query early, because I was going to be out for a week's vacation and wanted to hit the ground running when I got back.

A young PR professional got in touch the same day and said he had two sources. Both of them were veterans, and both were owners of franchise companies that largely employed veterans. After looking over their qualifications, I determined that they would be good fits. And I turned down other responders to my Profnet query in favor of them.

The PR person told me that the sources would call me. The first was to get in touch at 9 a.m. Eastern time -- today. But about an hour later, I received an email calendar alert that the interview was to take place at 6 a.m. So I checked with the PR professional again to make sure I hadn't crossed my wires. He informed me that the 6 a.m. time was for the source, who was on the Western clock. I also double-verified that the source would be calling me, not the other way around.

Fast forward to today.

9 a.m. came and went. I gave it about 20 minutes and then emailed the PR person, explaining that no one had contacted me. Twenty-five minutes after that, he emailed back and said he had not communicated to the source that he was supposed to call me. "But here is his phone number, and you can reach him now," he said.

With an email message like that, I assumed that the source had been briefed of PR person's mixup.

I called, and this was the first thing the source huffed:

"Hi -- you were supposed to call me 45 minutes ago! I guess I can still do the interview."

I explained that the PR person had communicated otherwise and apologized that he'd been kept waiting. I then gave the source the Cliffs Notes version of the story angle -- how National Guard members can find employers that are sympathetic to their challenges.

And then the source said:

"I was under the impression that you were doing a story about how to get into franchising. I had prepared responses about my company and how to find franchise companies that are good fits for military service members. And I don't have anyone working for me who is in the National Guard."


The biggest mistake I see among PR professionals who use Profnet -- especially those who are in their 20s -- is that they think they can change the reporter's story angle by getting THEIR source in the story to talk about THEIR angle.

See .... it doesn't work that way.

I have a story angle. I have an editor who has assigned the story angle. I am not paid unless I deliver a story ... with that precise angle.

You, as a PR professional, are not going to change my story angle. And your sources will not convince me to change my story angle.

Can I make this any plainer?

Additionally, if you are coordinating interviews between a journalist and your source, for God's sake, please make sure that 1)  You have given everyone the correct time zone for the interview, 2) You have communicated clearly who is to place the call and 3) Your source has been fully briefed on the angle of the story -- WHICH WILL NOT CHANGE.

These things are all basic common sense, but I have seen this happen more frequently in my 24 years of reporting than you would imagine. And I hate to over-generalize, but it mostly occurs with PR professionals who have been in the business for fewer than 10 years.

So back to the original question: "How do I get my client featured in one of your magazines?"


Use common sense. Don't try to fit a square peg in a round hole. Take your time and coordinate schedules.

Because if you don't, you can be assured that I will not come back to you when I have another assignment.

What did I do after this mix up? I'll tell you. I emailed the PR professional and said that not only was I not using the first source, but I also would not use the second one. I know that sounds harsh, but I have a lineup of others that were at the ready to participate. If the first source was not fully prepared, it was fairly predictable that the second wouldn't be, either.

Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice ... shame on me.

I don't give opportunities to be burned twice.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Meg Tilly's Book Has to Do With Journalistic Integrity

When I was 12, I came home from school one day to discover that my parents had brought home a girl from church. “She’ll be living with us for the next week, and so make sure you show her all of your dolls and things,” my mother whispered as I put down my stack of school books.

My parents were Salvation Army officers – which is another way of saying that they were pastors. I was accustomed to life revolving around the ins and outs of their mission. We would get phone calls in the middle of a Thanksgiving dinner, for example, and my father would rush out to deliver a food basket to someone who had a last-minute need. And my brother and I spent hours on end at the local Salvation Army, especially during December, when my mother ran a “toy shop” for people who couldn’t afford to buy gifts for their children.

But this was the very first time that they’d actually brought home a child to stay with us.

I remember taking the girl’s hand and leading her upstairs to my pink and white room. “Would you like to play Barbies?” I asked. She shrugged, eyeing my tall Barbie townhouse. “I got this for Christmas,” I explained. “See? It even has an elevator.” I pulled on a string to make the plastic box go up and down. She sat down and silently held my dolls, stroking their hair and not uttering a word.

The week was difficult. The girl never wanted to play in my room. She preferred to stay in the basement, where my parents had created a guest room. I didn’t feel like she liked me very much, despite my attempts to engage her. When she left, I was relieved to have life back as it was.

Years later, as I studied in college for my chosen profession of journalism, I had a class in which my professor asked the ethical question: “Is it right for journalists to cover all crime stories? Should journalists stay away from stories about child abuse and child sexual molestation?”

It got me thinking, and suddenly, the girl’s visit to our house of long ago made sense. I remember asking my mother, and she confirmed my suspicions – the child had been abused by her father, and my parents had agreed to take her in as soon as an emergency until foster care could be lined up. I never saw the girl again, and her name and face still haunt me to this day. What happened to her?

As a reporter, the memory of this child ate at me whenever I was asked to do a police write-up on a child abuse case. And because I come from a conservative religious background, many of my friends were highly critical of my chosen profession and the types of stories I was assigned to write.

“Don’t you think that’s exploitation?” they would ask whenever I would bring up a story about a victim of child abuse.

It bothered me. Was it? Was I taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune so that I could advance my career? I had to dig deep and look at my motives, and I realized: The stories had to be told. How else would these victims have a voice? How else would justice prevail? How else would the public be made aware of criminal activity against society’s innocent members? How else could it be stopped? It had to be printed. It had to be told. And I felt a deep connection to the girl of long ago, realizing that her story was a story being repeated over and over again – and people needed to be made aware.

Fast forward to this month, when, out of curiosity, I picked up a book written by the actress Meg Tilly.

The title: “Gemma.”

The premise: A 12-year-old girl is abducted by a sexual predator and has to survive a harrowing journey from his car trunk, to hotel rooms, to finally being rescued, to confronting him in a courtroom.

I have to be honest with you.

The initial chapters made me so physically ill that I had to put the book away. I didn’t think I would pick it up again. I asked myself: “What’s the point of reading this? What’s the point of filling my mind with this?”

But then I realized that I was being quite hypocritical. If I really believed what I told myself those years ago – that these stories had to be told – then I could at least see if this book/author had the same purpose.

It did, and she does.

I am now mom to a 10-year-old boy. The much publicized stories of the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State University have hit me hard as a single mom, because Sandusky’s victims were children of single moms. I have closely followed that case because I want to be made aware of how someone like Sandusky managed to get away with his atrocities undetected for as long as he did. What could those moms have done differently to protect their boys?

As I read through “Gemma,” I was struck by Tilly’s gift to put me squarely in the mind of a monster like Sandusky. And I was equally struck by her gift to illustrate the mind-set of a child who is thus victimized. Seeing the world through Gemma’s eyes, one realizes the deficiencies of our educational system, our court system, our system as a society to keep watch over our young and innocent children, and our steadfast denial as parents of lurking dangers that could snatch our children from our chests.

The result is a heart-pounding, non-stop ride through Gemma’s soul – an opaque window that allows us to glimpse the sufferings of tiny human beings who don’t have a chance … unless we are willing to help.

If you shy from reading a book like “Gemma,” it’s understandable. None of us really wants to look at the underbelly of the worst of humanity. But I’d strongly encourage you to give it a chance, especially if you are a teacher, pastor, social worker, court official, lawyer, police officer – and especially, a journalist. Tilly gives us insights into a plight of a reality that most of us can only guess.

I still think about the girl in my house in 1977. I still see her sitting on my bedroom floor and holding the Barbies as if they were alien creatures. I still see the look on her face as she made it clear to me that I was in a completely different league – I was still a child. She was not. Adulthood had been foisted on her, and she had missed out on the beauty and innocence of a simple activity like playing with Barbie dolls.

I see “Gemma” when I think of her now.

And I am extremely grateful to Meg Tilly for having the courage and insight to write a book on a subject that society continues to largely ignore. 

"Gemma" is easily available on Amazon. Here's a photo of the book cover and link to where you can get it: