Man on the street: real PR stories

By Matter

It became a running joke in the newsroom, but it worked every time. When things got slow around The MetroWest Daily News, where I used to be a full-time town beat reporter and part-time editor, we would turn to the tried-and-true “man on the street” interviews. Pick a topic, any current event topic, head to your local coffee shop or other applicable location, and ask “real” people what they thought. Most people actually were glad to share their opinions, and before long, you had researched a story based on public opinion.

I turned back to the old “man on the street” format this week. After last week’s Brody PR faux pas, the old PR vs. journalism debate got some digital ink in the same way that the working moms vs. stay-a-home moms debate dusts up every year or so. It got me thinking, can’t we all just get along? And, I turned to some former colleagues for their “real” do’s and don’ts for forging a healthy PR / journalist working relationship. Here’s a sample of what they said (with names cloaked to protect the innocent!).

Overall, my former co-workers see the value of a good PR professional. “Believe me, us editors have a vested interest in filling our pages. If we have interest in something you’re plugging you’ll generally hear back from us PROMPTLY… PR is an invaluable resource that I would have a hard time doing without. And there’s the sordid truth of it all.” – Editor of metropolitan travel and lifestyle magazine

“The key for a good release is similar to a good news story – ABC, baby: accuracy, brevity and clarity. Since I’m only using the facts, flowery prose ain’t going to cut it. Just stick to the basics, and if there’s a news hook somewhere in the release, make it obvious. Most of us don’t have the time to read a three-page release so if the good stuff is buried, it might get missed. Sadly, for people like me, you’re just going to have to dumb everything down.” – Daily newspaper business reporter and features writer

One of the top requests on any list is to know your publication. “If your email isn’t about my coverage area, why are you sending it to me?” asks the education reporter at a suburban Boston daily newspaper. One writer at a construction trade publication shared this real example, “I just got two emails about Suicide Prevention Week. Unless these people can tell me how suicides are a problem in the architecture and engineering field, I’m probably going to be turned off on future emails from you or your firm.”

Another word of advice my friends shared: Tone it down. This goes for the relentless follow-up and coming on too strong with fake positive-ness. One or two calls or e-mails as follow up, then take the hint. “I like it when PR people can actually help me when I initiate the contact and ask them for information about a story I’m working on,” said a usually grumpy technology trade staffer.

My education writer friend shares these PR potholes:

“Misleading pitches – Spend three graphs talking about the need for childhood literacy development, then we find out your pitch is for some god-awful kids book.

Availability – If you send a pitch, I assume you are ready to turn it around immediately. So if I call back to follow on your pitch, and you don’t have time to respond or no one is available to talk to me, oh boy!, have you just made an enemy for life.

Bad grammar – Recently, someone sent me a release about Sarah Palin’s resignation from ‘pubic life.’ Just. Don’t. Bother.”

And, don’t both trying to buddy-up to journalists in “creepy” ways, says my tech writer pal. “One lady sent me an e-mail after my company’s massive layoffs giving her condolences and asking if she could help in any way; and I’ve never met her in person!…(Another) wished me a ‘Happy Easter’ and then turned out to be Jewish. One PR guy asked me a ridiculously complicated question about some obscure market, as if it were the most natural question in the world.”

In general, these guidelines boil down to being a good person, not a sleestack, as one of our clients calls it, and taking pride in your work. If I were in Brody PR’s shoes, I might have admitted the goof sooner and pledged to walk the straight and narrow from then on. But isn’t it a whole lot easier to do that from the start?