Group Gordon’s Michael Dolmatch blogs about the blunders that may land you on the communications Wall of Shame. 11.20.2014
Being immortalized on SportsCenter’s “Not Top Ten” list of the worst plays in sports keeps athletes up at night. In the communications field, we (usually) don’t have to worry about being kicked in the head, pitching like 50 Cent, or taking out a table full of Gatorade with our faces, but there are certain key mistakes any company should avoid.
Steer clear of these public relations classic blunders if you want to stay off of the Communications Not Top Ten.
10. Tunnel vision
Appearing in top-tier media outlets, like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, is extremely valuable, but it’s not the sole purpose of effective media relations. Companies should not ignore other outlets. For example, a company trying to reach millennials in New York City might find more success in reaching that audience through an outlet like Gothamist, which has huge social media reach and heavy local readership.
9. Not defining boundaries
Legitimate journalists operate by a code of ethics relating to what is “on the record,” “off the record,” or “on background.” It’s important for companies to know the rules, too.
In the movies, people say “this is off the record, but…” and then blurt out something scandalous. In reality saying that something is “off the record” is meaningless without the journalist’s consent. Furthermore, they’re more like guidelines than, say, laws. Never say something that would be devastating if taken out of context, no matter what agreement you have made.
8. Sweating the small stuff
Things sometimes go wrong. A blogger may take a shot at your company, or you may find that not everyone thinks your super-witty Tweet is so super-witty. These problems are sometimes worth addressing, but in many cases responding can draw attention to the criticism and turn a little-known heckler into a major headache.
Allowing the problem to fade out on its own is often the quickest way to overcome it.
7. Broken news antenna
Successful communications efforts are designed to be newsworthy. They can involve keeping up with the news cycle to find a timely “news hook” or an opportunity to offer an expert to comment on a pressing issue. Always ask yourself, “Why should the media care? What makes this relevant and interesting?”
Nobody will write a story that isn’t news in some way, but Not Top Ten companies will put out announcement after ineffective announcement without considering a journalist’s point of view.
6. Using canned language
“We are thrilled to announce…” Too late, you’ve lost us. Strong communicators will find a more creative, human way to get a message across, rather than using boring, press release-y language.
A good rule of thumb is to phrase an announcement as you would speak in a semi-formal conversation. Not only will you come across as more eloquent, but your words are more interesting and quotable if they sound like something a person would actually say.
Even a great interview may result in a story that quotes only one or two lines from the conversation. You maximize your chances of being portrayed well if each point you make is concise and could stand on its own. A long speech full of tangents and disconnected points makes it hard for the reporter to follow. A better approach is to start with the main ideas, and be sure to hit them clearly.
4. Burning bridges
Well, definitely don’t threaten anyone—don’t be this guy. It’s important to maintain positive relationships.
If you offer to comment on a news story, and then are unavailable when a reporter takes you up on it, you’ve just put the journalist in a tight spot to get a new source before his or her deadline. Do it too much and you won’t hear back next time.
3. Not knowing your audience
Are you trying to reach policymakers on the Hill? Parents in L.A.? Professional mattress jumpers? The fate of your entire communications strategy depends on knowing your audience and keeping it in mind.
2. Giving false answers
People want to be honest, but even well-meaning people who feel put on the spot sometimes say their first plausible idea or half-remembered data point and hope it’s right.
You’re not expected to know everything instantly. It’s always better to offer to check and get back to someone than to say something incorrect and have to backpedal.
1. Forgetting the goals
Want a surefire way to make your communications plan fail? Put your tactics before your goals.
Business goals, such as winning more clients, should determine communications goals, like improving name-recognition. A strategy is an approach—building a reputation through the media as a leader in the field, for example. Tactics are the individual tools you use to make it happen.
Seeing a tactic like an op-ed placement as a goal is a common mistake; it’s only valuable if it serves a larger purpose for the company.
Effective communication keeps business goals in mind every step of the way. Losing sight of the goal means you have no plan; having no plan is very Not Top Ten.