When it comes to effective public relations, there is a lot for leaders to take in.
They have to be knowledgeable, clear, concise and confident. In addition, different rules of engagement apply depending on whether you're announcing good news, sharing your expertise or defending your brand in a crisis.
Here are common errors that top executives make, as well as how to avoid them:
Inaccessibility: It's easy for leaders who don't have a ton of experience in this area to think that their organization's media relations department should handle most interactions with journalists.
We've seen leaders who are eager for media exposure but unwilling to be the face of their company in a published report. If you're interested in protecting and enhancing the reputation of your organization, that walled-off approach can hurt instead of helping.
For instance, when a reporter approaches you with interest in your recently launched product, the biggest mistake you can make is to respond with a simple statement or some press release links. The reporter will deem you opaque, and you will miss an excellent opportunity to shape the public narrative about your company.
In a crisis, especially when a company's core values and consumer promises are under attack, leaders have to be visible. Resorting solely to using spokespeople and statements can erode credibility and be perceived as minimizing the issue. In short, it can exacerbate damage to your brand.
Like it or not, if you lead an organization, you’ll have to speak with journalists, and it's important that you be good at it.
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Lack of preparation: In good-news stories, this error can be as wasteful as not talking to journalists at all. We've seen leaders convinced that they know their business backward and forward and that media prep is a waste of time. The leader unwittingly botches the interview, only to be surprised by the resulting minimal (or negative) coverage.
Often, jargon and technical language are to blame. Framing your story in plain language is a key objective of preparation, and it should never be ignored.
In a crisis, lack of preparation can be lethal to your reputation. As well as having a crisis management process to quickly round up key facts and company decision makers, you have to prepare for the questions you are likely to face from journalists and key stakeholders.
Your answers must be straightforward and rooted in fact. Avoid "freestyling" and speculative answers, which will only pour gasoline on the reputation fire.
Key messages only: You've practiced. You've gotten your key messages down pat. Now all that stands in the way of success is making sure that journalists report them. Surely, the best way to do that is by repeating them during the interview, over and over again, regardless of what you're asked. Right? Well, not exactly.
Because doggedly sticking to key messages is seen as a security blanket for less-than-confident spokespeople, the "key messages only" or "block and bridge" approach is alive and well. If you're looking for a quick way to damage your media relationships and hurt your credibility, that’s a great tactic.
If, on the other hand, you want to elevate your brand and establish yourself and your company as industry leaders, you must think in storylines and narratives, rather than rigid key messages. In a crisis, empathy and factual clarity almost always work much better than stonewalling with talking points.
Not understanding the media: Executive PR failures can often be traced back to a basic misunderstanding of media outlets and their audiences. If you want to see PR success, you have to think like a reporter, not an advertiser. You shouldn't give the reporter your blog copy, ads and fact sheet and expect a glowing front-page story about how amazing you are.
Instead, provide something truly new, differentiated and innovative that gives the reporter’s audience value. Invest time in researching the reporters with whom you plan to speak, and ensure they have at least a passing interest in your organization or industry. With a little bit of good timing, you will get interest, coverage and the license to start establishing yourself and your colleagues as experts in your field.
Engaging with journalists is a crucial responsibility for leaders of any organization; it requires strategic planning, narrative preparation and strong execution.
A version of this post first appeared on Provident Communications.