Some years ago, I was sitting in a hotel room with the CEO of a client waiting for a journalist to arrive for a briefing. It was 15 minutes after the appointed time and the client was becoming visibly restless.
I tried reaching the reporter via his mobile. No reply. I tried his office. “He’s out at lunch,” they told me.
A couple of minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was the journalist. As he entered the room, a strong smell of alcohol followed him in. I had a bad feeling about this.
Without a word of apology for keeping us waiting, he flopped clumsily into a seat. He then proceeded to take out a writing pad and began a hostile interrogation of my client based on a rumor he’d heard that morning.
In 25 years of working in PR, this nightmare scenario remains unique and easily the most unexpected.
The days of the ‘wet lunch’ are long gone. These days, you are more likely to conduct one-on-one interviews via phone or video chat. Furthermore, journalists almost always stick to the discussion points agreed upon in advance.
Earning desired media coverage is not easy. It requires meticulous research, insightful pitches, and preparing the client for all eventualities.
So what sort of surprises might be expected? Well, here are a few examples:
1. The reporter takes issue with client claims
Most journalists have professional respect for those they interview.
Nonetheless, there are a few who will make life awkward by adopting a skeptical approach. It’s a technique calculated to test the mettle of the interviewee and probe the extent of their industry knowledge.
Preparation is vital. It starts with providing the client with some background reading a few days in advance of the meeting – this is standard PR practice.
A well-researched briefing document of this kind includes all the key story elements, takeaway messages, relevant industry statistics and examples of relevant articles the journalist has written over the past month or so. Yet, clients are busy people and often they will simply not have time to read it. Even if they have read it, they cannot be expected to internalize every detail.
This is why PR professionals should always be present. At moments of stickiness or hesitation, they can chip in with a relevant statistic or a key message taken from the briefing notes to deftly ease the conversation back into areas of common ground. The key is to be helpful when needed but otherwise to let the conversation flow as naturally as possible.
2. The client is apprehensive
The client may not always be the CEO. Sometimes, the spokesperson is a middle-ranking manager chosen for their product knowledge or their familiarity with a particular vertical market.
It may well be their first experience of talking to the media. Often, they will have had only a limited amount of training beforehand. To build confidence, PR professionals must ensure the conversation does not drift off topic. Equally, if the spokesperson starts to use jargon or hyperbole, or go deep down a rabbit hole, they must be ready to jump in to prevent the journalist from losing interest.
On such occasions, the client’s senior management will be apprehensive and ask for a detailed account of what was said. They may even go so far as to request sight of copy in advance of publication.
Everyone in PR knows this is a non-starter. It’s an unwritten rule that you only get to see the story after it has been published.
Occasionally, if the subject is particularly sensitive, a journalist will agree to read the spokesperson’s quotes back over the phone to check them for accuracy.
3. The reporter asks to follow up with customers/analysts
We’ve all been there. The interview goes well. The client has covered the main points eloquently and authoritatively. The takeaway message has been left in no doubt. The correspondent has made copious notes throughout and clearly intends to write up the story.
Then as the meeting wraps up, the journalist turns round Columbo-style and asks for the details of a customer or industry analyst they can contact for a second opinion. If these are not available on the spot, the PR professional must faithfully promise to pass them on as soon as possible.
Occasionally, this is not so straightforward. There may follow a frantic scramble to identify a good source willing and able to speak to a publication at short notice. To make life simple, it’s always a good idea to give a couple of suitable contacts the heads-up during the preparation stage.
Returning briefly to my own worst-case scenario, I decided I’d seen and heard enough. I politely and professionally brought the meeting to an early close.
In summary, there are many ways for media briefings to spring an element of surprise.
However, with the right preparation, there is really very little in an interview situation that cannot be managed.
There’s no substitute for doing your homework on the journalist and the subject matter thoroughly and knowing the right time to step in and help out.
In short, when it comes to media briefings, always ask yourself what could be the worst scenario possible and be ready for the unexpected.