If there is one thing I don’t like about public relations (PR), it’s the perception of spin. Sure, I have on a few occasions laughed along with the hints and winks because, well, it is the point of reference for so many and in an odd sort of way it helps them grasp what I am trying to relay about staying on message. I have had bosses and clients alike tell me to ‘spin’ this or that. But what I and they typically mean is to ‘do my magic’ and write it better. Or at least I hope that’s what they meant.
Regardless, PR isn’t nor should it be spin. Despite some perceptions, you simply cannot spin a lie. You will get caught and it is just not worth it. If you want to work in PR, you do indeed need to live by the PRSA Code of Ethics.
For many corporate clients, the ‘aha’ moment comes when they think of PR messaging as similar to sales messaging. While It isn’t exactly the same (there are very important differences), it is helpful to think of certain aspects of the typical sales approach ‑ you listen first, put your best foot (features) forward and you don’t dwell on any lacking qualities. But number one, you are always prepared to respond to questions with a circle back to your best features.
As a matter of fact, one of my favorite roles in PR is preparing executives for media interviews. Just like any sales interaction, you really do need to be overly prepared. Your PR counsel should anticipate the questions you are likely to receive and when possible, role play the responses.
Is that spinning? No. Is that positioning? Probably. Is that an attempt to deceive? No! Getting the attention of a swamped reporter – whether they represent traditional or new media – is challenging enough without having the opportunity for coverage fall apart because the spokesperson couldn’t tell an effective story. Rehearsing and/or providing briefing materials helps the executive think through how to concisely present the news story – i.e. the desired message.
Executives are busy, too, of course, and not all buy into the idea that they need to plan for media interviews just like they would a customer meeting. But when they do, I can tell you from 25+ years of helping execs prepare – prep sessions significantly increase the likelihood the story will come out the way you hoped!
There is another important reason for a prep session before media interviews. Just like the rest of us, reporter personalities differ. Some like to use the gruff curmudgeon personality to see if you reveal anything ‘juicier’ when cornered. Some are sweet as pie and occasionally bad for the diet. Some are like wolves if sheep’s clothing with the claws coming out after the initial pleasantries. Most are appreciative and anticipating talking to a really great expert that will make their job easier by understanding the audience, offering important perspective and a “real” quote (meaning, not the corporate speak in the press release). All are simply doing their job and finding the way that works best for them.
The personality you get may be the result of trial and error to find an approach that actually gets the info they need, or by nature of the pressure of the job, impending deadlines, or yes, even an historical annoyance with interviews that end up being more of a time suck than anything beneficial for their story. Have to admit, that sounds like everyone I know in business and PR, too. We all have our good days, our bad days and our good and bad ways.
Another good reason to prep? Generally speaking, the executive isn’t expecting a reporter will challenge their answers. I mean, outside of a big stakes sales pitch or investor interaction, how many people does an executive interact with in a day that actually challenge their statements (to their face)?! So it is important to guide and counsel the executive on how to manage their limited time slot if the questions start going off topic. They need to think ahead and plan how to circle back and still relay the desired messages.
When it comes to preparing executives for media interviews, you’ll want a seasoned PR counsel who can gain the exec’s trust enough to be forthright with advice. If your PR counsel is attempting to ‘spin’ or gloss over how the exec is doing during prep – that is a disservice. In many ways, it’s not about the exec at all. It’s about leveraging their expertise – their clout and knowledge – to tell the story. Bottom line, it’s about the company and relaying the company message – not stroking the exec’s ego (although that is often one of the biggest hurdles to work with – hence another reason for good counsel/exec rapport).
And while I rather enjoy being able to think fast with immediate feedback and/or devil’s advocate questions that the exec’s response could conjure up, it’s certainly not about me (as PR counsel) either. It really is all about presenting a company story that resonates, educates and interests the reporter’s audience. No spin required!
- There’s no spinning it differently: ethics in public relations takes ongoing work (prsay.prsa.org)
- 10 Things PRs Wished Journalists Knew (epiphanysearch.co.uk)
- Why PR Needs SEO (and Vice Versa) (raventools.com)