Thursday, January 22, 2009

The most worthwhile PR book you can buy

A little more than 10 years ago, I bought the only public relations book that I ever felt had long-lasting value, Spin! How To Turn The Power of The Press To Your Advantage by Michael Sitrick.

Back then, Sitrick handled crisis communications for mostly corporate clientele but because of his company's reputation, Hollywood celebrities came calling when they found themselves in hot water. He's received many accolades over the years from the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, and Forbes. I remember his name popping up recently with his representation of supermarket magnate/Democratic donator/media mogul Ron Burkle.

Being based in Hollywood, red flags can certainly go up that this would be another shallow "you can learn everything about PR by watching Entertainment Tonight" screed like Howard Bragman's current "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?" book.

Thankfully, the book is far more grounded than that. Yes, there's an undercurrent of strong ego running through it, as it seems everything Sitrick does is flawless and magic. Yet overshadowing it is an overwhelming practicality and organization that every publicist can find invaluable.

Instead of tales of rookie mistakes or how to write a press release, Sitrick gets right into the psyche of reporters and how the media operates. He does not treat them in a condescending way, but very matter of factly in what they need and how they tend to think.

There are nine rules of spin, according to Sitrick. In each chapter, he explains each one in detail and why it is so, then gives autobiographical corporate and show biz anecdotes where he applied these conventions. Although he does not name names, you can kind of figure out a couple of them (like actress Kim Basinger).

Don't be fooled by the fact his stories involve the entertainment business, but unlike something shallow like making up fake quotes or escorting a star across the red carpet, it's really down and dirty reputation and corporate matters which are applicable to many fields. In every sense, it's like the Wizard of Oz pulling back the curtain so you can look inside and see how thinking strategically can pay off handsomely. Sitrick is ruthless, and you have to admire him for showing how it's done.

I always believed that a large part of what separates PR greatness from hacks is how you think. You may debate Sitrick's stature in the field or the methods he advocates, but he's proven amazingly right on the money when I've employed his theories.

I was so impressed with his dissection of the rules of spin, I summarized them and handed them out to new employees for many years. I will share them in a nutshell with you using his words because I can't say them any better, but I certainly repeat them often in the course of business:

  • NEWS MEDIA ABHOR A VACUUM: If you don't tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. And chances are, theirs won't be a version you will like.
  • ALWAYS RESPOND -- AND RESPOND FULLY -- TO A PRESS INQUIRY, NO MATTER HOW FAR OFF BASE: Never let a mistake or a misrepresentation go unchallenged.
  • PREEMPT THE SITUATION: Seize the momentum and put the other guy on the defensive by getting your story out first and defining the issue. The first major media story invariably sets the tone for the media coverage that follows.
  • THE FACTS DON'T SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES: Be accessible -- and be prepared to educate the press. It is not the media's job to get it right -- it is yours.
  • THINK STRATEGICALLY: Understand your fundamental objectives and stay focused on them. Thinking strategically means refusing to accept situations at face value.
  • FIND A LEAD STEER AND THE MEDIA HERD WILL FOLLOW: Find one reporter willing to push your story in a different direction, and the entire media pack may change its perspective in the blink of a news cycle.
  • FIGHT BACK: When and where it's called for, don't be afraid to put your adversaries under the wheel of pain.
  • FACE FORWARD: Don't defend past mistakes or get bogged down in apologies; instead, explain how you'll make the future better.
  • THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE: Credibility is the spin doctor's ultimate resource. Think before you speak. No matter what, don't lie -- lying is the one sin the media will neither tolerate nor forgive.

Sitrick's book is out of print but you can find many used reasonably-priced copies on Amazon or eBay. It's a veritable bargain when you can learn how to think strategically and aggressively from a pro who doesn't mind revealing the rough stuff.

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