Friday, February 26, 2010

How to speed up press release approvals

Sometimes it's better not to write a press release at all, just to avoid the horrid approval process. You had might as well just pick up the phone and call each journalist individually with your news.

Once any legal department gets involved, you may was well go on vacation and be well rested just in time for the document's sign off.

Last year, I was working on a project when a press release draft about the results of a joint venture was sent my way that needed to be updated. Apparently, it was originally written three months earlier, and for one reason or another, fell into suspended animation, only to be revived.

Over a period of seven days, I edited and rewrote the release a few more times to bring it up to date with current data and results, carefully positioning it with my client and their partner so that we hit on all the right points. My client said, and I do recall this because I have the e-mail: "We should send this out next Thursday."

That "next Thursday" never arrived. You see, the partner cited examples from third party companies in the release, and they needed their sign-offs on their mere mentions. Suddenly, progress on the release went dead silent.

Like crop circles and Stonehenge, we may never know the results of this joint venture.

As much as I disdain press release reliance, I have discovered over the years that there are ways to avoid the dreaded approval delays:

* Don't write a press release. If it looks like the approval process is going to be a marathon, why bother cranking out another masterpiece? Get agreement from all parties that the process may hinder the news, start picking up the phone and call the right reporters who would be interested in this news. Accompany that with personally-written e-mails explaining what's going on.

You'll find that there are some companies who are allergic to press releases. They break out in hives and get cold feet when something is committed in an official form on paper. But somehow, spreading the news by more "casual" means is acceptable -- telephone or casual e-mail.

* Avoid third party quotes. This is especially true if your announcement involves multiple parties. What you do for one, you must do for all. The only quote should come from your client or employer, and leave it at that. Once you start soliciting all the outside parties for official quotes, you are not only setting yourself up for an unreadable bloated release, but you might as well get on the local DMV line because that will probably move much faster by comparison.

* Give them deadlines. Admittedly, this is a touchy approach, but I've seen it work, depending on the tone and and wording. You want sign off on a timely basis? Inform them of your deadline -- all comments and corrections must be back by this date. You want to get a little harsher? Add that if you don't hear from them by that date, you'll assume everything in the release is satisfactory. Let them know a specific date that the release is "absolutely" going out. You have to be a good judge of who you're dealing with when imposing deadlines. Usually a friendly, firm stating of the due date is all you need.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Who owns your public relations ideas?

If ideas are the premiere currency of public relations, then who owns them when you're either pitching a new client or you've contributed them to a current one?

Creativity is desired at such a premium, that I would offer a special bi-annual monetary bonus to employees who could devise unsolicited PR ideas which our clients could embrace and execute. I was looking for what I dubbed "in the shower ideas," the kind that would suddenly come to you while you were under the spray.

In my long experience, really good PR ideas are tough to come by, whether they are solicited by a client or not. Not everybody has the same ability to imagine, free associate and be so plugged, so when the lightening bolt hits, you can't present it to the client fast enough.

Ownership of ideas created for a potential client presentation is becoming a hot potato issue in the advertising world, as agencies are fighting for their intellectual property rights. In a recent Advertising Age article, "the 4A's has seen a spike in recent months in agencies complaining about clients' desire to own ideas and work shown during the new-business process."

A 4A's EVP explains: "The nature of the complaints is that [requests for proposals] will come out, and, buried in the 14th paragraph of a [non-disclosure agreement], is a paragraph or sentence that says, 'Oh by the way, and in addition to protecting the confidentiality of our agreement, we the client want to own all ideas and work product that comes out of the review process.'"

For public relations professionals wooing potential clients, this is a tricky situation because not only do you want them to like you but you want them to love your ideas and believe me, it's your ideas that separate you from the pack.

Yet, what is going to prevent them from hiring another firm and telling them to execute your ideas, masqueraded as their own? It's enough to drive a conspiracy-minded person mad!

PRNewser just polled their readers about the topic: "Only 30% of respondents said they would decline to participate in a pitch if they were asked to do 'custom work' for said pitch. Another 55% said they would work up a plan, but keep it 'somewhat generic' to mitigate any potential risk."

I'd like to know how the readers would feel if they were paid to do the custom work. The economy has tilted the tables and has some PR firms bending over backwards to generate revenue, even at the cost of drawing up a detailed plan, and even if they are not qualified to do the work.

Safeguarding the results of your hard-earned brainstorm means enlisting the insight of your friendly and knowledgeable digital lawyer.

"Ideas are not protected by Copyright; however, there are practices that may be undertaken to protect ideas, as well as some legal theories by which ideas may be protected, provided the Copyright Act does not serve to preempt such protection," says Robert deBrauwere, Partner, Digital Media Practice Group, at Pryor Cashman LLP. "The most practical means to protect an idea is via contract in the form of a non-disclosure and confidentiality agreement, which should be executed by the party to whom the idea will disclosed in advance of any disclosure."

His suggestion is an interesting conceit, but I'm not quite sure a potential client would be receptive to signing that kind of release ahead of time, especially if none of the other contenders are doing the same. It may also send a subtle signal of distrust. Larger companies may be able to get away with it, but smaller firms may need to take a wilier route.

deBrauwere does suggest "you should always affix a copyright notice to any work of authorship. It will likely serve to dissuade people from copying and it will also serve as notice of a claim of ownership, to the extent that any copyrightable expression may be taken from such work (as opposed to mere ideas)."

What about writing a disclaimer along the lines of "This information is being provided solely for the purposes of this project proposal and may not be used for other purposes without the author's permission?"

This tact may be "helpful because it can create a contractual obligation, either a formal contract or an implied-in-fact contract," says deBrauwere.

Another way to protect yourself is to follow what the COO of the career-counseling network Five O'Clock Club suggested in a November 2006 Wall Street Journal article: "Exclude necessary details that would then make [a proposal] impossible to implement."

There's no reason to issue the "War and Peace" of PR plans for any RFP or presentation, because you are just giving away far too much and practically asking for it to be filched.

You were invited to the table in the first place because your guns should be loaded -- your reputation and track record in the potential client's field, credentials, the support of current and former clients and ideally journalists as well.

Any potential client should be able to detect in a live conversation that you know what you are talking about and how you can handle their engagement. Either your personalities are going to jive or they won't. Your attitude and enthusiasm will go a long way.

And "you've got to show some leg," as New York Times media columnist David Carr likes to say.

There's nothing wrong with unveiling a general game plan and providing a few practical details. You've got some killer creative ideas? Just share one or two and explain them on the surface -- how they'll work and what the results could be.

In his excellent book, How To Acquire Clients, Alan Weiss advises to provide some small free value early on: The best way to sell your ability to help is, well, to help! The philosophy you create is, "If I'm getting this much help from this person, how much better off would I be if I actually hired him?" You obviously can't provide in-depth solutions or recommendations... but you can provide observations, experiences from elsewhere (which is why, supposedly, you're there to begin with), questions and ideas, which gives the prospect two impressions: 1) There are some alternatives available that perhaps his or her own organization (or other consultants) haven't considered and 2) You are one smart person."

Granted, you are walking on a fine line to both thrive in our profession and stand out as individuals among the competition.

If your ideas are hot, you'll see the "click" in their heads because as I said earlier, great ideas are worth a million bucks, and you'll sense their excitement. One of the most common reasons clients ditch their PR firms is finding they have no ideas or ran out of them, so you know how much they'll be valued up front.

However, once I'm on board with a client, the line is crossed and my ideas are freely theirs. If some lightening bolt hits me about an ingenious press event while standing in a crowded subway car, I can't tell my client fast enough. And if they love it and all the pieces make sense, I don't even think twice about donating that baby.

I've given up some pretty amazing concepts over the years to clients, and a few are still being done today, long after we've parted ways. I created "The Good Housekeeping Good Buy Awards" almost a dozen years ago to help put that magazine's famous Institute on the press map every holiday shopping season. Those awards are still being held today. Way back when, I pushed long and hard to get SmartMoney magazine staff writer Jean Chatzky on the Today show to do personal finance segments, and now she's a brand name who has written a bunch of books, speaks around the country and still an NBC-TV star.

But just like anything else in public relations, you can't run out of ideas. I have to keep coming up with them, giving away my babies for the good of the clients. If your clients succeed, you succeed.

Ideas are the most valuable currency of public relations. Be selective and protective with what ideas you unveil when presenting to a possible client, but you must turn into a philanthropist giving them away generously and happily once they've signed on the dotted line.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How to play "PR Ping Pong"

Everybody's doing a brand new dance, now.

It's called "PR Ping Pong."

Here's how you play: a reporter calls you up and you decline to comment. They then call up the other party in the story, and they refer the reporter to their spokesperson, and they decline to comment too.

And around and around it goes.

Today, lucky Los Angeles Times reporter Ben Fritz got his chance to play PR Ping Pong. Investigating Viacom's SEC filing to get a "substantial portion" of the $150 million payout it gave Harmonix, the makers of the Rock Band video game, his first natural stop was calling Viacom.

"A spokesman for Viacom declined to elaborate. Harmonix Chief Executive Alex Rigopulos referred questions to a spokesman, who also declined to comment."

I fear both Viacom and Harmomix put reporter Ben Fritz into some kind of journalism infinite loop matrix where he may never hear a comment again and is fated to spend the rest of his days bouncing back and forth between silent spokespeople.