The power of journalists to make and break brands makes it vital to develop strong, effective and targeted relationships.
As a journalist, I saw my fair share of media relations disasters. Having always worked in open plan offices, the worst of these would quickly work their way around the team, with plenty of ridiculing and jokes to follow.
That could be embarrassing enough for the unfortunate soul who had made the faux-pas. But it was nothing compared to the instant and often global publicity that even the smallest of mistakes will now receive, thanks to social media and blogs.
While some might think that the digital revolution had diminished journalists’ influence, it has, in fact, done quite the opposite.
Almost every journalist now uses digital platforms and most have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of followers. That includes a company’s target audience, customers and potential investors. One negative comment from them can bring a company’s reputation crashing down in seconds. Journalists are opinion formers. Readers care what they have to say and readers are ultimately customers. The potential influence on a business’ reputation is therefore enormous and not to be underestimated. They can, and do, make and break brands. If the consumer affairs editor on a national newspaper, for example, rubbishes your client, they have instantly tarnished their standing.
And the digital world, however fleeting it may seem, is in fact rather long-lasting. Anything put on Twitter, Facebook or a blog remains on the web and could come up in any online searches that a potential customer or investor makes of the brand at a later date.
And it is almost always the small things that will cause most reputational damage. Companies will spend months along with millions of pounds on big communications projects. But, all this can be ruined in an instant by one tiny mistake, such as addressing an email to the wrong journalist — something that happens far more than you might imagine. Such examples by big brands are plentiful. Just a couple of nuggets of PR errors from my time as a journalist include a global brand sending out a press release on a supposedly breakthrough new product that was going to revolutionise skincare – but failing to put the name of the product or brand in the release; to a large car manufacturer offering an exclusive story — which then appeared in a rival paper the day before we were due to publish.
Most journalists are overworked and time-pressed — and they don’t suffer fools gladly.
And given that ‘exposing bad practice’ is a cornerstone of journalism, most cannot resist the chance to name and shame anyone who has slipped up. And be in no doubt — they will name the individual PR, the agency and the company they were working for.
The smallest mistake can turn the PR into the story — which is always a communications disaster. It will damage the client’s reputation as well as that of the individual who sold the story in. And of course, the initial story will be lost.
The journalistic network is small and tight. It means that when a reporter broadcasts mistakes, their colleagues will read this too and will often get involved in the debate. Before you know it, a whole host of influential national media journalists are criticising the company and its reputation is decimated.
So how is this minefield best avoided? Well, primarily, through not making such errors.
The importance of building up strong relationships and trust with journalists is essential. This means that mistakes are less likely to happen. And, if you do slip-up, they will likely be more forgiving if they already have a strong relationship with you.
Targeting the right person is also key. Round robin emails rarely get coverage. Journalists can spot them a mile off and if they know a story has gone out widely, they won’t be inclined to cover it. And blanket emailing 400 journalists leaves you wide open to making a mistake – you only need one email to have the wrong name on it and the company and PR person will almost certainly be named and shamed online.
Instead, target the most appropriate writer for the story and tell them why you have chosen them. This far diminishes the possibility of making small mistakes which could have huge consequences, and it builds up and strengthens relationships.
But, slip ups will happen from time to time and in these cases, reacting quickly is essential.
A wall of silence is the worst possible reaction. If a journalist has tweeted about a faux-pas, then they are likely to tweet again if you acknowledge the mistake and right the wrong fast. This is the best possible publicity after a mistake. However daunting it may seem in such situations, it is essential to engage with them online.
It is also vital to learn how the key journalists for your clients use digital platforms. Make sure you follow them on social networking sites and read their blogs. Be aware of how they use tools such as Twitter and Facebook and the type of posts they put up. This is now as important as following what they do in the publications they write for.
Good reputations take years to build up and cement, but they can be completely shattered in an instant. The digital revolution has exacerbated this hugely. The influence of journalists has therefore never been greater, making it more important than ever to manage a client’s online reputation by engaging with and nurturing strong links with reporters. They are, more often than not, the link between businesses and their customers and the public’s main source of information about them.
Dana Gloger is a Senior Account Manager at Portland, where she advises clients on best practise in managing the press and broadcast media.
Prior to joining Portland, Dana was Consumer Affairs Editor at the Mail on Sunday, a post she also previously held at the Daily Express.