Use Your Senses Not Just the Polycom

Sherlock-Holmes-007It’s tempting when working in public relations to jump on a story that you think the press will like. Maybe you’re on a conference call with your client and they mention the beginnings of a new product. A small spark builds in your gut telling you that this may be the making of the next release or pitch to a reporter. But why do you feel this way?

You need to examine your motivation. Do you have a contract to deliver X number of press releases annually? Secure so many clippings? Post daily to your client’s social media pages?

If this is the driving force behind your “inspiration” you need to stop. Stop right there and look at yourself. Do you see what I see? A public relations consultant grasping at straws, reacting to their environment rather than providing the expertise that they professed to offer in the new client pitch meeting.

I’m a big believer in immersion when it comes to story telling. I’ve been in your shoes and it was torture. Sitting in a conference room listening intently and taking reams of notes as your client is poked and prodded by your managers for the golden ticket that will open the gates to a colorful and wondrous story. I would rather visit the dentist for weekly teeth cleanings than sit through another one of those.

When I went in-house I was amazed at just how many stories were waiting to be picked up. They just lay there, as inviting as a dog awaiting a belly rub. The more I roamed around, peered around corners, walked into rooms without any forethought, and spoke with staff members the more I realized that every company has stories. So why weren’t they getting across the phone lines or via Skype?

The answer was simple: clients rarely possess the skills to identify stories. It’s not in their DNA. They have jobs to do and that’s why they were hired. You most likely speak with their head of comms or marketing. They have agendas that focus on raising revenues. If they can tell a good story along the way then that’s great but they need to see results.

This is where you come in. You know what makes a good story and you know that it’s directly tied to revenue. You can pick a good story out from a load of horseshit in record time. The problem is you can’t see the barnyard from your conference room. (Ok, I’ll stop the farm talk.)

The point is, you know that Joe and Jane Public will buy your client’s product if it has the latest bells and whistles but what about the better story. Hopefully your client’s product is solid so what will separate them from the competition? Maybe they just helped a line worker pay mortgage bills to keep afloat in a down economy or supported the booster club at the local high school. But you wouldn’t know these things unless you went there and saw them for yourself. Even if they tell you these things you may miss the real story waiting in the gooey center of these little nuggets. Believe me, they all go further and deeper than you can imagine from your state of the art Polycom conference phone.

While you should use calls for updates, you need to put boots on the ground. The problem is that most site visits are brief, lasting only a few hours and consisting mainly of lunch. But how can it last longer when your client is several states away and can’t pony up the cash to reimburse you for your flight to their HQ? (Sorry, another farm animal snuck in.)

While the hiring of long distance clients is a topic best covered another day, I can say that I’ve had success training people on the ground to identify stories. It really surprises me how media training frequently consists of interview prep and not much else. Media training should include large doses of teaching staff members to uncover news quickly and share it with the comms dept and your agency to review.

While this is more of a rambling dialogue today, it may hold a nugget to get you looking at how you go about uncovering stories. For me, it’s described nearly perfect in this video from The Boston Globe. In it, these reporters knew that to understand a story they needed to immerse themselves in it.

If there is one takeaway from this post, please remember that you can’t describe truthfully that which you do not experience firsthand.

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