Nov 01, 2004

Media Relations

Building Bridges, Not Fences & Finding your Comfort Zone

If you want to be the water quality dealer of choice in your area, let public relations enhance your brand. Eighty percent of the top 5,000 corporations use PR; however, this branding tool does not give you the control that other marketing tools provide. So you need to understand the media’s needs and how to work with them in a non-litigious manner. Do your homework, stay abreast of trends in the water quality industry, and position yourself as the community water quality expert, and the media will count on you as a reliable source.

Typically, when reporters contact you, they are looking for a professional opinion or explanation about an issue or event, and they are often on a deadline. If you want to build a relationship with them, make yourself available immediately, or get back to them as soon as possible. If you don’t, they will simply move along to another source.

Media relations is a two-way street. You may also approach them with an idea for a story. Keep a list of all your local media outlets—newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations—including the names of the reporters and editors who are likely to cover stories related to your field of expertise.

Either way, reporters want a solid news story or one with an unusual angle that makes it compelling enough to get an editor’s go-ahead.

Prepare for the Interview

To provide the foundation for an interview and create a focus in your own mind, you must first develop a public relations platform. This brief but powerful description of your company contains three or four key messages, a single paragraph with a few choice nuggets of information that explain what your company does, and how your products or services improve the lives of the media’s readers, viewers or listeners. Developing a PR platform takes time and effort, but it is vital to gaining the kind of media coverage that leaves an impression with the public.

The platform should tie in with or possibly expand on the ideas contained in your sales literature and advertising messages. Write and polish it carefully so it conveys what is unique about your company with an attitude of excitement—even passion.

It helps to supply the reporter with a fact sheet on your topic in advance of the interview. You could also offer three to five “talking points,” which may suggest an angle of inquiry the reporter might not have considered.

Watch the claims you are making. You don’t want to hear from lawyers after seeing your interview in print.

Though it is common to feel a bit anxious when talking to the media, you will feel more relaxed if you have had a chance to practice by conducting “mock” interviews with colleagues. Record the interviews and analyze them. Aim for brevity and clarity, but don’t memorize your material. Your remarks should sound spontaneous and candid and free of jargon. Your voice should be energetic and your expression animated.

During an actual interview, be a good listener so you can respond appropriately to all questions. Keep your PR platform in mind and relate your answers to the points in your platform. To avoid being misquoted, be sure to answer the questions that were asked. If you don’t fully understand a question, ask the reporter to repeat or rephrase it. And remember that it is perfectly acceptable to request that your quotes be read back to you.

What to Avoid

Often, what you don’t say is nearly as important as what you do say. Don’t volunteer information that may reflect negatively on your company, and don’t offer speculation or answer questions based on a hypothetical situation. Avoid saying, “No comment” because, in the public’s mind, that implies you have something to hide. Do correct inaccurate information but, even as you are attempting to set the record straight, do not repeat the misinformation.

In the event of a crisis, such as a product recall or scandal involving top executives, you need a crisis PR plan that you can implement immediately. Make sure that information flows through one person who is authorized to speak on behalf of the company and that the message is consistent. Check with attorneys and public relations specialists so that the message is balanced.

Any company trying to repair its image after a crisis needs to understand that it may take time. It should first rededicate its media relations efforts and adopt a mid- to long-range view. Success can be measured by monitoring the media coverage after the crisis as well as the attitudes of investors and customers.

It is best if you have already developed good media relations in a proactive way so that the media will come to you as an expert in your area and also you will build a relationship on trust. Some water quality dealers conduct their own PR media relations program and others rely on independent public relations firms to implement their professional program.

About the author

Walt Denny is president and Mary Lou Denny is the co-founder and executive vice president of Walt Denny, Inc., an advertising/public relations agency in Hinsdale, Ill. For more information, call 630-323-0555 or visit