How to be an outstanding PR spokesperson
Public Relations is challenging. Because it is by nature unpredictable, with no precise formula for achieving a desired result, it can be particularly stressful both for those who practice it as a profession and those called upon to be the standard bearers for their companies in the face of consistent media scrutiny. In this post we’ll focus on the latter.
The spokesperson’s role is to represent the business well, on the front lines with the media. Over the course of more than a decade putting clients in front of reporters to tell their stories, offer insights and provide access to their particular expertise, I’ve seen a wide range of skill levels, along with many successes and more than a few failures. Some are simply not cut out for continuous at-bats with different journalists and publications – you can see the pain on their faces at the very thought of an unscripted encounter with a media outlet. These don’t last long – better suited to advertising, and should seek safe harbor in words bought with coin. Others take time to develop, but with the proper coaching, counsel and repeated practice, they become very skilled at engaging with members of the Fourth Estate. But every now and then, we discover a company representative who seems born to champion the brand publicly and does so with an ease that makes one marvel. These spokes-folk are rare indeed.
It was apparent not long after taking on Riskalyze as a client that Aaron Klein, their CEO, possessed a special gift with regard to media relations. He intuitively seemed to “get it”, almost immediately. Klein seemed to take to PR like an athlete who knows he’s going to perform well, has put in the practice reps, proceeds to memorize the playbook, and then runs out on the field and takes over the game. Its fun to watch. I could go on about Aaron’s savvy as a company representative with the press, but in order to understand his approach, and to glean as much as you can from it to incorporate into your own PR playbook, I sat down with “The Natural” himself.
Lahita: “With regard to the media, and in a PR context, how do you approach the press?”
Klein: “I would say that for me, the biggest thing is understanding that the reporter has a job to do. And it’s to write an interesting story. The only way you are going to be useful to them is if you can give them something interesting that helps their story. For example, if you don’t like the angle of the story, you aren’t going to change that by throwing cold water all over their angle – so you need to say something that creates conflict in the story and at least gets your point of view across or simply say – ‘another way to think about this is…’ and try to pitch an alternative they might consider. But the key is to be cognizant of a simple fact – the reporter has a job to do. They are getting measured on whether they produce interesting content that drives clicks and shares – telling them to go away or not write about something is never going to succeed, so if you are going to step out onto the field, play the game the right way.”
Lahita: Exactly, what you are saying is so critical for spokespeople to grasp. The media is not your adversary – they simply have a job to do and they are going to do it. Journalists report to editors and are accountable to their readers.
Klein: I’m well trained by way of the FiComm playbook.
Lahita: Ha! Thanks but the Force is strong in you young Skywalker. So outside of the interview briefing sheets we give you, how do you prepare to speak to a reporter?
Klein: It depends on the reporter. You need to work to build solid relationships and credibility with reporters. You do this not to curry favor but because it helps to know them in advance, where they are coming from, how they might attack a story. You can better understand what they need, more quickly cut to the chase and identify what they are looking for and how you might add something interesting. On the flip side of that coin, if I haven’t done an interview with a reporter before, I’ll pull up their LinkedIn page to learn a bit about them. I love the FiComm brief, because you include the last few stories they’ve written and reading those gives you a great sense of their style and how they think about and approach various topics. I try to assess: ‘what are they asking me about and how do I make sure that I am communicating only that which I want to communicate?’ Because as much as I want to cater to their interests and help them out with their story, I too have a job to do and my job is to communicate something very clearly that represents Riskalyze well. So for example if there are one or two things that I want to get across my job is to prepare to have 3-4 ways to say each of those 1-2 things. This isn’t done to be deceptive or dodgy or annoying, but to try to find the positioning that makes the lightbulb go off, adds color to the story. You don’t want to sound one-dimensional.
Lahita: So what are your expectations following every interview? What results are you after?
Klein: The most basic objective always needs to be – have a good conversation. Provide something of value to the reporter that leaves them feeling good about you as a source of information and expert opinion. Obviously it’s great to show up in the article. . . but that should not be viewed as something owed, it must be earned. I go in to interviews with a specific thing that I would love to see communicated to our industry and candidly I try to offer that thing up during the course of the chat two or three times, in the hopes that if what I’m putting down is being picked up, it has a good shot of inclusion in the piece. And if that happens, if gives me something powerful to share via social and other channels. I can tweet my thoughts all day long – but when my thoughts are in InvestmentNews or Wealth Management or Financial Planning magazines, for example, they carry added credibility.
Lahita: How do you always come to the interview with your energy level high, your game face on, ready to go? I’ve never heard you distracted on an interview and its clear you want to be there – what’s the secret?
Klein: I think that when you look at media opportunities, and we’ve had a lot, I view every one of those as really precious and really important. You can’t take them for granted. There are only so many publications, reporters and stories to be written and so the opportunity to be in one of those is an incredible opportunity. For me, part of it is just thinking – ‘I have to be all there because this is my one chance to make an impression on each reporter I speak to’ – if I am at 50% with one reporter that is 100% of their impression of me, and that could be it. I may never get the chance again.
Lahita: What’s your favorite medium for engaging with the press?
Klein: I love the in-person interview. I found the media tours that we’ve done together, two now, to be really energizing – a blast frankly! The opportunity to go face to face and consistently deliver a message throughout the day is pretty cool. Conferences offer a similar experience albeit not in as linear of a fashion. Then again with a phone interview its easier to use notes! I love having my core points typed out to reference. The main thing is, manage to each medium, and take into account advantages and disadvantages of each. I love them all, and can’t pick a favorite!
Lahita: So I’m just starting out as a firm or a spokesperson, doing PR for the first time – what’s your advice?
Klein: Well I have a few pieces of advice. Number one, start a Twitter account – seriously. Follow journalists and outlets you are interested in engaging with on Twitter. Before we could afford a PR firm, we had some success getting familiar with reporters, and vice versa, via that social channel. Secondly, as fast as you can afford it, start to engage in proactive PR – if you have news and something interesting to share, it is very helpful to have someone helping you to consistently find ways to get the word out. And lastly, you have to want this – a reporter can tell if you are disinterested or only in it to serve your own interests and it turns them off. Don’t sell. Make them want to buy. There’s a huge difference.
Take heart. Anyone with the right attitude, dedication to keep at it, and more importantly keep improving, can become very good at playing the PR game. It will not be easy but if you pay attention to how the best do it, I promise you that not only will the results of your forays into the realm of the press yield riper fruit, but you might even enjoy the adventure.