Publicity: You cannot control the pace (at least in the news section)

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ottawa citizen alfred simpson

Alfred SimpsonToday’s Ottawa Citizen includes a story about Ottawa genius Alfred Simpson, which I first proposed to the newspaper in October.  The story, and the message of modesty coupled with extreme intelligence, is certainly worthy of some publicity, but I didn’t expect it would take this long.  Of course, it is a true news feature story — and one of the most important rules of news features is that the media outlet, not the proposer, has 100 per cent control over when and if the story appears.  Notably, as well, this story has no economic significance to my business and (if you are materialistic about it) has virtually no “public relations” value to me. (Though I suppose it can’t be harmful to be on good terms with a network of certified extreme geniuses.)

I’ll keep in touch with Alfred to see how the publicity affected his life. Probably, in his case, it won’t do too much — he has chosen a quiet, non-ambitious lifestyle, shunning material things and the spotlight for values closer to his heart. (When I met him in October, these qualities twigged my journalistic nerves — and that in part is why I proposed the story to the Ottawa Citizen, as the best real stories often involve humble, unassuming people.)

Nevertheless, I’m writing this posting to give you some ideas about media relations and publicity, with some do’s and don’ts, because a really positive news story about you and your business can catapult it to great things, and at the most limited level, give you some credibility that will attract business to you and reduce sales resistance.

Propose the story, simply, to the right person in the media in a personal way.

I got this half right.  I used an outdated directory to suggest the idea to who I thought was the Citizen’s assignment/city editor. Turns out he had moved on to other things, and only opened my email in late January — more than three months after I sent it to him. However, the former editor also quickly saw the story’s relevance, and referred it to others, and within days, a staff reporter contacted me to clarify that Simpson wouldn’t mind the story, and interviewed him.  Then we waited another three months . . .

Use other media to validate your story idea.

I referenced in my email to the editor a Scientific American story about high intelligence societies, where Simpson had been quoted. This gave “social proof” (or maybe “media proof”) to the story — and made it easier for the editor and writer to determine it would be worthy of coverage.  This is why, when you are fortunate to achieve good publicity in one media outlet, you can leverage it by referencing the article to other media — and is one technique where you may be able to turn controlled, paid publicity into more powerful free media attention.

Real news is not about your interests — it is about the readers’ interests.

You might think your great charitable contribution is newsworthy, your new showroom, your flashy marketing strategy are really worthy of front-page attention. They probably aren’t — unless the story is far more valuable to the public and intended readers than your own self-interest. Alfred Simpson achieved publicity in part because he is exceptional (First Nations person who lives extremely modestly but is likely smarter than everyone filling Scotiabank Place for an Ottawa Senators playoff), but also because he isn’t looking for attention. You need to realize that, to achieve publicity, you need to truly consider your audience’s perspective more than your own.

You absolutely cannot control the media schedule and interest.

This can be a challenge on several levels. You may want to plan your marketing strategy to draw out interest — or you have a fixed time event (such as a grand opening) that you wish to highlight. However, with one exception, you cannot force the point. Your special event might be overtaken by others — imagine your carefully structured “media event” if it happened on September 11, 2001, for example. As well, as you can see by the Alfred Simpson example, a soft story, that I thought might be useful for the newspaper to be published after several weeks delay, perhaps in mid-December, finally made it to the press in mid-April, six months after I proposed it.

You can guide, but cannot control, the content.

Neither I nor Alfred Simpson could tell the reporter which questions to ask, who else to interview, or how to “slant” the story.  We can influence things — by suggesting the story, referencing other published articles, or giving obvious clues about others to interview. (The writer interviewed Simpson’s son, who has another worthy story, not covered in this feature, and the Prometheus Society’s president, based in Toronto — helpful for the newspaper to justify forwarding the article to others in the newspaper’s network — meaning the story may be republished in several other Canadian cities.)

Is there a way around these challenges? The feature profile or special advertising features we and other media outlets publish undoubtedly change the rules of the game. “Advertorials” have editorial-style credibility, but you control when and where they are published, and can be sure the message you communicate is what you want to express.

Of course, most advertorials look and read like advertorials — they are often in a distinctive typeface, and the writing is the stilted and puffy stuff communicating the business’s “officially correct” message.

In our publications, when we publish advertiser-supported features, we seek a more subtle and credible writing style, while equally letting readers know this content is not pure independent journalism. I realize that editorialized publicity is far more effective than conventional advertising, and virtually never let public relations people “plant” stories for the interests of their clients — unless we have some advertising revenue, as well. (Yeah, you can consider this ethically questionable, but why should I as a businessperson-publisher give free publicity to businesses paying PR people for “free” publicity in my publications?)

The Alfred Simpson story, however, has virtually nothing to do with my business. It is just a good story. And I enjoy sharing stories about great people who are humble, modest and would not otherwise seek out the publicity.

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