I am in the good position that I get my clients’ opinions published regularly, but certainly not always and every time. The secret lies in “client training” and having a good knowledge of how the news media works, says Helen Ueckermann.
As a freelance media liaison consultant one has one great advantage: if you see you are not going to win the battle with your client, you can ditch them.
I learned an expensive lesson not too long ago about hanging on, trying to make things better. It was my mistake, I saw bright red lights flicker, but couldn’t get myself to say goodbye to this specific client, an executive director of one of our foremost corporate institutions. So I got fired. And I wasn’t surprised whatsoever. I saw this coming, didn’t I? I did indeed.
So what happened? Everything went well in the first year and a half, mainly because I had found a niche for this client’s story in glossy magazines. I had full-length articles about this person published in some 13 publications. And then a small in-house corporate PR team decided they wanted a part of the action, and all of a sudden I wasn’t a lone, independent and very effective agent anymore.
Instead I became hampered and bogged down by heaps of corporate red tape. They demanded meetings before any decisions were made. It took weeks to set up a meeting they could actually attend. Or they just didn’t show up because they were too busy elsewhere.
In the mean time I was also starting to run out of magazines to sell articles to. Editors and their readers have long memories, and unless your client has hot opinions and interesting and relevant comments, you don’t get them published every few months, not even every 18 or 24 months.
I also realised that this client had nothing more to give than what had already been published 13 times in different magazines and newspapers. Whenever I requested comments on current affairs or breaking news, I got a blank stare.
Still I clung to the contract because I hoped to still make something of it and also because I was paid a very good retainer. I ignored the writing on the wall and in the end was fired by a disillusioned client.
I made a resolution. In future clients were not to fire me, I would fire them.
Sounds high-handed, I know, but it is nothing more than self-protection in a corporate environment where very little is understood about the news media.
It has often been said that we need to train our corporate clients. For me this entails enlightening them about the realities regarding media coverage and to bring them down to earth as far as expectations go.
Let’s look at a few of those realities.
Those expert opinions
Opinion pieces are a dead loss to start with. Corporate types usually rate their expert opinions as super heavyweight, but in media terms the hard truth is that unless their expert opinion ticks all three key boxes at once – 1) super interesting, 2) of definite relevance to the public out there, and 3) related to something that is hot news at the time – you might as well delete it because it will go nowhere.
Self-respecting journalists will always first ask themselves this question after reading a media release: SO WHAT? If they can’t answer that question to their satisfaction, there will be no story. Unless, of course, one is prepared to buy a little piece of newspaper or magazine, and even then it will probably end up in some survey or supplement, and everybody with more than two brain cells will know that it is paid copy that has no real news value, because if it did, it would have been published regardless.
They have to become NOW
Savvy clients understand that news is NOW. Clients who want to become part of the news have to learn from that example and become NOW as well, or we are wasting our time. No use commenting three days after the event because some careful (or even fearful) corporate chain of approval sees your release trudging from one corner office to another.
It is important to educate your clients about how news works. If it takes them several days to get comments approved, they might as well never start trying to make the news to begin with. If your client is not interested in being educated, though, you are in for a difficult time.
Smart clients understand what I am telling them and act accordingly. Those who don’t or believe they know better, I ditch or don’t take on at all. My chance of being successful is non-existent in those cases, which means that my working relationship with them will sour soon enough and then they will blame ME, giving bad references about MY work to MY prospective clients. I don’t need that in my life.
Know your news
It is also important that you, as a media liaison consultant, know how news works. Know what a journalist is looking for. In fact, write your media release in such a way that the journalist has minimal work on it. Give them the quotes they want. Give them the intro they want. Think like a journo, and if you have never been one yourself, go study those news pages to educate yourself.
In my career as a journalist, I have thrown away countless news releases. Heaps of rubbish are dumped into your inbox by sexy ladies in short skirts who have no idea what is happening at any news organisation, but who have briefly convinced their clients with big budget proposals, clever buzz words and lots of mascara that they know what they are talking about.
Slogging and flogging
There is no big secret to getting your clients published in the news pages (where it counts) regularly, it is simply a matter of choosing clients who have something to say, and then a consistent daily slogging and flogging those clients into action.
This is how I do it (by no means the only way, but it works for me):
I scan the news in all newspapers and news websites twice every day, morning and early afternoon, especially business news, and look for news my clients can comment on.
For instance, if my client is a trade union, I look for labour issues and issues that affect the common working man – petrol price hikes, the cost of electricity, stoppages at mines due to accidents, acid mine water, salary negotiations, etc. If it is an engineering company, I look at what is happening in their field of expertise, say steel prices, manufacturing costs or transport by road versus rail, and so on.
Then I forward my client a link to this piece of news and have them comment on it. They comment on newsy issues several times a week, after which I write a news release, have it approved by them, and then I distribute this to all newspapers, radio stations, TV stations and news websites immediately. All this happens in the span of three to four hours, and most definitely on the same day.
Result: Not everything gets published, but journalists get to know you and your client. They may even start to call your client after a while to ask for an opinion or comment. And this is exactly what you want to achieve. You want your client to become top of mind for journalists seeking quotes.
The ultimate passion killer
Of course you don’t want to be in the top of mind category for all the wrong reasons. What journalist does not know the much resented, ultimate passion killer further cooling down the already lukewarm relations between journalists and certain PR or media liaison consultants?
It is The Call, often mere minutes after the media release lands in your inbox; and I have no trouble calling it up from my ancient past: “Did you receive it, what do you think, and will you use it?” says the voice from the PR company. Journalist: Yes it’s here, no I haven’t read it yet (it is barely visible between the other 100 releases I received today), and no, I can’t tell you whether we will use it.
“Will you phone me and mail me a newspaper when it has been published?” No, I will not.
Don’t call, even if your client asks very nicely. It won’t count in anybody’s favour.
Helen Ueckermann is national chairperson of the Southern African Freelancers Association (Safrea), and works as an independent journalist, media liaison consultant, language practitioner and broadcaster.