Scathing headlines about a bad behavior or accusations of corporate negligence can send corporate executives and public officials into a crisis management tailspin. Nothing gets administrators more rattled than negative publicity that can trigger public outrage and damage stock prices. If your goal is to generate awareness to a cause or an issue that involves hot button topics like racial discrimination, sexual harassment, public safety, fraudulent behavior or consumer protection, getting media exposure is the first step in helping right a perceived wrong. Here are seven key steps to leveraging issue-based publicity.
NO. 1 Know your Subject
Making life difficult for the other side can involve intense research. It’s a publicist’s job to understand the issues so the facts can be published in an in-depth manner. Research provides context for media “pitches” and enables a PR specialist to provide reporters with background information they need to understand the topic. Most reporters have breaking news or new stories come across their desks daily and may not have the ability to dig. It’s important to do a good part of that digging to craft a narrative that allows your clients to get the best possible press.
NO. 2 Find the Big Picture
If the goal is to make a groundbreaking impact you have to identify why the public should care. Even if the story profiles one person’s unfortunate experience, highlight why this impacts the greater community. Find a message that resonates with a wider audience, so the story prompts more interest in the issue and hopefully drives readers or viewers to initiate action.
NO. 3 Prepare your Client
Once you’re ready to launch a strategic PR campaign, make sure your side is ready for the spotlight. The protagonist of the story (your client) and their attorney must feel completely comfortable talking about the subject. Be prepared to answer questions in a succinct, on-message and honest manner. You and your client need to be available at a moment’s notice and willing to juggle schedules if you want coverage. If you’ve committed to doing press, you must answer your phone or be willing to issue a statement by email if approached by a media outlet. Have head shots ready for print or phone interviews and have a press release with quotes ready for distribution.
NO. 4 Anticipate the Backlash
Even if the cause is noble, many will be suspicious of your client’s motives. Know the issue inside and out so you can anticipate the negative feedback. For example, if you win a gigantic verdict at trial, you can expect that some people will view the court victory as a jackpot lawsuit for the plaintiff or a big payday for the lawyer. It’s important to put the dollar amount into context by explaining the egregious behavior that warrants the award amount. In the case of sexual abuse allegations, victims are often blamed for what happened. It’s important to push back and explain how the perpetrator, whether it’s law enforcement, a sports coach or a school teacher, can never get “consent” to have sex with a victim if they are in a position of authority.
NO. 5 Make the Connection
Reporters and assignment editors get pitched dozens of story ideas daily. If you don’t have a relationship with a specific journalist, make sure you are targeting the right audience. Do some basic research on which outlets and reporters have covered similar topics or issues. If the story doesn’t fall within their beat or is similar to other stories they’ve reported on in the past, the story will get overlooked. Timing is everything in news. If you can find a timely hook that makes the story feel more relevant and urgent, that is the easiest way to get a reporter’s attention.
NO. 6 Communicate Clearly
Some of the best stories are complicated but it’s important to streamline the focus. Keep the theme clear, concise and communicate the big picture. Once a reporter is interested you can fill them in on the details, but don’t overwhelm them upfront. Most good journalists will want to put time and effort into a story that has the potential for controversy. Providing documents and other materials will help journalists tell the most compelling and sympathetic story.
NO. 7 Respond Quickly
News is 24/7 and for attorneys hoping to work with mainstream media outlets, that schedule goes for you too. It’s important to distribute a press release or a pitch at the right time. It can take some time for the pitch to percolate but if you get a response, don’t sit on it until you’re back at your desk because the opportunity could pass. Make sure to respond to media requests in a timely manner and provide additional information to help the reporter get approval from managers so they can begin working on a story that will hopefully raise awareness and cause unrelenting heartburn for the other side. Gina Kaysen Fernandes and Joe Marchelewski