Sunday, January 01, 2006

Speak into the Microphone

The New York Times has a great piece today on how blogs are forcing a change in how reporters use interviews. It talks about how some organizations--upset about how they were portrayed in a particular story or how their quotes were used out of context--are fighting back by posting full transcripts. It also mentions how reporters are now posting source material as a matter of course.

It's a good piece, but also a bit of a cautionary tale for PR people. Most of my clients are smaller companies that fight for ink; very different than a major player like Google that is in a much better position to dictate its terms.

For clients like mine the article has this:

Posting of original material may be somewhat less common in the corporate world than among individuals representing themselves. Steven Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Communications, the New York public relations firm, said that posting raw material was "another tool in the tool chest" and that if a corporate client had been damaged, "you'll certainly want to get something out that's Google-able."

But, he said, a corporation must also consider whether publishing such material would alienate an influential beat reporter as well as an entire news outlet and possibly reporters for other outlets. "You have to balance the incident over the long-term relationship," he said. "But you can get your side out in a benign way. It doesn't have to be antagonistic."

We in PR spend a lot of time working to court favor with reporters so they'll take our clients seriously. If a client lashes out at that reporter you can bet the next time a relevant story comes up, it's going to be much more difficult to earn a mention. I'm sure we all have stories of clients calling us, angry, and wanting to find out "what we can do" about a particular reporter or story. The trick is to use this new weapon wisely and not to have a quick trigger finger.

The ability for anyone to be a publisher means that everyone is always on the record. During media training, we regularly tell our clients stories of post-interview, off-hand comments made on the way to the elevator that ended up in articles. When talking to a reporter you never use the phrase "off the record," because you rarely are.

I had a journalism professor who taught us ways to get information back ON the record if a subject said to keep it off. It can be done. If you want it off the record, don't say it.

It also means that everything is fair game. As a PR person I tend to be behind the scenes. In fact, most reporters would probably prefer not to tell their readers that I'm even part of the process. They run interviews with my clients and don't normally say "I got a call from a PR person and then decided to interview his/her client."

But a blogger or podcaster is a different story. I recently pitched my client to the Bluebox Podcast and found my pitch read as a reader comment.

Not my intention but I am, in fact, speaking into the microphone with every call and email.


Ed Kohler said...

It's certainly changing the role of journalism. If someone finds a subject particularly interesting, the back story in the form of an extended intereview is a valuable resource.

Candid comments during the course of a long interview could cause trouble. They may not even relate to the topic of the story, so would not be used by the reporter. If this type of content ends up being posted to the web, people may become more reluctant to do interviews by anything other than email.

Chuck Tanowitz said...

Hi Ed,

Thanks for the comment. I agree that such a thing could make some people gunshy, but the allure (and need) of publicity will keep many coming back. Many companies need that publicity to keep going.

Keep in mind that the lack of a federal shield law has not kept whistle blowers from coming forward and talking about sensitive subjects, such as spying on American citizens.

It will be more important than ever, however, for executives go through media training and adhere to their lessons.

That shouldn't take away from their personality or their ability to make outrageous statements, but just be aware that when/if they do, it'll show up somewhere.

Dan York said...


Too funny... I do a Technorati search and see who is linking to Blue Box, and here is your post talking about pitching me.

Yes, you are right, most reporters wouldn't necessarily mention your role, but there is certainly more attention paid in the blogosphere to transparency and so an outgrowth of that is being perhaps a bit more open with listeners.

In my case, too, part of it with you was quite honestly the novelty. I didn't start up the podcast to become a "media outlet", although, as you said in your e-mail (that I read) I did inadvertantly become one. You were among the first to pitch us (and kudos to you for being that tuned into things to do so) and so there was a certain amount of novelty that, in your case, resulted in your e-mail being read on the show.

The novelty has worn off, though, as others have caught on (and as my own view of the podcast has matured/evolved)... and so now I've been dealing with other PR folks in more of a traditional "background" style.

Your overall point is accurate, though. One should always assume the microphone is turned on and anything you say... or send in via e-mail... can show up on the main page of someone's blog and/or read in a podcast. The rules are changing a bit... whether it's better or worse depends largely upon your point-of-view.

Thanks for writing this post and linking to the NYT story.