Imagine: Several Louisville, Ky. gas stations receive a shipment of tainted gasoline, causing the fuel gauges in customers’ vehicles to malfunction. It’s a story that affects everyone, and you can bet local stations will be covering it like hawks during all their morning, afternoon, and evening newscasts. All sorts of questions will be asked: What’s wrong with the gas? How does a fuel gauge work? Can it be fixed? How much is it going to cost? What does a fuel gauge look like? What are the warning signs that a fuel gauge is about to give out?
These are all questions easily answered by the owner of an auto shop. It’s great PR. He can stand there in front of his shop, with the company logo clearly visible behind him and his name and title in the chyron at the bottom of the screen, and tell a Kentuckiana audience how to care for their vehicles. And it’s free.
The trouble is, most of them won’t do it.
This actually happened in May 2004 while I was assignment desk editor in a television newsroom. I learned a lot about public relations during my four years on that side of the desk. In particular, I learned (1) There are a lot of opportunities for companies to take advantage of current events and get their names in the limelight, and (2) Most of those opportunities are missed because those companies fail to recognize them.
For those unfamiliar with the news business, an assignment editor acts as a sort of gatekeeper for what does and doesn’t make it on the airwaves. They monitor police scanners, and if something breaks, will occasionally dart about the newsroom, madly shouting to anyone who will listen that the sky is falling and the station had better get a news crew to wherever the pieces land. They coordinate with government officials, as well as police, fire and EMS representatives to make sure that press conferences are covered and that no one flies the news chopper too close to that SWAT standoff. In short, assignment editors keep track of news crews and help them get where they need to be when they need to be there. And for some stories that don’t get reporters, assignment editors will set up sources and send photographers to shoot them–with cameras, I mean.
Flashback to May 2004: It’s three hours before the next newscast. I’m sitting at my desk madly thumbing through the Yellow Pages calling local auto shops and practically begging them to let us do a 5:00 live shot in their parking lot. The answer from all of them: no.
You call the big chains, the ones that have shops all over the U.S., first because they’re the “big guys.” But they give the most annoying answer of all: ‘You’ll have to leave a message with our Director of Public Relations. He’s out today, but he should get back with you tomorrow.’
They don’t understand that there’s no such thing as “tomorrow” in the TV news business. There is only the next three hours.
After several tries, I finally found the owner of an auto shop in who would let our reporter interview him in front of his business. The kind owner of a parts store in downtown Louisville let us borrow a fuel gauge and I dropped it off with our reporter on my way home, just minutes before she demonstrated it in her live shot.
The point is, a good PR director wouldn’t wait for the news media to call them. A good PR director recognizes good opportunities and pounces on them. And fast. Like in a matter of minutes.
Summer is coming up. Suppose we get a weeklong stretch of 100-degree temperatures. Ice cream franchises, that’s your opportunity to be in the spotlight. Why not make a phone call or send a press release inviting the local stations to one of your stores? That goes for all you folks at health centers too. People frolicking in the pool make a great weather live shot.
Suppose a New York City accountant is busted–Bernie Madoff-style–in a bad ponzi scheme. Local accountants, what a great opportunity to be featured as a guest on the noon show to talk about how consumers can protect themselves from scams. That viewer may become your next client.
Suppose there’s another (gasp) winter ice storm like we saw here in Louisville last February. Newsrooms all over the city will be calling home repair shops asking to talk to someone about the number of space heaters flying off the shelves. The typical answer: You need to talk to Bob. He’ll be back next week. You can chat with him then.
Don’t even get me started on all the retail store PR directors who are COMPLETELY unavailable on Black Friday. That should be the most important day of their careers!
The point is, any company looking for good PR opportunities needs to have its finger on the pulse of news. Current events can be the perfect gateway to great exposure. And it’s free. Don’t let another opportunity be wasted. This message was brought to you by a former assignment editor.
TRAVIS K. KIRCHER is an independent copywriter and founder of WriteNow Creative Services. He resides in Louisville, Ky., and still wonders why it’s called “The Bluegrass State” when the grass is green like anywhere else. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.