pr strategy… The Dangers of Social Media Marketing by Travis K. Kircher

I spent four years working as an assignment editor for a local TV station. We covered a host of fatal accidents, homicides, house fires, etc. One of the first things we did when we got word of a fatality, whether the death was a tragic accident or the result of foul play, was hit Facebook and MySpace up to see if they had an account. If they were young, chances were they did. And chances were, it was an open account. That is, any member of the public could access it.

I can remember one instance in particular when we were covering a fatal accident involving a young person. As soon as we got the identification from the coroner I ran his name, and, sure enough, there was his profile page, his smiling face beaming eerily from the computer screen. Already his friends had gotten word of the tragedy and were posting memorial messages on his wall. It became standard practice for the media to show those photos and read these messages on the air.

When people stop to think that they might wake up one day to see the contents of their MySpace or Facebook pages as a topic for discussion on the morning news, many of them bristle. Isn’t that a little below the belt? After all, what business does the media have delving into people’s private lives?

This is the lesson all of us must learn: As long as your profile page is open to the public, IT IS NOT YOUR PRIVATE LIFE. When an agitated husband writes, “I hate my wife!” on his evening status update, it’s no different than purchasing ad space on a 250’ x 500’ digital sign in Times Square and announcing it to the world.

The media will investigate anything in the public record, and an open Facebook account IS public record. And it may not just be the media thumbing through your MySpace photos. Prospective employers, loan officers, ex-girlfriends, sexual predators, your boss, and Osama bin Laden could all be checking you out.

Like individuals, businesses can often be careless about their social media accounts. When setting up a MySpace or Facebook page, it is critical for marketers and public relations professionals to keep the following tips in mind:

  • Keep business and pleasure separate on social media. A business owner who already has a personal account under his name should not use that same account for business purposes. Clients don’t want to hear you “shoot the breeze.” They want to see professionalism and expertise. Keep one account for fun, and the other for business.
  • Double-check the privacy settings on your social media accounts. Facebook and MySpace give you the option of making your accounts public or private. It’s a no brainer that any high level executives with personal accounts should have them set to “private.” Business pages will likely be public.
  • Be aware of potential exposure to litigation. Don’t post any content to your Facebook page without first determining whether you have the legal right to do so. Posting images of minors may pose a problem if you don’t have parent’s permission.
  • Monitor your social media networks. One of the most dangerous things a business can do is open a social media account and then forget it is there. Entire conversations may have taken place and accusations may have been leveled against your company without your knowledge. Take an active, aggressive, and vigilant approach to the way you handle your account, and be quick to nip any problems in the bud before they explode into a PR nightmare.
  • Don’t post anything to social media you wouldn’t say to Larry King. You have no idea who is accessing your account. Even if it’s closed to the public, one of your friends could save images from your page and e-mail them to others. Anything posted on a social media account should be run through the PR office first. You should also be aware that once it’s up, it’s permanent. You may take it down, but that doesn’t mean someone hasn’t already seen it, saved it,and distributed it to others.

TRAVIS K. KIRCHER is an independent copywriter and founder of WriteNow Creative Services, which does indeed have a Facebook account (feel free to join.) He can be reached at

pr strategy… Do’s and Don’ts of Crisis Communication Management by Travis K. Kircher

It was an undercover drug bust gone bad.

In the early morning hours of January 3, 2004, Police Detective Darren Richards (not his real name) was about to arrest a suspect who had allegedly tried to sell him narcotics in a convenience store parking lot. But 19-year-old Frederick Sizzle (also not his real name) decided he wasn’t going to be taken easily. They struggled. Richards drew his weapon. Sizzle tried to take it and an errant shot struck the pavement. Somehow Sizzle managed to fight Detective Richards off and he headed toward a nearby vehicle.

He never made it.

A few minutes later, Sizzle was dead with three bullets in his back.

The facts of the case are disputed. Detective Richards claimed he shot Sizzle out of self-defense when he thought he was reaching for a pistol. Eyewitnesses claim Sizzle never reached for anything and was in full retreat. A handgun was discovered in the waistband of Sizzle’s pants.

Additional facts: Frederick Sizzle was African American. Detective Darren Richards was Caucasian.

The case ignited a powder keg of racial tension in the city. The public was already on edge over a handful of previous police shootings that some said were questionable. As a result, local civil rights leaders scheduled weekly protests at police headquarters. They held several press conferences, along with Sizzle’s family, over a period of weeks, each hammering home their belief that Detective Richards was a trigger-happy, racist cop who was just looking for an excuse to shoot an African American. Before it was over, the riot gear was out, four protestors had been arrested and the police chief’s office window had been shattered.

The police department, on the other hand, refused to comment on a pending investigation. Detective Richards and his family refused to speak to the media on the advice of his attorney. The Commonwealth Attorney’s Office soon announced that a grand jury would be convened to determine whether Richards should be tried on murder charges.

* * *

That was the state of the case one Saturday weeks after the shooting. As an assignment editor at our local television news station, I had to find a story for our nightside crew, including a reporter and photographer, to cover. The choice seemed obvious: The day before, we’d received a press release from Detective Richard’s family indicating that a rally would be held in support of him. It looked as though we might finally be able to hear from his family to get their side of the story.

I quickly picked up the phone and dialed the contact number on the release. When a family member answered, I told them our news crew planned to be there and would love to speak with Richard’s friends and supporters.

His answer? I’m paraphrasing:

“We don’t want you there. We know how you hacks are in the liberal, drive-by media. You never want to tell our side of the story! All you want to do is trash the cops!”

I told him that the reason we hadn’t been able to tell their side of the story was because no one on their side would come forward to tell it, and that this would be the perfect opportunity to do just that.

“Yeah whatever,” he said (I’m paraphrasing again.) “We don’t want you anywhere on the property. It’s a closed-door meeting. Stay away from us!”

We did, and that night we ended up covering a different story that was so insignificant I can’t remember what it was. That conversation stands out to me as one of the more startling examples of how NOT to handle the media during a crisis. It was a bit confusing because (a) they had sent us a press release about the event, (b) nowhere on that release did it say it was a closed door event, and most importantly, (c) in the process of attempting to get their side of the story, we were accused of not being interested in getting their side of the story.

Did the conversation bias us toward the case one way or another? Certainly not.

Did it affect our ability to cover the story completely? It might have appeared that way to the viewer. When one side is talking while the other is mum, the tight-lipped often find public opinion rapidly turning against them.

When it comes to PR, there is a time for silence, but this wasn’t it.

How can folks who find themselves in similar situations respond more effectively?

1. Get a spokesperson. This doesn’t necessarily mean retaining the services of PR firm, but a good spokesperson has to have a basic understanding of the art of public relations. They also have to be able to build good relationships with the media. Sending conflicting messages and firing off accusations against them does nothing to accomplish that goal.

2. If you can’t comment on the case particulars, don’t—but say why. Some departmental policies or legal situations mandate silence, but the public often doesn’t understand this. In this case, the spokesman could have made this clearer: “Detective Richards is eager to explain what happened that night, but his hands are tied by police department policies that restrict public comments during internal investigations. He looks forward to the day when he’ll be able to talk more freely.”

3. Reach out to friends. He may not have been able to comment on what happened on the night in question, but Detective Richards was former U.S. Marine and a five-year police veteran. Perhaps there are citizens who could tell how his quick-thinking and brave response protected them from crime over the years. Perhaps Richards had African American friends and colleagues who could speak out in his defense and refute charges that he was racist. Friends, family members, old schoolmates, sports league teammates, fellow church members—all of these could work together, with the supervision of the spokesman, to paint a much more balanced picture in the mind of the public.

4. Get a good picture. When a major story like this one breaks, one of the first things the media is going to be asking for are pictures. They’ll want images of the suspect and any cops involved. In some cases, a single image can define an individual throughout any follow-up coverage in the weeks and months ahead. Whenever that story is mentioned, even in passing, stations will throw that image up. That can be a major problem if the only image the media has is an unflattering one—or worse yet—a mugshot. If this is the case, it’s important to have a more flattering picture and offer it to the media as an alternative on Day One.

5. Make sure statements or press releases are clear. When the media receives a news release, the immediate assumption is that the people sending the releases are looking for coverage. If you’re announcing a closed-door event, make sure the release makes it clear that it’s private and media will not be allowed on the premises. Otherwise, don’t send the release at all. Above all be truthful. Show the positive aspects of your case, but don’t spin or make dishonest statements.

“Detective Richards” was eventually tried for murder and found Not Guilty. He has since moved on with his life and his career. Had his supporters understood public relations more fully, his time in the limelight might have been less painful.

TRAVIS K. KIRCHER is a former TV news assignment editor and founder of WriteNow Creative Services LLC. He can be reached at

pr strategy… Don’t Miss Opportunities to Get into the PR Limelight by Travis K. Kircher

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