With all of our preparation, careful strategy development, and plan execution, PR pros are rarely caught off-guard. The ability to game out virtually every scenario in our minds is a skill that is developed early—and its value as a skill is reinforced often. We can pivot and adjust better than the contestants on Dancing with the Stars.
But there are times when circumstances move outside of your boundary of control. You can have the most perfectly thought-through PR plan (and alternatives) and still have the rug pulled out from underneath you. This became crystal-clear to me fairly early on in my PR career. I was working at FleishmanHillard on September 11, 2001. Within minutes, it was very clear that news coverage would be very different than “normal,” for weeks if not months going forward.
While this is an extreme example, the combination of the 24/7 news cycle, social media, and the overall health of the media industry means that any issue can dominate for days and weeks at a time, drowning out all other stories—including the carefully developed media strategy you’ve pulled together for your client. Whether it’s a volcano erupting in Iceland, the BP oil spill, or the ongoing tumult in the White House, getting media traction for a client can be quickly derailed.
We spend a lot of time in PR talking about how to manage a crisis for a client. So what should PR professionals do when the headlines are full of a crisis that threatens to drown out all other stories?
You can wait it out or delay
While hardly the most attractive choice, waiting for the storm to pass and the news cycle to return to normal is an option. It is a particularly important one to consider if you are pitching news for a client that is in the same industry as the one dominating in the crisis at hand, because your relevant media contacts are going to be on deadline on a story that isn’t yours. If your issue, story, or pitch isn’t time sensitive, waiting could well be your best option to secure the coverage you’d hoped for when you designed the program or campaign.
You can adjust expectations
If you have a story that is timely or time-sensitive, but will likely not receive the attention it would be expected to get in a more “normal” news climate, you might want to work with your client to adjust expectations. This is particularly important if acquiring media coverage is an important component of an overall strategy, such as raising awareness for a product, event, or organization. If this is a longer-term engagement, it’s worth noting somewhere in your monitoring files or activities—or your data tracking—what some of the overarching media stories were. It seems hard to imagine at the time, but if you’re doing analysis a year later, you might not remember that XYZ crisis was consuming all of the headlines.
You might consider alternatives
A PR program with a well-rounded PESO program might need to shift some of the weight from the “E”/earned media portion, and adjust efforts upwards in P-S-O (paid, shared, owned, respectively) segments. This might take some adjusting of several factors, including budget. Examine the plan and note what portion of the overall objectives were being attributed to a successful earned media program. Then, determine what it would take to meet those same objectives by beefing up one or more of the other parts of your PESO strategy. Again, make note somewhere why this is being done so that when evaluation time rolls around, you can determine both what worked and what didn’t.
Potentially, you could proceed—with caution
In some situations, you or your client might wish to move forward with the media outreach strategy as planned. This can work out just fine for some topics, products, issues, etc., particularly if the pitch is either somewhat related or completely unrelated; or, if the topic dominating the headlines is likely to pass quickly.
- For instance, media relations efforts for a children’s cancer nonprofit are not likely to be affected by an air travel shutdown due to an Icelandic volcano erupting—the beats of the reporters and the target audiences vary significantly. It’s a completely unrelated issue.
- Conversely, if your firm is engaged in work for a nonprofit or think tank with expertise on a particular issue that dovetails with issues in a crisis, your pitch could be well-received, but be incredibly careful with how you position a pitch in this scenario. The objective is to be positioned as one with expertise—not exploiting a tragedy. Your pitch is somewhat related, and won’t get lost or ignored—if it is positioned properly.
- On the final item, there are some news items that dominate headlines and then pass quickly—most of the time. Among these are things like celebrity deaths, which are a shock to the system but unless new information comes out, are unlikely to remain at the top of a newscast or front page of a paper for too long.
Or, you could scrap your plan
In some cases, you might just be better off revising your entire media outreach plan. While lamentable, if you are trying to garner media attention for a program that is time sensitive, has a hard end-date, and is relatively short in duration, your options are already limited. If a major issue comes up in the media that will eat up the time and attention of both the reporters you’ve cultivated and that of your target audience, you’ll need to reassess your strategy—quickly. Review your goals and objectives, and see how they might be met, absent earned media coverage.
This scenario tends to apply most to fast-moving programs, and isn’t quite as uncommon as one might think at first read. It happens with relative frequency in public affairs programs, and requires PA practitioners to be ready to scrap carefully thought out campaigns, changing key tactics virtually overnight.
For all of the above situations, measurement can be a challenge. You’re trying to navigate reaching goals in a very unsettled media landscape, but it can be done. The most important things to remember are to indicate somewhere in the data collection what is going on at the same time, because the media environment can affect everything from the volume of coverage received, to the sentiment of the coverage and any social media reaction that follows.