Mike

Why you need to befriend the engineers in your company

Oil and water. It’s not the only thing that doesn’t mix well. What else can you think of?

What about communicator and engineer? On one hand, you have someone who is good with words and bad with numbers. On the other, you have someone who is bad with words and good with numbers.

Of course these are just stereotypes. But like all stereotypes, there’s a little truth to them.

Even if you don’t have engineers in your organization, if you work in an enterprise-level environment, you will likely have a STEM-heavy corps of experts like biochemists, techies or mathematicians contributing to the operational innovation of your organization.

The keyword here is innovation. It’s a trendy keyword that communicators love to use, but in order to take full advantage of the innovation trend, it pays to engage directly with the actual people who are doing the innovating: the STEM people! (No, this isn’t some b-movie about plants that take over the world).

The first reason you’ll want to connect with these folks is because they are potential subject matter experts (SMEs) who can give you the inside scoop at an expert level.

The media love experts.

University communications teams do this well. Each academic department has a media contact and a roster of spokespeople consisting of professors and researchers on subjects ranging from philosophy to criminology. Whenever you see an academic offering their take on a news trend, you’re experiencing the power of a communications team effectively connecting their SMEs to the media.

This leads to the second reason for befriending these people. By getting to know them, you’ll be able to assess their natural ability to communicate. Are they a good candidate to put in front of the media? Or maybe they’ll need some coaching. Or maybe you don’t want to put them in front of a reporter at all. If you know this before you get a media inquiry, then it’s a whole lot easier to respond with speed.

The third and final reason is story mining. Since you are a communicator, you can probably spot stories before anyone else. Through casual conversation and questioning, you can get a sense of what’s coming down the pipe. That gives you a chance to plan the story and mould it in a way that works best for your business objectives.

Steal this one trick from government to keep your executives in the loop.

Canadian Parliament

You might be asking right about now, “What the heck could I ever learn from government about communications?”

The answer, my friend, is briefing notes. 

Briefing notes are a government tradition and contain all the information needed for an executive (a minister) to make an important decision.

Using no more than two pages!

A briefing note is the vehicle for you to highlight risks and opportunities and make a strategic recommendation to the higher-ups.

The following are the sections of a government briefing note you should use:

Purpose

This is like an extended email subject line consisting of one or two sentences that explains who you want to update and what you’re updating them on.

Background

This provides the historical context. It may require some research and info gathering. It demonstrates that you have a handle on the issue. It signals to the executive that you understand the political landscape surrounding an issue.

Current situation

You unpack each problem, line by line, highlighting the risk each problem poses.

Options

Provide three options explaining how to resolve the situation. Outline both the advantages and disadvantages of these solutions. It will require you to play devil’s advocate, poking holes in what may have previously been seen to be a surefire solution.

Recommendation

Simply offer your recommendation from the three options above.

Briefing notes are not just another route for communicating directly with your executive. You’re also showing that you’ve considered all the options in light of the context and are putting forward the best solution.

The great thing about briefing notes is that even if no one takes your final recommendation, you are still taking on the mental overhead needed to solve the problem.

That saves your executive’s time and energy.

Despite the mistaken perception that government might not be leaders in communications practices, they have refined how to communicate internally on important issues.

The business of government is risk-averse, yet politics itself is entirely risk-filled.

That makes the briefing note a tool worth stealing.

Four tips for crafting a killer news pitch to get the coverage and quote you’re after.

Despite being slammed, reporters still want to pick and choose their stories. They don’t want you to write stories for them. They don’t want to get the same release that two-dozen of their colleagues were simultaneously BCC’d.

At best, you can obtain the same level of coverage without spending all your time on a news release.

At worst, you will make the reporter’s spam list.

The only time I’ve had news releases printed verbatim was when I shared them with weekly newspapers that served mostly rural communities. They had only one or two people in their newsroom, and even then, the news still needed to be relevant to their community.

Here are four tips to whittling the story down into a pitch note to get a reporter pick up the phone and call you for more information.

  1. Spend time on the subject line. Other than your name in the from line, the subject will be the first thing the reporter sees. This means the subject line of your email is actually your headline. 

If your organization is a household name, like Microsoft, use that. Everyone knows them. But if it’s not, you should use a generic descriptor like “software company.” Is it a local story? Then make sure you say “local software company.” 

Does your story involve money? If so, include it in the subject line. Dollar signs attract attention.  A showstopping headline will simultaneously be relevant to the story, eye-catching and play to the reporter’s interests.

  1. Sharpen the hook. To do this, think of the stakes for your target audience. What is the consequence of your organization’s actions? Conversely, what happens if it fails to act? The hook tells the reporter what’s at stake, which is inherently newsworthy.

If there are no stakes, you may want to reconsider why you’re pitching in the first place. 

Find the stakes and the story will develop itself.

  1. Kill all your darlings. The worst thing to see after opening an email is a wall of text. Yes, your beautiful prose is precious, but you must edit ruthlessly. Know that a killer pitch will have lots of missing information. The purpose of a killer pitch is to provide enough detail to whet the appetite, not enough to gorge on. To get over this, just think: you can give a reporter all this background over the phone once they call you.
  1. Offer up interview subjects. This is the exchange of brown envelopes behind the laundromat at 4 a.m. Access to key personnel in your organization is what’s in it for the reporter. 

In exchange for getting people to know about your story, a reporter will want to be able to talk to an influential member of you organization. If you’re a regular corporate spokesperson on the communications team, you don’t count this time around (sorry!). 

If your story deals with a technological development, offer up a subject matter expert (SME) to provide the flavour that preapproved key messages often miss. If it’s a larger corporate development, put forward an executive with the experience and confidence to speak as an industry representative. 

Keep in mind, the more people who are directly impacted by a news development, the less killer your pitch will need to be. 

If a transit company needed to announce that half the city will be without service for two days, that story will get picked up by all news outlets, regardless of the level of spokesperson or catchiness of the headline. 

On the other hand, if you’re wanting to share the organization’s vision for the next five years with a business reporter, you will likely need to put forward a top-ranking executive to demonstrate the importance that this news holds for the organization.

Five times you’ll still have to send out a news release

Last week, I said you should kill your news release and go with pitches to get coverage.

However, ol’ man news release is a ghost that will still haunt the beige cubicles of communications departments throughout corporate Canada. Thanks to its long legacy, his memory lives on, oftentimes in the minds of those who are non-communications people.

You’ll want to pick your battles and make sure you’re not on the losing side of a news release tug of war. In each of these instances, it’s up to you to squeeze the story angle out of the announcement.

The following are among the few remaining instances that you’ll still have to issue a news release:

  1. You work in a regulated industry

Congratulations! Your organization requires the services of a communications professional by law. 

While these releases will likely delve into the arcane world of regulatory jargon, your job should still be to elevate the language to something your audience understands while remaining as accurate as possible. This will require some negotiation with your regulatory department.

Also, don’t discount getting coverage on these kinds of releases. Many industry publications and analysts will be interested in this news. If you work for a utility supported by ratepayers, you can bet your assets that reporters and your customers will want to know what’s going on with this quarter’s rates.

2. Someone already negotiated an agreement. Keeping your ear to the ground at your organization is part of your job, but you’re not going to catch everything. Sometimes, project managers on the operations side of your business will negotiate business deals with external contractors who don’t have a communications team of their own. The agreement will often require that a joint news release be issued to announce a project milestone. If they had looped you in earlier, it might be a different story, but if it’s in a legal contract that’s already been signed, it’s probably not a good idea to push back on this one. Sometimes, these can be newsworthy. In many cases, it serves the interests of the contractor providing the services to your organization.

3. Stakeholder expectations have been set. In a vein similar to the one above, a non-communications person will have promised issuing a news release on a specific initiative without speaking to you first. For example, many organizations issue awards to their best customers or clients, and these clients are expecting to see their name in black and white on a newswire web page. There is definitely a market for these kinds of awards stories, it just may not be as extensive as everyone imagines.

4. Internal cohesion. Believe it or not, issuing a news release is sometimes used to promote internal cohesion. While other approaches may be better, these instances take place when a nascent committee initiative has been developed by your organization and participants need an indicator of its legitimacy. For these groups, an external facing, “official” news release from the organization serves as a marker that what they’re doing is tangible. When this ask hits your desk, don’t despair. While they may not be generating newsworthy material now, it will give you an excuse to delve into the new initiative and see what’s on the horizon, giving you time to plan accordingly. 

5. Official record. Sometimes, a news release needs to happen just because something needs to be in writing. At some time in the future, the organization can point to what they previously communicated to show that certain information was originally disclosed at a time when it may not have been newsworthy. If you’re doing this, it is likely part of a larger approach. It should prompt you to ask more questions about the underlying reason this is being done.

Bonus reason:

“Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Tradition. It’s a powerful thing. Just try telling a six-year-old you’re cancelling Christmas. This is clearly not a strategic excuse, so it gives you an opportunity to ask questions about the real objective behind issuing a release. Outline the cost to your organization to produce this kind of release and suggest a more efficient alternative that will get you closer to those objectives.

News releases don’t just happen. There’s a reason behind them. Understanding the reasons for requiring them will allow you to shape your organization’s tactics to serve its strategy. Change won’t happen overnight, but awareness is the first step.

Kill your news release and get coverage at the same time. Here’s how.

Every morning, word counts in the millions fly over newswires. They’re slapped up on corporate news web pages and are spammed to lists of BCC’d reporters.

Like the nine-to-five office worker writing the next Great American Novel on his evenings and weekends, the majority of these releases never get picked up.

This copy is sometimes drafted at the last minute, with reviews taking place late into the evening. 

Sometimes it’s prepared weeks in advance, only for an executive quote to be tweaked minutes before it goes live.

It can be stressful.

If you believe there must be a better way, you’re right.

It’s time to put ol’ man release on the leash for one long, final walk to the recycling plant.

Reporters are slammed, and news rooms are shrinking. We know this already. That doesn’t mean they want us to write their stories for them via release. It also doesn’t mean they’re happy to cover the same story you’ve simultaneously sent two dozen of their colleagues. 

Fear not. The answer lies within you, young Jedi.

You’re already drafting pitch notes when you email these releases. You’re already crafting compelling subject lines. You’re already offering up a value-add interview subject, either a subject matter expert (SME) who can dig into the details of a fascinating development or a senior executive who can share sector-shaping thought leadership.

If you’ve got interesting news to share, a reporter will make time to cover it.

If you draft your pitch only discover there’s nothing worth covering, then you’re doing yourself, your organization and reporters a favour! None of them want you to spend time on something that won’t achieve your desired result.

A pitch note takes a fraction of the time and bureaucratic approvals that a news release does.

If you’re saying, “Yeah, but my executive wants to tell the story our way,” then the premise for sharing a release is misguided. Tell them that you value the relationship you have with the media. 

Reporters don’t want to tell your story your way.

Tell your executive that you’d hate to put the relationships you’ve cultivated in jeopardy by being the person a reporter clicks the spam button for.

When attention is a commodity, you lose when you waste time.

If you want to tell the story your way, turn it into a compelling blog post on your own channel. Cut out the middleman and aim the copy at the eyeballs of your target audience. Your executive can email this blog post around to internal and industry contacts they think need to see it. You can share it on your social channels. If you really want to make sure people see it, you can boost it with paid promotion.

Yes, there will still be smoky corners that ol’ man news release’s ghost will haunt, shuffling his deck of cards in a never ending game of Klondike solitaire.

But for the coverage you need right now, a well crafted pitch note deployed to the correct reporter and a thoughtfully-selected SME or executive to speak on the matter will get you there.