When The Media Calls: Public Relations

Features - Business Management

Dealing with calls from the media doesn’t have to be a hassle, especially for the well-prepared contractors.

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November 23, 1999

It’s not often that the phone rings and there’s a local newspaper reporter on the other end looking to ask a couple of questions for an article. So when such events do occur, it can be an unsettling experience for some people.

The idea of having your name and something you said printed and distributed to thousands of people can stir some real anxiety. “What if what I say sounds stupid or people disagree with me?” is what some people will wonder. “Why does this newspaper want to talk to me? What did I do?” is a common question for others to ask themselves.

The reality is, however, that calls from local media are rarely negative experiences, unless your company has recently had a problem significant enough to be of public interest. Contractors who have realized the value of opportunities to speak with their local media and develop a relationship with a reporter or two will often enjoy the benefits of free publicity that can be a great deal more effective than any advertising can ever be.

Pictures & A Thousand Words

    When the print media calls looking for an interview or some information for an article, supplying pictures related to the article can also help convey a company positively to the marketplace. Here are some tips on successfully supplying pictures:

  • One good way to maximize a story is to offer a photography to accompany it.

  • Try to include your employees in photos to show a problem or solution. Pay attention to the appearance of anyone who is photographed – proper clothes, hair combed, clean shaven, etc.

  • Equipment and safety should be a priority. Trucks should be clean, and all safety precautions should be followed in the photograph.

  • If you have a business card, give one to the photographer. Otherwise, make sure he or she has your name and your company name and they are spelled correctly. – Courtesy J.C. Ehrlich Co., Reading, Pa.

FIRST-TIME FEARS. “Even skilled public speakers don’t always come across as they would like to, so it’s natural for people to be nervous about talking to the media,” remarked Cheryl Steelberg, director of public relations for Environmental Care, Calabasas, Calif.

To help employees deal with the media, some of the industry’s larger contractors – ECI, Ruppert Land-scape, OneSource (formerly ISS)– established formalized public relations departments or positions to serve as primary media contacts.

“By centralizing the calls from the media into our office, it’s easier to keep our message consistent and streamlined,” Steelberg noted. “Also, I have access to all of the key people in our company as well as the specialists in different areas so I can provide the reporter with the best person to talk to for any article topic.”

“I serve as the main contact for a lot of media calls, and then I can facilitate the gathering of information for the reporter and follow up with him or her to make sure they got everything they need,” agreed Kate Droege, director of public relations for Ruppert Landscape, a TruGreen-Chem-Lawn company, Ashton, Md.

All of the companies that have a centralized public relations contact still strive to handle media inquiries at the local level, though.

“Our general philosophy is that media inquiries should be handled by the local manager, but that manager should contact the corporate office before giving an interview to the press,” related Lynn Gerlack, public relations manager, J.C. Ehrlich Co., Reading, Pa. “The reason for the manager to contact us first is that we may be able to provide him or her with valuable support materials for the interview, such as graphics, photos or specific information.”

“If a reporter sees one of our technicians on a property, the reporter should be able to ask that technician a question. After all, that technician is the person with the everyday expertise,” added John Carson, division manager for lawn and tree care for J.C. Ehrlich. “We found that we can use the media to help us get our message out. So our goal is to be as helpful as possible.”

Most landscape companies aren’t large enough to afford the additional costs associated with a dedicated public relations person, but that doesn’t mean they can’t identify one person within their own organization to handle those responsibilities.

Good Advice When Talking to Reporters

    The first thing you want to do when talking to a reporter is to set the tone. This means you must start off on the right foot immediately and understand that reporters are only human too. Establish the purpose of the call and probe for details as to what the nature of the call/request is about. You must also clearly establish at the outset what your areas of expertise are – detailing what you are or are not qualified to discuss in the interview. Establish a timeframe for a call back, if necessary, and always return a reporter’s call when you say you will.

    Other helpful tips:

  • Remember that everything you say is printable unless you and the reporter agree to speak “off the record.”

  • Be polite and professional.

  • Never lose your temper.

  • Don’t be sarcastic or use smart-aleck responses and assume that the reporter will know that you are joking.

  • Try to be helpful.

  • If you don’t know the answer, say so, but offer to find it.

  • Stick to the facts; Keep your opinions out of the interview.

  • Don’t lie; always tell the truth.

  • If you can’t tell the truth, don’t be evasive. If you can’t give information, say why.

  • Stick to your areas of responsibility and expertise.

  • Answer the reporter’s questions, but always return to your message track.

  • Repeat messages. Each time you repeat a message, you increase your chances of it emerging in the final story.

  • If you aren’t sure of the question, ask the reporter to repeat it.

  • Put the story or issue into context – i.e., if it’s one incident out of 5,000, say so.

  • Don’t bring up issues or subjects that you don’t want to see in the story.

  • Anticipate reporters’ needs whenever possible. Prepare and update fact sheets constantly.

  • Avoid using industry jargon.

  • Respect reporters’ deadlines.

  • Call back when you promised.

  • Keep track of what was said during the interview.

  • Request copies of the printed piece and watch closely for the story and the results.

    Courtesy Ruppert Landscape Company, a TruGreen-ChemLawn company, Memphis, Tenn.

“People have a right to be cautious in their approach to dealing with the media, especially if they’ve never been interviewed before,” observed Char Crowley, a project manager and public relations contact at The Pattie Group, Novelty, Ohio. “Any time we’re approached by the local newspaper, it’s generally for a positive story or the reporter needs professional quality photographs to accompany an article, but you still have to be careful.”

In particular, Crowley cautioned contractors to watch themselves when dealing with broadcast media.

“In general, television news can tend to be a little more sensational than informative,” she noted. “We had one occasion where the information we gave to a television reporter was the complete opposite from what ended up being reported, so we learned our lesson there.”

Crowley said a key to getting The Pattie Group some positive coverage in the primary daily newspaper serving the Cleveland market has been its ability to build a working relationship with the reporter commonly handling gardening-related stories.

“We don’t generate a whole lot of article ideas for the reporter, but I try to talk to her a couple of times a year when we’re working on a community-oriented project that may be of interest to her,” Crowley related. “As a result of this relationship, we’ve been asked to write a couple of articles for the paper, and you just can’t buy advertising that works as well as any article that mentions your company name.”

J.C. Ehrlich, however, does take a proactive approach in dealing with local media.

“If we get 12 straight days of rain in one of our markets, we may send the local media an information press release explaining what people should keep in mind landscaping-wise when the rain stops,” Gerlack commented, adding that such releases shouldn’t be written to read like an ad for the company. “Plus, there are certain basic topics we address at the same time every year.”

Droege also recommended that contractors view working with the media as part of their entire community involvement program.

“We are quite aware of the fact that we need to foster healthy relations within our local community,” Droege commented. “Whether that means helping out with an article, sponsoring a local high school sporting event or doing some work for a local theater for advertising in their program, that’s all a great way to gain public trust, which generates more business.”

The author is Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.

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