Bonus online article: Managing internal expectations of the media

July 30, 2012

It doesn’t matter whether the press conference you planned was filled to capacity or empty, or whether the article you placed in that national magazine was positive or negative. What matters is what your people expected and whether those expectations were met.

Managing of expectations is one of the keys to successful public relations initiatives. However, expectations are commonly missed when management and the communications function aren’t on the same page. 

Reasons vary. Sometimes management creates a culture that doesn’t adequately support media relations, or they haven’t fully bought into the department’s operating plan. The function could be underfunded and understaffed. Perhaps management isn’t engaged in media relations or doesn’t articulate its goals.

Other times the problem is in the communications function itself. Perhaps communications maintains a passive posture, waiting for management to become engaged.

Common challenges for managing internal expectations of the media

The most common challenges for managing media expectations are overcoming internal misconceptions of how the media actually works and how the media perceives its own mission.  Here are some of those challenges:

  • Organizations that only deal with the media in good times — Companies that only talk to the media when they want to publicize their own good news, but hide from the media at all other times, usually don’t build up goodwill with reporters and eventually get burned.
  • Leaders who are from technical backgrounds — If senior management has an engineering, scientific, accounting or some other more-technical background as compared to communications, then they often have trouble with the perceived lack of structure or rules that apply to media behavior.
  • Reliance on several subject matter experts (SMEs) — Some organizations rely on different SMEs depending on the nature of the content.  While selecting SMEs solely on this basis this helps to ensure the spokesperson will be knowledgeable on the subject, it does not portend any media savvy or interview skill.  This can also lead to different spokespersons delivering inconsistent or even conflicting messages.
  • Reliance on too few spokespersons — Other companies channel all media contact through a small number of spokespersons.  This helps control the message, but depending on media demand and company visibility, it could create bottlenecks and make the company appear unresponsive to reporters.
  • Geographical footprint size — For larger companies with many locations, the challenge is simply making sure everyone’s on the same page at all times. This requires vigilant internal communications, coaching and training.
  • Organizations that have never experienced setbacks — After enjoying  positive media attention during their company’s growth phase, leaders can be unnerved by the inevitable change in tone of the coverage as the company or its industry starts to face adversity.
  • Companies in controversial industries — Whether the company has ever experienced setbacks or not, some industries are always going to be associated with a certain degree of controversy.
  • Topics that are complex or highly technical — Use clear, simple language to translate difficult or complicated concepts into accessible messages for the media.
  • Reluctant spokespersons — Your spokesperson could be shy, nervous or just busy.  But in many instances, companies are perceived as uncooperative because spokespersons are inaccessible to do interviews when the media wants to do them.

Approaches for managing internal expectations

  • Educate constantly — Whether it’s through informal meetings, one-on-one counseling or more formal training, making a proactive, ongoing effort to sharpen the skills of spokespersons and leadership provides a solid foundation for managing internal expectations.
  • Over-deliver on your promises — While it’s never a good idea to lower your own expectations, it is always a good idea to be conservative in what you promise, making sure to you can at the very least deliver on what you promise. No one ever complains when you exceed expectations.
  • Research reporters and media outlets before interviews — Do your homework and gather background information before an interview to prevent taking an undue risk.
  • Use worst-case/best-case scenarios for planning — Before agreeing to do an interview, make sure you’ve considered the best possible outcome and a worst-case scenario. Discuss this with your spokespersons so they go into the interview with the clearest understanding of what to expect. This conversation engages them in the process to achieve the best result and avoid the worst-case scenario.
  • Sit in on interviews — Some believe having a PR person present creates certain levels of self-consciousness or discomfort for the interviewer or interviewee.  But if you have any reason to be concerned with the best possible outcome and managing expectations, it’s usually best to sit in on the interview.
  • Correct facts before, during and after the story runs — Even when you’re not sure how the final piece will turn out, sometimes you hear something in an interview that serves as a red flag. That’s the time to reinforce certain claims, comments or verify data and information with reporters. And don’t hesitate to make any needed clarifications after the report goes public. The sooner you raise the issue, the more likely it will be addressed and corrected by the media before it becomes “old news.”
  • Timing is everything — Take measures to resolve concerns as they arise, before they can become bigger issues.  But just as you work to identify and solve problems, don’t forget to quickly celebrate and internally publicize successes, too.  Nothing helps to manage expectations in a positive way like good results. 
Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh, and hosts the “Shaping Opinion” podcast. Email: Twitter: @OBrienPR.


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