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Is Being Predictable the Kiss of Death in PR?

Kari Brownsberger

Good PR practitioners know that public relations is really all about building relationships.  So, recently when I was scanning the Huffington Post, an article called “Being Predictable – The Relationship Kiss of Death” immediately caught my attention.  In it, USC professor Kathleen Reardon discusses the benefits of controlling and being creative with your communication patterns, and in turn, your relationships.  Here are some key takeaways from Reardon’s article that will help us PR folks improve our communication practices and build better relationships with the media.

First, Reardon points out that if you take no control of your communication practices, whether personal or professional, there is at least a 50-50 chance that things will go wrong.  But, if we look at communication as something we have control over, then we’re moving those odds in our favor and leaving much less to chance.

Sure, this idea is fairly simple and makes sense in theory. But how can we put it into practice in public relations?  Well, having control over your communication practices doesn’t mean just sending pitches out to a media list.  That’s opening the door for communication, but that’s not really controlling the communication.  For example, where did the idea for the pitch come from?  Is it based on something that you truly think is interesting and newsworthy, or is it based on the fact that someone said to you “we need to get a pitch out today?”  If it’s more the latter than the former, then you need to take control of that communication.  Ask why it’s important to get a pitch out – is quantity really better than quality?  Or, mine for details to see if you can find a newsworthy bit to share with the media.  Now you’re in control.

The same goes for your media lists.  Do you depend on a database like Vocus or Cision to build your media lists for you, and then send blindly to those lists?  If so, again, you aren’t really in control of the communication – the database is.  You need to weed through those lists, do some research of you own, and find outlets and contacts outside of those databases, to truly have control over who you’re communicating with.

So, now you’ve got control over your communication, but where does the creativity and unpredictability come in to play?  Well, Reardon points out that there are often moments in communication where a change can be made to take an interaction on a more constructive track.  She gives the example of someone saying to you "that's a stupid idea," (which is not unheard of if you work in PR).  Yes, you could predictably react with anger or frustration, but that’s probably going to derail you from achieving the goal of the entire interaction.

Instead, react to the comment as an observation rather than an insult, and get creative with your response.  Chances are, if you took control of your pitch and your media list, you have a valid reason for contacting the person you did.  So, explain yourself.  If the reporter covered that topic before, point that out, and explain how this is a new spin on that topic.  Or, simply expand on your pitch further with a response like “A lot of new ideas sound ridiculous, but hear me out and we'll see if this is one of them."  Now you have control of the communication again, and you have a greater chance that you’ll get the result you want.

Reardon takes this idea further with another suggestion – respond creatively, not predictably, to a negative interaction with a question.  For example, if a contact responds to your pitch with an outright “No”, respond and say “Are you not interested because you don’t have time for this story right now, or because you don’t have any interest in the topic at all?  I’d like to know so in the future I can make sure to only pitch you stories that are more suited to your coverage area.”  This gives you back the control in the communication.  Maybe your contact is just swamped right now, but would be open to exploring the idea in a few weeks.  The opportunity has suddenly gone from dead to alive.  Even if they don’t like the story idea in general, the feedback will help you learn something about that particular contact that will be helpful in building a relationship and future pitches.

So take control of your communication, and become less predictable and more flexible with your interactions. You'll do more responding than reacting, and will likely build much better relationships with the media as a result.