The seven biggest PR faux pas and how to avoid them

Active lifestyle companies -- whether clubs, manufacturers or distributors -- are becoming savvier about PR, but the industry still falls far short of the media relations professionalism of health care, housing, automotive or education providers. Based on phone interviews with more than 100 SGMA and IHRSA member companies and media outlets, here are recommendations to immediately power up a PR program, no matter what industry you are from.
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By Michael Hoffman

Active lifestyle companies -- whether clubs, manufacturers or distributors -- are becoming savvier about PR, but the industry still falls far short of the media relations professionalism of health care, housing, automotive or education providers. Based on phone interviews with more than 100 SGMA and IHRSA member companies and media outlets, here are recommendations to immediately power up a PR program, no matter what industry you are from.

Mistake No. 1 -- Being lazy about learning PR writing/distribution skills.
Solution -- Learn proper Associated Press (AP) news writing style.

You can get a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook from Amazon.com for $10. It answers EVERY question you'll ever have about grammar and formatting. And, the reporters who get your news won't have to rewrite as much of it. That gives you a better chance of getting covered. As for sending news, more than 60 percent of journalists now prefer email with hot, specific subject lines; don't send snail mail or faxes unless they say they prefer it.

Mistake No. 2 -- Going cheap on PR.
Solution -- Budget at least one-third of your annual marketing budget to PR.

Invest money in a solid and consistent PR program. Al Ries says in his new book, "The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR," that one single quality news story has a longer image-building shelf life than most other forms of communication. Read his book to understand the difference between PR credibility and advertising skepticism.

Mistake No. 3 -- Forgetting to include photos with a news release (note exception, below).
Solution -- Hire an experienced photojournalist.

In many cases, a story without pictures is like, well, like a disappointment. Even a financial story, which you wouldn't think could be illustrated, can be made livelier with a shot of your company VIPs in action. Not posed handshake shots, please. Always take black-and-white digital, but be sure to ask the publications what they prefer. Nobody sends prints anymore, and slides are a waste of money. One note: Know your media outlet. Some online news sources or trade pubs may never or rarely use photos. So don't automatically package them along. Ask first. (And don't forget press kits/photos on CD-ROMs these days. Invaluable for many.)

Mistake No. 4Â -- Being shy with the press.
Solution -- Make friends with them.

Compile a proprietary list of all the journalists who cover your topic and locale, then call them for a casual discussion about the types of news stories that interest them. Even ask about their hobbies, fitness habits, outdoor pursuits, etc. The bottom line is that a personal contact makes you stand out from the crowd and increases your chances of coverage. Remember, some reporters get more than 100 news releases a month, and they need a reason to cover yours.

Mistake No. 5 -- Sending stories in a news vacuum.
Solution -- Develop strong news hooks for every story.

Whenever possible, tie your stories to local, regional or national angles, so it doesn't sound like you're operating in a universe of your own. For example, you hire a new CEO who has a degree in exercise physiology, which can tie in to something like the recent news from the CDC about the need for vigorous exercise instead of just casual walking. Does your CEO run marathons or frequent the company gym? Good stuff to include! In your personnel announcement about the CEO, you would include mention of his degree, cite the CDC report and include a quote from the new CEO agreeing with the CDC report.

Mistake No. 6 -- Not having a company spokesperson or an accessible one.
Solution -- Designate one person as your PR contact for all media and make sure that person is available.

Every news item you send should have the name, email and direct phone number of the one person you choose to be your PR voice. Any media contact should go directly to this person. That means this person needs to be coached in media skills and the company story line. And he or she needs to answer emails and phone calls. Reporters hate nothing more than a company that ping-pongs them from one person to another, or simply isn't accessible for quick quotes or facts. Your company won't end up looking good. And they also don't like vague or evasive comments either. Better to comment than to avoid a question or even to say "no comment" -- unless that "no comment" is just for now until the spokesperson checks around.Â

Mistake No. 7 -- Forgetting human interest angles.
Solution -- Dig for the "good news" stories.

There is so much bad news these days that journalists could just sometimes die for happy stories. And what can be more enjoyable than a story about someone improving their life by using your product or service, or about your company's involvement in a good cause? It's amazing, but journalists just can't get enough of your life-affirming news. Focus on real-life experiences of your customers and of your employees.

Michael Hoffman has done public relations for active lifestyle companies for 27 years, both in-house and free-lance, including Life Fitness, Matrix Fitness, ClubCorp and Weider Publications. These tips are taken from Hoffman's upcoming book, tentatively called "The Active Lifestyle Company's Ultimate PR Workbook." For more information, log on to www.heartcomm.net or contact Hoffman at Heart Communications, 43 St. Michael, Dana Point, CA 92629, or email heartcomm@cox.net.

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