In the days of my callow youth, I remember referring to journalists who ventured into public relations as having “sold out.”
Never mind that many in PR toiled for pay as low as many journalists. Never mind that PR ethics also insist on getting the facts right. We like our world simplified into us and them, and to a journalist, the PR world was always them: trying to keep us from the story, trying to manipulate us somehow.
Some experiences have confirmed that view of PR professionals: I have been lied to and lied about by PR people and have had to find my way past their dodges and deceptions to get my stories. But other experiences have tempered that view: PR professionals have delivered important, accurate facts that didn’t necessarily look good for their organizations, they have taken the heat for bosses who didn’t have the courage to face the public, they have helped me get important interviews and information on deadline.
As with many fields, PR has evolved into euphemisms and specialties: strategic communication, crisis communication, public affairs, public information, community relations, media relations. But PR still fits as a good umbrella acronym. After several years in the news business, I had many friends in PR, some of them former newsroom colleagues that I knew had not sold out.
About a decade ago, my oldest son began working in media relations for then-U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel. Mike’s work for Hagel went well beyond PR (eventually he became the senator’s chief of staff), but media relations have remained part of his work. He recently took a job as vice president of communications at Capella University in Minneapolis. Many conversations over dinner and at family gatherings confirmed what I always really knew: PR is just like journalism in many ways, hard work practiced mostly by honest people trying to do a good job. As with journalism or any field, it includes outstanding pros and some who cut corners.
Though I came to respect PR professionals and have always been proud of Mike and his success, I still wasn’t above a light-hearted jab at or about a colleague who “went over to the dark side.” On a few occasions, when I was unemployed in the early 1990s and when I was looking for a new job last year, I considered jobs on the dark side myself, though each time I ended up taking another job in journalism.
Earlier this year, I was a bit chagrined when Mike’s connections were more effective than mine in attracting media attention to my niece Mandy’s efforts to bring her adopted daughter Maya home from an orphanage in Haiti after the earthquake there. I always presumed those of us in the media understood how we worked better than an outsider.
Barely six months later, I found myself in charge of media relations for the TBD launch. I was dealt a pretty sweet deal for a PR rookie: We had a great product to promote; we have a general culture of transparency (though we didn’t want to disclose the launch date); many in the media were already interested in us.
While I coordinated our media relations, several colleagues contributed to our efforts to raise TBD’s visibility as our launch approached and passed. Jim Brady, our general manager, has a great profile in digital journalism and great contacts, and he attracts attention on his own. Mandy Jenkins, our social media producer, developed and executed a smart social media plan. Editor Erik Wemple has long ties throughout the Washington media and beyond. Abby Fenton and Bonnie Wood of ABC7, one of our two sister TV stations, have contributed their promotional experience and savvy throughout the process.
I also had some smart colleagues steer me away from a bad proposal. I thought that it would be great to let reporters and bloggers test-drive the site in a preview before we trotted it out to the general public. Colleagues with more experience than me in digital launches vetoed that idea, saying we would still be testing and fixing bugs right up to launch. They were right. They worried that allowing a test drive before we were ready to go public with the site could result in advance coverage focusing on bugs we would fix before launch. It easily could have.
Still, it was probably a good thing that I proposed the test-drive preview. That discussion helped overcome some colleagues’ reservations about a more modest preview: inviting reporters to our offices the week before launch and laying our plans out for them, including mockups of some key pages. Some colleagues still had some uneasiness with that, but I argued successfully that if we offered a preview, we would get some coverage based on what we said about the site and about our relationship with NewsChannel 8, which was being renamed TBD. If we waited until after launch to do a media event, people already would have done their primary coverage the day we went live. And we would be too busy to handle all media requests that day.
We briefly discussed whether to embargo the preview and decided that would be foolish. Embargoes are a relic of the pre-web days. They are awkward to suggest and difficult to enforce in today’s media, and are especially out of place for an organization trying to be transparent. An embargo makes journalists feel as though you’re trying to manipulate and control them, and that can backfire (all of which, as journalists, we knew). We decided to invite people to use the preview however they wished: to provide advance coverage of the launch, to cover the launch itself or both.
Then we had to decide when and how to do the preview and how to pitch it to reporters. I had failed to pitch my niece’s story aggressively and effectively. I vowed not to make that mistake again.
We had four primary target audiences:
- Local media.
- National media based in Washington.
- National media outside Washington.
- Media (mostly outside Washington) that cover journalism and the news business.
Each would have different interests in covering us. Media outside Washington would need more of a heads-up to attend because they would need to make travel plans.
We also considered what we could do to encourage and attract launch-day coverage. That had mixed results: Steve Myers of Poynter, one of only two people we told the projected launch date (with an embargo), liked my proposal for a Poynter live chat with Brady and me the day we launched. Because he agreed to keep the date confidential, we gave him more than a week’s advance notice, and, with time to plan his travel, he also turned out to be the only person from out of town who came to Washington for the preview.
I also pitched the idea of launch-day coverage to NPR and ABC. ABC never responded. NPR interviewed Jim (though the reporter I emailed contacted Jim directly, so I’m not sure I should take any credit).
We didn’t have time to offer individual interviews to everyone, but decided that journalists would react better to previews in small groups than in a larger press-conference setting. Besides, we needed to fit them and the staff members doing the preview into our conference room. We decided early that we wanted to give a special preview, as close to launch as possible, for members of our TBD Community Network. With Monday, Aug. 9, targeted for launch, we decided to do the network preview on Sunday the 8th and to do separate previews for the local and national media on Friday the 6th.
Because we were still working out technology issues and just getting started testing, we didn’t know for a while if we would actually be ready to launch on Aug. 9, so we didn’t provide much advance notice of the preview. We didn’t start inviting reporters and bloggers until Tuesday, Aug. 3. We made sure to invite a mix of media platforms: Television and radio (though none sent anyone), newspapers and blogs, national and local.
By Thursday it was clear that we weren’t going to have any out-of-town media attending the preview except for Myers. So I scrambled to set up a conference call. A few bloggers from New York, one from Boston and a couple from the West Coast agreed to join the conference call. I was too swamped at that point to extend the conference-call invitation to more media from the Midwest and West Coast, a mistake that probably cost us some coverage (though we got plenty).
Mashable came to Washington for its SummerMash tour on Thursday, Aug. 5, and I asked Vadim Lavrusik, who had blogged about me several times before, if he’d be interested in the first preview. He said yes. We worried that Vadim might dampen some interest of other media if he blogged about us immediately. But we didn’t want to embargo the preview and coverage of TBD had been pretty heavy even before we approached launch. It was never like this story was going to be an exclusive. Then Vadim decided on his own to write his post for Monday, so the Friday previews would provide the first coverage.
The plan for the previews was to take about an hour to give our presentations and answer immediate questions for the full group, then another hour for reporters to buttonhole the people they wanted for one-on-one interviews. I arranged for an array of TBD leaders and staff to attend: executives, anchors, reporters, along with some bloggers in our TBD Community Network. I wrote a tight schedule of who was to talk when, to make sure we wouldn’t go on too long and not leave time for interviews.
At least three outlets that said they were coming and four more that expressed interest didn’t show up on Friday (some apologizing in advance). But we still got a respectable turnout.
The national and local previews didn’t go quite as we had intended, but they worked out well. We figured the Washington Post would prefer to be in the national preview to the local one, but reporter Paul Farhi said he’d rather come to the local one, which was in the morning. But Washington City Paper Editor Michael Schaffer said the morning didn’t work for him, so we invited him to the afternoon national briefing.
Farhi dominated the questioning at the morning session, also attended by Aaron Morrissey of DCist and Rebecca Bredholt of Vocus. About five minutes into that session, I threw out the schedule. We had a free-flowing discussion going that moved along nicely on its own. All I needed to do was introduce some people now and then to make sure everyone got a turn to speak.
The afternoon session brought Myers and Latoya Peterson, a Washington area blogger affiliated with Poynter; Michael Calderone of Yahoo! News; Schaffer and Emily Kaiser of City Paper; Cristina Fernandez-Pereda of El País. I didn’t even bother with the schedule.
Another PR gaffe of the preview came when one of the bloggers in our local network reacted to the DCist coverage of the preview as a “scoop” we had provided to a blog that wasn’t in the network. It was an innocent mistake. While we certainly thought of ourselves as worthy of media attention, we didn’t really consider our preview to be a scoop. Two other non-network local blogs that we invited didn’t even show up for the preview (though both did blog about the launch). Much of the preview was overview of TBD that we had already shared with the network and that some of them had already blogged about. We thought the preview even closer to launch, tailored for the network, would have greater value to members. But we did disclose at the media preview that we would be launching the next week, and that had some news value, and we showed off some site features we had not previously told network members about. And even this PR rookie knew that if you have to explain a decision to someone who’s critical, you’re already in damage control.
I also overlooked the Associated Press in my initial invitations. Though I invited AP to the Sunday briefing for the network, they didn’t come and we didn’t get AP coverage, which was my fault.
Even with those mistakes, the initial coverage of the preview was mostly positive (links below), and we were largely pleased with the tone, volume and play.
We had held out the possibility of telling network members at the preview that we were going to launch the next day. But we didn’t actually make that final decision until later Sunday evening, so we just said we were launching that week.
The secrecy of the launch date was an interesting aspect of the whole PR experience. For months in advance of the launch, people asked in media interviews, in blogger meetups and journalism conferences when we’d be launching. We were coy with our response, often saying “TBD.” At one point, we set a launch date of July 27, but we pushed that back to Aug. 9 when we realized we didn’t allow enough time for testing. Even then, we knew that planning on Aug. 9 didn’t mean launching on Aug. 9.
As the launch approached, I warned colleagues that someone would come up with the launch date and publish it. If I were on the story, I boasted, I would be able to come up with the date. We tried to keep the date quiet even in house, not mentioning it in emails or even to other Allbritton Communications colleagues. But the date certainly spread within the company. I was just sure it was going to leak. But no one published the date before we launched. I guess we cared more about keeping it quiet than anybody cared about coming up with that detail.
DC Fishbowl had some fun with our secretiveness about the date, writing a headline: TBD: ‘We’re Not Being Coy’ (Oh, Really?). But the truth is that, even though we had a goal of Aug. 9, we were not sure of that date until late the night of Aug. 8. When our top leaders met late the night of Saturday, Aug. 7, discussing the bugs that we still had to work out by launch, we guessed that there was an 85 percent to 90 percent chance we would not launch on Aug. 9. We went home for a few hours’ sleep, expecting that we would decide the next day to delay 48 hours and launch Aug. 11. But our development staff, led by Ryan Mannion and Jen Dreyer, made fabulous progress overnight. By the time we previewed the site for our network late that afternoon, we had one remaining major problem. By 10 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 8, we had resolved enough bugs that we decided to launch, with a home-page admission by Editor Erik Wemple that we were still working out some bugs.
Actually, much of the site was live a few days before launch. While we kept our pre-launch blog on tbd.com, the rest of the pages of the site went live so we could test pages and features, identify bugs and solve the problems and start aggregating content for the launch. The home page was on a different URL, but everything else was on its actual URL: tbd.com/sports and so on. Staff members were under strict instructions not to click external links, but there was an occasional slip. Clicking such a link makes your site show up on the analytics of the blog or site you link to (I routinely check my incoming links and would have quickly noticed a link from a new site, such as TBD).
Such a link apparently triggered a happy tweet from a member of our TBD Community Network, who found herself linked on the home page. We quickly huddled and discussed whether we could take the whole site behind a firewall and continue testing (not effectively). We messaged the blogger, explaining that we were still testing and she kindly deleted the tweet (thanks, you know who you are). But we got our first complaint, an email from a member of the network who was not yet in the network directory (as I explained last week, we are still completing the directory). She had seen the tweet, but apparently few others did.
But by the night of Sunday, Aug. 8, Google was crawling the site, so we knew we would be showing up in search results soon. And a few others were clicking on our pages. So we lifted the curtain, placed the home page on tbd.com, and popped open the champagne.
The launch brought another wave of media coverage (again, more links below, way more than we expected or could have hoped for). It was a little overwhelming and heavily positive. Tweets from Journalism Lives (which contributed to the heavy coverage), Jon DeNunzio and Katharine Zaleski good-naturedly mocked the hype TBD received.
Seeing the different perspectives on our work was an interesting experience. I have long believed that every journalist should experience being the topic of journalism. I have had that experience before, but had not been the one pitching for media coverage. All in all, I’m glad I did it and glad it resulted in good coverage of our launch, but I prefer being the one with the notebook.
Below are links to coverage of the TBD launch, starting with some from members of our network. I might be missing some, but I welcome you to add them in the comments. And I should say many of these had no contact with me, so I should not claim any credit for attracting their coverage.
Vocus (Aug. 10 entry)