Times are tough for everyone. We’re all together in this surreal moment of quarantines, lay-offs, and the serious health and economic pressures. And despite our individual hardships, our thoughts need to be focused on those on the front lines of the battles against this terrible scourge that has turned our little worlds of self-interest upside down. But life goes on and our ability to adjust and adapt is now front and center. Despite the abrupt suspension of life as we knew it, I can’t forget that I run a public relations firm and have a responsibility to my employees, as well as my clients, for both their health and livelihoods.
For all of us in the PR profession lucky enough to still have clients willing to return our calls and pay our fees, it’s tough enough to be driven to dining room tables, extra bedrooms, basements and garages for a quiet place to work. But we also have to consider how the rules are changing in this “new normal.” How do we balance being sensitive to the times and yet still skillfully practice our profession?
I ran across an excellent column in the NY Times that reminded me of this need for sensitivity. It also took me back to similar tough calls we at INK PR have had to make in the past, especially in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
There is no more iconic image of the terrible events of 9/11 than the Twin Towers aflame and beginning to crumble. Millions of pieces of paper drifting to the ground amidst our fellow human beings leaping to their deaths. It’s seared in almost everyone’s memory who saw it. It was a few days later, as the networks repeatedly broadcast these horrible videos of the towers’ demise when I received a call from the CEO of our largest client, a global company whose primary business was digitizing paper files and records for corporations.
Once past the horror of the desperately leaping human images, both of us almost guiltily had the same thought. All those millions of pieces of paper falling from the sky represented important documents that were destroyed forever. The guilt came from realizing this tragedy also represented an opportunity. There could not have been a clearer demonstration of the value of digitizing documents and storing them electronically, than those videos being repeatedly shown on national TV. Today, with everything being stored in the cloud, this wouldn’t even be a passing thought. But in 2001, this terrible visual posed two ethical questions as a PR professional:
- When, if at all, is an appropriate time to pitch our client’s products and services tied to this tragic event and the business ramifications resulting from it?
- Secondly, and more importantly, is this something that should be pitched at all?
After hours of discussion and phone calls amongst ourselves, the client and the client’s representatives living or working near Ground Zero in New York City, we reached a decision. We determined that the best course of action was to run our strategies by those who were near the epicenter and personally being impacted in a way that those of us who didn’t live in New York City could only imagine through what we saw on television. So the media target list, our pitches and the timing of when to activate the campaign were all put through the prism of what those on the ground were experiencing.
The initial media targets were to be strictly business and trade pubs familiar with the document industry. The message of the pitches focused on why this tragedy might be a transformational moment for business documentation overall not on selling our client’s product and services. In addition to the terrible loss of life, it pointed out that it might take months or years to recover the information lost, and how this could be avoided in the future. Ours was a pitch that offered a solution that could help others.
We waited a full three weeks before our first contact with the media as we saw the news cycle had begun to move beyond the immediate death and destruction stories to how the events of that day would affect daily life and business moving forward. We positioned the CEO, with his lengthy experience in the document industry, as a thought leader and not as a salesman. We did what should be on the front burner for any successful campaign. We served the needs of our media colleagues and, by extension, those being impacted by document loss. The result was considerable and positive coverage of our client, the CEO, and the industry overall. Moreover, it allowed us to build a solid foundation of goodwill with the media.
Is there a lesson to be learned from our experience in pitching around the tragedy of 9/11 and our current collective battle against COVID-19? I think there is. And the overriding lesson is sensitivity.
After many decades in the industry, and working through other transcendent news cycles, there’s one bar that I believe needs to be met if you’re looking for coverage. Is the story purely self-serving or does it rise to a level of being truly helpful in a time of crisis? Does it further a greater good beyond the client’s bottom line?
If the answer isn’t unequivocally “yes,” then the wisest move is to stand down and wait until the air has cleared. This is not time to force an inappropriate storyline under the auspices of serving your client, because you’re not really serving your client. And an insensitive pitch can turn a media contact off now and in the future.
But if there is a real news angle there, and you’re bringing something to the table that meets the needs of the media and its audience, proceed, but with sensitivity. Just like we’re being asked to wear masks to protect the health and safety of others, pitching during this time will be much better received if that same sense of selflessness is applied. Here are two recent examples: