Friday, July 24, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Classics File

By Paul Hart, APR

Back in my day, you didn’t dare go into PR until you worked several years in the media – newspaper, TV or radio. I came up on the newspaper side and I learned lessons that I apply to the practice of public relations to this day.

I spent several productive years on the business desk of the Tulsa World working for a terrific editor and all-around character. He taught me how to write well, but one of his greatest contributions to my career was his Classics File, a stack of press releases created over the decades and kept in his lower drawer. They were so bad they were laughable. Most, but not all, were a weak response to a crisis situation.

On the occasional slow afternoon, he’d pull out the pile and read a few aloud to the enjoyment of all us in the area. There were some beauts: How about the coal company that issued a release stating an “incident” at one of its mines occurred when “the ceiling came in contact with the floor?” No kidding. There was no mention of a cave-in or collapse. Then there was the oil refinery that suffered damage due to “extremely rapid, uncontrolled and unexpected oxidation.” Nope, nothing here about an explosion and fire.

It was only after I went into PR that I truly understood the immense amount of effort that went into crafting these gems. I came to understand the worst offenders were, sadly, the product of hours and hours of work in hot and stuffy conference rooms, trying to get something put together despite loud protests from Legal, Marketing, Operations or some other embarrassed department. A poor, overwhelmed PR staff was expected to send out the muddled result.

Our guy had a great respect for “press agents” as he called all public relations people and knew his success in maintaining our award-winning business news section depended in part on their help. He understood public relations practitioners have a particular skill set and often work with clients who do not appreciate that expertise. I saw times when a new Classics File candidate would arrive in the newsroom. After reading and laughing loudly, he would call the appropriate PR person and ask, “Now tell me what REALLY happened.”

The Classics File taught me a valuable lesson about PR: Don’t spin. Be open, honest and dependable, and tell your client why. In the long run, your client will gain.