New PR college grads, beware: When something can go wrong, it will; and the PR person is responsible

By Debby Charnes-Vallejo
Vice President, Bromley Communications

As a college student, I studied Liberal Arts & Sciences in Mexico, South America and the Caribbean.  We were always told to expect the unexpected. Being resourceful was a critical success factor.

Today’s PR practitioners need that same resolve. It’s arguably more important than writing skills.  A PR professional must be quick on his or her feet to respond to the 24/7 scenes that even Nostradamus could not predict.

Just Throw a Press Conference
Many PR professionals cringe when a client requests a press conference in the same way that one asks for a glass of water. The uneasiness behind the PR team’s reluctance to hold a news conference may stem from the parallel to throwing a party with no guests arriving, or unveiling “news” that is only of interest to your client.  When the client insists on a press conference despite the PR person’s counsel, a ghost party must be prevented.  At one press conference I coordinated, aside from lining up high profile speakers to boost potential media coverage, we selected a highly trafficked public venue. We bussed in 75 schoolchildren to sit in the backdrop and lead our rally call. We invited workers from the area to participate, and promised goody bags for all present. Additionally, we scheduled a radio remote with live cut-ins, on-site, immediately prior to the conference.

The event was a success. In addition to the media in attendance we had our own photographer on site to issue images to print media post on our Internet site (both routine practices).

On the other end of the spectrum, I managed media relations for a live concert uniting two singers from diverse genres, for the first time ever. Not surprisingly, the artists arrived late to our press conference.  After they took their seats at the dais, said a few short statements and answered a select number of questions from the dozens of media in attendance, they were ready to go.  As they filed out of the room, several media bombarded them, wanting one-on-one interviews. The artists, somewhat coldly, responded that they were not taking additional questions. A fight nearly broke out between two overly aggressive photographers.

Some six dozen media were pre-credentialed for concert night.  Although the event was taking place in a large concert hall, the media was corralled in a holding room and only allowed in to the theatre for the few songs the artists performed as a duo.  Keeping the media happy, confined to this room while the entire concert was taking place elsewhere, required quite a bit more than the food and drinks we offered them.  At the same time, it presented a great opportunity to “get closer” to these influential media contacts.

“You did a great job, Brownie!”
Despite a well-oiled team and action plan, even the best of professionals cannot predict a national disaster. But their response will be forever remembered.  For example, George W. Bush’s compliments to his buddy in the post Hurricane Katrina fiasco will go down in history as being both insensitive and disingenuous.

The airline industry gets a pass when a delay is due to force majeur. Not so for our business.  And, we all know that when misfortune strikes, news media focuses almost single mindedly on the issue.

Speaking of planes, I was flying to San Diego for a women’s conference when I answered a frantic call from my media partner.  The wildfires that had been incubating in the surrounding forests were now ravaging the city with black ash flying everywhere. The organizer, an asthmatic, was having difficulty breathing. The city was under a lock down advisory and the airport, government offices and schools would be closed the following day – event day.

From the 747, we devised our contingency plan shortly before the San Diego airport closed its runways to arriving carriers.  I briefed my office with instructions to inform the client and request free lunches for all children at our event.  We repositioned our activity as a safe haven for moms and kids when all schools and businesses would be closed. We reconfirmed all our pre-scheduled media interviews by communicating our event as one of the few activities that was continuing during the wildfires, with special provisions donated by our client in light of the natural disaster.  Additionally, we recognized a team of San Diego firefighters at our event for extended media opportunities.

Having lived in South Florida for eight years, hurricane-preparedness was an everyday term.  All events had to be planned around hurricane season and required contingency plans.  When Andrew hit, arguably the worst hurricane to affect South Florida, my office was inaccessible and inoperable for a full week.  My apartment was an hour north of the storm’s eye and I had access to electricity, water, gasoline and telephone lines within 24 hours.  As our office prepared for Andrew’s approach, in addition to moving all the computers away from windows and backing up all files to secured storage, I took my current work folders and data bases home.

In the end, I was one of only two employees able conduct business in Andrew’s aftermath. To help solidify coverage for a campaign I was promoting in Puerto Rico, I offered the media live updates on the hurricane situation when none of their contacts were reachable. This was a valuable tactic to provide the media with front page news, while getting my story placed in the latter pages.

These are just a few of the examples of how PR people need to be quick thinkers and resolve problems, ideally so that issues are not even apparent to the client.  Some down and dirty basics include shipping items two to three days earlier than required, prepare Q&As for all potential scenarios, allow for double the “drive time” stated in mapquests, shoot for a dry run drive-around in new cities, bring presentation materials in multiple formats to allow for tech nightmares, plan your travel to allow for flight holdups, but anticipate and prepare for client and spokesperson delays.  Pack your own nutrition bars for days without meals, but coordinate special food needs, in advance, for celeb spokespeople.  Finally, in the new age in which we cannot function without our cell phones and PDAs, don’t forget battery chargers and loaded jump drives.