In Praise of Pitching

I read with interest Andre Beaupre’s article entitled 7 Reasons why it’s time to retire ‘pitch’ and ‘pitching’ and I must respectfully disagree with his perspective. I don’t believe these words date or harm the PR industry.

The word “pitching” arises from comparisons to baseball. The pitcher is on the mound and pitches the ball to the catcher.

If you’ve ever witnessed such an event, you know that the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher and the process repeats itself. It is, therefore, two-way by its very nature. The pitcher does not have a large bucket of balls from which he (or she) keeps throwing, without any regard for whether the catcher actually catches.

But what people unfamiliar with this exchange may not know is that the pitcher does not blindly throw fastballs, curve balls, sliders, knuckle balls or changeups to the catcher without a thought of what the receiver is expecting. The catcher first gives the pitcher a sign to indicate what he (or she) expects to receive.

Competent media relations practitioners understand what journalists need or expect to receive, and tailor their pitch accordingly. What harms us is not the word, but the behavior of exuberant individuals within our profession who keep firing pitches from their large, limitless bucket.

I don’t believe the word “pitching” damages our reputation. What is infinitely more damaging to our reputation is when we train spokespeople to keep firing the same messages from the same bucket, regardless of whether the journalist is even remotely interested or listening.

So let’s not focus on the word. Let’s focus on the approach, and make all of our exchanges with journalists two-way, with the expectation of creating win-win outcomes from which everyone benefits.

In this, I agree with Mr. Beaupre. Two-way exchanges are the foundation on which long-term relationships of lasting value can be constructed.

MRP Alone Not Good Enough

This is the first instalment in a series on media relations measurement.

I’m going to say something that could be perceived as sacrilegious among Canadian media relations practitioners.

I’m not a fan of Media Relations Rating Points (MRP).

For those who don’t know, MRP is a uniquely Canadian innovation. It is a relatively simple and inexpensive system for measuring publicity.

Anyone can download a free Excel spreadsheet from www.mrpdata.com, and for a relatively inexpensive subscription fee, can generate audience reach data, which is supplied by News Canada.

At the end of your campaign, you insert the names of newspapers, magazines, blogs, radio stations and television stations that picked up your story. The basic spreadsheet also has cells available for tone (whether positive, neutral or negative) and five other potential criteria that media coverage can be scored against, such as exclusivity of the story, the use of a picture, or prominence in the publication or newscast.

My complaint is not about the tool. My concern is about how it’s being used. And, quite frankly, it’s leading to a laziness among Canadian media relations practitioners in the way they evaluate the effectiveness of their communication programs.

During the past six months, I have judged some of the most prestigious awards programs in this country. I coordinated the media relations category for IABC’s Silver Leaf awards last fall. I participated as a judge in the media relations category of this year’s CPRS Toronto’s Achieving Communication Excellence (ACE) awards. This past weekend, I participated as a media relations judge in IABC/Toronto’s OVATION awards program.

I have been judging media relations entries at local, national and international levels since I coordinated the entire Silver Leaf program in 1992.

Over the past few years, I have witnessed a distinct deterioration in the discipline of media relations measurement since MRP was first introduced. Increasing numbers of entries at all levels are only submitting MRP “results” as their sole source of evaluation.

Honestly, that’s not good enough.

Our profession is about outcomes, not inputs. I have no qualms if your client is happy with MRP data as a sole source of measurement. As someone who has operated a successful business for the past 25 years, I understand the concept of giving clients what they want.

But if you’re asking your peers for evaluation in awards programs (or in portfolio submissions toward earning your ABC or APR designations), MRP alone isn’t good enough.

It’s not enough to say that 16,000,000 people may have been exposed to a message at a cost of one-third of a penny each. Did they get the message? And how did it influence their attitudes, opinions and behaviour?

Did the program reinforce existing positive opinions? Did it encourage audiences to form opinions? Did it neutralize negative opinions? Did the media relations campaign move specifically-identifiable audiences to action in ways that support the organization’s objectives? And how do you measure all of the above?

In my mind, finding answers to those questions separates a practitioner from a professional.

If you want to use MRP, fine. But please don’t try to convince a fellow professional that MRP alone is good enough.

Quite frankly, it isn’t.

Is Tom Mulcair a Q&A Hypocrite?

Perhaps I’m jaded, but in my world when people do exactly that for which they criticize others, they’re hypocrites. And Canada’s official leader of the opposition, Tom Mulcair, may be just such a beast.

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For the past few years, Mr. Mulcair has constantly criticized Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper for not answering questions. “We’ve asked the prime minister a precise series of questions,” he often says, leaving the impression that it is completely unacceptable for someone to not answer those questions.

Yet in numerous media interviews I’ve observed, Mr. Mulcair does exactly the same thing. He almost never answers a question directly. In fact, sometimes it seems he wouldn’t answer a simple question if his life depended on it.

And it negatively impacts his credibility.

I first became aware of this during a radio interview featuring Mr. Mulcair in November 2013 while I was riding my motorcycle home from a media training session in downtown Toronto. I was listening to CBC radio (it’s a Gold Wing with a premium sound system—and heated grips and seats, thank goodness!). Mr. Mulcair was being interviewed about the expense scandal in Canada’s senate shortly after three senators were suspended.

Mr. Mulcair was waxing eloquently about how the prime minister refused to answer simple, direct questions during question period in the House of Commons. The prime minister was avoiding questions. He was sidestepping questions. He was waffling. He was obfuscating.

Just after Mr. Mulcair made his point that the political party he leads, the New Democrats, believe Canada’s senate should be abolished, the interviewer asked an obvious question: “Don’t you think that suspending these three senators is a good start?”

Folks, it’s a closed question requiring either a “yes” or a “no.” And, based on Mr. Mulcair’s worldview, the answer should probably be “yes.” Was there even a hint of a yes or no in Mr. Mulcair’s answer? No. So the interviewer asked again. And again. And again. Until she finally gave up.

Honestly, he came across as a hypocrite.

This past week, I was watching CTV Newsnet when Mr. Mulcair was interviewed by Sandie Rinaldo. To lead off her interview, Ms. Rinaldo quoted Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who says he supports the capacity of Canadian troops to defend themselves. “Do you agree with that?” she asked Mr. Mulcair.

Is this an open or closed question? Closed. The first thing out of Mr. Mulcair’s mouth should be a yes or no. Instead, he ignores the question and says:

“What I do know is that in September and October I asked the prime minister a whole series of questions—very specific questions about what our troops were doing.”

Huh? Isn’t he criticizing someone for not answering specific questions by not answering a specific question?

But wait, it gets even better. “But it seems our troops had no choice but to defend themselves,” Ms. Rinaldo said. “Isn’t there an allowance for that?”

Again, a closed question. Yes or no would be good to hear, especially from someone who criticizes others for not answering specific, direct questions.

“When you’re involved in a firefight it’s because you’re involved in combat,” Mr. Mulcair answered, in his attempt to bridge to his message and tell us all what’s really important, “which Mr. Harper told Canadians we wouldn’t do, and that’s the problem.”

This doesn’t pass the sniff test on a number of levels. If I was a member of Canada’s armed forces, I’d be miffed. You mean to tell us that we shouldn’t defend ourselves, regardless of what the politicians say in their squabbles with each other?

It also illustrates the absolute foolishness of staying on message. As I’ve said many times during interviews and in my media training program, politicians are the only ones who could possibly get away with this tactic (but why would they, when a better alternative is available?), which I believe is an outdated paradigm in an information-driven, media-savvy world.

Mr. Mulcair has until October 19—the date of Canada’s next federal election—to get it right. His predecessor did, probably because he knew he was fighting his last fight.

Mr. Mulcair should go back and watch Jack Layton’s interviews prior to the last federal election. Jack provided a refreshing perspective on treating audiences with dignity and respect. More often than not, he answered questions clearly and concisely, and communicated effectively.

I believe Jack’s performance is a huge reason why Mr. Mulcair currently resides at Stornaway, the residence of Canada’s official opposition.

If he hopes to stay there (or potentially move up in the world), he should gain insight from Jack’s cogent example, and learn how to answer questions as a means of treating audiences with respect, and ultimately managing interviews to strategic gain—without exhibiting the same behaviour for which he’s criticizing others.

Talking Like A Leader – General Tells It Like It Is

by Sue Johnston, MBA, ABC, MC, MMC

We’ve seen it too many times. A leader finds his or her organization in the middle of a mess and tries to minimize its seriousness. Out pop the weasel words, euphemisms and positioning in a bid to convince the world that things are not as they seem. It fools nobody. When ‘spin’ enters, so do doubt, speculation, suspicion and mistrust. 

So it was refreshing to see the way Australia’s Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, handled a serious issue facing his organization in a YouTube video that aired publicly. No spin. No positioning. Instead, we got a sincere delivery of a message that matters - along with a stern warning.

On June 13, Morrison met with the news media and also recorded a three minute video for members of the armed forces – and the public. His messy issue is that army and state police are investigating a group of military men who produced and circulated videos the general described as “highly inappropriate material demeaning women.”

With the investigation ongoing, the general can’t share details. But he can share his views. “If this is true, then the actions of these members are in direct contravention to every value the Australian Army stands for.” He’s appalled and won’t tolerate such behaviour. His stance and his speech have won praise in Australian and international news media. 

Why is his message so powerful? He makes it easy to understand. Morrison conveys his ideas clearly, using unambiguous language anyone can comprehend. He shows us he means what he says. His tone and manner reveal his emotions and touch ours. Finally, he invites others to help. 

1) Clarity of message 

“Those who think that it is OK to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this Army.” 

In both his statements, Morrison answers questions and speaks honestly. He shares the facts as cleanly and clearly as he can. Without compromising the investigation, he anticipates and tries to answer the questions a reporter, soldier/employee or member of the public might have.

He leaves no doubt that there are consequences for the sort of behaviour under investigation. No cushion words, no euphemisms, and definitely no nonsense. He is clear and concise. There’s no opportunity for misquotes or misunderstanding. Women are and will always be in the military. “If that does not suit you, then get out.” It doesn’t get much plainer than that.

2) Language and emotion 

“If you become aware of any individual degrading another, then show moral courage and take a stand against it. No one has ever explained to me how the exploitation or degradation of others enhances capability or honours the traditions of the Australian Army.”

Morrison touches emotions. He doesn’t conceal his anger. It shows in his tone and his serious demeanor. There’s no need to pound the desk or shout. Other emotions, disappointment, shame, pride and hope show in his words. This CEO is not a charismatic spokesperson – he doesn’t need to be. He gets the message across with honesty and intensity.

This is a general speaking to soldiers and he deliberately uses the word ‘courage,’ an essential trait for soldiers. They are willing and trained to risk life and limb to defend their country. But he challenges them to show ‘moral courage’ and face a different sort of risk – emotional risk. 

3) Call to action

“I will be ruthless in ridding the Army of people who cannot live up to its values and I need every one of you to support me in achieving this. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” 

Morrison not only lets his troops know that the army won’t tolerate degrading behaviour, he invites them to help in fighting the systemic problems. “Every one of us is responsible for the culture and reputation of our Army and the environment in which we work.” 

At the time of writing, the video has had 1,315,659 views on YouTube. Dozens of news articles and blog posts applaud Morrison’s no nonsense stand against offensive behaviour. It’s too soon to know whether this communication will, ultimately, lead to behaviour change in the Australian army. But the buzz it created has put a lot of eyeballs on a serious issue in Australia and elsewhere. 

Did the general do a good job with this talk? How so? Or not? What did he miss? What did we miss? Share your thoughts. 

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Sue Johnston helps organizations and individuals communicate for results. She is dedicated to the belief that a real conversation is the most powerful business tool we will ever have.

Sue Johnston

Located in southwestern Ontario, Sue works with leaders and emerging leaders to develop their skills as authentic, confident communicators. The focus of her training and coaching is face-to-face communication, from media interviews and presentations to conversations with employees, clients and colleagues. 

A professional communicator for 30 years, Sue worked as a TV and newspaper reporter and editor in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and London. That led to opportunities as a corporate writer and communication consultant in Canada’s banking industry, where much of her time was spent helping executives step out from behind the slide-shows and newsletters and really talk to people. 

Today, Sue combines her journalist’s skills, her corporate communication experience and her business training as a communication trainer and coach to help clients achieve peak success.

Sue is licensed to deliver At Ease With the Media.

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