Communications

Part 1: The “Please, Don’t Hit Me” Party

After spending a few days in Washington, D.C. interacting with party leaders and activists from across the country, listening to their stories and asking questions about their organizational structure and how they communicate to the public; It became clear that the battle ground members and those leading the massive marches in DC and yesterday in Berkeley, are fighters, willing to push back and take on the challenge, while many, California Republicans, have adopted the, “Please, Don’t Hit Me” strategy.

California Democrats deserve credit, for taking almost any issue and converting it into a crisis. They use this approach to mobilize thousands of people through email, social media and community organizations; with a unified voice, they blame it all on Republicans.

A few weeks ago they began spending $25,000 a month of taxpayer money to hire former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, nearly a month before Donald J. Trump took the oath of office, because of Trump’s campaign speeches.

Trump was sworn in office just ten days ago and when Holder was hired, no one knew what policies or changes he would actually suggest to congress, or who will fill all of the Secretary posts, or what executive orders he will undo. This single move, of hiring Eric Holder blanketed the airways, newspapers, social media, and was used to mobilize communities around the notion that: Donald Trump is dangerous to California and we need protection.

California Democrats charged that Trump would attack California on climate change, immigration, Obamacare, and stated, “‘[Holder] will be our lead litigator, and he will have a legal team of expert lawyers on the issues of climate change, women and civil rights, the environment, immigration, voting rights — to name just a few,’ Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said in an interview.”

The best part of this Democratic strategy is the claim that it is being done in the name of bipartisanship, when the actions taken have been strictly partisan.

As an example, the California Democratic leadership has said, they fear Donald Trump will begin with massive deportations, yet Trump’s last comments dealt with deporting only undocumented immigrants that are criminals and finding a solution for the rest. Where was that anger and fear, when President Obama was deporting three million immigrants? Why wasn’t Eric Holder hired then? The reason is that the Democrats’ strategy is to blame Republicans, as Republicans sit idle and accept the blame.

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While some Republicans are comfortable with their crumbs, others are afraid of reprisal and some just lack a spine.

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The Democratic Party has controlled both houses of the state legislature for the better part of 20 years. Yet opposition research, policy challenges, and contrasts usually happen during the election season, when it should be occurring 24-hours, 365 days out of the year.

There should be other opinions and challenges inserted into the conversation and that requires a new strategy of a willingness to “push back,” rather than the tendency to not act and simply say, “Please, Don’t Hit Me.”

A Lesson for California – Mexico in Peril over Increased Gas Prices

As Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government increased gas prices by 30 cents a gallon on New Year’s Day, the Mexican people took to the streets in protest, blocking roads, burning debris, blocking gasoline service stations and waving banners asking for Peña Neito to resign.

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The gasolinazo – the gasoline price hike – prompted taxi cab drivers, truckers, agricultural workers and other irate citizens to block the main highways into Mexico City this past week.

“Outside one gas station in the centre of the captial, Manuel López, a mechanic, stood defiantly in front of the pumps. Ironically, López does not own a car – he sold it because of Mexico’s ongoing economic downturn – but he said the size and shock of the gasolinazo had sent him into the streets.

‘It’s an economic issue,’ said López, 24. ‘Salaries are not very good. If gasoline goes up, it provokes an inflation in the cost of the items we consume daily,’ he added, reciting a list of common complaints among Mexicans. ‘The first thing that gets hit are people’s pocketbooks.’”

As the gazolinazo takes center stage in Mexico, in their northern neighbor of California, several Democrat legislators have introduced their own gas tax proposal that could drive the current gasoline tax of 58.83 cents to 70.83 cents per gallon.

Like clockwork, Democrats introduce a handful of gas tax measures like Senate Bill 350 and oil severance, while the California Air Resources Board (a government agency appointed by Governor Jerry Brown) is looking at its own set of gas-hike proposals.

Since the Great Recession, California’s economy has been growing. Unemployment is down, more than two million have been created in a six-year span, but this recovery hasn’t been shared equally by all. As Dan Walters of The Sacramento Bee recently noted, “The technology-heavy San Francisco Bay Area has almost single-handedly lifted California’s economy and while other regions are better off than they were during the depths of the recession, their recoveries have been more sluggish. The question hanging over the state, therefore, is whether technology can continue to buoy its economy, or whether another recession is just waiting to happen.”

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A 2015 report by United Ways of California, Struggling to Get By, noted, “One in three California households (31%) do not have sufficient income to meet their basic costs of living. This is three times the proportion officially considered poor in California, according to the Federal Poverty Level that averages low cost-of-living states with those that have higher cost-of-living, such as California.

Households led by people of color are disproportionately likely to have incomes too low to make up the difference. State statistics show 51% of Latino households and 40% of African-American households have incomes below the Real Cost Measure. They are followed by Asian-American households (28%) and Caucasian households (20%).”

Even with the two million new jobs — with the largest gains made in low-paying restaurant, hotel and retail industries — and a slowly rebounding economy, will California Democrats follow the lead of Mexican President Enrique Peña Neito and create our own regressive gasolinazo to unfairly punish the poor?

The Real Work Behind Each Press Release

Don’t rely on the “send” button in your email distribution system, as the means to getting your press release converted into a media story.

The press release should only be sent after you have done the real work of putting together fact sheets, developed talking points, having the client approve a few opinion-editorials and communicated the significance of the issue with a reporter or select number of them. This doesn’t mean you have to conduct a press tour before issuing the release, but you need to pick up the phone and communicate your issue.

Identify key reporters (those who cover this particular issue or individuals you have built a relationship with) and give them a run down.

If the issue requires some background and/or a technical explanation, make the client or expert available to answer questions. This exercise will help you evaluate the situation and identify a missing component in your narrative. Keep the conversations “off the record” or “on-background” and embargo any documents until the release is sent (see Establishing Ground Rules with a Reporter).

By laying the groundwork first, a reporter is able to understand the issue and this takes away the guessing, as they scan through the 200+ daily press releases living in their inbox (see When to Send Out A Press Release).

Previewing the issue can also bring you back to earth.

At times, we get so caught up with the issue and client, that we become blinded as to whether the story is news worthy or get lost in the weeds that we fail to see the issue from the audience’s point of view. The last thing we want to do is come off as a conspiracy theorist.

Reporters will listen to your pitch, but also expect them to ask tough questions and verbalize the holes in your story. At the end your client will be better for it.

It is only after you go through this exercise, that you should feel confident in pressing the “send” button.

When to Send Out a Press Release

In communications, timing is everything.

After working hard on the language and tone of your press release, next comes the big question: “When should the release go out?” When determining the best time to send the press release, ask yourself, is the client seeking to minimize or  maximize exposure?

Minimize Coverage

If you are trying to minimize coverage, send the release on a Friday after 4:00 pm, when most reporters have already written their weekend article and it’s been submitted to the desk for review and editing.

If timing permits, schedule the release on the Friday before a 3-day holiday or the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. On those days, most broadcast stations have skeleton crews and print reporters will have already filed their articles and like most people, they are focused on something else, except work.

Even though it’s likely that most reporters will have mentally checked out for the long weekend, you still need to be prepared to answer media questions.

If you are trying to minimize exposure, you need to realize that there is no escaping coverage. With our mobile devices attached to our finger-tips, the endless number of bloggers and Google Alert, your content will be viewed by someone and will live online.

In a 24-hour news cycle world “flying under the radar” is impossible. Especially if the issue involves a high profile company, celebrity/politician/high powered executive or a topical issue.

Elements of your statement are bound to end up on social media, some blog or picked up by the weekend crew at a news station.

I have known too many people who don’t prepare, but spend their time hoping and praying that a weekend news story or sensational event will knock their story off a reporter’s list. That is a difficult way to live.

No matter the situation, have your talking points written out and be ready to respond.

Giving Your Story A Chance  

Each morning, most journalists are in front of their computers reading and sorting out their emails. They are looking for breaking news, scanning through the press releases and reviewing their in-progress files, before heading into a morning staff meeting.

Reporters receive 30-80 press releases a day, and in an election year, that number grows to 100-200+. If you don’t stand out, you’ll get buried.

In a press release, the subject line and first two to three sentences are key – eliminate the fluff and get to the point.

Also, try sharing your release at odd times. Instead of 7:30 am, send the release at 7:33 or 8:12. Don’t let your message get clogged up in the avalanche of pre-programed emails.

As to what day of the week works best, while weekends and Friday are not ideal, next comes Monday morning.

On Monday mornings, most people spend time sorting through and cleaning up their inbox – just look at the amount of junk mail you get throughout the weekend.

Like most people, reporters are spending their Monday mornings deleting, figuring out what is relevant or what emails to file for another day.

I like Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays. You will be given an opportunity to connect with a reporter before you send out the release (more on this in my next article) and you don’t have to deal with the Monday morning email clutter.

Establishing the Ground Rules With a Reporter

When reporters get a lead on a story, it is their job to talk with multiple sources, to gather facts and opinions, in order to analyze whether the story is worth pursing.

Before beginning an interview, its important to establish an agreement to determine how the information will be used and sourced, such as off the record, on the record, on background, or deep background. This agreement needs to occur at the beginning, not the end of the interview. You can’t begin an interview and then say, “Wait, that was ‘off the record.’”

Here is a brief summary of some ground rules when talking with a reporter:

“Off the Record” means the information can’t be quoted, referenced or used in an article. The information is offered to provide the reporter with a greater understanding of the issue.

“On the Record” means the information you provide can be used or quoted for the story. This includes using you or your client as the source of the information.

“On Background” means that the information can be used by the reporter, but not attributed to you. They can refer to you as “an expert” or “government official” or “a senior executive.” This type of agreement usually occurs when the information is sensitive, so the source is not disclosed.

“On Deep Background” means that the information can be used in a story or to enhance the reporter’s knowledge of the subject or as a guide for other leads, but the original source cannot be quoted or identified. Here is how Associated Press defines it: “The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.” http://www.ap.org/company/News-Values

Before sitting down for the interview, write down what you want to say. Don’t ad-lib.

Set the ground rules for the interview.

Treat everything you say, even if you are “off the record,” as though you are “on the record.”

Remember a reporter will be talking to multiple sources and some key word or phrase you provide can open the door to another source, who might be willing to go “on the record.”

** Update:

A colleague and communications professional, Alicia Trost brought up a good point, these rules also apply when text messaging. Thank you @AliciaTrost