I know many IndyCar PR people and I can assure you they're neither dumb nor lazy. Overworked and underfunded? Maybe. Uncaring and dense, definitely not. So, since I’m sometimes cranking on IndyCar PR myself, let’s talk about Public Relations, specifically how 1) it IS NOT what most people think and 2) it IS much harder than most people think.
Catch 22 between the media providing coverage of the sports and its athletes that have a lot of popularity and the fact that their coverage drives that popularity by keeping the ones everyone wants to know about front-and-center in the spotlight nearly 365 days a year.
You're a journalist, pressdog...who decides and how is it decided on how much coverage is given when it's a 'low-profile' sport or event. Does the organization have to promote to the media via PR peeps and glossy media handout pamphlets/folders? Who, then, is to be looked to for getting more involvement by the media?
When I was working on the cars, it was the responsibility of our team's PR rep to get out there and work the print and broadcast media to get some coverage for our team/driver.
Extremely fair question. The short answer is it's everyone's job to drive PR -- teams, drivers, league -- and they all play a different role in successful PR efforts. I'm just a blogger now, but I used to be a real journalist for small daily newspapers in the pre-internet stone ages (1986 to 1995). I also have a day job now of freelance marketing writer that occasionally brushes up against public relations (I write a mean news release!), so I think I can opine on public relations. So here we go.
The Public Relations Society of America, which the main PR trade group, defines PR this way: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
Most agree that PR is a branch of marketing. I’ll go further: in my opinion, PR is by far the most cost-effective form of marketing. Say you hire a PR person and you pay her $75,000 a year because she is really good. If that PR person gets you ONE feature story in USA Today or even a relatively quick Q&A in the New York Times like this, she’s just generated publicity that’s worth at least her annual salary — with ONE story. The investment in PR is very low compared to other forms of marketing. A big-time TV ad, for example, can cost $100,000 just to create when you factor in the cost paying everyone involved in the process, then you have to pay hundreds of thousands more to air it. You have to sell a lot of product just to make your advertising investment back.
The PR posse is also the brand guardians of a sort, in that they help you respond to potentially brand-damaging events, like if your company manufactures something that starts killing people or your CEO shows up on Facebook half naked at a college frat party. That kind of crisis response public relations can literally save your company. So you need PR and you need good PR to get positive media coverage and mitigate negative media coverage.
So the benefits of PR are huge, but the challenge is also enormous.
To understand PR, you have to understand a couple fundamentals. 1) PR people cannot force any news organization (even bloggers!) to do anything for the companies they represent. Even the great and powerful Wizard of PR is powerless to force the media to do anything. You just got no hammer so "demanding coverage!!" isn't an option.
2) As a PR pro you’re competing with every other PR person representing every other organization out there for a piece of every news organization’s finite resources. So IndyCar is competing for sports space with the NBA, NHL, NASCAR, college sports, golf, tennis and on and on and on. Even online where physical space for stories isn’t a limitation, one reporter can only do so much and there are a finite number of reporters who work for big news organizations that can really move the needle.
Big PR Misconception #1 — That really good PR pros can get news organizations to do any random story just by calling them up, as in saying something like “hustle over here and write a story about Simona.”
Hahahahahaha. No. That’s not how it works. You have to convince journalists to cover your stuff, which is why PR reps “pitch” stories to the media, similar to pitching a product. And, just like when you try to sell someone anything from dish towels to lawn mowers, the pitch needs to be heavy on “what’s in it for me (the reporter)?”
The main thing media people want is readers/viewers (i.e. customers). News organizations want more people to read/view/listen to their stuff than any other news organization’s stuff. Media outlets are businesses so that means success is all about attracting and retaining customers. Traffic (customers consuming the media product) makes them more attractive to advertisers, and fees charged for advertising are what drive media company revenue.
Especially in sports, where it’s rarely a life-and-death or Public-Has-a-Right-to-Know issue, media outlets decide what to cover based largely on “if I invest time and talent into writing this story, how many readers (customers!) will be interested in it?” The best reporters know their audience (customers) really well, and use their limited time to give them stories (products) they want to consume.People don’t seem to understand the concept that media outlets are businesses and there has to be return on their reporting investment. They say: "If I write stories that you want me to write, I need to see a benefit. I need to think this will make people come to my site and read it, make subscribers happy and want to continue to subscribe, make people watch my TV channel rather than the other one, set me apart from my competition in some way, otherwise why would I as a reporter bother?"
So to answer Mike R’s question, glossy PR kits don’t do you much good unless there’s something about the driver’s story/background/condition/gender/life situation/track accomplishments that make the reporter go “Hmm. That is interesting.”
Case in point: this story about Ryan Hunter-Reay by Jeff Olson. The hook is RHR’s riches-to-rags-to-riches story. People love to read about a comeback. So the PR pitch is something like “you should do a story on Ryan Hunter-Reay because he was almost out of racing, bounced around from team to team, and then won the IndyCar championship. It made RHR realize just how precarious any driver’s position in racing is these days.” If IndyCar PR chief Amy Konrath and her crew and/or Andretti Autosport PR were unresponsive and pissy and didn’t work to create a relationship with Jeff Olson and Jenna Fryer and Nate Ryan and Brant James, these stories probably don’t get written, or at least fewer of them do.
Similarly, if Jeff Olson shows up to dot the story and Andretti Autosport team principals treat him like bleeding leper and RHR is unresponsive and petulant, well that can FLUSH all the work it took to get USA Today's interest ... AND poison the well for a year to come ... AND generate an unflattering story in the bargain. So really good PR is everyone's job to some degree, even if that job description is "don't (f-bomb) it up."
Big PR Misconception #2 — The most important PR task is writing news releases. HAR. As if. That’s maybe the LEAST important task. Still valuable, but way down on the list. A quality news release is a good thing, but real PR is the ability of a skilled professional to build relationships with the media, find pitchable stories and then use them to attract favorable coverage. The news release is just a tool that the PR pro uses. Without the pro, you’re screwed, because media outlets get a tidal wave of news release every day and most of them never even get read.
Big PR Misconception #3 — Anyone can do PR. That’s like saying anyone can fix a transmission in your car. Wrong. It takes more than being a good writer and a "people person" to be good at PR. I get paid a lot of money to write stuff for my day job as a freelance marketing writer, and I think I’m good at it, but I SUCK at PR. I don’t have the specific interpersonal skills required to be good at PR. If my clients want PR, I refer them to PR pros that I know.
Big PR Misconception #4 — Sports coverage is somehow merit based, as in the highest quality drivers get the most pub. Another coffee spew. No. Sorry. Sports journalism is extremely audience driven. The biggest mountain for IndyCar to climb is the fact that it has so few fans (relatively) compared to virtually all other major-league pro sports. Reason number 928 that IndyCar needs to increase its fan base is to make it easier to attract more media attention. With so few fans, the media only really feels compelled to cover race results, just a few paragraphs about who won what race, and let it go at that.
But over in NASCAR, with millions of fans who want to know more about everything (like the very latest in the feud between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, for example) then the media has incentive to do a race story and maybe a couple of others, then a couple stories during the week and a race preview story, plus a few features on whoever — because the ROI (viewership) is really strong.
This is why there is always a story about Danica Patrick after virtually every race, regardless of how she finishes. It's not because the news organizations like her. It’s because Danica has a million fans who drive the hit counter through the roof. I know this from my site, where my last original-material Danica post drew about 10,000 page views in 48 hours, which is about ten times my normal average. And traffic = revenue online. It’s a direct correlation. If your customer wants to buy donuts, you sell them donuts. Your customers want to read about Danica, you do stories on Danica.
Likewise, if you would have a million fans out there saying “I wonder what is up with Tony Kanaan these days?” that generates demand for Tony Kanaan articles. That’s the luxury NASCAR has with its millions of fans who create millions of hits and buy millions of editions and watch millions of ESPN shows about NASCAR. The media has a million reasons to cover NASCAR compared to about 200,000 reasons to cover non-Indy 500 IndyCar.
PR is all about talking with the client (IndyCar, its teams and driver) to try and figure out what those interesting story ideas are and then pitching them to the right outlet. Pitching to the right media outlet is key. Maybe a story about Helio Castroneves’ fashion sense won’t make New York Times, but it might make GQ. So don’t spend $19,003 trying to get the New York Times to care because they’re never going to. Instead focus your efforts on attracting GQ.
There’s also a chicken-and-egg kind of thing going on here. Does the media cover drivers because they are interesting, or are drivers interesting because the media covers them? I say it’s more of the former. It starts with drivers being interesting and that attracts media coverage, and then hopefully it snowballs as people read about him or her. For female drivers like Women of pressdog® Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, Simona De Silvestro, Pippa Mann et al, gender is a built-in interesting hook (although not so big of a hook as it once was). Male drivers have a bigger mountain to climb to differentiate themselves. Kimi Räikkönen winning with his “don’t give a shit” attitude makes him interesting to many people like me.
Good public relations requires a sustained, long-term effort that builds relationships with media members based on mutual benefit. It means finding the pitchable stories. Everyone plays a role in generating good PR, from the CEO of IndyCar to the mechanic in the shop. Good PR makes it easy for media to do positive stories on your organization and makes sure the media gets your side of the story in negative situations. But most of all, good PR is really hard.