PR LESSONS FROM THE CONFEDERATE FLAG

cotton plant for blog

Despite typically sticking to non-controversial topics on my corporate blog, I decided to do something different today: discuss something sensitive and controversial.

The front page stories about the Confederate flag offer a great lesson for publicists.

Before I list what lessons we PR folks can learn, I will back up a bit and talk about my opinion on the flag situation.

I was moved by the photo of the South Carolina shooter in the Sunday The New York Times. The Times did a smart thing by publishing it.

The Confederate flag is now closely associated with a killer and his hate crime. The idea is simple. If you fly the flag, you support what he did.

Additionally, the San Jose Mercury News just today published a story that says the Confederate flag symbolizes slavery. I don’t see these words too often. Usually reporters tip toe around the topic saying, “Old South” and Southern pride and so on.

I have not been to the South in a few years but I do have relatives and roots there. The South is beautiful. The hospitality there is awesome. I don’t hate the South.

I live in the Silicon Valley but was born in Cleveland, Ohio. I also have detailed lineage records showing that I’m related to Robert E. Lee who was head of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Despite this fact, I still don’t support the Confederate flag.

There are a few reasons why the Confederate flag will likely be removed from all government offices and school campuses in coming months: being associated with a highly publicized hate crime (bad PR); economic boycotts; more diversity in government offices; and lastly people who previously remained quiet are now speaking out.

What can we PR people learn from the flag stories? Two things.

IS IT TIMELY RIGHT NOW?

When you think about what stories to pitch reporters – and by the way, some reporters don’t like or need story ideas – think about two elements: timeliness and surprise.

Is your story pitch surprising in any way?

Is it linked to a topic that is trending, one that people actually care about right now? And by right now, I mean today and this minute? Does your news have people saying, “So what?” or do they raise their eyebrows and say, “Interesting. Tell me more.”

A Bloomberg News TV journalist recently said that the best topics to pitch him should be chosen that day. He said check what is hot in the morning and offer him an expert on that topic. By the way if you are pitching broadcast media, pitch something visual.

THE SURPRISE FACTOR

Regarding the surprise factor, a friend in Ohio commented on Facebook that he was surprised anyone was flying the Confederate flag in the South. How can government folks be glorifying its symbolism in this day and age? The other surprise was how a “clean-cut” young man can walk into a Bible study and just kill nine people.

Wow, and they were awesome people. They were Society’s heroes.

Additionally, killing a pastor after Bible study is surprise. So journalists are all over it.

So the lesson is this. When you think about launching your start-up company or issuing a press release on your new software, what part of your story is timely and a surprise? If you think of your publicity in this way, you will get a lot more attention with a lot less work and expense.

Sometimes the surprise is not that the new software can do x or y but rather an interesting tidbit about the founder that would make an enticing story headline.

As the saying goes, work smarter not harder.

[The cotton plant photo was purchased from Canva.]

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Michelle McIntyre is the president of MMC PR, a Communications and Citizenship in the Community merit badge counselor for Boy Scouts of America, IBM vet, former parliamentarian and vice president communications of the local district PTA, SV-IABC director of marketing communications and on the executive team for TEDxSanJoseCA. She has served 14 mostly software start-ups since launching her business two years ago. Her views are her own and not those of her clients or the non-profits she serves. @FromMichelle on Twitter

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