Editors do not want your dirty hubcaps

What do dirty hubcaps, carved rocks, popup books and moving boxes have in common?

They are some of the press kits and annual reports I have seen in my career. Creativity does not always equal good impressions when you’re trying to capture the media’s attention.

My editor recently received a dirty hubcap in a pizza box. He didn’t know the hubcap was dirty – it had grimy brake fluid on the back, and when he picked it up, he got the black goo all over his clothes. To top it off, the “kit” did not have much information about its purpose – it had a piece of paper with a Web address. Needless to say, my boss was not impressed.

The hubcap incident got me to thinking about other publicity efforts I’ve witnessed.

An aquarium added a penguin exhibit titled “Penguin Rocks” and sent the newspaper small rocks carved with the exhibit’s logo. I thought it was creative. And my pragmatic side appreciated that the rocks could be re-used – I gave mine to my mother to use in her yard’s landscaping.

A local utility I have dealt with will get two mentions in this blog. The utility moved its office several years ago and its marketing director sent media outlets a large moving box. This box was so large it required foam and lumber supports inside. An ordinary press release was the only other content. My colleagues greeted this initiative with incredulity. Later, when I covered this utility, it released its annual report in a book format using full color, quality paper and popups. The books cost $32,000 to print, not counting postage. While such projects take months to plan, the timing was horrible since ratepayers were upset that the wholesale electric rate was increasing 20 percent. To be fair, the utility didn’t set the wholesale rate. But I wrote a story because the utility is city-owned, which is an important distinction to a reporter. The utility’s marketing department is very creative, but the use of expensive popups in a report by a public utility generated negative attention.

What lessons can a publicist learn from these episodes? Journalists love clever ideas, but we are cynical. We take our roles seriously as public watchdogs, so if perceive someone is misusing resources we may decide the situation warrants a story.

Here are a few tips for communicating to the media:

  • Provide plenty of information about what you’re trying to communicate. Journalists deal in facts, not teasers or hype.
  • Timing is important. A fancy or otherwise lavish project may be acceptable when things are fine, but can draw bad publicity with the wrong timing.
  • Try to use something that’s practical as well as cute. This should be better received by cynical journalists.
  • Be aware of much money you spend to create a marketing campaign or annual report. It may become the story instead of what you are trying to publicize.
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