Live from Washington DM Days: PR for Direct Marketers

(Direct Newsline) It was a tough way to start the morning. How would you like to walk into a session and hear a speaker calling you “a piranha that will attack anything in the area?”

All we wanted at that hour was a cup of coffee. But John Daly, who we hope wasn’t talking about us personally, was right: Reporters often jump the most negative details and blow them out of proportion. We’re doing it right now just to prove the point.

And yet it was worthwhile taking Daly’s refresher course on direct and public relations at the Direct Marketing Association of Washington’s annual DM Days.

Daly should know. He invented the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service more than 30 years ago and has many other PR coups to his credit.

The first thing to realize is how similar direct marketing and PR really are.

For example, PR messages should be tested just like direct mail copy to see how they play. Response should be measured through surveys, Daly said.

Messages can be tailored for different audiences, although the underlying message should be the same at all times.

Sound like CRM 101? It sure does—it is, as Daly pointed out, all about brand. Daly also noted that it’s important to project a friendly attitude. Sometimes that starts with the way the receptionist answers the phone.

But there’s a riskier side to PR, as Daly is the first to acknowledge. “You can earn public acceptance, and lose it literally overnight,” he said.

So what do you do to avoid doing untold damage to yourself in the media?

For one thing, “be very careful how you answer questions,” Daly said. Many reporters jump on the slightest mistake.

Also, it pays to know your own story. Create a fact sheet, and make sure it’s “free of typos and totally defensible,” Daly continued. Avoid superlatives such as “the best,” “the greatest,” “the oldest.” And if you do hype yourself as one of those, “make sure you are,” Daly added. “Chances are you’re not.”

Be careful when you hire a PR agency. According to Daly, only charlatans will promise you coverage in specific media (say, the “Today” show or “The Washington Post”). “The story may already be written and locked up, and then the Iraq war breaks out,” he explained.

It also pays to understand that you can’t control how the story is written. Daly once got a client into “The Wall Street Journal.” And was the client grateful? No, he was upset that the reporter described him down in the 50th paragraph as “balding.”

Daly also pointed out that journalists can be cultivated. He urged attendees to send a short handwritten note to a reporter when he writes something you like. (It’s true—we love personal notes.) “But you have to be sincere,” Daly said.

Above all, present your message in a truthful and interesting way. Make sure you report who, what, when, where, why and how, and do it in a way that dramatizes, involves, excites, arouses, and amuses. (Sound like Journalism 101?)

Here’s another old saying of his that we like: “It’s better to ask dumb questions first than to correct dumb mistakes afterward.”

What do you do if a reporter calls to ask you about a lawsuit or some other calamity that you haven’t even been told about yet?

“Ask them, ‘How much time before I get back to you?'” Daly answered. “It’s foolish to comment on something you don’t know about. And make sure you get their number correctly—it’s amazing what screwy things can happen.”

And whatever you do, tell the truth, he added. Watergate and Monicagate would have been short-term stories at best if there had been no attempts to cover them up.

“The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging,” Daly said.