Publicity pet peeve

by Joel Crews
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Having been a part of a media panel at a recent industry conference where the "image of the industry" was the focus of a roundtable discussion, I marvel at how different theory and reality play out in the real world. Not only during the media panel discussion did my trade-publishing brethren and I trumpet the value of processors telling their stories, but in several other presentations and keynote addresses, industry CEOs, food-safety legislators and spokesmen preached about the value of the industry speaking up on its own behalf. The alternative involves risking having a very different story publicized by agenda-driven, investigative reporters or uninformed, deadline-dodging general press scribes pressed to crank out editorial quantity, not quality.

I am increasingly surprised at how many companies in our industry issue press releases touting a corporate initiative and then, when a media outlet takes the bait and contacts the company, they go into an ostrich mode. It’s understandable when a smaller company is a bit reluctant to quickly commit to a story about some aspect of their company or slow to comment on an industry trend. Those situations can usually be diffused by a phone call and establishment of credibility. Especially in the current environment, when Time magazine and the New York Times are depicting unflattering images of the industry, the ‘right’ type of publicity is golden. When a press release or marketing campaign triggers a response from one of the targeted recipients, I’m amazed when the response from the company’s representative is to generically decline "participation" in the story or, worse, not respond at all to phone calls and e-mails. Many medium and large processors retain pricey P.R. and marketing agencies to handle their corporate communications. Based on first-hand experience in working with scores of agency representatives for processors over the past decade, I can say that too many are doing a disservice to their clients by opting to "pass" on stories they determine to "not be the best fit."

If a release prompts me to call for more information, the scope of my inquiry is typically broader than just the topic of the release, which seems to make many agency people feel as if their message control is being threatened. In my opinion, there is a way to accomplish the promotional goal of their "client" by framing the message around useful, newsworthy content for M&P’s "clients," who are our readers. In agency-speak, this is a true "win-win." Agency reps and communication directors have their jobs to do and that mission is to be respected by editors like me. Likewise, the communication gatekeepers need to realize that it is the job of editors to determine, on behalf of readers, what is genuinely newsworthy.

I recently received press releases from agencies representing two different, high-profile processing companies, one promoting a new product line and the other announcing a corporate milestone. I expressed my interest in covering the topics and that I’d also like to discuss some other aspects of the business. In each case, I was thanked for "reaching out" by the reps and was electronically shown the door by both, but not until after they had "circled back" with their clients, "regrouped with their media team" and subsequently decided "the client would prefer to pass on the opportunity this time around." While most communications professionals working in this industry "get it" and are effectively representing processors, too many still don’t and are overstepping their role as information gatekeepers. I am sure withholding information is not the job most of their clients pay them to do.

When it comes to telling the industry’s story, we all have our role. Utilizing informed journalists covering the business of meat and poultry processing day-in and day-out, M&P is committed to communicating to readers effectively and truthfully. I look forward to the day when communication "specialists" representing their clients realize the value of having the industry’s story told to our clients.
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