In trying to write a story about a Massachusetts company that had announced a large contract with the Navy, I worked with its in-house PR person and left messages for executives for five days. Though this business had invited press coverage by sending out a release (complete with a plethora of ridiculous acronyms and inane jargon), they were evidently unclear on the PR concept - - I was eventually told executives were "too busy" for a 15-minute interview. Bad form.

This instance has helped me understand why there's not a whole lotta love flowing between editors and public relations people. It's the job of a public relations professional to advance her clients' communications objectives. Part of that job includes supporting editors and reporters in arranging interviews and understanding a company's products and services. A capable PR person will offer to provide background documentation from press kits to industry statistics. Sure, it would be nice if editors were a little less gruff and reporters had a bit more time before deadline. But media rarely work on a tidy schedule.

The chuckleheads in an industry make you appreciate the pros all the more. Beryl (rhymes with "Cheryl") Wolfe is a PR person to be appreciated. The president and founder of Wolfe Public Relations in Portland, Maine, Wolfe started the firm in 1993. A no B.S. kind of woman, she's worked both sides of media -- her career as a newspaper reporter took her from Virginia to Venezuela. Husband Jason Wolfe, also a former reporter, joined her in the practice in 1999. Wolfe's clients represent a range of industries including banking, law, and health care.

I posed a few questions to Beryl Wolfe on the delicate art of publicity, working with media gatekeepers and managing client expectations:

Kimberly McCall: How do you decide what news is worth taking to the media? What kind of news has the best chance of being picked up?

Beryl Wolfe: The best guideline is to ask yourself if the topic is significant to your organization, your customers, or your community. If it impacts consumers, changes the way you do business or offers a new service, then it has a better chance of gaining media attention.

That's not to ignore all those less-compelling topics such as new hires, promotions, awards, and recognition. We advise this type of release for any major business, and the news can usually make it into the business sections. This type of everyday news release is almost a requirement for businesses and organizations to keep the press and the public informed.

McCall: What are the steps of a "typical" story pitch? Say a new business just opened downtown ... how does that end up on the evening news or in the business section of the local paper?

Wolfe: New businesses are hard because the media need to be convinced they are going to stick around for awhile or better yet, offer something no one is offering. There needs to be a news hook, and that often can be something traditional and easy or it can be something off the wall and unusual. Depends on the media you're approaching, depends on whether it's broadcast or print. Each has different reporters, different beats, different requirements. The steps we use vary for each client, each industry and each type of media.

McCall: What can small-business owners do to make their news more attractive to reporters and assignment editors?

Wolfe: If they're doing it without the help of a professional PR firm they should do two things: write their news releases in news style and understand how the media operates. Those are the two keys.

A properly written news release will not automatically get in the paper, but it sure has a better chance than a poorly written release, or one that uses promotional language. Small businesses need to know there are many others just like them approaching the same media, so the media may have a very good reason as to why they say they're not interested - - maybe they just did a story like that or they don't see the news allure for their readers or viewers.

Other ideas hit a home run and attain major attention, so another part of it is luck and chance. But one thing is for sure - - very little depends on who you know. That's 1980s PR thinking, that it's the good-old-boy network or who you know. Doesn't work that way.

McCall: Many members of the press are less than loving to the PR profession. How do you overcome this enmity to further your client's publicity objectives?

Wolfe: We just keep at it and try not to take it personally. Sometimes the media have good reasons why they say "no thanks," other times we happen to disagree about the merits of a story idea. But that's life in PR. You have to get used to rejection and you have to prepare your clients for the "no thanks," or you're not being realistic. Part of it is just a simple law of averages - - eventually, it will pay off, so we keep trying. But it's hard, not a profession for the thin-skinned.

McCall: I've had clients tell me it's the Wall Street Journal they're aiming for ... how do you handle the coverage expectations of your clients?

Wolfe: If it's a new or prospective client and they say that in the initial phone call, I usually don't take them on as their expectations are too high to begin with, especially from a Maine PR firm. I tell them if the story is newsworthy enough for the Wall Street Journal, we can help reach them, write it right, etc., but that's a hard one, could take years. It's better to be honest.

McCall: Can you share any examples of client PR campaigns that were tremendously successful?

Wolfe: Sure, one of the best was for Martin's Point Health Care when they launched their Internet program, Patients Personal Points. The program allows patients to log on using a secure server to talk to their doctor, get prescriptions filled, etc. We did a traditional news release, a press kit, and lots of follow-up calls. We sent information to tech trade publications as well as local media. It received widespread local and national wire attention because it was a good story. It also helps to have a very able and educated client who can talk articulately and on deadline to reporters.

Another campaign was for Banknorth Group when they launched online banking and e-bill paying for their eight banking affiliates throughout New England. Again, it was done with a traditional news release and follow up, written in news styles. The bank presidents were very adept at answering reporters' questions, and the head of e-commerce at Banknorth is also very able and knowledgeable, so the program we devised went quite well. In short, it helps to have good clients.

Copyright © 2001 by Kimberly L. McCall