An SMT can be a powerful PR tool, but a strict code of conduct must be adhered to - especially when using a paid spokesperson.
SMTs may be used effectively to gain valuable airtime for a client in a crowded news market. But in recent months, the medium has been receiving media attention in its own
right - and not all of it has been positive.
This past April, The Wall Street Journal ran a piece detailing the rising disclosure controversy surrounding SMTs, citing cases that involved on-air mentions of products that were paid for by their respective companies, without that relationship being disclosed.
In today's media environment, where the stigma of "pay-for-play" can tarnish even the most highly regarded agencies and corporations, an SMT is still a powerful way of getting a message out, as long as it's used responsibly.
Michael Hill, president of News Broadcast Network, says it is up to the station's discretion whether or not to disclose to viewers that another party is paying the interviewee.
"But companies like ours are obligated to inform these outlets who is paying for the tour," says Hill.
"That's the first thing that a producer asks," says Pier Paolo Piccoli, co-president of Plus Media. "They will always ask who's behind it, what the message is, and what the client has to say. The most important thing that you have with a producer is trust, so you don't want to break that. ... You always want to tell them what you're doing and who you're doing it for."
This information can be disclosed even before a one-on-one relationship is forged with a producer. Richard Murry, founding partner of The Treister Murry Agency in Miami, suggests dealing with the issue up front in the pitch by simply stating that the spokesperson
is acting on a client's behalf.
"Contractual details regarding the relationship between the client and spokesperson need not be revealed," he says, "as it's clearly implied that the spokesperson is receiving some sort of remuneration for his or her time."
"Stations are all very much aware that SMTs are sponsored by somebody, and they appreciate knowing who it is," says Bev Yehuda, director of media relations at MultiVu, "and that way we're allowed to get our mentions in."
Striking the right balance between client mentions and overpromotion can be tricky, and it's one of the key reasons why finding the right spokesperson is so important.
In cases where the host is a public figure, Murry says, "the client needs to accept the fact that the reporter will probably ask questions that pertain to the spokesperson's celebrity and not necessarily the product or service - so it's imperative that the spokesperson be skilled at bringing the interview back to the client's goals."
"News anchors want you to educate their audiences, not sell to them," says Lidj Lewis, VP of media relations at Medialink. "TV interviews only last a couple of minutes, so multiple mentions of a product or service will only make your message sound overly commercial and anger the show's producer, which may make it difficult to schedule interviews in the future."
Finding a spokesperson that can speak clearly and concisely on the topic is essential, says Yehuda. "Using someone that goes too product-heavy or tries to get too many mentions into a segment will turn off a station from the outset, and you'll get your interview cut short. ... Future bookings are always going to be compromised because of that, and the spokesperson will be blacklisted."
But it takes more than just a good public speaker to make a reliable spokesperson.
"We expect our hosts to be able to put the products in a newsworthy context and answer unexpected questions from a reporter," says Michael Friedman, EVP and partner of DWJ Television. "If the host isn't credible, we would justifiably have a hard time booking interviews with the stations."
"It's always preferable to have a third-party spokesperson if you can," says Yehuda. "Somebody that's somewhat removed, so that it doesn't appear to be too self-serving. 'Credible' is the one word you are looking for here, and that is crucial when we're talking about product-oriented SMTs."
According to an NBN survey conducted last month, when stations were asked whom they thought made the most suitable spokesperson for an SMT, the top three choices were industry experts, celebrities, and consumer advocates.
"Credibility, expert knowledge, or some tie-in with the product are the determining factors when picking a spokesperson," says Hill.
Rod Caborn, EVP at YPB&R, suggests looking for a spokesperson who can speak in sound bites, seeing as the point of the message needs to be made in about 15 seconds.
"The ability to think on one's feet and tell a story in a short amount of time makes for a great presenter," he says.
Another, more unexpected quality that's important to consider when seeking out a presenter is endurance. "Some people who do an SMT don't really understand the process, and the fatigue factor that sets in after the fourth or fifth interview," says Caborn.
"A spokesperson must have enough stamina to carry on 20-plus interviews," says Piccolo. "You can have very important interviews three hours into the tour, and that spokesperson has nothing left to give. It may become boring for them after doing it 15 times, but
they need to be able to keep the message fresh."
While having a presenter who has experience with SMTs might seem like the easiest route to take, it's not the only option.
"Even if they have experience doing SMTs, we always rehearse before," says Friedman. "And if we come across a great expert who hasn't done an SMT before, we'll do extra media training."
But it's important to remember that even the most open relationship with a producer and the best presenter still don't guarantee a spot.
"At the end of the day, it's the station's decision whether or not to air the interview," says Lewis.
Do look for an outside, third-party spokesperson
Do make sure the presenter has enough stamina to interview for several hours
Do be up front about who's sponsoring the SMT
Don't underestimate the importance of media training
Don't let the spokesperson overpromote the client during the interview
Don't arbitrarily pick a spokesperson with no ties to a product