Q&A: Bill Hughes, IMS Media's VP of communications and public affairs

In an esteemed career, Hughes has experienced PR on both sides, from handling communications for IMS Health and IBM, to working in high-ranking roles at Burson-Marsteller and Miller/Shandwick. At IBM, he served as VP of media relations, where he directed press relations, including financial, legal and corporate communications.

In an esteemed career, Hughes has experienced PR on both sides, from handling communications for IMS Health and IBM, to working in high-ranking roles at Burson-Marsteller and Miller/Shandwick. At IBM, he served as VP of media relations, where he directed press relations, including financial, legal and corporate communications.

Hughes is a media relations expert, and gave his view of the current media landscape. He talked to about network news, the death of embargo, and how some PR professionals are making mistakes. Q. Do you start with e-mail pitches and follow-up with phone conversations? A. If I were five or ten years in the business, I would start with an e-mail. But most of the guys I do business with I've known what they do [for a long time] and, hopefully, they know me. I usually pick up the phone and hit really quickly on the point. I spent less than two minutes on the phone. Q. Do you think that young PR professionals might fall into the habit of making the pitch too long and general in an email? A.Yes. You can see in the press releases as well. If they're writing long, laborious, press releases, they're probably doing the same thing on their pitch. You have to keep it concise and clear, like an elevator pitch. You have to get to the point. If you can't do that, you're not going to be successful. If they're interested, they'll call you back and get all the details they want. Q. Has media relations change irrevocably or is it just another evolution in the chain? A. The best way to look at it is not to say what has changed, but what hasn't changed? I've been doing this since the early 80's. The best media relations people are those that really understand their companies and their financials. They understand the company's goals, strategy, and the products, as well as the industry and its competitors. They are people who are a source that can offer credible perspective and can frame it in a way that people can understand. Those are the people inside the corporation that have the ear of the CEO. You can usually tell the good media people. The other part of it is that journalists are surprised how often media relations people don't understand the reporter or the publication. I hear nightmare stories about people calling up and pitching stories that aren't even in the reporter's beat. Q. Do you think media relations professionals hide behind technology? A. Absolutely. Kevin Maney [a columnist for USA Today] said [to me] that his biggest problem is he talks to people who are bogged down in techno speak. They don't [talk about] the benefits like what the product will do. People do hide behind the "speeds and feeds" instead of talking about the benefits. I have to say that it appears to be changing and I've seen evidence of it changing. It's an easy way to demonstrate you have product knowledge, but you're not [explaining] it as generally as you should be. Q. What do you think about blogs? A. They're incredibly interesting. It's a purely populist notion of putting opinion and news in the hands of a lot of different people. I tend to go to professional blog sites. It's like a real-time focus group on a topic de jour. The interesting thing is that the media paying attention to blogs. I think reporters are going to blogs to generate story ideas. A lot of it is noise, but it's still an interesting thing that people should be paying attention. I tend to go a couple of blogs to try and get a pulse of what's out there. Q. Does interaction with reporters change dramatically as a result of the environment? Did you see a hesitance in approaching the media on the executives' side during the glut of public corporation scandals? A. CEOs were a little more reluctant to talk with the media because there was no upside to being interviewed in the media at the time of all the corporate scandals. There was a general assumption that maybe [that CEO] could have been guilty as well. The best course of action was let's go quiet and let this thing blow over. People are suspect of the media; [the Rather situation] plays into it. Polls suggest news organizations are suffering a lot as a result of this story. This is culmination of events - with Jayson Blair and [Jack Kelley at the USA Today]. The media has broken major stories as well. But people tend to remember areas where they made mistakes. Q. This appears to be the archetype of irony that the news organizations that seize upon negative corporate information would be haunted by its own sordid stories. A. That's right. News is negative. It will be interesting to see what the impact will be on the media. Will it make news organizations more reluctant to break the big stories? Probably. But it will do good things, like going back to the days where you had to have three sources to run a story. The news business is so competitive and everyone is fighting for the big story. Q. Do you think there will be a redefinition of what is success in the media? Do the traditional outlets have to concede breaking news to speculating blogs? A. I think that may be right. I don't know the answers, but I don't think traditional media has anything to worry about. J-schools will go back and talk about ethics in journalism. Q. That curriculum must change weekly. A. Exactly. Their syllabuses have now changed. [Again], the best media relations people know whom to trust. It's a mutual beneficial relationship. I would never steer a reporter wrong and I try to be as open and honest as possible, and I think that's reciprocated. Q. Is the embargo under attack? A. I think it has been for a while. I know Bloomberg was going down the path of stopping doing embargoes six months ago. Are embargoes going to be broken or are they going to be a thing of the past? It's always been an issue. They may be on the way out. Can you do embargoes? It's a tough thing to do. I like embargoes, and I think journalists like embargoes because they get to prepare their story in advance. Q. Has network news lost its allure? A. When I first started out, you couldn't get your story in the network news. It had to be a far-reaching story. Back in the eighties, it wasn't a part of our communications planning. Thanks to business shows on CNBC and Fox, they're looking for content all of the time. It's opened a whole new venue for me to get the word out. I don't know about the numbers. You can argue either way. Cable news is challenging networks news. If it's a big story on cable news it will probably be a smaller story on one of the networks. Q. Another interest PR strategy seems to be debuting an advertising campaign on a cable news show. A. It's a good strategy. You can also do it on the print side with [the New York Times'] Stuart Elliot and those guys in the Wall Street Journal, Ad Age, and Adweek. When we were doing an e-business campaign, a component of that launch was to hit the major print media. Once it popped on the Journal, the writer talked about it on Power Lunch. Q. Are there different strategies for the trade and mainstream press? A. Major media moves your stock price and reaches your shareholders. The trades reach your buyers. You have to consider both those audiences. The trades - because they're mostly weekly - have the luxury of developing the story, checking the sources, and calling beta users. The majors [often] don't.

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