PR TECHNIQUE: How to pitch in pursuit of the two thumbs up

Having a good product is only the beginning. Anita Chabria finds out how to improve your chances of a good review before the tester and the widget have even met.

Having a good product is only the beginning. Anita Chabria finds out how to improve your chances of a good review before the tester and the widget have even met.

Clients love good reviews of their products and services - and most consider it little more than they are due for the monthly bills submitted by their public relations firm. After all, didn't they hire a PR agency to convince everyone just how great their latest software, spa, or dinner menu really is? If an agency can't deliver good blurbs, it may find itself up for a review of its own as clients search for someone who can deliver. And even worse than not getting agreeable appraisals is getting a bad one. Regardless if it's in The New York Times or The Columbus Dispatch, reading negative views of a company and its products is sure to cause problems with the client. While no one can promise 100% positive reviews, PR experts say that there are ways to at least manage the process and help the chances of gaining good coverage. But the time to start is long before the reviewer begins his or her work. "There is a lot of pre-product-review work," warns Noemi Pollack, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based The Pollack Group. The first step is making sure the item or service is ready to be reviewed. Take the time to try the product out yourself, and as many competing products as possible. If you know that the item has flaws, it's better to be up front with the client than to toss it out there and hope the reviewers don't notice. Also look at what the competitors are doing. Is there a similar item hitting the market or doing a PR push at the same time? Will your client compare favorably to it, or would it be better to wait for a more opportune moment? "You want to look at the landscape and what new products are being released in the same time frame," says Michael Smith, SVP of Washington, DC-based W&B PR. He highlights his point with the example of a client who wanted reviews of a new product that makes scanned photographs appear to be animated. The product was sent to journalists at the client's insistence, but Microsoft had a similar product with more features that came out at the same time. "Microsoft had a much better product. If it had even been a couple weeks apart, we probably wouldn't have been in the same basket," he says. The end result was a review that panned his client's product in a single sentence, while discussing the good points of Microsoft's at length. Another prep step is to know who you are targeting for reviews, and to carefully screen reviewers who come to you. Make a "wish list" of the top-five people or outlets you would like to do a review, then work to establish a relationship with them. And if you get a product request from an unknown source, make sure you check the person out to confirm what kind of reviews they are known for, and if their assignment is legitimate. Don't be afraid to turn someone down if you can't get that confirmation. "We're not afraid to do that at all," says David Politis of Politis Communications, near Salt Lake City, UT. "If we don't know a reviewer or editor and they reach out to us, we will verify that they're legitimate." When you do send a product out, be certain that there is an easy-to-understand reviewers' guide that walks the journalist through any needed information or instructions step by step. Then keep track of the process. Call to make sure the item was received, and that the reporter is not having any difficulty. That kind of hands-on care is invaluable to troubleshooting problems before they make it into print. If the reporter does come up with a negative, having an ongoing dialogue may help defuse the issue. "The value of a good relationship means that you get a hearing," points out Marci Blaze, CEO of LA-based The Blaze Company. The last piece of pre-review strategy is a nugget of old wisdom: Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Make sure you are soliciting enough reviews to up the odds of getting a few beneficial remarks. "There is a bit of a numbers game to getting positive reviews," admits Smith. "Only one person can win the best of show, so you have to go to a lot of shows to win one." If all the hard work pays off and your client wins praise, explain to them how to use the review as part of a larger PR strategy. "Encourage them to look at these articles as an opportunity to directly communicate with various constituencies," says Blaze. She uses the example of a client who runs a private school in Orange County, CA, and received a positive review in Riviera Magazine. The school capitalized on that glowing write-up by using it in direct-marketing materials. "The use is almost limitless," says Politis. "You can even put them in stuffers in paychecks to say, 'Here's another positive bit of press.' Those reprints can be used in sales material, in collateral packets and, of course, with the widespread use of the internet you can get permission to post all or portions of reviews online." If things don't go so well, however, and your client gets panned, there are some tactics you can use to minimize the damage. First, determine whether what the reviewer said is true. If the information is false, contact the journalist to point out the error, and maybe request a correction depending on the circumstances. It can also be helpful to have third-party constituents write op-eds or letters to the editor countering the information. But avoid allowing the client to do this directly, as it often sounds like sour grapes. If the information is true, the options are far more limited. "There is not too much you can do once it is in print," says Pollack. "That's the way of life. Not everybody likes every widget no matter how great it is." Blaze agrees. When her clients get hit with a bad review, she tries to get them to take a more philosophical and balanced perspective. While it's not always easy, learning to handle the bad reviews is just a part of business, she says. "We have to keep it all in perspective," cautions Blaze. "Today's newspaper wraps tomorrow's fish." ----- Technique tips Do be honest and tell the client up front if you see potential problems with the service or product Do screen reviewers carefully to make sure that you know what kinds of reviews they've done, and to confirm that they are legitimate Do know what competitors are up to Don't forget to follow up. Staying in touch with reviewers can catch problems before they hit print Don't underestimate the value of a good review. It can be reused dozens of ways, from direct mail to hanging a copy on the wall for patrons to see Don't panic if the client gets a bad review. If it's the truth, help the client see it as a chance to learn

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