NEWPORT, RI: On August 11, a truck carrying a one-ton load of coal pulled into this tony coastal town. The truck's sole function was to dump its load and then leave, and it was running more than two hours late. But neither the tardiness nor the dullness of its task did anything to discourage the two television cameras and the newspaper reporter who were there to cover this environmental publicity stunt.
The media attention, a veritable bonanza by local standards, had less to do with interest in renewable energy than it did with the immutable cycle of the media world, that strange temporal plane that reduces thick August days to either boon or bust for PR people. Many journalists and clients are away, so big news developments are few and far between. The flip side is that the skeleton crews left to run the news organizations are still thirsting for stories.
"Reporters are on vacation," said John Shors, VP of GroundFloor Media, "and that slows down the pitching process. By the same token, PR people are also out on vacation, and there are plenty of opportunities for placement."
With her "coal dump," Alexis Walsko, president of Minneapolis' Lola Red PR, gave the Newport press a story, and in the process some exposure for her client, Renewable Choice Energy, which sells wind power. The cameras captured the sooty grossness of the ton of coal, chosen as the central prop because it represents how much a typical household that uses the dirty fossil fuel goes through in two months.
Would this have gotten the same coverage if it had taken place one month in the future or two months before?
"The easy answer is no," Walsko said. Then, remembering her PR duties, she added, "It's a newsworthy event, but when it's so late and so off-task...everything fell apart a half-hour before it started. If it had been a regular news day or news season, it wouldn't have gotten this kind of coverage."
While Walsko didn't figure the seasonal lull into her strategy, other PR people do.
"In the summertime, we focus on pieces we can create, and that way we don't have to nag reporters with news that isn't strong," said Whitney Fleming, VP at Environics Communications.
Her agency recently distributed a list of e-mail marketing tips for a client. The list was accompanied by a less-than aggressive press release suggesting that reporters may want to use them as part of larger stories. The tone, as described by Fleming, was entirely incongruous to the overall response, which included 20 immediate queries from reporters, some of whom wanted to use the tips as a sidebar to their stories.
More generally, she said, the trick is to be sensitive to the smaller staffs, and to take advantage of news niches that are especially in need of help, such as websites.
Andrea Kaye, senior media specialist in the LA office of Golin/Harris International, has used the summer months to pitch a client, Visa, to long-lead magazines, now putting together their holiday issues. She's also had success in pitching Nintendo's Game Boy Player to broadcast outlets.
"It's been full-steam ahead," she said of her summer efforts.
Like Walsko, Shors didn't base a recent campaign around the slow news cycle, but he did benefit from it. Going into a launch of a device that turns flat surfaces into audio speakers, he knew he had a good story. But he admitted that the coverage might have been enhanced by the season. The Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, and CNN covering Whispering Windows is one thing, but Fortune Small Business sending a reporter out to the client, Iowa-based Etrema, is another.
"It is a great story," Shors said. "But who knows whether Fortune Small Business would have had the wherewithal to send a reporter out there for two days."
Another consideration in pitching in the summer is that many readers or viewers will be on vacation, and not interested in the news.
Fleming conceded that, but said that even the small placements still serve a PR need.
"It's not as impactful as what you're doing with a big news story," said Fleming. "It's important for branding and gaining exposure. And it makes clients happy to see the clips coming in."