Make Sure You’re Asking the Right People!

I was pulled into an interesting online discussion recently in a PR forum that I participate in on LinkedIn. There are currently more than 100 responses to a question that initially asked whether participants hated cold-calling and eventually evolved into a discussion of whether it is best to email or call journalists, editors, writers and producers when pitching a story.

I’ve had a foot in both the media and PR camps for the past several years – as a freelance writer in my “spare time,” as the director of corporate communications in the energy and health care industries in my “day job” and now as an independent communication/PR consultant. The insights I’ve gained have been useful in my work now as a communication consultant. I’ve been fortunate, I think, to experience “pitching” from both sides of the aisle so-to-speak.

  • As a freelance writer I’ve pitched story ideas to editors at various trade, professional and consumer publications for more than 20 years.
  • As a freelance writer *I’ve* been pitched by PR/media professionals and folks hoping to have themselves, their companies or their products covered in whatever pieces I may be working on.
  • As a PR professional in corporate environments I’ve worked on the side of organizations hoping to either share news about various activities — or respond to news that has been generated about them that may be either positive or, sometimes, not-so-positive.
  • As a communication consultant I work with clients in various fields to help them generate awareness for themselves; their positions or issues; or their product products, services or companies.

What struck me about the thread in this discussion was that it involved a number of “PR people” sharing their opinions and perspectives on what works best when pitching “media people.”  There were a lot of good insights and perspectives. But how valid were these insights and perspectives coming as they were from those “on the other side.” What would the “media” say?

I’ve been part of these kinds of discussions in the past, and I’m sure I will be in the future, but I’m always a bit sheepish when it suddenly dawns on me that: “Hey! What doWE know?” We should be asking *them*!”

How often have you found yourself seated around a conference table speculating about what your customers or potential customers think about something? How often have you used the “N of one” (e.g. personal example) to make a point to support a recommendation about what you should do in terms of communicating with an audience; developing or changing a product; improving, adding or eliminating a service, etc.?

It’s an easy trap to fall into and we all do it. Sometimes we even qualify as a member of the target group we’re speculating about. But our personal, and generally limited, experience is usually not enough to represent solid information to base go-forward decisions on. We need to ask them! We need to ask the people we’re speculating about and, depending on the import of the decision, we need to ask as many of them as possible to ensure that we have a statistically valid, representative sample that is likely to be indicative of actual behavior.

Sometimes polling a few customers will give us enough information. Sometimes as focus group will work. Sometimes we can rely on research that has been done by others to give us an indication of what we should do. Somestimes, when big dollars or a lot of time or impending competitive pressures may be involved, we need to conduct quantitative research to help us make a sound decision.

In every case, though, we really need to move beyond speculation among ourselves and move toward checking in with the people we’re speculating about. We may be surprised what we learn!

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