An Amateur’s PRspective: The Arts of Warm-calling and the “Media Dim Sum”

This week, I was lucky to acquire two new lessons as a practicing PR professional (well, para-professional: an identity that I learned I had while a student-level worker for the past several years). Each day I come into the agency, there are countless tricks and tidbits that I am able to spot while watching my eloquent and proactive, account-leading supervisor; fortunately, I feel that I’m even picking up skills while skimming over emails that I’ve been cc’d on. The following anecdotes, however, highlight the most memorable of my past week. I’ll describe in brief how each illustrates an important lesson in effective public relations.

1. Cold-calling, as I had so often heard it called in both classroom and internship settings, is in reference to the act of simply calling up a journalist to either pitch or follow-up, with the hopes of convincing them to even briefly consider the story you have to share about your client. The term, I feel, implies a somewhat scary task, especially for an intern who is navigating a foreign work environment and media landscape. Moreover, cold-calling could even suggest that a harsh tone is involved, void of personalization, simply filled with facts and straight to the point. Wrong. I’ve decided to re-dub this task warm-calling, as my own most effective measures – according to the new and inexperienced experience I’ve gained over the past two days in my office – have been those which are still prepared and efficient but as kind and friendly as possible.

My roommate, Annenberg colleague and aspiring journalist Emily gave me great advice: to be sure and begin my call with, “Hello, I’m so-and-so and I’m calling to quickly pitch a story about blah-blah-blah. Is now a good time for you?” What an excellently considerate way to begin sharing a potentially obnoxious agenda! After one receives a permitting reply to this preface, I’d guesstimate that the PR specialist has less than 2 minutes to describe the client’s angle, also assuming that you’ve sent them a certain amount of information already – maybe via a press release. After that, such a call can be a joy, really. My other tips include having your browser open with several windows accessible: that of the publication which you’re calling, that of your PDF press release (which, again, you should have sent them – draw highlights from the header and subheader to catch the contact’s attention!) and that of the journalist’s LinkedIn profile, if available.

In the case of my most successful warm-call today, I spoke with the Editor of a leading online trade publication in the sector in which my client specializes. I caught her in the office, fortunately – this was officially my third time calling – and she was patient, sounded smiley, and ultimately informed me that her organization would run our press release in their online edition. Score! Turns out it takes persistence, confidence, efficiency and a certain smoothness of the tongue to get a win out of such a call to a journalist. I felt so accomplished!

2. Media Luncheon: what an ambiguous-sounding component of any media professional’s weekly activities. Recognized as a meeting facilitated by the PR team between a client spokesperson (who’s usually on a tight schedule) with numerous media representatives at once – not to mention lunch on the side (free food = incentive for busy journalists!) – the media luncheon is actually quite an art form, as it turns out. Its planning is truly a more creative and intentional craft than I might have realized:

Bread and Beverage: Where to have it?
Salad: At what time to hold it?
Appetizer: Meet capacity, stay within the budget
Main Course: What content can we create?
Dessert: Stories, stories and stories

In the case of my agency’s client, their fearless leader and CEO is coming into town for a mere 36 hours in a few weeks time. This means that while about one day needs to be devoted to one-on-one interviews with stars from prominent local news outlets, there is time for an hour-long meal meeting in which the CEO and a spokesperson can share the best-of information with multiple journalists at once. Efficient, right? Every detail looks like it will count, as I learned when our corp & finance team had a meeting to discuss luncheon ideas that lasted a little under an hour. The first challenge? Where to host it.

My supervisor was the first in charge of making this event happen; it seems to me as though this type of coordination is her specialty, since she knows people and hot-spots all over Hong Kong. I also learned that this fact is partly due to an assignment she completed in her first ever local internship, years ago: to go around the city researching (and photographing) classy restaurants with private backrooms for hosting such an event as a media luncheon. This meant that she called local hotels and dining establishments, as well as local friends who could recommend places to her. She made tentative reservations when she found ones that were available on our client’s free day. However, she soon came upon the unavoidable speed-bumps posed by other details required for a reservation, such as: at what time would it be held?

It turned out that our client was no longer available right at 12noon, due to another imperative meeting. Moving the time wasn’t as simple as one might think. If you host such an event a bit later, say – at 2pm, it conflicts with every local press conference held in Hong Kong. They’re typically at 2pm. Then we considered 4pm; however, that sort of time slot begins to conflict with journalists’ daily deadlines, which are typically at 5 or 6pm. One perspective offered up was that no journalist reporting on the outskirts of the city would choose to come all the way into Central for a “luncheon” that merely provided snacks, even if it were in the form of classy high-tea at the Mandarin. Fancy breakfast is out, since it has been said that these highly sought-after professionals also tend to be (no, of course not lazy!) late-risers, and won’t go after a story before 11am. So, 11am it is. This was the point at which another senior account lead posed the idea: “Media Dim Sum.” Yum.

Other details to consider were the firm’s budgetary limits, as well as specifications of each potential establishment. For example, many of these hotels have spend minimums for their private rooms. These numbers and spending requirements have to be aligned with the objectives of the luncheon as a media event; that is, the venue needs to be accommodate a good enough number of journalists to make the event worth the client spokesperson’s time, while remaining an intimate setting for sharing information. After a tentative time of day and dining theme were decided, the questions begin of: what content will the event be comprised of? Who will facilitate? Typically, the PR team outlines potential questions to be asked of the client. In addition, however, that client is able to prepare a brief presentation (which, to my understanding, helps ease the potential for awkward silences that tend to come about when a small room is filled with local Hong Kong journalists). Then, an entire checklist of necessary press materials is prepared – for the sake of both the client’s “comms” people and the agency (aka me). Who is responsible for distributing which one-pagers or information sources depends on what the company might already have created. At some point prior to this “media dim sum,” a press kit will be prepared for each journalist in attendance (ingredients may include bios and fact sheets with two sides of press release and free company-logos on top).

Finally, the determination of whether the event was a success will be based on the length, quality and/or appearance, period, of stories on our client written by these journalists whom we just had for free and Hong Kong-famous, dim sum lunch. This, in turn, will be determined by me: who will be doing the media monitoring – with the help of Google Alerts and Factiva. Hopefully my tummy will be completely satisfied after the execution of this surprisingly pristinely-crafted media event – and, that I’ll get a taste of the action (size of the private room permitting).

Until next week’s lessons!

About Cory Welsh

Cory Welsh is a progressive BA/Masters degree program participant at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and received her B.A. in Communication in May 2011. After growing up in Ventura County, CA, Cory moved to Los Angeles in order to solidify her interest in facilitating relationships and organization through communication. Most recently, Cory served as the exhibitor relations coordinator for the 2011 LA Times Festival of Books. She is currently serving as a student intern at a renowned PR agency in Hong Kong, and will complete her Masters of Communication Management in December 2011.
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