Peak Communicators
May 23, 2014

First Step to a Job: A Well-written Cover Letter and Resumé

In another era, before personal computers and email, when I was just out of school, letters and resumés were different. When you were competing with the herds of graduates looking for creative jobs you needed to have an outstanding, nonconformist approach. I chose a blue rag stationery that reflected my character. I wasted lots of that expensive paper because I typed the letter repeatedly until it fit the page and was free of mistakes. The process often took hours.

The resumé was even worse. I recall struggling to get the blocks of experience on my curriculum vitae to fit on a page. The ink was uneven. Because of my heavy hand on my manual typewriter, the dots on my i’s looked like pinholes on the page.

I’ve lived a great life in Vancouver largely because of my bold approach to a resumé. Back in 1977, I had drawn my self-portrait on the cover of Broadcastermagazine and had written my name into all the article teasers. A daring first page of my resumé. Page two showed I was slim on actual TV work experience.

Within a week of mailing my resumé and letter to CKVU’s president Daryl Duke, I received a long distance phone call and was told how creative my resumé and writing was. I was hired sight unseen.

Later in my career, working as a TV producer, I received many creative resumés from people wanting to break into the business. One wannabe production assistant sent a Styrofoam egg container to me with his name and contact information on the lid. Inside each of the dozen egg shells was a slip of paper with a reason why the candidate should be hired. Creative. I didn’t throw it out for weeks, but his reasons weren’t enough for me to call him for an interview.

At Peak Communicators, I receive about 100 resumés and cover letters a year. Almost all arrive by email. So right away the factors of the quality of paper, texture, lumps of whiteout and lots of creativity are eliminated from the equation. With personal computers, resumés all look similar today. The text is uniform, the borders straight and as a result, what the candidate has to say is accentuated. There are few distractions.

I dismiss about 25 per cent of candidates because of the typos and bad grammar they display. Many get our company name wrong. We are not “Peak Communications.” It’s Peak Communicators.

At our PR agency we look for people who have at least one university degree. They have to be presentable, speak well, tell a story and think. We don’t settle for less. If they can’t write effectively, it is doubtful we’ll meet.

Last month I read a three-paragraph cover letter that stopped me in my tracks. It was written by a PR student whom I knew nothing about. She wrote with a refreshing and unconventional clarity. It was like she was sitting at the other side of my desk talking to me about her life and goals. The same unconstrained voice was in her resumé.

When a letter and resumé are that strong, you are seldom disappointed when you meet the person. She aced her interview too.

Emily Kiloh is the talented winner of Peak’s PR Scholarship for spring 2014. She starts her internship with us on June 2.

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May 9, 2014

10 Tips on How to Avoid Pitching the Saddest Press Release

When a well-respected newspaper reporter at a major paper says he received “the saddest press release I’ve ever seen,” it’s definitely worth looking into.

The short email pitch in question promoted the latest book predicting the end of the world, from an author who had incorrectly predicted the end of the world in 2012. Vancouver Sun reporter Douglas Todd, who received the pitch in his inbox, wrote, “I am speechless. The things that publicity companies will do for their paying {delusional} clients.”

Reporters get a lot of releases. On a single day as assignment editor at CTV in Vancouver in 2001, I got over 2,000 pages of faxes, all claiming to be news. Today the internet has made it even worse, because delivery is easy and free.

So here is my top-10 list for getting noticed and avoiding becoming “the saddest press release I’ve ever seen.”

A news release needs to be actual news. That’s why we call them newsreleases. They need to be a news story that meets the standards of the particular outlet, including bloggers.

Link it to a current issue. The media don’t really care that you are opening up another restaurant in a city full of them. But these days, if you are training local workers and providing opportunities for the unemployed, that is news.

Solve a problem. Too often news stories present problems without solutions. The public craves solutions. I was a TV consumer reporter for almost 10 years and many of my stories showed viewers how they could solve issues themselves in the real world. In news-speak it’s “news you can use.”

Focus on those affected, not on yourself. The more people affected, the bigger the story. If your news release is all about you, the newsroom won’t care. Show the individuals who are positively affected, what assignment editors call “real people,” and give reporters access to them as part of your pitch.

It’s not an ad. If your news release reads like an advertisement, the assignment editor is going to say “go buy an ad.” Replace your company name with your competitor and then see if your family would watch or read that story. If not, it isn’t news.

Give it context. I worked with an assignment editor who would ask the same short questions every time you went out on a story and when you returned: “Biggest ever? Worst ever? Best ever?” He was really asking reporters to give the story some context so the public understood its importance.

Facts are good. You don’t need to overwhelm reporters with facts but key facts that support a story are welcome. If you don’t provide facts, reporters will go looking for them on the internet and as we know many internet “facts” aren’t true. So do some of that research for a reporter and provide them with the facts they need.

Timing may be everything. If you have the greatest school backpack ever made, that ensures children don’t get sore backs, it makes sense to tell the world when parents are out buying for back-to-school, not at Christmas.

Be the good example. Many businesses large and small give to charity and they hope to get a mention in a charitable foundation’s thank-you news release. Next time, take a leadership role by encouraging others in the community to join the cause and show how giving impacts real people. You see the difference? It’s not about you and the big cheque, and getting thanks for it. It’s about the real people that benefit as a result. They represent the larger picture.

Pick the right media targets. Not all news releases are suitable for all outlets. So being more selective can improve your results. Customizing the release and its style can improve pick-up as well.

If I were choosing the saddest news release, it would be the one that follows all the 10 points, gets the media all excited, after which the client says they are too busy for interviews. Getting media pickup is not easy and you don’t get second chances.

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May 2, 2014

Be Careful You Do Not Become the Company Spokesperson

A reporter called and started asking questions. I knew the answers and was well into giving information on behalf of the client when it hit me: I’m not authorized to be this company’s spokesperson!

Media Relations

As a communications consultant for this client I was empowered to provide information – send out pre-authorized backgrounders, fact sheets, news releases. But I was not authorized to speak on behalf of the company. I stopped in mid-sentence.

“I’m not a spokesperson for my client so I don’t want to be quoted,” I said, probably too sharply. I caught the reporter cold. He was taking down everything I said and fully intended to pepper his story with Alyn “Edwards said…. According to company spokesperson Alyn Edwards…”

It was almost too late that I realized I had set a trap for myself and I was right in it. I knew better.

During the hundreds of media training sessions I have conducted, I stress that companies must appoint and train anyone speaking for the organization and they should only offer information in areas of their direct knowledge and responsibilities.

I also tell them to negotiate every interview. When reporters call, don’t start answering questions until you know exactly who you are talking to, how to contact them and have asked these other key questions:

  • What is your story?
  • What information do you want from our organization?
  • Is there a focus or angle that you are pursuing?
  • Who else are you talking to?
  • What questions do you have?

Only with full information should a company or organization decide that an interview will suit its goals and interests. That’s not always the case.

Several years ago, a call came in from a meat processor in the Vancouver area. It was during the XL Meat e-coli crisis in Brooks, Alberta. The B.C. company was not related in anyway. But it was receiving calls from reporters wanting ‘localize’ the story. They asked to take video and photos of their plant operation and interview managers about food safety.

My strong advice was to thank reporters for their interest, tell them the plant is in full compliance with all food safety standards and explain that no unauthorized persons can enter the plant.

I recommended the company not say anything beyond this because, as soon as the public saw pictures or video of that meat packing operation, the company would be immediately associated with the e-coli outbreak and its business could suffer greatly.

If the interview is a good fit for your organization, negotiate a time and place for the interview which gives the spokesperson adequate time to prepare key messages.

Sending a fact sheet or background information in advance of the interview describing the organization, its products and services along with information detailing the subject of the interview could head off up to 30 minutes of needless questions. That also helps ensure accurate reporting.

That’s what communications consultants can deliver while being careful not to unwittingly become a spokesperson for their clients.

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