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Blog: The Goldilocks, Rumpelstiltskin and Pollyanna of PR – how to get it just right

1 July 2024

In the fairytale Rumpelstiltskin, a father falsely claimed that his daughter could spin straw into gold and set off a chain of events that is a masterclass in the perils over over-promising.

In the children’s classic Pollyanna, a girl was so optimistic that her name made its way into the dictionary to describe a person who believes that good things are more likely to happen than bad, even when that is unlikely.

But Goldilocks, who likes her porridge, her chair, and her bed to be ‘just right’ is referenced by scholars in fields as diverse as economics, psychology, and science as the gold standard.  So too, in public relations and strategic communications we are aiming for the elusive Goldilocks effect.

Over-spruiking is a term sometimes used by journalists who are interrogating an announcement for its newsworthiness – or scrutinising the lacklustre outcomes after a vaunted initiative.

If a story is newsworthy, it doesn’t need hyperbole and over-spruiking can leave everyone from politicians to business owners facing claims they have over-promised or failed to deliver.

Former prime minister Bob Hawke’s pledge that by 1990 'no Australian child will be living in poverty’ is a well-known example of over-promising. Infrastructure projects like South Australia’s Multifunction Polis proposal and the Melbourne Star observation wheel remind us that much fanfare at the outset can end in ignominy in the history books.

On the other hand, too casual an approach to media engagement is just as dangerous.

Pollyanna-like naïve optimism mixed with lack of preparation cultivates a she’ll be right’ attitude. However, frequently, she won’t.

Just ask former Australian rugby league coach Mal Meninga, whose political career lasted less than 30 seconds. Unable to answer a broadcaster’s question about why he was standing for election, Meninga punctuated his wobbly response with `I’m buggered’ and left the radio studio. His name is now Australian vernacular for a short-lived pursuit.

This case is an object lesson in the alliterative adage - preparation prevents poor performance.

How then, can businesses wanting to achieve positive publicity, or spokespeople inexperienced with fronting cameras, ensure that they get it right?

Journalists are taught to avoid adjectives and can be cynical towards news releases peppered with florid prose and subtle-as-a-sledgehammer marketing jargon. Of course, dry language in a news release can lead to a quickfire tap of the delete key as well. This is why public relations consultants present news releases in language that illustrates the genuine newsworthiness of an announcement and adheres to traditional news values.

Good journalists will ask tough questions. This is why no matter how experienced the spokesperson, strategic communication means practice and preparation before an interview.

Anyone who tells you there is a failsafe approach to public relations and strategic communications is a Pollyanna of PR. Sometimes things will go wrong. However, there are some proven approaches that provide you with the best possible chance that the Goldilocks effect will provide the fairytale ending to your next announcement.


Bronwyn Hurrell

Hughes | Consultant

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