Ad Agency PR: Can It Guarantee Publicity for Your Agency or Client?

NewsChannel 5 Truck

One of the biggest challenges in ad agency PR is managing expectations for publicity. If you work in the PR industry long enough, there’s a good chance that sooner or later you’ll be asked if you can guarantee news media coverage of a new product, service or event.

Better yet, someone in your agency will say or imply that you can get coverage in an effort to impress a client or win a new piece of business.

Generally speaking, no one working in PR can guarantee coverage in a legitimate publication or program.

I’ve seen exceptions—such as a small newspaper, radio station or trade publication offering coverage in exchange for advertising—but the higher one goes in the news media chain, the less likely it is that such an exchange will take place. In fact, most media outlets would be downright insulted if approached that way.

What can be promised is that the PR practitioner will devote his or her best efforts to success; explore a variety of possible angles; utilize knowledge and experience (such as understanding how news media operate and what constitutes a good story from their perspective); and leverage existing relationships with reporters in a good-faith effort to generate positive coverage.

Still, there’s always the possibility of striking out. And that can sometimes be hard for advertising executives or clients to understand because they think the story idea is great and everyone should be interested in it.

Maybe it really is a great story, but the timing isn’t right because the targeted media outlet recently did a similar story; perhaps there are other earth-shattering events taking place that have crowded your story out of the running. Or, possibly, gatekeepers have made it impossible for you to reach the right people.

There are days when a career in advertising sounds pretty good compared to a career in PR with all its uncertainties. While advertising and PR should both base their strategies and messaging on research, advertising has the distinct advantage of being able to control the message, determine where it runs and when.

With publicity, you have no real control over the message—though you can influence it—and you have no control over where a story runs, when it runs or even if it runs—not to mention that the publicity may backfire by being negative.

Despite these drawbacks, PR has an advantage that no other marketing tool can replicate, and that is giving your agency or client credibility.

That’s because publicity allows an objective secondary source–the news media or bloggers–to tell your story to the people you want to reach. Best of all, publicity does so at no cost, (other than what one might be paying a PR person to do the story crafting and pitching).

It’s this high risk/high reward carrot that makes PR so energizing and addictive. Win or lose a particular publicity battle, it’s worth the challenge. I guarantee it.

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Media Training Can Improve the Effectiveness of Ad Agency PR

One of my first jobs out of college was working in Amway’s Marketing Research Department. While there I got to know the guy who headed up the Public Relations Department. At lunch one day he told me the story of picking up the phone and having Mike Wallace with “60 Minutes” on the other end, saying that “60 Minutes” was going to do a story about Amway and that he’d like the company’s cooperation.

At that point I have never heard of media training, so I was intrigued to learn how the PR director went about preparing Rich DeVos, Jay Van Andel and all the Amway distributors who were going to be made available for interviews.

Everyone who went on camera was put through media training to prepare for the types of questions they’d be asked and to work out the bugs in their responses.

When the story aired, it was a big success for Amway.

In fact, Amway actually invited Mike Wallace to attend the opening of its Grand Plaza Hotel, and he accepted. I remember Wallace saying in a radio interview how classy the people at Amway were, and he described the company as first rate. That’s a PR home run.

Multiple Microphones Drawing medium_5538036046

I first started doing media training as part of a team at the PR firm that brought me to Nashville. Over the years, through agencies and my own consulting business, I’ve done training for people in a variety of industries and with a range of skills and experience in doing interviews.

I’ve come to believe that everyone can benefit from media training, and that it will improve their communication skills, though it will be more helpful for some than others, depending on their experience and natural abilities in dealing with reporters.

Ad agency principals who serve as spokesperson for their agency would be wise to consider media training to help them learn how to take control of an interview, handle sticky questions and get their key points across.

Here are some common challenges for inexperienced spokespeople:

  • Going off message
  • Inability to clearly articulate core messages
  • Being combative
  • Rambling
  • Fidgeting or other distracting body language
  • Freezing up when the camera light comes on
  • Giving out inaccurate or misleading information
  • Falling into interview traps

 One of the most important points I make in my training is this: When you’ve made your point, stop talking.

That’s because more times than not people make their best points in the first sentence or two they utter in response to a question. When they elaborate too much and get “off message,” it’s not uncommon for them to end up in the swamp and say something they later regret.

With some basic training, the right messaging and a little practice responding to challenging questions, your agency will be prepared to tell its story with clarity and confidence.

photo credit: opensourceway via photopin cc




Eight Essential Tools for Ad Agency PR

Photo of an open toolboxA strategic ad agency PR plan that compliments new business initiatives with a clear focus, target and purpose can be a powerful way to get discovered by prospects and drive sales. Here are eight must-have tools, many of which are free, that will help you get the most out of your agency’s PR activities:

The Associated Press Stylebook

The Associate Press (AP) Stylebook is a handbook used by journalists and PR professionals throughout the world as a guide for writing style, grammar, spelling and punctuation. Follow AP style in your news releases and other media materials, and you’ll gain some instant credibility with reporters and editors.

Media Directories

Sure, you can do an Internet search to track down news media people, but a good media directory is worth its weight in gold. Cision Global Media Database and Bulldog Reporter’s MediaPro Database are two of the best. Cision has 1.6 million records, with editorial calendars and media databases of print, broadcast, Internet news sites, social networking sites, bloggers and news bureaus. While that information alone will save you a lot of time, the greatest value for me is the “contact notes” section, which offers insights into what a particular reporter wants, and how and when he/she prefers to be contacted. Here’s a sample entry from a computer/high tech reporter for USA Today:

  • “Works from home, but prefers all materials be sent to the paper.”
  • “Prefers to be contacted by e-mail and hates follow up calls.”
  • “She is interested in the ideas behind technology, not the products.”

Some contact notes might say something like, “Do not call Tuesdays afternoons as he is on deadline.” If you don’t know that and you call him Tuesday afternoon, and he happens to answer the phone, you’re going to be off to a bad start before you say a word.

Headline Analyzer

The free CoSchedule blog post headline analyzer scores your headline on its length, structure, grammar and readability.

Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer

If you want to see how well your headline connects emotionally, the Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer will give you a score ranking from 1 to 100. The higher the score, the better your headline. The headline analyzer will also tell you which emotion – intellectual, empathetic or spiritual – is most impacted in a reader’s mind.

Press Release Grader

PRWeb’s Press Releases Grader is a free service that evaluates releases and gives instant feedback on how to improve them so they are more visible to search engines, more engaging and do a better job of driving traffic to your site.

Help A Reporter Out (HARO)

HARO is a newsletter that is e-mailed daily to subscribers with leads from reporters seeking sources for stories. The leads are organized into categories (Business & Finance, Health/Fitness, Lifestyle, Technology, etc.) with specifics about each story, what information the reporter is seeking and contact information.


RadioGuestList matches guests with expertise on particular topics with the hosts who want to interview them. Radio talk show, podcast, online radio show, satellite radio and TV program bookers and producers use it to discover new interview guests.


BloggerLinkUp connects bloggers looking for help with guest posts with people who are looking to get links and exposure by writing guest posts. There also are opportunities to have products reviewed by bloggers and to get in touch with bloggers who do interviews and need sources for stories.

HARO, RadioGuestList and BloggerLinkUp are FREE, and they bring daily leads to your inbox.

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2015 Fuel Lines New Business Conference Was Loaded with Helpful Ideas and Insights

Michael Gass speaking at the conference

Michael Gass organized the inaugural Fuel Lines New Business Conference in Nashville

I’m still unpacking all I heard at last week’s inaugural Fuel Lines New Business Conference for advertising, digital, media and PR agencies. The conference, which drew people from more than 60 cities—including a few from outside the U.S.—was held at Nashville’s snazzy new Music City Center. It was organized by my friend and colleague Michael Gass.

Because there were concurrent breakout sessions, it wasn’t possible to attend everything over the two-day period. But, I learned plenty from the sessions I was able to make. Here are 10 observations that struck me as particularly noteworthy from some of the thought leaders who spoke (though they only scratch the surface):

  • Nothing is more powerful than a human insight (Peter Levitan)
  • Chemistry is the key factor in new business presentations (Peter Levitan)
  • Create personas of prospective clients to prepare customized new business presentations (Bob Sanders)
  • We have grossly exaggerated the importance of brands to consumers; most of what we call brand loyalty comes from habit and convenience (Bob Hoffman)
  • The key factors for international agency business are trust, proximity, special skills/expertise, process and global reach (Julian Boulding)
  • Don’t be afraid to specialize in what you do best (Stephanie Holland)
  • Write RFPs with simple words and phrases, and eliminate unnecessary words; a confused mind always say no (Jody Sutter)
  • Give RFP prospects something extra of value (Jody Sutter)
  • Pick a niche and own it; don’t be afraid to say no to opportunities outside your niche (John Sonnhalter)
  • Positioning is foundational for new business; an agency should have a specific target and strong point of differentiation (Michael Gass)

In my breakout session, “How to Craft an Agency PR plan that Drives New Business,” I discussed the building blocks of creating a performance-based public relations plan for one’s agency. I also explained how the strategic use of PR can enhance awareness and credibility; distinguish an agency from competitors; and make it easier for agencies to be found by decision makers.

Don Beehler speaking at the conference

Speaking about ad agency PR at the Fuel Lines New Biz Conference

My three most important points:

  • Consistency is vital for successful agency PR
  • Becoming a trusted source is the quickest way to increase awareness and gain credibility
  • A successful PR plan is strategic with a clear focus, target and purpose

I sure hope Michael will have a second annual conference next year. This not only was a great learning and networking experience, but also a lot of fun.

PR Implications for the Growing Trend of Automation in Newsrooms

Close up of robot head

If you thought it was tough selling a story idea to a skeptical reporter, try making your next pitch to a heartless, steely-eyed robot journalist.

In a March 2014 Wired article titled, “Robots have mastered news writing. Goodbye journalism,” a study involving undergraduate students found a generative software news article held its own with one written by a real-life journalist. In fact, the automated story scored higher in areas such as trustworthy, objective and more accurate.

This obviously is not good news to the human reporters who have managed to survive the deep cuts made in recent years, particularly at newspapers.

“…when it comes to implication for the future of journalism we should keep in mind that the algorithms are getting better and better” says Christer Clerwall, assistant professor of media and communications at Karlstad University in Sweden.

He’s the guy who had students make the comparison. While not exactly a scientific study, it is interesting to consider the possibilities and implications of the growing trend toward automation in the newsroom.

  • Recently The Associated Press hired an automation editor, and a number of newsrooms are now using algorithms to help them with stories. Automating certain aspects of reporting is supposed to reduce the workload of reporters – AP estimates it saves 20% of the business desk’s time – and it provides them with new data resources, which in theory help human reporters do a better job of identifying and telling important stories.

As is the case with other industries, automation in the newsroom also means fewer human employees are needed. In fact, journalism is one of the nine professions singled out as being in jeopardy by the rising use of robots.

But loss of jobs isn’t the only concern. Automation “is raising new questions about what it means to encode news judgment in algorithms, how to customize stories to target specific audiences without making ethical missteps, and how to communicate these new efforts to audiences,” according to a Sept. 1, 2015, article about automation in the newsroom by NiemanReports.

The author, Celeste LeCompte, points out one benefit of automation is that it can actually help connect audiences more directly: “In June, journalists at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) rolled out a news app to accompany a series on earthquake preparedness in the state. The app, called Aftershock, provides a personalized report about the likely impacts of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake on any user’s location within the state, based on a combination of data sets.” That’s really getting local and personal.

Training the automated software brings challenges of its own, such as providing appropriate guidance in which metrics and data are most important for a particular story, and learning to navigate through a panoply of variables. (Think of the data and variables involved in GPS giving the quickest route from point A to B.)

At least one person in the comments section of the NiemanReports’ article was not impressed, writing, “Big deal. A vast majority of journalists were programmed by the left long ago.”

What are the implications for public relations professionals? Some of this could actually work in our favor. For example, I’ve seen reporters either refuse to do stories or do terribly one-sided coverage because of what I suspected was their personal bias on the subject matter. No such problem when dealing with a machine, unless bias is programmed into it.

Another benefit is that we wouldn’t have to be concerned about dealing with the occasional reporter with an enormous ego or one who is emotionally fragile and unloads on people when they call at the wrong time. If a story is a “logical” fit, pitching it to an objective robot could be a real plus.

Of course, if the robots get fed up enough with PR pitches, they may resort to their own automation: “To submit a story idea, press 1 and record at the beep; to share a news tip in 30 seconds or less, press 2; to request a correction, press 3….”

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New Social Journalism Study & What It Means for Ad Agency PR

Twitter with tweets

A new Social Journalism Study by Cision and Canterbury Christ Church University found that social media has become an essential part of journalistic practice, with 94% of respondents saying they use it on a daily basis.

“Four years ago, a majority of journalists were hesitant to utilize Twitter and Facebook, and seemed especially skeptical about how these sites could help them reach audiences near and far. But now, we see a shift towards journalists relying on the networks to get their jobs done,” Cision noted in its introduction to the study.

The three findings I found with the most significant implications for ad agency PR were:

  1. Twitter is the most popular social media app. About three-quarters of journalists in the U.K. and U.S. said they use Twitter on a regular basis, so if you want to connect with a reporter via social media in those countries, Twitter is your best bet.
  1. Email is how most journalists prefer to be contacted. A little over 80% listed email as their first choice. For U.S. journalists, social media is their second choice, while in four of the other five countries surveyed—Finland, Germany, the U.K. and Australia—phone calls came in at #2. For now, at least, U.S. journalists seem to be the most concerned about being interrupted by calls when on deadline, or in general do not really like having to listen to pitches over the phone all that much.
  1. Experts are a key source of information for journalists. No big surprise here really, but nevertheless this study confirms that one of the main reasons journalists use social media is to find sources and network. In the U.S., experts were cited as the most important source of information (40%) over PR sources (36%).

There also is this interesting trend prediction from the study: “Journalists will continue to rely on experts so they do not compromise their values and views of their profession by sourcing from perceived unreliable sources.”

For ad agencies, the implication is clear: Having a niche, building your reputation as an expert in that niche and making your agency “discoverable” is more important than ever, and it will continue to be in the foreseeable future.

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Study Finds Bloggers More Trusted Than Journalists

Computer keyboard

As I have noted in previous posts, agency blogs can be a very effective way to build one’s reputation as a subject matter expert in a particular niche. However, lack of focus, purpose and/or providing content that does not resonate with the target audience more often than not is a waste of everyone’s time.

If done well and strategically, blogs be can incredible tools for ad agencies and other entities to generate awareness, credibility, influence and a loyal following—all of which enhance new business endeavors.

Now there’s a new study that provides further evidence of the power of blogging.

An independent UK survey of consumers by affilinet found that bloggers have more influence than journalists, celebrities, politicians or brands, coming in third place behind family and friends.

Bloggers who cover a specialized area fared particularly well among those surveyed.

“What is encouraging…is the role that bloggers and social media play within consumer trust,” said Helen Southgate, UK managing director of affilinet. “Working with niche specialist bloggers using adverts or content tailored to their audience, will become an important part of the acquisition strategy for advertisers, [as] they strive to improve the level of trust in their brand from consumers.”

According to a press release about the study issued by affilinet, “Consumers were asked whether they trusted the opinions of mainstream media outlets (magazines, newspapers, and online titles tied to a publisher), or independent bloggers/vloggers more, when it came to purchasing decisions, and the bloggers came out on top; 57% vs 43%.”

While the study is UK-specific, it’s clear that consumers there are increasing turning to niche bloggers for what they consider to be credible, trustworthy and reliable information.

That is consistent with Technorati’s 2013 Digital Influence Report, which found that blogs rank high when it comes to trust and influence: “When making overall purchase decisions, for consumers, blogs trail only behind retail and brand sites. With regard to overall sources for information on the internet, blogs rank among the top five ‘most trustworthy’ sources.” 

(If you don’t have time to read the full report, Social Media Examiner’s Patricia Redsicker has a good overview of its findings.)

Whether your blog is designed to reach consumers, businesses or other audiences, having a niche with fresh insights, useful tips and compelling content will bring value to your readers and success to your organization.

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