What I’ve learned in 15 Years of PR Consulting

Earlier this week I hit the 15th anniversary of my PR consulting business. When I left my job as vice president of an advertising agency to strike out on my own in 2002, I wanted to test the waters, see how well I liked consulting and find out if I could make a comfortable living as a PR consultant.

It’s hard to believe 15 years have passed, and that during that time I’ve served nearly a hundred clients from a variety of industries, including ad agencies in need of PR services. Some of my clients have been with me for many years.

Unlike a lot of entrepreneurs I’ve known, I never had a burning desire to be self-employed. But once I got a taste of running my own business, I discovered it was exciting to have my own clients and energizing to handle their PR/communications needs.

Fifteen Years in Biz Post

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from running a consulting business that specializes in ad agency PR:

Technology makes it possible to work from just about anywhere and still provide top-notch service to clients. With a laptop, e-mail account and a mobile phone, you can connect with clients, prospects, reporters and colleagues throughout the world. This is something I knew before venturing out on my own, but it was driven home to me within days of going into business for myself. I was blessed to land a huge piece of business immediately—an energy company that covered fours states in the northeast. From my home office, I was able to service this client effectively and generate extensive publicity regionally on its behalf.

Social media and blogging can make you “discoverable” by people you want to reach. Providing great content is important in establishing one’s expertise, but it takes work to promote that content and get in front of decision makers. Still, it’s worth the effort because the entire conversation changes when a prospect approaches you rather than you approaching the prospect.

A niche is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. Having an area of specialization enables you to speak to a specific audience and establish a foothold in a particular industry. In my case, I’ve focused on ad agency PR, which involves providing public relations services to small- and medium-sized advertising, digital and media agencies. That doesn’t mean I turn away business in other industries, but with my corporate communications, journalism and agency background, I can speak to the specific needs these firms have when it comes to using PR strategically to increase awareness of their agency and drive new business.

A blog is the best way to showcase your expertise. I know, I know. There are a gazillion blogs out there all competing for attention. That’s why having a niche is so important—it positions you as a subject matter expert in a specific area and makes you easier to be found by prospective clients searching for the solutions and expertise you offer. Being seen as a credible and knowledgeable thought leader who offers useful (as opposed to self-serving) content can have big payoffs down the road. When done right, your blog will become a magnet for search engines, bringing business to you when a prospect is ready to engage your services and usually has a budget to do so.

Being a trusted source for reporters is a great way to gain credibility as an expert and expand your reach. That’s because publicity allows an objective secondary source–the news media or bloggers–to tell your story to the people you most want to impress. The bottom line is that strategic use of PR, especially publicity, can help small- to mid-sized agencies level the playing field with larger agencies.

Cold calling for new business is unproductive. With only a couple of exceptions, over the past 15 years all my business has all come from repeat business, referrals, someone finding me while doing an Internet search or from having one division of a company see what I’d done for another division and contact me. Cold calling is annoying to prospects and makes you look desperate.

Trust is at the core of any partnership. A lot of consultants have expertise in PR and good technical skills, but not all of them are trustworthy or provide the kind of service that is conducive to long-term relationships. If you do all of the things listed above well but fail to keep your word or deliver on your promises, you’ll have a hard time keeping clients. While many things go into a successful client-agency relationship, trust and character are at the top of my list.

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Ad Agency PR: A Key Driver of New Business

One of the most effective ways to build your agency’s your brand and attract new business is through a targeted public relations initiative that includes a heavy dose of publicity. That’s because publicity enables objective secondary sources—the news media and bloggers—to tell your story and build your brand for you.

It also gives your brand something no other marketing tool can replicate: credibility. Although you lack control of the content, that’s precisely why such coverage is so much more credible than an advertisement.

When it comes to cost, PR is an inexpensive way to generate awareness quickly among important audiences—including decision makers you may otherwise not be able to reach—which can ultimately drive sales.

In the past, PR coverage came primarily from traditional media outlets—such as print, radio and TV—but today the Internet offers ways to not only spread media coverage, but to supplement it through social media. It also enables you to go directly to your audiences, which has enormous benefits not the least of which is building brand ambassadors.

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Ad agencies that use publicity strategically have a competitive advantage, especially when it comes to new business development, because it gives them a consistent presence in the marketplace.

Rather than reactively trying to create coverage out of things that are not genuinely newsworthy, a strategic, proactive approach promotes your agency in a way that is compelling to prospects and distinguishes your agency from competitors.

There also are a number of creative ways to expand the reach and benefits of media coverage to aid new business development not only by reaching new customers, but also helping you retain current ones.

The key to successful ad agency PR is to have a strategy in place that compliments your new business development initiatives with a clear focus, target and purpose.

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Why a Niche Blog Is Essential for Ad Agency PR

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when they hear “public relations” is publicity in the form of radio, TV or print media coverage. That still is an important part of ad agency PR, but with so many media outlets either shrinking or going out of business—and the increasing influence of content marketing and social media—a niche blog that showcases your agency’s expertise is essential.

Here’s why. When you have an immediate need (i.e. a “problem to solve”), chances are your first step is to begin searching on the Internet for a solution. If you’re like me, you don’t appreciate the spam emails, junk mail and unsolicited sales calls that interrupt me on a daily basis for products or services that don’t interest me.

Outbound marketing—which involves cold calling, direct mail and other forms of chasing business—is becoming less and less effective, and agencies that rely on it for new business are more likely to be perceived as an annoyance than an expert. To put it bluntly, salespeople selling ad agency services smack of desperation. They also put the emphasis on your agency rather than providing value to a prospect.

Inbound marketing, on the other hand, draws customers to your agency by providing them with valuable content.

You want to attract clients who need and can afford your services, and the best way for that to happen is for them to find you when they are looking for a solution.

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A niche blog positions your agency as a subject matter expert in a particular area, and makes you easier to be found by prospective clients searching for the solutions and expertise you offer. When done right, your blog will become a magnet for search engines.

The entire conversation changes when a prospect approaches you rather than you approaching the prospect, who may or may not be interested in what your agency has to offer at the time of the contact.

One of the most important reasons for having a blog is to establish or enhance your ad agency as an expert in a particular niche. Being seen as a credible, trustworthy and knowledgeable thought leader that provides useful (as opposed to self-serving) content can have big payoffs down the road.

Once you reach expert status in a niche, the news media covering that niche will come to you for insight and commentary—and your target audience will see you that way as well.

A niche blog gives your agency continuous opportunities to demonstrate that it:

  • Communicates effectively
  • Has the ability to solve problems
  • Is well connected within your industry niche
  • Knows about important industry developments and trends

Just as publicity tends to beget publicity, as your blog becomes a repository of relevant content, it will rise in search engine rankings and draw targeted readers to your doorstep, making your agency increasingly “discoverable” by decision makers you could only dream of reaching through sales calls.

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Eight Ways Your Ad Agency Can Increase Its Chances for a Publicity Hit

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Getting a good publicity hit is a combination of art, science and sometimes just plain luck. You can increase your chances of getting “lucky” in your publicity efforts by following some basic dos and don’ts.

Here are eight ways to get your agency on the path to successful publicity.

#1: Define your media focus.

Limit your pitches to those outlets that directly serve your target audience. Otherwise, you may end up wasting a lot of time and energy. When I was on the editorial side of a healthcare magazine, I once got a very nice press kit for a horse show. There was no way we were going to cover a horse show in our healthcare magazine. Clearly whoever sent the press kit to us was taking a shotgun approach to the news media, hoping to hit something. That generally doesn’t work very well.

#2: Get to the right person at each media outlet.

Whether you’re dealing with your local paper, a trade publication or a national TV news outlet, it’s important to take the time to find out which person covers the particular area you are interested in targeting. “Dear Editor” or “Dear Producer” will not impress the recipient.

#3: Research a reporter’s previous stories before making contact.

Learn all you can about what the reporter covers, his or her interests and reporting style. Most reporters use social media, so it’s a good idea to follow them on Twitter, their blog, etc., before making contact. You can learn a lot about their interests (and dislikes), and even engage in online conversation, before presenting a story idea to them.

#4: Don’t waste their time or mislead them.

Reporters are busy people who work under constant pressure and deadlines. When pitching a story, get right to the point. The most important things you can tell a reporter about your story are who will care about it and why.

 #5: Respect their deadlines.

When contacting a reporter, I always first ask if he or she is on deadline. If so, I then ask when would be a convenient time to share a story idea. (Some will prefer you email the idea to them.) If you’re contacted by a reporter on deadline, do everything you can to respond within that deadline; otherwise, you may miss out on a golden opportunity. Even worse, if you don’t respond promptly, the reporter may contact and quote a competitor.

#6: Think and pitch like a reporter.

When the time comes to make your pitch, be sure you don’t sound like a commercial. Be as objective as possible by emphasizing the news or human interest aspect, or your expertise to comment and provide insights.

#7: Make their jobs easier.

The more you can provide reporters with relevant, factual information that is meaningful and targeted to their audience, the more likely they are to take you seriously and provide coverage. Plus, if they know that you know their audience, area(s) of coverage and deadline, when they see a pitch from you in the future, they’ll realize you’re credible and are more likely to give you serious consideration.

#8: Know what makes a good news story.

There’s a simply way to evaluate your story idea before presenting it: Put yourself in the reporter’s shoes and ask, “Would this story be interesting to my audience?” If you can’t honestly answer yes, you need to rethink your pitch.

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Ad Agencies: Your Client’s Smoldering PR Issue May be an Opportunity in Disguise

One of the best ways an ad agency’s PR team can earn its keep (and impress clients) is by identifying issues that could have an adverse effect on an organization and then getting in front of them with a proactive plan of action.

These situations are sometimes referred to as a “smoldering” crisis, meaning that a potentially damaging condition is known to one or more individuals. Most crises start out as smoldering issues that could have been anticipated and minimized—or headed off altogether—had appropriate action been taken in the early stages. Smoldering Issues Mgt Blog Post 5073940305_aa2ab32fc7_n

For example, if you have alligators roaming around parts of a theme park in areas frequented by guests, as was the case with Disney, you can foresee the potential for problems and do something preventative before tragedy strikes.

“A problem ignored is a crisis invited,” as Henry Kissinger once put it.

A crisis not only can damage an organization’s image, but also impede its ability to function because so many resources get diverted to dealing with the crisis. Issues management is the best solution because it proactively addresses a problem before it gets out of hand and wreaks havoc.

Some of my best PR successes are those that never saw the light of day—they had potential to turn into a crisis but were averted by dealing with them in the smoldering stage.

Such PR “saves” don’t show up in an agency’s “stats sheet,” but they can save a client millions of dollars in bad publicity and untold damage to a brand.

Sometimes, they can open the door to new opportunities and revenue for a company.

A number of years ago one of my clients—a regional energy company in the northeast called Agway Energy Products—was facing a smoldering issue, as was its competitors. High energy prices had been one of the most significant events in the news the previous winter, with the wholesale cost of natural gas having risen more than 400% in the past year.

Through a series of carefully timed news releases and media contacts, we were able to turn the negative issue of rising energy costs into a positive story for consumers by (1) explaining why these costs were rising so dramatically and (2) providing tips on ways to save on their energy bills without making great sacrifices to their comfort.

By taking the initiative to address this issue head-on, the company gained credibility and goodwill—and, likely lots of new customers. In just eight months we generated more than 200 interviews, appearances and information sessions with print, TV and radio media.

As far as I know, none of the company’s competitors made a similar effort to address rising energy costs in the region.Michael Meath AEP Photo - Copy

Commenting on the PR campaign, the company’s spokesman wrote, “In almost every instance, we were able to turn any negative angle around to a positive story which would help consumers find ways to increase the efficiency of their energy equipment, reduce the amount of energy they used, and focus on how they could increase their comfort by expanding their relationship with Agway.”

If something is smoldering at your agency or with one of your clients, deal with it now because chances are it won’t go away or improve through neglect. You’ll not only keep the situation from getting worse, but you may also find there’s an opportunity to turn those lemons into lemonade.

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Three Mistakes Agencies Often Make with Reporters

Having three decades of combined agency, journalism and corporation communications experience has enabled me to see public relations in action from a variety of perspectives. One of the lessons I’ve learned from interacting with reporters throughout the world is that making the right pitch to the right person at the right time is vital to publicity success.

It’s also important to know how the news media operate and have a good grasp of what constitutes a newsworthy story if you want to have effective working relationships with reporters.

Public relations and advertising are very different, and failing to understand these differences can be fatal to an agency’s publicity efforts.

Mistakes Agencies Often Make with Reporters 16185149128_a4db78e711

The following are three mistakes advertising, digital and media agencies often make when dealing with reporters:

#1. Failing to do adequate research.

Whether you’re dealing with your local paper, an industry publication or The Wall Street Journal, you need to take the time to find out which person covers the particular area you are interested in pursuing. Sending media materials generically to “Editor” or “Producer” isn’t good protocol and probably won’t get you very far.

Finding the right person is an important first step, but it’s equally important to research the reporter’s previous stories. Learn all you can about what the reporter covers, his or her interests and reporting style, and follow the reporter on social media before making contact. The more you can demonstrate that you understand a reporter’s audience and story preferences—and how he or she wants to be approached with ideas—the better your chances of success.

#2. Wasting reporters’ time with irrelevant pitches.

In a major survey of journalists, nearly 60% said the relevance of the materials they receive comes up short, citing it as their top problem with PR. Reporters are busy people who work under constant pressure and deadlines; don’t waste their time with pitches that aren’t appropriate.

When presenting a story idea, the most important things you can tell a reporter are who will care about it and why. Get to the point right away because media people don’t have time to hunt through your pitch to get to the news. Be clear and concise, including all the necessary information but nothing more.  Here’s a simple test to determine if your pitch passes the “so-what” factor: Put yourself in the reporter’s shoes and ask, “Would this story be interesting to my audience?”

A good story, from a reporter’s perspective, is one that:

  • Is timely
  • Fits the media outlet’s demographics and psychographics
  • Ties in with a current issue or trend
  • Is controversial or novel, or takes a contrarian perspective to conventional wisdom
  • Has a local angle (if pitching a local reporter)

#3. Writing like an advertising executive instead of like a reporter.

Trying to get earned media by sending disguised advertising or editorializing your story idea is the quickest way I can think of to get your information trashed and lose credibility with the news media. In fact, in the survey of journalists cited above, their biggest concern was that the information they receive is written like advertising, not journalism.

Craft your pitch as objectively as possible emphasizing its news or human interest aspect, or your expertise to comment and provide insights. If you’ve done your homework, you will know the reporter’s audience and area(s) of coverage so you can customize your pitch accordingly.

The more you can provide reporters with relevant, factual information that is timely, meaningful and targeted to their audiences, the more likely they are to take you seriously and provide positive coverage that enhances your agency’s credibility and builds its presence in the marketplace.

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My Ad Agency PR New Business Basics are Now Online

Audio of my “How to Craft an Agency PR Plan that Drives New Business” presentation from Michael Gass’s inaugural Fuel Lines New Business Conference is available at the Fuel Lines website.

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Michael Gass

My session walks through the building blocks of creating a performance-based public relations plan for advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.

It also explains how the strategic use of PR can enhance awareness and credibility; distinguish your agency from competitors; and make it easier for decision makers to find you.

Key takeaways:

  • How PR helps prospects discover you
  • What PR can do for your agency that no other marketing tool can replicate
  • How a small- or mid-sized agency’s strategic use of PR can level the playing field with larger competitors
  • What your agency’s PR plan should include, and how to integrate PR into your new business development strategy
  • Cost-effective resources that can help you generate publicity
  • Why not having PR capabilities can cause your agency to miss out on new business opportunities

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My podcast interview with the Agency Management Institute’s Drew McClellan about what goes into a successful in-house ad agency PR program also is online.

Key takeaways:

  • The dramatic changes PR has seen over the years
  • How agencies can use PR as a strategic tool to drive new business
  • How to determine what stories to pitch
  • Ways you can become discoverable so that reporters can find you
  • The kind of news that is truly newsworthy for agencies
  • Why you shouldn’t think about using PR with the expectation that people will write stories about your agency
  • How agencies can get the right kind of attention
  • Incorporating PR into your business plan
  • How to correctly use PR in relation to speaking engagements
  • How to use Google Alerts to capitalize on PR opportunities
  • The steps to take right away to boost your PR