How to Maximize Your Agency’s Opportunities for Publicity

photo credit Richard Masoner Cyclelicious via photopinccHaving worked with reporters and editors throughout the world during the course of my career—as well as being on the other side of journalism as a correspondent and editor—I’ve made and received my share of media pitches.

I’ve seen what works, what doesn’t work and what downright annoys reporters no matter where on the globe they reside. I’ve also experienced first-hand how publicity can help small- and mid-sized agencies and other businesses—even one-person operations—level the playing field with larger competitors.

The beauty of publicity is that it not only generates awareness and extends your agency’s reach at no cost, but it also gives you something no other marketing tool can replicate: credibility.

That’s because publicity allows a secondary source–the news media or bloggers–to tell your story to the people you most want to hear it.

However, before contacting a reporter with a story idea, it’s important to understand how the news media operate and what they want.

Here are eight publicity tips to consider before making a call or hitting the “send” button with your story idea:

#1: Define your media focus.

Limit your pitches to only those outlets that directly serve your target audience. The more you can demonstrate you understand the reporter’s audience and the better you can explain why your story idea would appeal to them, the greater your chances are of being considered. When I was on the editorial side of a healthcare magazine, I never ceased to be amazed at some of the obviously inappropriate pitches PR people sent my way. It was pretty easy to tell who had taken time to read our magazine and understand our audience and the types of stories we covered, and who had taken a shotgun approach in hopes of hitting something somewhere.

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

Whether you’re dealing with your local paper or The Wall Street Journal, it’s important to take the time to find out which person covers the particular area you are interested in targeting. For example, don’t pitch a manufacturing story to a business reporter who covers healthcare or retail. It’s surprising how often this happens because people don’t take the time to do their homework.

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

Now that you’ve found the right person to contact, learn all you can about what that reporter covers, his or her interests and reporting style. Media directories are very helpful resources for getting such information, as is the Internet. In addition to having reporters’ names and contact information, the more detailed directories have helpful contact notes such as:

  • 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.

#4: Know what makes a good news story.

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. Your pitch has to pass the “so-what” factor, as well as be timely and relevant to their audience. 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.

 #5: Respect their deadlines.

When contacting a reporter by phone, I suggest first asking if this is a good time to talk briefly. If not, ask when would be a convenient time to share a story idea. (Be prepared to be asked to send your idea in an email, though some reporters will give you a minute or two to hear your pitch if they’re not on deadline.) If you’re contacted by a reporter on deadline, do everything you can to respond within that timeframe; 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, write and speak like a reporter.

When the time comes to make your pitch, be sure you not only think like a reporter, but that you write and speak like one as well. For example, don’t advertise or editorialize your story idea (reporters are very sensitive to disguised advertising). Whether you write your pitch or give it verbally, 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 of coverage and deadlines, when they see a pitch from you in the future, they’ll realize you’re credible and will be more likely to give you serious consideration.

#8: Customize your pitch to fit their audience.

When I first started my agency, I had a female client who was launching a residential steel framing business, which was a new concept for our area. While the basic story was the same—the benefits of steel framing for residential homes—I segmented my pitches:

  • To our local business journal, I emphasized the entrepreneurial side of her business.
  • To our local daily paper, I got a front-page feature story that was part of a broader article about alternative materials in housing.
  • To women’s publications, I focused on a female entering the construction business, which traditionally has been dominated by men.
  • To her hometown paper (which ran a front-page story), I pitched a “local lady” angle and tied it to an award she had recently won.

One final thought: Consider giving the place you’d most like to receive coverage the first shot at a story whenever possible. Reporters like to be the first break a story, and not just report the same news that others have. This is a very competitive business and like any other profession, reporters enjoy getting recognition and praise for their stories, especially when they are the first to report them.

 photo credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious via photopincc

Why off-the-Record Conversations Should be off Limits for Agencies

One of the things I stress when doing media training is the importance of not speaking off the record in interviews.

There may be exceptions–such as if you really know and trust the reporter–but generally it’s not a good idea to tell a news media person anything about your agency or clients that you wouldn’t want repeated on radio or TV, in a publication or on the Internet.

Some news media outlets have policies forbidding off-the-record conversations. That’s a good, ethical policy, but unfortunately not all adhere to it.

There are lots of examples of why talking off the record is so risky, but I’ve yet to find one that drives home the point better than this headline titled “India’s nuclear identify unclear.”

Check out the subhead: “‘Off the record, we are totally unprepared’ says one of its top military strategists.”

Off the Record Newspaper Comment

Wow. This subhead makes a pretty clear statement beyond the quote: Don’t trust us because we won’t keep an off-the-record remark confidential. Need I say more?

The best practice is to assume everything an agency spokesperson says in an interview is on the record and may be used.

Understanding the different levels of speaking with reporters is important for PR success in agencies as well as other organizations. A number of years ago, a reporter for The Tennessean newspaper described these levels in a column. They provide helpful guidance to anyone preparing for a media interview:

Off the record:  “To have an off-the-record conversation means that the information will not be used in any way in a story.  Many editors, including mine, don’t allow reporters to have off-the-record conversations.”

On background:  “To have an on-background conversation means that the information may be used in a story, but the person who is talking will not be named in connection with the information that is ‘on background.’”

On the record:  “This is the standard conversation with reporters.  However, reporters should identify themselves as working on an article before beginning an interview…once a statement has been made on the record, it cannot be taken off-record.”

A New Calling Card for Agency New Business

At one time or another, many agency principals have probably toyed with the idea of writing a book. And with good reason: They have plenty of relevant insights worth sharing.

Niche books can be a valuable new calling card for new business and help your agency stand out from competitors. That’s because writing a specialty book:

  • Increases your agency’s visibility
  • Helps market your agency to key audiences within a particular niche
  • Positions your agency’s leadership as subject matter experts
  • Reaches decision makers your agency might not otherwise be able to access
  • Gives your agency material to repurpose in blog posts, newsletters, articles, etc.
  • Provides an impressive way to conclude a new business presentation: handing prospects a signed copy of the book

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Agency experts typically have busy schedules, and the thought of taking time to write a book can be a bit overwhelming. Plus, some people have a great deal of knowledge about a particular topic but dislike writing.

The good news is that your agency likely already has material on your blog, executive speeches, presentations, case studies, etc., that could jump start the book’s content. In addition, a talented ghostwriter can take a lot of the burden off an executive, while also bringing new thinking and perspective to the book.

The writer should learn as much as possible about how the executive thinks and speaks, and try to capture his or her personality. It’s vital that they work well together and have good chemistry. In some cases it may be preferable to have multiple authors from the agency each write a chapter to showcase the depth of your agency’s expertise.

A niche book truly can be a competitive advantage, and it may well be the best new business investment your agency makes in 2019.

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Three Mistakes Agencies Often Make with Reporters

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.

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The following are three mistakes agencies and other organizations 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
  • Is controversial or novel, or takes a contrarian perspective to conventional wisdom
  • Has a local angle (if pitching a local reporter)
  • Ties in with a current issue or trend

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.

photo credit: symphony of love Master Cheng Yen Do not fear making mistakes in life, fear only not correcting them via photopin (license)

What to do When a New Business Prospect Falls Asleep in Your Presentation

A common job interview question is: “What’s the most challenging workplace situation you’ve faced, and how did you handle it?”

That’s an easy one for me. I remember the situation very well and have never had anything like it happen since.

The president of the agency that brought me to Nashville and I were on a trip to South Carolina for a new business opportunity with a business-to-business manufacturing company that needed public relations assistance.

We happened to be traveling on a day when a hurricane was hitting the East Coast, and while it wasn’t threatening our area, we were getting a lot of rain and strong wind, which made for a pretty exciting ride in the small plane that was taking us from Atlanta to an airport in the Carolinas.

When we arrived at the manufacturer’s headquarters, we were ushered into a small conference room where the president and I sat across the table from the company’s CEO and a couple of other executives, one of whom was the plant manager.

After the usual exchange of pleasantries, we dimmed the lights for our power-point presentation, and the president began giving an overview of our agency’s capabilities and clients in his deep Southern drawl.

After about 15 or 20 minutes of this, he turned the presentation over to me while raising the lights, saying, “And now Don is going to tell you about some of our business-to-business clients.”

As I pivoted in my chair from facing the wall where the presentation was projected to look directly at the three men, I noticed something peculiar.

The guy across the table to my left—the plant manager—was sound asleep.

He was having a nice rest, making that sort of heavy breathing/whistling sound when he exhaled.

Although he was sitting upright in his chair, he looked very comfortable in his slightly slumped over position. In fact, I think he had entered the Rapid Eye Movement phase of his nap because he was really out.

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Well, this was awkward.

I was supposed to be making a presentation to a guy who was sound asleep.

We had flown from Nashville around the edge of a hurricane for this meeting, and now one of the three people I was presenting to was in dreamland.

I didn’t know what to do.

What I wanted to do was reach across the table and start shaking him, saying, “Wake up, you sluggard! You’re ruining my presentation and making me look bad in front of my boss!” (Who, I note in my defense, was the one that actually put the guy to sleep before I said a word.)

But of course I couldn’t do that because this was a prospective client. I had to be nice. And polite. And flexible.

The CEO, who was sitting next to him, and the other man to my right were staring at me with a frozen look of anguish.

On the positive side, I clearly had their undivided attention. But it became equally clear that they weren’t going to bail me out by waking him up.

I glanced out of the corner of my eye and caught a priceless expression on the face of our agency’s president. I was hoping for some non-verbal guidance, but he was no help at all.

His eyes were wide and he gave me a look that said, “I don’t have a clue what to do, you’re on your own.”

All four of us in the room knew that the fifth guy was out cold, but no one would acknowledge it.

So, in this surreal environment, I started talking through my portion of the presentation to the men who were still awake.

But it wasn’t quite that simple because every so often the guy who was asleep would roll his head and make sort of a snorting sound with his mouth half open.

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I was sure I was going to break out laughing at any moment and lose the business.

But through all this, nobody said a word. I somehow maintained my composure and the other two men kept their eyes riveted on me the entire time. The whole thing was a little unnerving, but I managed to get through it.

Just as I was finishing up, the sleeper awoke. He looked a little startled and tried to act nonchalant, like he’d been with us the entire time.

The men thanked us for coming, and then the well-rested plant manager gave us a tour before we packed up and headed back on our return flight.

The cherry on the sundae was after all that, we didn’t get the business; the company chose another agency out of Atlanta.

It wasn’t my best presentation, nor was it a winning presentation, but it’s the one I remember most.

photo credit: Museum of Photographic Arts Collections Nicolaas Henneman Asleep, Lacock or Reading, England via photopin (license)

photo credit: Rob Hurson via photopin (license)

 

20 Questions to Consider When Developing an Agency PR Plan

Whether your agency emphasizes inbound or outbound marketing—or a combination of the two—public relations is an important tool that can help you attract attention, showcase your expertise and generate new business opportunities.

A successful PR plan has a clear focus, target and purpose.

Without those strategic elements, PR tactics tend to lack direction and consistency, or they simply fall off an agency’s radar as the tyranny of the urgent takes over.

A written PR plan will serve as a road map to guide you in reaching your desired destination, and help you avoid unproductive detours and distractions along the way.

But before getting started on the plan, it’s important to assess your agency’s strengths and weaknesses; evaluate what your agency does best; and determine whether your greatest need is to create awareness or to change the perception of your agency.

Question markAnother strategic consideration is whether you want public relations to assist in positioning your agency team as experts in an existing niche or aid you in entering a new industry and becoming experts there.

Being vague in your positioning, and trying to be all things to all people, won’t make you stand out from your competition and likely will result in a confusing image for your agency.

The following questions will assist you in assessing your situation, determining your highest priorities/needs and fine-tuning your PR objectives:

  1. What do you want to accomplish with your PR efforts?
  2. Who are your key audiences?
  3. How would you describe your best prospects for new business?
  4. What are the best communications vehicles to reach these audiences?
  5. What are your points of differentiation and key messages?
  6. What words best describe your agency’s brand?
  7. Who are your main competitors?
  8. How are they perceived in the marketplace?
  9. Do you want to utilize PR for your agency, offer it as a service to clients, or both?
  10. What is the primary way you use or would like to use PR: agency promotion, new business development, as a service to clients or to enhance your integrated marketing communications capabilities?
  11. How would you rate your agency’s PR capabilities on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the best and 1 the worst?
  12. How would you rate your agency’s new business focus on a scale from 1-10, where 10 is perfectly targeted and 1 is we’re all over the map?
  13. How effective were your past PR efforts (assuming you had some)?
  14. What PR opportunities can you identify that have not been maximized?
  15. How should PR integrate into your new business strategy?
  16. How does social media fit with your new business strategy and PR?
  17. Where would you like to obtain publicity (i.e. target publications, bloggers, radio/TV programs)?
  18. What speaking events or media interviews would you like to be invited to as a participant?
  19. How will you define PR success?
  20. How will you measure that success?

Going through the discipline of answering these questions, and then developing a written plan based on your responses, will pay great dividends in terms of helping your agency manage its time, resources and activities in the most effective way possible. It also will enable your agency to obtain the targeted, consistent coverage necessary for long-term PR success.

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Ad Agencies: Three Ways to Prepare an Inexperienced Leader for Media Interviews

In an age of sound bite communication, companies need articulate spokespeople who are prepared to deal with the unexpected and can deliver clear, concise and consistent messages to a variety of audiences. After all, how well a leader communicates, and the degree of credibility he or she maintains with important audiences, will likely affect your agency’s or your clients’ image for a long time.

Trouble is, leaders who are inexperienced in doing media interviews can easily fall into traps and say something they later regret. They can go off message, start rambling or fidgeting, freeze up when the camera light comes on or give out inaccurate information—any one of which can create a giant headache for the organization.

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Having done media training for 20+ years, here are three ways I’ve found to help prepare inexperienced leaders for interviews, build their confidence and give them the tools they need to be successful:

1. Demystify the news media for them.

I think of this as a “News Media 101” overview of how the media work and the criteria they use to determine a potential story’s news value. For example, leaders need to understand that reporters are looking for high impact stories which will capture attention. They especially like a local angle for a national or regional topic, trend stories, controversy and a contrarian point of view. And they are always looking for articulate, expert commentary on current issues. It’s also important to make sure that inexperienced interviewees have a good handle on the differences they will experience in a print interview vs. a radio interview vs. a TV interview.

2. Have a goal for each interview.

Leaders need to realize that if they don’t control what they say to the news media, the media will control them. They need to have a clear idea of what they want to get across and accomplish with each interview. Stress the importance of preparation because “winging it” can lead to disaster. One of the best ways to prepare is to develop key messages—also known as talking points—to help your leader communicate effectively

Practice asking questions you think the leader could be asked, and then counsel your leader to use the questions to bridge to what he/she wants to talk about (i.e. your interview goal, using the talking points to achieve it). Leaders possess valuable expertise, and in most cases they are going to know much more about the subject matter than the person doing the interview.

3. Teach them how to take control of an interview

This usually doesn’t come naturally, even for leaders who have excellent communications skills. However, it’s vital that interviewees learn the art of taking control of interviews and dealing appropriately with difficult questions. Here are some practical tips to share to make sure your leader stays on point and doesn’t get off in the weeds:

Answer only within the scope of your authority and responsibility.  If you don’t know something, say so—and then offer to get back to the interviewer later with an answer.

Look for opportunities to use transition phrases, such as “The real issue is…” or “What I can tell you about XYZ is . . .” or “What I’m here to discuss today is…” or “What’s important to know about XYZ is….”

Identify ways to turn negatives into positives. For example, in a layoff situation, stress how many jobs were saved by taking this action. It won’t put a happy face on a negative situation, but it can provide the audience with much-needed perspective.

Be aware that your body language often will speak louder than your words. Remember to smile and have energy during the interview. Don’t lose your temper no matter how provocative or loaded a question you are asked.

If you’re on camera, look at the person conducting the interview, not into the camera (unless you are specifically asked to do so).

Avoid industry jargon, and never say “no comment,” which equals guilt in most people’s minds.  If you can’t discuss something, explain why (e.g. confidentiality, proprietary information, pending litigation, timing because you’re still gathering all the facts, etc.).

When you’ve made your point, stop talking. This may be the most important point of all, because more times than not people make their best points in the first sentence or two they give in response to a question. When they elaborate too much and get “off message,” they typically end up in the swamp and say something they later regret.

TV Leaders Interview Tips 26554989678_ff03a10665_n Media training can make the difference between a successful interview and a disastrous one.

With proper coaching, the right messaging and some practice responding to challenging questions, leaders will have the tools they need for a successful interview and the confidence to pull it off.

If the interview is a high profile one, or you have concerns that it may be hostile, or the leader seems to be having difficulty delivering key messages and you sense he/she is not ready for the interview, you may want to consider retaining a media training expert from outside the organization to help.

One final thought: Now days even a local interview in a small market, or an Internet radio interview with a tiny audience, can go viral. Social media has been a game-changer and can broadcast mistakes all over the world instantly. Small doesn’t necessarily mean safe when it comes to interviews, so the best approach is to devote the time and resources needed to make sure leaders doing interviews are prepared, confident and effective.

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photo credit: muddy_lens interview via photopin (license)