Pitching a potential client is among the most challenging, stressful and exciting moments for anyone in business. For professional service providers, like PR pros and lawyers, there is the added challenge of proving your allegedly superior abilities in a field where the product is not always easily viewed and frequently the benefits you are extolling are perceived as unclear.
Veterans of pitch meetings know the drill. The discussion first focuses on your track record and great ideas, but invariably there comes a moment when someone on the other side of the table asks for “The Magic Show.” The question often is disguised, but it’s always there. What the question is designed to do is gauge your personal knowledge of the enemy: Whom do you know in the field? The competitors? Regulators, judges, prosecutors? How about the media? Have you gone to lunch with the top reporters? Yes, even in this era of stressed-out journalists, who seem to go without food for weeks at a time, clients ask this question.
The basis of these questions makes sense. The brand’s reps are trying to establish the depth of your experience, professional knowledge and contacts. There’s good reason for a brand to desire that you have knowledge of the other side, both for insight and to deal with any issues that could arise.
A closer look at these questions, though, usually reveals an underlying unreasonable assumption: that your personal knowledge of certain people is what will allow you to accomplish seemingly incredible feats—in the words of Bob Dylan, “do what’s never been done, win what’s never been won.” It is the hope that your ability to perform magic will allow you to tap into an unknown, unseen insider game that can grab a company the success it craves, be it getting off from a potential legal or regulatory action or having The Wall Street Journal mention it in positive stories.
What’s surprising is that the belief in magic is a regular occurrence among adult professionals. It is one thing when a doctor or someone in a far distant field is supposed to perform the magic. Hope is at work here—this doctor will have the cure for what ails me or this engineer will be able to fix my inherently flawed product. This logic proves the science-fiction theory that anyone of lesser knowledge can mistake advanced science for magic.
Yet the magic show analogy may be a good way for PR pros to think of themselves and what they do. The reality is that we in PR and other providers succeed in the same fashion as a magic show. As with Houdini, Penn & Teller or Ricky Jay, the key to hiring a professional service provider is finding one that exhibits professionalism and provides high-quality, well-practiced work.
The magic, such as it is, of the PR pro, the lawyer or doctor, is really a set of tricks precisely done. These tricks involve deep thinking about a subject, continual practice in low-leverage situations to work out kinks and gain muscle memory, and enough experience to know how to pull them off under pressure. Those learned skills, not a hoped-for personal advantage with potential opponents, are the real magic show that PR pros can perform.
How can you perfect your particular brand of magic? A few ideas:
- Learn from Lehrer: Good magicians polish their tricks to perfection before performing. It’s a cliche, but true, that the difference between winning and losing often is preparation. Yes, I realize we all are pressed for time, yet we have to find ways to work smarter and more efficiently. By the time a pitch meeting comes around, you should have your facts and approach down cold, but do you? Have you reread that press release or tweet to catch embarrassing mistakes? As the musical satirist Tom Lehrer says, “Don’t be nervous, don’t be flustered, don’t be scared, be prepared!”
- Know Your Client’s or Boss’ Goals: You should have an understanding of the press targets your clients are trying to reach, both the everyday meat-and-potatoes press outlets that can help them slowly build their brand and the moonshots that they hope can rocket them to the next level.
- Have Reporters’ Names at Your Fingertips: The clients may be unrealistic in their hope that you’re lifelong friends and lunch buddies with individual reporters, but you should know the names and social media accounts of the reporters who cover their story and be familiar with their latest articles, tweets and blogs. You certainly won’t be convincing if it appears that you haven’t cracked open their go-to publications or know the tone of their social media presence.
- Know Your Client’s Clients: As important as having a grasp on your client’s work is, it is equally important to be conversant in who its customers and competitors are. What they think, what they read, where they live and what they eat. In short, their wants, needs and desires. In many ways this is the real target. Showing familiarity with this information will go a long way toward gaining a potential client’s confidence, drafting winning pitches and helping a brand grow.
This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.