Mastering the Inner Game of PR

There's a lot to be said for knowing what you want to do in life early on and then going for it with a dedicated focus. On the other hand, I have found certain advantages to the circuitous route that I took; a path that brought me from engineering to marketing, sales and IT consulting and then to a successful career in PR. Along the way I learned lessons that have served me well in this profession. In particular, the time I spent in sales taught me about the importance of having the right mental outlook, and about the role of negotiations especially in the realm of media relations.

Mastering what I call the “Inner Game of PR” and applying selling skills can mean the difference between a faltering, ineffective approach and one that helps you confidently navigate the sometime rocky shoals of media relations.

A Sales-driven Life

So, what does sales have to do with psychology, and what does either have to do with PR?

Salespeople—the good ones—are often seen as swashbuckling heroes of business, the people who make things happen, and then there are the less flattering images associated with the profession. For example, most PR people did not join our field with the goal of becoming part of the type of cheap boiler room operation that many associate with telemarketers. Yet, great phone selling skills can be key to helping you rise above the noise and getting your client’s story heard. Your ability to reach a reporter or blogger by phone and sell them on the merits of your story can be the catalyst that moves the pitch from the e-mail ”slush pile” to the headlines.

Negotiation skills are also critical in media relations, and having the right mental outlook can spell the difference between success and failure.

It seems that sales training has been reduced to a science much more than media relations. There are many sales training programs and countless books on the subject. This is no doubt due to the relative size of both professions. So why not benefit from the established body of work in sales training and see what we can learn from it?

I list below some of the lessons I took from sales and have successfully applied in the realm of PR.

The Importance of Enthusiasm

It may sound hokey, but as they told me in my early days of sales, it is next to impossible to do well in sales without having enthusiasm. And the key to understanding how enthusiasm can help you lay in the last four letters of the word—IASM—which stand for I Am Sold Myself. How can you convince a reporter that you have a great story if you are not convinced?

Admittedly, this is not always easy. We are all sometimes handed projects, products or clients that seem to be a really tough sell. Part of getting past this and meeting your goals—the mark of a true professional—means that you need to find it within yourself (and the subject matter) to uncover that great story. You need to check assumptions at the door and work hard to find a compelling angle and target the people who are likely to care about it.

Avoiding Self-Defeating and Submissive Behaviors

Volumes have been written to help those in the challenging field of telesales do better. In both PR and sales, it can be a numbers game. I tell my teams to just get started (in sales, we called this overcoming call reluctance). The first call is the hardest. Then it gets easier.

Another tip is to try to maximize time and efficiency in pitching by grouping like activities together, i.e. maximizing time on pitch calls first and saving follow-up activities for later. Continuing until you get the results you are looking for provides positive reinforcement and makes it easier to get started the next time.

Knowing that you have a great story and are bringing something of value to those most likely to care can help you avoid the trap that many fall into: approaching the influencer in a very submissive and meek, almost apologetic, way. Some signs of this are rushing to answer your own questions, and being afraid to ask the next question or push for some kind of commitment.

Being overly deferential and approaching the pitch call with hat in hand can work against your goals. Again, this gets back to the psychology of the pitch. If you have a great story, and know you are targeting the right people then you are, by definition, bringing something of value to the table. Reporters respect the people who have their story down and approach the pitch call with confidence. Being sold yourself inevitably leads to this type of confidence

The Role of Negotiation

You also need to have a realistic assessment of the potential market for your information. This will help you in your efforts to cut the best possible “deal.” How hot is your news or story idea? Who is most likely to care? Understanding how the information can help the reporter or blogger can be critical to accomplishing your goals.

Many incorrectly assume that the reporter is in the driver’s seat. Understanding the value of our information helps to establish a sense of control. We are bringing a potential asset to the table, and have every right to ask for something in return, whether this means establishing ground rules for engagement, or timing and placement of the story.

In particular, the explosion of online media offers endless variety in terms of potential homes for our information and has subtly shifted the balance of power. Bloggers and online media are hungrier than ever for that next hot story and you can be their hero.

Work this to your advantage and (in alignment with the desires of management and clients) strike the best possible deal.


Many in the PR field seek to avoid any association with the field of sales. We say we are more about ideas, stories and education. The sales profession can provide valuable lessons for the worlds of PR and media relations. Some of the same principles behind the psychology of sales can help you in your efforts to excel in PR.

Bob Geller is a Senior VP at Fusion Public Relations. He blogs at Fusion PR Forum and on his own blog, Flack’s Revenge. You can follow him on Twitter and read his profile.