It’s not everyday that PR is taken to task for sending unsolicited emails to reporters. Oh, wait – it is every day that this happens. And sometimes the magnifying glass is placed directly over the Public Relations trade, as is the case this week with an unflattering article by The New York Times’ Haggler (Pulitzer Prize winning reporter David Segal) that took to task emails the columnist received and persistently tracked back to an industry vendor’s media database. It doesn’t help that the headline is”Swatting at a Storm of Public Relations Spam.”
Whether fair or not, this sort of coverage sets us up for the defensive. Even with fantastic media databases, dedicated PR reps tracking down the right beat reporters, and guerilla PR efforts targeted by time, day, demo and topic, no media relations effort is perfect. And to blame a database for an incorrect email campaign is akin to blaming the tools, not the carpenter, for shoddy construction. But we can all agree that a bad PR pitch is a bad PR pitch in whatever form, format or formality it’s received.
Email remains the “killer app” for communicating with our stakeholders. By “killer” it can also mean relationship killer. The result of targeting the wrong reporter too many times, or the right reporter with the wrong pitch, usually is one of nonchalance — of just ignoring, deleting, opting out. The Haggler is an extreme version of one recipient revolting, perhaps for the sake of writing a column about it.
At the PR News Writing Bootcamp last week in Chicago, a panel of reporters reviewed mock email pitches from an audience of PR pros and implored the audience to keep their email pitches simple, short and crafted with an obvious reason for the reporter to care. The journalists on this panel — from Chicago newspapers and a mommy blog — were characteristically cynical. They are inundated with email pitches daily, and as with press releases, you have 7 seconds, at most, to get their attention. The panelists advised to think of an email pitch like it’s a movie trailer: grab the viewer’s attention but don’t give away the plot.
Assuming you have a story to tell, you still need to give the reporter something. Here are a few somethings to consider:
- An exclusive interview with the CEO or top executive
- An interesting infographic or chart/graphic
- New research or data to bolster the proposed article
- A video clip
- An invitation to a press-only event
- Links (not attachments) to information that will help the reporter do her job better
- If not an exclusive interview, a commitment to an executive interview at the reporter’s convenience
Before you send out your next email pitch, make sure “the give” is in there. Media Relations is the art and science of give and take.
- Diane Schwartz
PS: I’ll be at the PR NewsMedia Relations Conference on Dec 12 at the National Press Club. If you’re attending, DM on Twitter so we can set up a time to chat in person.
I’ve been thinking lately about how media is moving increasingly toward a greater technology dependence. I’ve read about how investment dollars, especially in Silicon Valley, where so much media-related innovation is occurring, steer towards technology solutions for media consumers. New utilities—new ways to interact with content—seems to be more important than the content itself.
Think about the major social media and many of the new online-only media businesses like TripAdvisor and Yelp. User interfaces, tools, analytics and more are the difference-makers. They create no content on their own, really, but they have massive audiences. Google commands more ad dollars than the whole magazine and newspaper industries combined.
Which for me (and for PR communicators) raises an interesting question: Should media companies—and the PR departments and firms that create brand content and provide content to the media—be technology companies first and content companies second? Has some paradigm shifted in the media world?
Now, before you dismiss what I’m saying as just simplistic nonsense, consider that not only is Google an advertising giant, but so is Facebook. So is YouTube. Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and others will rise in ad spend, and they all depend on users for their content. They pay no content creators, but they create extraordinary technology-based environments for people to post their own content.
And if you’re looking for consistency in the argument, consider that most media companies acknowledge freely that the one-way form of communication is dead. The old-school model of, ‘we-create-content-and-you-consume-it” is simply incomprehensible to modern media users. They take cellphone photos and videos, and share them easily. Even media companies say that they want to create a platform for community interaction.
In that context, then, should we be focused on content—or technologies that enable the sharing of content? It’s a fascinating question.
There are those who say that without content, there’s nothing. No Google and no Facebook. Which is true. But that doesn’t really address the question of who’s doing the creating.
Last week, I read a well-done blog from a writer and social-media consultant named Paul Gillin lamenting the death of BtoB Magazine, which Crain Communications said it is folding into Ad Age as of the first of next year.
What especially caught my eye was this observation:
“The advertising market for business publications is in free fall, and since most of the magazine’s advertisers are themselves B2B media companies, BtoB has suffered along with everybody else.”
Being a student of the media industry, and a content specialist on PR News, I wanted to know why. On the PR side in particular, I would argue that a decline in advertising—in media covering media certainly, but in a lot of print media as well—portends serious challenges for the PR profession.
Consider that as newspapers decline, and advertising in traditional print brands shrinks, the space available for news will also decline. That, of course, means the space available for you to tell your stories via journalists shrinks as well. That’s a dilemma worth preparing for. And I’d argue that media relations is the most important function in PR.
Consider too that as traditional print media declines fewer journalists will be called to the industry, and those who are might well be less capable. Again, a challenge for PR pros who need to rely on reporters who know their beats and get things right.
What’s more, as traditional print brands decline, their influence declines with them, meaning that you, as PR pros, need to find the new kinds of influencers. That’s not always obvious, and it means you’re going to have to balance the old with the new for a long time into the future.
So why is all this happening? I have a few theories, and I like to test them out on other smart people. Sometimes they agree, and other times I suspect they think I’m way wrong.
So I wrote a comment to Gillin’s blog that asked him what he thinks is driving that free fall. Specifically, I asked:
• Is it that print advertising has become an inefficient way to deliver brand messages?
• Is it because software products have emerged in the media industry that render third-party suppliers—advertisers—less essential? In other words, is it a case of, ‘we can build, so we don’t need to buy?’
• And also, do we buy less? For example, online, we don’t need a printer in a continuous relationship, we need a Web development firm just once every few years.
• Is advertising in free fall too because new channels and technologies have emerged—such as Facebook, Google and database-management tools—that allow marketers to more effectively identify and communicate with prospects?
• And if that’s the case, does that mean that the audiences that media companies have traditionally aggregated are less valuable and less compelling to marketers?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t even know if they’re the right questions to ask. But something is driving the decline in advertising, not just in media on media, not just in b-to-b media, but in many print publications. My friend Jim Elliott says that advertising will come roaring back. It always has in the past. We shall see. What’s new is the volume of alternative media now available, and the ways in which people consume media.
When UPS wanted to make the public aware of its sustainability and energy-saving practices, the PR team knew it needed to tell an interesting story to showcase its efforts. It has always stuck with me that UPS drivers don’t make left turns (or at least, 95% of the time, they don’t turn left). By turning right and not idling, UPS has been able to cut CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons and has saved 10 million gallons of fuel since 2004. The media loves stories like these, and I bet every company has a story to tell that’s illustrative and memorable. The hard part, it turns out, is not in identifying your story but in telling it smartly to the media. There are so many things that can go wrong on the road to positive coverage.
Jerry Doyle of CommCore Consulting Group spends most of his days training C-suite execs and PR pros on how to talk to the media, how to tell a story that resonates and how to stay on message. At a PR News Media Training Workshop in NY on Sept 10, he reiterated the importance of sticking to your message while respecting the reporter’s time and intelligence. He asked the workshop attendees: “What do you do when a reporter asks you a question?” So many times, the interviewee changes the topic, or veers in another direction instead of actually answering the question. When you don’t answer the question, says Doyle, “it’s a tell” – in other words, skeptical journalists get more skeptical and the questions harden.
In preparing for your next media interview, keep these tips in mind:
- Always be tuned into WIIFM: “what’s in it for me” (the reporter and his/her audience): make your comments relevant to the interview and compelling to the audience.
- Pick a message/point and state it 3 times during the interview: any less or any more than that and your message will get lost.
- Research the reporter before the interview: who is she, what does she cover, what were her last 3 stories?
- Google yourself and your company: that’s what the reporter is doing before the interview, so don’t be caught off-guard by recent coverage of your company (or you).
- Assume you’ll be asked difficult questions: be prepared to answer them.
- Tell a story or provide an analogy: nothing’s better than a short, interesting story to illustrate your point, and for complicated issues a simple analogy is much appreciated by the reporter.
- Always answer the question: Better to say “I will look into that” than “no comment”.
- Have a bridging strategy: at times, you’ll need to bridge the conversation to get to your point. Practice bridging.
- Make sure your last words are good ones: often the last question is the reporter’s lead, the sound bite on TV or the most memorable answer, so make sure you end the interview on your high note.
A reporter is usually not trying to stump you, but no reporter worth his salt is going to throw softballs throughout the interview. If you can master the 9 tips above, you and your brand won’t suffer a black eye.
- Diane Schwartz, @dianeschwartz
Last week, Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti published a long memo on LinkedIn. It was titled a memo to the staff, but really was only partly directed to the staff. It was also a PR message to all stakeholders as well as competitors.
At any rate, it was brilliant. It was the most clear-headed, fully thought-out description of where media are going, and what attributes are necessary for success in a completely transformed media era. For those reasons—because it serves as both a great example of executive communication and helps PR pros understand where media is going—it’s worth discussing.
First thing Peretti did was thank his team in what seemed heartfelt and was certainly gracious:
“Before anything I want to thank you for all your amazingly great work over the last year. All of our success is because of you. BuzzFeed is on a significant roll, we have reached new milestones and our future looks tremendously bright.”
And that’s just the start. Peretti cited statistics illuminating BuzzFeed’s staggering Web growth. He outlined non-Web initiatives, such as an app, a YouTube channel and live meetups. He indicated the things BuzzFeed will not be doing: Live paid events, print magazines, white-label versions of BuzzFeed. And he reveals that his company is profitable—a rarity for Web-only startups.
As part of his thank-yous, he cites the work of various content, technology, data and marketing teams. Then Peretti gets into some interesting territory.
“Most other publishers integrate off-the-shelf products built by others, but this full-stack, vertically integrated approach was worth the significant, multi-year investment and is paying off fantastically today,” Peretti said. “There are great tech companies and great editorial institutions, but it is very rare for one company to take both as seriously as we do.”
This is an important point. Very few traditional media companies look at their businesses this way. And that serves to ensure that they are perennially a half-lap or more behind technology companies like Google and Facebook, which understand the direct relationship between content and technology, and how it drives the new types of media consumption. It’s simply not about monthly magazines, with a front-to-back pattern, and traditional devices like the TOC and a feature well.
This leads to the really interesting core of the memo, where Peretti pivots into a discussion of the characteristics and economic prospects of BuzzFeed (and presumably other pureplay media companies) compared to traditional media companies.
“Facebook, Twitter, and the other Silicon Valley-based social sites are amazing distribution platforms, but user generated content alone isn’t enough to fill the hole left by the ongoing decline of print newspapers and magazines,” he said. “The world needs sustainable, profitable, vibrant content companies staffed by dedicated professionals; especially content for people that grew up on the web, whose entertainment and news interests are largely neglected by television and newspapers.”
This is all true. It’s important to hear, even if his point about the “Silicon Valley-based social sites” ought to be looked at with skepticism. That’s because the basic dynamic of social sharing undermines the profit-generating ability of news organizations, and because BuzzFeed’s founding idea is about creating (and also finding and sharing) content for those same “Silicon Valley social sites.” You can’t have it both ways.
Still, Peretti is pointing to a new future, and he elaborates in nine additional points, covering everything from news to mobile to international coverage.
(The point about being an international brand is especially valuable. Old-school media companies launch international editions. Technology companies, and, Peretti said, BuzzFeed, are one brand, one content package, translated and presented to different markets.)
One of Peretti’s points is that his company is investing in news. “There is a huge opportunity to be the leading news source for the social, mobile world,” he wrote. “As we saw during the 2012 election, the Boston bombings, and our LGBT focused coverage of the Sochi Olympics, a new generation of readers are turning to us for news.”
You didn’t need to search very hard last week to find a contrary perspective, one that Peretti never addresses. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO who just bought the Washington Post for $250 million, gave his first interview—to the Post. Said Bezos:
“The Post is famous for its investigative journalism. It pours energy and investment and sweat and dollars into uncovering important stories. And then a bunch of Web sites summarize that [work] in about four minutes and readers can access that news for free. One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment? If you can’t, it’s difficult to put the right resources behind it.”
Bingo. If BuzzFeed is truly going to succeed in homegrown news, it needs to crack that code. Nothing that I’ve seen indicates anyone—including anyone at BuzzFeed—has figured that out.
And then there’s advertising. “Part of being a great business is being a “must buy” for advertisers who have many options,” Peretti said. “This means giving advertisers the full advantage of our scale, our data, our creative team, our social and mobile reach, and our technology platform. We have more expertise about social content than any other company. We can light up the social web for an advertiser across Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, with content that is worth clicking and sharing.”
Peretti has done a lot of thinking and writing about how content is shared. He’s serious and knowledgeable about his business. The challenge with that is that BuzzFeed’s own advertising model is based on a trend that works against media companies. BuzzFeed specializes in native advertising—advertising that looks and feels like and lives in the same format and in the same context as BuzzFeed’s (and other media companies’) own content. That is innovative, for sure, but it plays into another major trend—companies creating their own content and building audiences on their own, without the traditional dependency on media companies. This, combined with the targeting capabilities social sites and Google, enables non-media brands to create content, engage audiences, identify leads and sell products and services without the same level of reliance on third party companies.
I love the clarity of Peretti’s vision. That doesn’t mean there aren’t significant trends playing against BuzzFeed.
Women are being told to “lean in” to advance their careers; others are encouraged to lean out. I’ve got some advice that’s gender-neutral and is in response to a troublesome trend permeating society, from business meetings to social gatherings, from conference rooms to concert halls, from boardrooms to, um, bedrooms. The advice? Look Up! Move your focus from your phone to your physical environment and you’ll be pleased with the meaningful connections you can make in real-time.
This is not a lecture to stop texting, emailing, posting or pinning. Rather, it’s a reminder to be in the moment. To embrace the conversation in front of you without the distraction of the cloud. Without the addictive need to upload a photo, tweet a thought or respond to an email that really can wait. Sometimes you must look down and away, sending out an important message or just taking a break from the real world. It’s forgivable.
I am sometimes guilty of Looking Down and I try to catch myself – before I either walk into a wall or become so disoriented with what’s being discussed in the room that I’m scrambling to come up with something smart to say to prove I was listening. But those of us who regularly Look Down are not fooling anyone. Over time, you become “that person” who is always on her phone, that person who has better things to do than Look Up and engage. That person who thinks sending a Selfie in the middle of a meal with colleagues will keep you in the loop, in the know. Don’t be that person.
In the business of communications, it is imperative that we listen and engage. We are storytellers, and the cumulative effect of always Looking Down is we miss the story. For those in management or mentoring positions, modeling the Look Up behavior will go a long way toward creating knowledgeable and focused apprentices who will not only learn to Look Up and listen, but will inevitably look up to you as a shining example of restraint and engagement in a noisy, digital world.
– Diane Schwartz
Let’s assume that your press release landed in the right in-box, meaning the reporter is the right target for your message. For anyone in public relations, just getting to this point is a major achievement. But don’t get all cocky, because what comes next is critical. As a reporter by trade and one who still receives roughly 25 press releases per day in my in-box, I can tell you that a great press release is hard to find.
Reporters do not have a love-hate relationship with press releases. They have a “meh” relationship with them. Most of the press releases reporters receive are not going to rock their world. But they will be read and used by a reporter if they contain a news hook that is relevant to the reporter’s beat. Once hooked at least on the topic, a great press release will contain:
1. An attention-grabbing headline.
2. A “nut graph” to kill for: the first paragraph with 2 to 3 sentences must be succinct and newsworthy. Much like a reporter’s own article.
3. Multimedia: photos, video and the like – a must-have for multimedia journalists, which most reporters are, whether they like it or not.
4. Good contact information – not just contact information, but the contacts of people who will answer the phone and respond within the hour to your email query.
5. A great quote - The art of press release quote-writing involves giving the end reader the impression that the reporter got the quote directly from the source, not from the press release.
6. Statistics and other data – reporters love numbers, which make their stories more credible and interesting, and which impresses their editors.
7. A compelling story (more on that in a second).
You’ve heard countless advice on words to avoid in press releases, such as “leading”, “ground-breaking” and “best.” A Reporter’s Bullshit Meter will ring loudly at the sight of these words, and there’s no doubt your press release will be diminished. I won’t belabor the point. But I encourage anyone who writes a press release to get real about who’s reading your prose and how credible your words are. You’d be surprised how many reporters stop reading a press release if there are too many superlatives.
At PR News’ PR Writing Workshop this week in San Francisco, there was agreement that a press release has roughly 7 seconds to grab a reporter’s attention. Seven seconds is widely touted as the time it takes to make a first impression. So, next time you go about writing your press release, apply the 7 second principle.
Then, consider, what would come next? Does your press release have the qualities that will entice the reporter to email or call you? And are you ready to take the story that was the crux of your press release, and continue telling that story?
While it’s always great to see your press release “covered” by the media in the fullest sense of the word – the press release is essentially re-run as editorial or portions cut and pasted — it is much better to create a connection and entice the reporter to hear more of your story. If the press release is your first impression, then the follow-up call or email is your opportunity to tell your story. The press release is an under-rated story-telling vehicle and you are in the driver’s seat.
– Diane Schwartz
(I say ‘wait for it’ because anyone who knows BuzzFeed’s editorial approach knows its love for lists.)
It was a sponsored story—paid advertising—posted on behalf of Hostess, whose Twinkies and other brands are back after the production ceased and the company downsized nearly out of existence last year.
But the comebacks listed in the BuzzFeed story never once mentioned Hostess. It was all about other stuff.
It was actually a pretty good list, and pretty funny, too, despite small errors and its ‘intern-pulled-the-factoids-off-Wikipedia’ feel. So were the comments, not all of which were complimentary. “Uh, Arrested Development was canceled in Feb 2006, and the new season, specifically for Netflix, had 15 episodes. It really isn’t hard to check up on simple facts before submitting an ‘article,’” went one.
That’s an awesome description, for native or traditional forms. But with native, there are new ways to create superior value for an advertiser (and reader/user) and also new ways to mess things up.
Check out QZ.com for a clean, elegant way to do in-stream native advertising. Consider that the advertising is in the form of storytelling. Not a marketing pitch. Think too about the value provided to an advertiser to be fully integrated into a site’s content stream—where you see the ad as you scroll, and the ad’s content comes up in a search. That’s incredible advertising value.
But then there’s the flip side: Done poorly, native advertising in a content stream can seem spammy. It can disrupt the flow of content, not enhance it. It can make your page look like a dissonant cacophony, and put your credibility at risk when people open a page and see yellow-tinted ads where you think they shouldn’t be.
It’s a double-edged sword, and I admit that I’m not sure I like everything BuzzFeed is doing. That might be, though, that their formulaic approach kind of gets old quick. The fun of media consumption, and of PR, is in being surprised, and even delighted, in unexpected ways.
OK, I stole the idea for this headline from Abbie Hoffman, author of “Steal This Book.” But let’s call it an homage instead of outright theft.
My headline was inspired by WFMU radio host Tom Scharpling, who was, in his show last night, making fun of headlines that are naked ploys to get you to click on them, such as “Why I Hate the San Antonio Spurs” or “Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Call Your Doctor Right Now.” Scharpling also admitted to using the same tactics for his own online pieces.
The fact is, if you are a professional communicator, headlines are everything. Until the time comes when text finally fades away and we transmit ideas solely with still and video images, you’ll need to study the past masters at the New York Post and the current masters at BuzzFeed and learn the craft of writing clickable headlines. Your job as a headline writer is to bypass cognitive thought and create an instant cause and effect between the reader’s eyes and clicking finger.
Think beyond the literal headlines on press releases and blog posts. A tweet is a headline; so is a Facebook post. A subject line in an email is a headline. A meta description for a Web page that shows up in Google searches is a headline. A text message is most definitely a headline. And each of these headlines is battling millions upon millions of other headlines to win the almighty clicks.
The headline is the gateway to all digital communications, and if you can’t write headlines that force people to click—almost against their will—then you’re not really communicating.
- Steve Goldstein
My son Max tells very long stories that veer in curious directions. By the time he’s nearing the point, he forgets the ending. It’s rather cute and endearing – he is, after all, only 12 years old. He will sometimes exclaim frustratingly: “I forgot what I was going to say!” Can we admit that often it’s as if a 12-year-old is telling a story about his brand? And we aren’t as forgiving, are we?
Storytelling in PR comes in many forms: press releases, emails, memos, phone calls, meetings, press conferences, interviews. Our stakeholders have short attention spans and are less charitable about seeing through the foggy messages. They are not our parents, who will listen to our stories and love us even more for the muddled storytelling. No, stakeholders will send you on your merry way, and latch on to a better story.
Like you and me, our audiences like a story that has heart, that makes us think and moves us in some way. A few days ago, I heard about Pedigree’s partnership with “Annie” on Broadway and the search for a shelter dog to play Sandy. The story is heart-warming and memorable, and makes me want to buy Pedigree dog food and see Annie for the umpteenth time. The story had emotion.
It’s the communicator’s role to find the compelling story in the message and then make it stick. At PR News’ Content Marketing Boot Camp on Tuesday, one speaker noted that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” That’s a catchy reminder, but even in the age of social media and attention deficits, your story must be authentic, true to your brand’s story line and characters.
The best stories spread, then stick and, most importantly, result in a positive action or reaction. In other words, sticky can sometimes be stinky. Which leads me to my last point: know what to leave out of a story. Every brand and company is filled with stories. Not all of those stories should be told. Curate your stories, identify the narrative and figure out what’s better left unsaid. Not every story is worth repeating. Unless it’s about your kids.
- Diane Schwartz