Thursday, July 29, 2010

Making Friends, Influencing People

It's storytime at Real Public Relations!  It's the story of public relations "professional" who made a mistake.  A really big mistake.

The story comes courtesy of a longtime and very good friend who currently works as a producer at one of the leading TV news stations in Denver.  An award-winning journalist and a person who knows exactly what it takes for a small business to garner earned media coverage.

The funny thing about this story is that, up until the very end, the "professional" in question did just about everything right on behalf of the client.

It starts a few weeks ago when the KCNC newsroom receives a press release pitching a story.  As it turns out, it caught the interest of the morning news producer and within a short period of time, some calls were made and an interview was booked for the morning show.

This is a big deal for a small business.  An interview on a morning show means exposure to tens of thousands of potential customers at one time.  A saavy business can leverage a single morning show interview into massive amounts of social media coverage, and, if they're lucky, even more earned media coverage from partner outlets and competitive outlets.

The PR "professional" agreed to the interview at the scheduled time; 6:30 in the morning.  In the local morning news world, that's a prime spot.  It's regularly among the highest rated time slots for most local morning news programs, which makes sense, since most people are up, have showered and are eating breakfast or catching up on the day's events before they head on out the door between 7 or 7:30am.  In other words, the interview slot was good news for the PR "pro" and for the client.

Time passes, a few days go by, there is no follow-up communication from the PR "pro" to the newsroom.  The producer, who is already swamped by the daily routine of putting together a daily news program, moves forward planning on having the interview.

The day in question arrives, the producer gets into the newsroom only to find an odd and quite frustrating email in his inbox.  The PR "professional" has cancelled the interview with the client.  Not because anyone is sick, or due to unforseen circumstances, but, and here's the doozy of it all, the interview was being cancelled because it was, "too early."

Seriously, you read that right.  The PR "pro" just couldn't manage to drag themselves out of bed that early in the morning.  Certainly, it might have been the client who deemed 6:30 am too early in the morning to do an interview, but either way, the PR "pro" in this case was not serving the best interests of their client.

Bad Move:

Trust me, I produced morning shows in radio and TV for years.  I KNOW how early 6:30 am can be.  Even as a public relations professional, I have dragged myself out of bed at 4am so I could be at a television station to support my client during morning show interviews.  If the decision was made by the PR person, then they should be fired immediately by the client.  If the decision was made by the clinet, then the PR person needed to do everything short of kidnapping the client and dragging them to the station for the interview. 

There is always the chance that the PR "pro" did everything in their power to get the client to show up for the early morning interview, and if the client simply refused to the listen to the PR pro's advice, then the PR pro should simply drop them as a client.

Yes, this sounds harsh, and in a difficult economy, dropping clients is less than ideal.  But a PR person's job is to grab media attention for the client.  As a consultant, I always had to remind myself that, ultimately, the final decision rests in the hands of the client.  I could make recommendation, but in the end, the client made the final choice. 

Certainly clients have made decisions contrary to my advice.  It's their right.  But I have, and would again, let a client go if they make decisions that are not only against my advice, but downright destructive to their bottom line.  Remember, it's not just the client's reputation on the line, it's the reputation of the PR person as well. 

I can pretty much guarantee, with a fair degree of certainty, that this business and the person who scheduled the interview, will never get another shot at the KCNC morning show again.  In all likelihood, their reputation has also been damaged in other newsrooms as well. 

The media, especially local media, is a very small community.  Reporters, producers, editors all talk to one another and you would be mistaken if you didn't think that this story has already made the rounds at the other television stations. 

Listen, Judge, Go To Bed Early:

There are two lessons to be learned from this episode in regards to small businesses and non-profits. 

Lesson 1:
Follow-up, consistency and commitment are essential to a successful public relations campaign.

You are most likely handling your own PR and social media efforts.  If you are, that's great.  That's the whole purpose of this blog; to help you save money by doing it yourself.  You can put together a great story, create a wonderful pitch and pitch letter and make your follow up phone calls in a timely and effective manner.  All of this might lead to an interview opportunity.  If it does, that's great news.  But just as I pointed out in the previous post, just getting the interview is really only half the battle. 

You have to be prepared with your messages and appearance.  You also have to show up when expected and you must deliver on what you promise a newsroom.  If you tell them your event will have hundreds of adorable children for photo ops, then there had better be hundreds of children smiling and happy to pose for the cameras.  If not, they'll be disappointed and they'll remember it the next time you pitch a story to them.

The same holds true to accepting an interview request.  If you say you'll be there for a 6:30 interview, then be there.  If they want you in at 2am, then get there at 1:30.  Get to an interview early.  Like Vince Lombardi used to tell his players, "If you're on time, you're late."  Show up early and show up prepared.  Don't get there five minutes ahead of time and then take 20 minutes to change clothes or put on your makeup. 

One of the best ways to anger a journalist is to take advantage of their time.  They are on tight deadlines.  Most likely, they have to file the story within just a couple of hours after talking to you.  They might even have other stories to cover or other video to shoot.  If it's a live interview, they want to see you in the newsroom, or on the phone line well in advance of the interview time.  This eases their mind and saves everyone a whole lot of confusion and panic. 

The time to tell a journalist that 6:30 in the morning is too early, is when they approach you for an interview. If you really don't think you can make it that early, let them know.  They might scrap the interview completely, but at least you didn't string them along. By the way, never tell a journalist that you can't make an interview because it "inconveniences" you.  They'll never ask you for an interview again.  They want interview subjects who will bend over backwards for them.  Sure, it's not totally fair, but then again, they ARE offering you a chance to introduce your organization to thousands upon thousands of potential customers, for nothing more than a few minutes of your time.

It's only fair that you meet them halfway, and if that means you have to drive to a studio for an interview, or get there hours before you normally get up, then you should do what it takes to make it easy for the journalist.

This also includes other kinds of interview follow-up.  Once you get that coveted interview, you need to do a few simple things which will endear you to newsrooms everywhere:
1.  Confirmation - Follow-up with an email to confirm the date, time and location of the interview.  Some interviews are set up weeks in advance, most are just days in advance.  Either way, a follow up email will confirm your commitment to the interview and ease the worries of the reporter, producer or editor.

2.  Send information - Reporters, producers and editors like facts.  Regardless of the interview venue, you should always send information to the newsroom.  This does a couple of things.  In the case of print interviews, it makes sure they spell your name right, it confirms your organization's name and services.  In the case of radio interviews, you can make sure they have the right pronunciation of your name or business.  In the case of television interviews, it allows them to create CG's, or cover graphics, that can be aired during the interview.  The same holds true for basic facts about you and your story.  

For instance, if you're interview is about a charity you run to help homeless people, you should send them a short list of facts about homelessness in your city or in the U.S.  These facts can be great additions to any story.  You might have covered them in your interview and just want to make sure the media outlet gets the information correct, or you may anticipate answering these questions during an upcoming interview.  In this case, a TV station can, again, put up CG's as part of the interview, a print or radio reporter can use these facts to direct their line of questioning.  Journalists love knowledge, and the more they know, the better an interview you will have.

3.  Provide Back-up - Every interview you do is an opportunity to show a newsroom you know what you're doing and that you understand how to make their jobs easier.  If you can make a journalists' job easier, they'll love you forever, kind of like bringing them beer and food.  For TV stations, send photos, for radio stations, send sound files, for tv stations, send ideas about graphics and send video.  Once again, the journalist wants your interview to go well so they can meet the expectations of their own standards and those of their audience.  This means providing great visuals and information to go along with the story.  If you can give them the visuals and information they need to make your interview really sparkle, they'll remember you and be more likely to schedule you for future interviews.
Lesson 2:
If you hire someone for their expertise and advice, listen to them whenever possible.

Let's face it, PR isn't rocket science.  Often, it's more like an art.  There are nuances that it can take years to get a feeling for.  You can, and should handle the basics of your PR campaign.  But there will be times when you need an expert.  This is when you might bring in a freelance PR pro, or a former journalist.  You brought them in for a reason, so listen to them when they give you advice or make recommendations.

You may not always agree with what they tell you.  You might be nervous about the direction they seem to be taking your campaign.  This is natural.  But they have years of experience that you don't have and they have a knowledge of how newsrooms operate that you don't have.  If they say a 6:30am interview on a local TV station is a "good get" then by all means, do what you have to do to make it to the newsroom by 6am, awake and prepared to shine. 

This doesn't mean you should turn all control over to any "expert", regardless of their credentials.  Ultimately, it's your business, your life's work.  You want any consultant to work with you, not against you.  Expect constant communication and expect teamwork.  Working with a PR consultant is a great way to get some quick media coverage for a big campaign.  But it will only work if you trust them and feel comfortable enough to voice your concerns to them.  It's also important that they listen to you.  Too often, I see a business bring in a consultant, spell out exactly what they want, and then the consultant goes off in a different direction.  Even if the consultant's motives are good, it shows they aren't listening to you.  And that's a recipe for disaster in the long run.

Here are a few tips to making your working relationship with a consultant the best it can be:
1.  Ask questions - Make sure you know everything you can know about your consultant.  Sit down with them and go over your campaign and ask them for their thoughts.  If they appear willing to work with you rather than try to control you, it might be a good fit.  Look to see if they answer your questions to your satisfaction rather than talk around the answer.

2.  Set your expectations - Make sure you set out exactly what you are looking for.  A good PR consultant will have questions for you about what you expect and will want to set parameters up front.  An experienced consultant won't rush into any work before they know what they're getting into.  Take note of what kinds of questions they ask you.

3.  Express Concerns - Once you start working together, you will likely have further questions and maybe even some concerns about their direction.  Don't let it go and think that your concerns will pass, they won't.  You don't have to be confrontational, but certainly you should approach the consultant with your concerns.  A good PR consultant will have no problem listening to your concerns and defending them.  Sometimes it's just a matter of perception.  Sometimes it's a difference of philosophy, which can't always be overcome.  If a consultant doesn't address your concerns, you always have the option of firing them.  Make sure there's a clause in any contract you sign that offers an out for differences of philosophy or an out for any reason with a 30-day written notice.  You'll have to pay some money, but not the entire contract, plus, if they've done any work at all, at least you'll be ahead of where you started.

4.  Don't Lower Your Standards - If a PR consultant ever offers you advice that goes against your standards or ethics, fire them immediately.  You don't want to work with a consultant that advises that you lie to customers or the media.  You can find out about a consultant's ethics by creating a scenario in which lying to the media would be the easy way out.  

5.  Listen - When creating a plan or a campaign or a strategy, listen to what the consultant has to say about the best options.  Hopefully, they will have listened to you and will work within your budget and stick to your code of ethics.  Make sure to ask questions if you don't understand why a consultant advises a course of action, but then listen to the answer.  Sometimes they will see an opportunity that you missed, or were unaware of.  They also have inside knowledge of newsrooms that give them an insight that you don't have.  You may think that a single, huge event that garners a ton of media coverage is the way to go.  The consultant might advise a longer-term strategy that takes up less of your time, but is twice as effective.  You might not agree at first, but listen to the reasons why that strategy is better than yours.  It might just change your mind.  Again, in the end, it's your decision, but when you DO make your decision, be sure to take their experience and knowledge into consideration.
You have much more on the line than a consultant does.  They don't have the kind of ties to your organization that you do, so it's natural that they aren't as invested in success as you are.  But here's what they ARE invested in; their own business and their reputation.  Their reputation within the business community matters.  More importantly, their reputation within the media community is of vital importance.  They don't want to ruin either, so they'll be looking for clients that will allow them to enhance that reputation, just as you're looking for a consultant that will help you in the long run.

If nothing else, whether you're handling your PR by yourself or with a consultant, if you do manage to get an early morning interview with your local TV station.  Don't party the night before, get your beauty sleep and make sure you don't cancel the interview because it's "too early" in the morning.  The last thing you want to do is become the butt of a joke making the rounds between the local media outlets.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lights, Camera, Action!

In our ongoing effort to relate all the important aspects of public relations and social media to small businesses and non-profits, we here at Real Public Relations want to pass on some information designed to make you a movie star!  Well, maybe not a movie star, but certainly a TV darling, and if not a TV darling then most definitely an internet sensation.

Learning how to craft your press release and build your social media network is vitally important to the success of your growing organization, no doubt about it.  But what you do after you nail down that all-important interview is equally important.

I've written in this space before about producers and reporters constantly diving back into the well of interviewees they feel comfortable with.  Once they find a person who is easy to interview, speaks in sound bites and looks and sounds good on tape, they will go back to that individual time and time again.

But what constitutes "looking and sounding good?"  It's a combination of things, and, depending on the medium, requires different skills.  First and foremost you have to come across as both likeable, knowledgable and trustworthy.  That's a difficult combination to pull off, just ask any politician.

Or you could simply take a look at this article that appeared on the InventorSpot website discussing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his upcoming television interview.  Click here for the entire article: 

Or, you could just look at this video to see how easy it is to screw up a TV interview:

I've been doing media training for over a decade now and I've seen some clients completely destroy all the good effort they put into their PR campaign simply by doing poorly in an interview.  It's like I used to tell my students at the University of Colorado at Denver; when it comes to being on television or radio, "anyone can do it, not everyone can do it well."  Clearly, Mr "Z" has an issue with his TV image.  There's not much you can do about sweating on camera.  Some tips include not doing anything phsyical leading up to the interview, certain kinds of make-up will also help.  Wearing cool, breathable clothing will also help.  However, if you can't overcome your penchant for sweating profusely, then you might consider avoiding TV interviews when possible.  It simply makes you look shifty.

In other words, yes, you can go on television and be interviewed.  You can probably get through it without any major gaffes or slips of the tongue, or a river of sweat.  But you might not get the bump in business you hoped for because, while you did it adequately, you didn't do it well.  There's a different between just being interviewed, and being a great interview.  And that difference could spell disaster or lead to success.

So, for your benefit, here is a list of tips for being interviewed, whether it's a TV interview, a radio interview or a print interview, if you follow these tips, you'll have more impact every time you speak to a journalist and you'll start to see your business grow.

Television Etiquette:

Television interviews are perhaps the hardest of all interviews for the simple reason that there's a camera involved.  Most of us don't spend our lives in front of cameras.  It's alien to us and, for many, the addition of the camera makes them uncomfortable.  One of the ways to get past this fear is simply to record yourself over and over and over again, until you begin to feel at ease in front of the lights and the camera.

When I media train a client, I always put them in front of a camera early so they can see exactly how they look.  Most are shocked by how they appear on camera, much like many are surprised at how they sound on tape.  When you go on camera for a TV interview, you can't dress or act like you do during everyday interactions.  You want to present an image to potential customers, one that is polished and professional and likeable.  You may think you present that image in public already, and most likely you do.  But on TV everything is exaggerated, so you have to adjust.

Appearance - There are some very simple rules when appearing on TV for an interview:
1.  wear the right clothes: This means no black, white or patterened shirts, blouses, suits or skirts.
2.  Your clothes should be pressed, clean and professional.  Make sure you match.  If you question what you're wearing, ask someone.
3.  Women, wear makeup.  You don't have to go all Tammy Fay Baker, but wear something because the studio lights will wash out your face and you'll look like a ghost.  Make sure you have some color in your cheeks.
4.  Men, shave. If you have a beard, make sure it's trimmed.  Trim your nose hairs, ear hairs and eyebrows.  If you have a wild hair sticking out somewhere on your face, no one will hear what you're saying, they'll only be focused on that hair.
5.  Keep your hair out of your face.  I know it sounds strange, but people get distracted by things like this.
In Denver, there's a local anchor for the number-one 10pm newscast in town.  She is an excellent journalist and a well-liked anchor.  She's been on the air for over ten years and has won many awards for her work.  But when I ask someone of their initial thoughts on this particular anchor, the one thing that comes up constantly is her hair.  When she first started, her hair was, well, awful.  it was big and distracting and out of style.  For years she has had a pretty fashionable hairstyle, and yet viewers just can't seem to get past her hair.  You don't want to become the person that's known as "The guy with the strange tie" or the woman with that awful dress" or "the dude with the funky goatee".  People won't remember what you said or what your message was if all they remember is how you looked.

Demeanor - I can't stress enough how important this is to the success of a TV interview:
1.  Sit up straight.  Don't slouch, don't turn to the side, don't fidget.  Put your feet squarely on the floor in front of you, sit on the edge of the chair and push your head back, chest out.  It may feel strange, but it looks good.
2.  Don't talk with your hands.  Again, this is distracting.  You can gesture occasionally, but don't let your hands fly around while discussing something your passionate about.  This can be hard, especially if you're used to a lot of hand movement when you speak.  But it won't take long for viewers to stop listening to your words and start focusing on your flying fingers.
3.  Don't talk with your head.  A lot of folks like to emphasize their points with head gestures.  This makes you look like a ragdoll.  If you absolutely have to move while your speaking, bend at the waist, just slightly and try to keep it to a minimum.
4.  Don't fidget.  Moving around makes you look nervous.  Looking nervous makes you look untrustworthy.  You want people to believe you, to want to listen to you.  If you fidget, you seem unsure and no one wants to get advice or tips or insight from someone who isn't confident in what they're saying.
5.  Don't have shifty eyes.  This one is a toughie for a lot of people.  When you sit down for an interview, the producer or anchor or reporter will tell you where to look.  Open your eyes, and look directly where they tell you.  Don't look at the camera (unless they specifically tell you to do so), don't look around at other things, just look where they tell you to look.  Again, looking around makes you look uncomfortable, unsure and untrustworthy.  If you're speaking to a reporter or anchor in person, make eye contact and don't break it.  Oh, and don't forget to blink, otherwise you're just staring, and that's not good either.
6. Smile.  I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but you'd be amazed at how many clients I've had to tell to smile over the years.  Smiling makes you seem nice, it makes you seem approachable, it makes you likeable.  Try practicing your smile in front of a mirror.  Find the one that looks and feels natural and rehearse it.  
7. Breathe.  Again, it seems like a no-brainer, but I've seen interviewees actually pass out during interviews because they forgot to breathe.  I couldn't tell you what the interview was about, but I certianly can remember the individual, because he simply fell off the chair in the middle of an interview.  Don't be that guy.
Message - Now you get to focus on what you're saying:
1.  It's how you say it.  Don't be angry, don't be wimpy.  Speak in a confident voice, be passionate, but don't spew words out like you're a machine gun.  Be measured and enunciate.  Your message won't have any impact at all if no one can understand what you're saying, or won't listen because you're angry.  
2.  Speak in short sentences.  Otherwise known as sound bites.  As you're preparing for your interview, try breaking your messages down into a series of 10 to 12 second statements.  The shorter and simpler the statement, the more understandable and impactful your message will be.
3.  Answer the questions directly, don't answer a question with a question, this makes you look defensive, and don't expand on a question that steers away from what was asked.  These things make you look evasive and untrustworthy.  
4.  Be flexible.  You might have an idea of the questions you will be asked beforehand, more often than not, you won't.  Just be prepared with your messages and go with the flow.  The worst thing you can do is to stick only to your messages.  You'll look like a robot with no personality and no ability to adjust on the fly.  This won't instill confidence in you from the viewer standpoint.
When I was working at KOA radio, I often covered Denver's Mayor, Wellington Webb.  A good guy, but a true nightmare for reporters because he had a tendency to ramble.  Often, we'd have to dig through his interviews or press conferences for a nugget of a soundbite.  He made our job harder and we never looked forward to his interviews.  We much preferred talking to his press secretary, Andrew Hudson, who was a great interview.  You want to the one reporters want to talk to, not the one reporters dread talking to.

I understand that this is a lot to take in at once, and believe me, I know it's not easy.  Keeping your appearance, your posture, your smile, your eyes all in check while simultaneously trying to speak in short, simple sentences, it's almost too much to think about.  Again, you can practice in front of your own camera and then review it to analyze your TV image.  You'll only need to see yourself slouching or having shifty eyes or rambling on and on in response to a question once before you realize what adjustments you need to make to look good on camera.

You're On The Air:

Radio interviews are a different kind of beast since you're not as concerned about how you look, but how you sound.  When doing a radio interview the length of your answers are even more important.  You will rarely get more than a couple of minutes for a radio interview, so you want to get through as many questions as possible.  If you take up 45 seconds to answer one question, you're going to be limited to only a few questions.  If you limit your answers to 10-15 seconds, you can answer many more questions.

Looking professional, sitting up straight, sitting on the edge of the chair and smiling will also help you during in-studio interviews.  There is an energy you can hear in people's voices.  If you sound tired, or uninterested, then you will be unintersting to listen to.  You want to have energy, be excited, but, again, don't speak to loudly or too fast.

One aspect of radio interviews that is perhaps the second most difficult kind of interview is "the phoner".  This is usually a live interview conducted over the phone, however they can also be pre-taped.  These are difficult because you're not talking to anyone in person, you're just talking into a phone.

This means you have to listen very closely so you understand exactly what the question is and when you answer, speak slowly, clearly and enunciate.  One tip I can give you about phone interviews is this:
Never do a phone interview sitting down.  Your energy will be low and it will reflect in your voice.  Stand up, walk around and do it in a secluded area.  You don't want to be distracted by outside sounds or people.  Other than that, simply stay focused on keeping your answers short and sweet.

Headline Grabber:

Newspaper interviews are, in my opinion the most enjoyable and also the easiest.  You have a chance to talk to a reporter in a one-on-one situation, you can allow yourself to speak in more detail when answering a question and you don't have the camera, lights or microphone to distract you.  I always tell clients to approach a newspaper interview as if they're talking to a friend.  Keep your messages in mind, try to speak in short sentences and make eye contact.

Newspaper phone interviews are very much like radio phone interviews, if you can do a radio phoner, you can do a newspaper phoner, no problem.

One thing to remember when dealing with a newspaper interview is that sometimes accuracy gets lost in translation.  What you said, isn't always what the reporter might have heard or written down.  For this reason, I tell clients to take a small recorder with them when they do a newspaper interview.  Record the interview yourself.  Most reporters today record the interviews on their own, which is great, but just to be sure, you should also record it just in case you end up being misquoted.

A Few Final Tips:

This is going to sound strange, but one of the most important aspects to having a successfull interview is being relaxed.  Yes, it might be hard to be relaxed with all of these rules bouncing around in your head, but it's vital to being a great interview, whether it's on TV, radio or newspaper.

One of the ways to get relaxed during an interview is to simply chat with the reporter before the interview actually takes place.  If it's a live interview, in-studio, you'll have a second to chat with the anchor, but not much time at all.  In these instances, just remember to breathe and go over your messages.  The anchor may ask you a question or two while in the break, if this is the case, answer them, compliment them on their work, don't be afraid of chit chat.

During an interview, you want to be open, but you don't want to be an open book.  In other words, you want to answer every question honestly and openly, but you don't want to volunteer information.  This is where rambling can get you in trouble.  You might say something that leads the interview in a completely different direction than where you want it to go.  Just answer the questions, don't start talking about things not related to the question at hand.

We'll discuss the art of controlling the interview in upcoming posts.  In the meantime, find yourself a mirror, a camera, grab a friend and start practicing your close-up.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bring Out The Chimp!

It doesn't have to be either-or, use both to make your efforts more successful!

An interesting article flashed across my computer screen yesterday.  It comes from The Financial Post website and deals with shoppers preferences for how they get information.  It sounds a little strange to break down a demographic group into "shoppers" and "non-shoppers" but as you probably know, there are those who like to browse, and then there are those that go shopping with a vengance generally reserved for the ancient "Beserker" warriors of Viking lore.

Here is a clip from the article:  Click here to read the entire post.
When surveyed, 35% said they were shopping due to a recently received promotion from a retailer. Of those who did not receive a promotion, 68% said they would have been more likely to visit a store if they had been given one.
“The survey findings reinforce how important promotions are in influencing consumer purchasing decisions,” said Mark Fodor, Chief Executive Officer at CrossView. “It also shows that delivery methods and consumer preferences are across the board, which means that retailers need to be able to communicate brand, product and promotional messaging consistently across channels.”
The survey was conducted by "Crossview" a company that specializes in "cross-channel commerce solutions."  Another article, this one from the Information Week website notes the importance of email marketing when it comes to enhancing your social media efforts.

Here is a clip from the article:  Click here to read the entire post.
Almost 40% of consumers consult Facebook and Twitter to complement the information, deals, and news they receive from companies via e-mail marketing, according to a new study by ExactTarget. "Consumers don't silo their engagement with brands to a single channel, instead they tend to layer marketing channels on top of one another to meet their different objectives," said Morgan Stewart, principal, ExactTarget's research and education group, in a statement. "The things that motivate consumers to go online initially dictate where and how they choose to engage with brands -- whether that be e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter."
Back To The Future:

What does this tell us as small business owners and non-profits?  First and foremost, it tells us that sometimes the older, more traditional methods of reaching potential customers are still very effective.  E-mail marketing is basically the electronic version of the direct-mail campaigns run by so many businesses "back in the day".

Most businesses have spent a lot of time building large databases of customers, potential customers, local residents and other businesses.  The question is, are they using their databases in a way that will increase traffic?  Most likely, they aren't.  This is because most businesses are still using these email databases as a simple method to send out information, notices and alerts.  This is fine, since it's a simple, cost-effective way to reach your audience.  But this strategy fails when it's not used in concert with your social media efforts.

In regards to "shoppers," some of the email phenomenon can be traced directly to organizations such as Groupon, Overstock.com and LivingSocial.  These sites send out daily or weekly emails to those in their database alerting them to the "deal of the day" or to the most recent sale on an event, service or product.

These sites can be a huge boost for any business that is featured in their daily email.  Their emails reach hundreds of thousands of individuals in cities across the world.  And while it doesn't cost anything up front to get a listing, there is always a chance you won't be accepted, and if you are, you will have to offer a fantastic deal price, a portion of which will have to go directly to the listing site.

For instance, if you offer kayak lessons at $50 an hour, you can get a listing on Groupon for $25 per hour.  This is a great deal and would likely bring in a ton of customers.  But be prepared to pay out about half of your $25 to Groupon.  So if you received a hundred purchasers through the Groupon site, that's $2,500.  Expect to get a check from Groupon for only about $1,250 or $1,500.  Still, it's a great deal for small businesses looking to be exposed to thousands of new customers who may not be aware of them otherwise.

But there are other options for your email marketing srategies, most of which don't cost a lot of money, but will require you to put some time in to make sure it's successful.

All The News That's Fit To Print!

If you've managed to get your hands on a large email database, or if you've built one up over the years, why not use that database to send out a newsletter?  Newsletters are a fantastic way to ingratiate yourself with your customers and reach out to new, potential customers in a way that is much more impactful than a simple email ever could.

If done well, a newsletter doesn't just inform recipients of your latest deal.  Sure, that's an important element, but the most effective newsletters give a behind the scenes look at your operation, praises specific customers and employees and solicits feedback.  You can offer your customers an opportunity to become more involved in your business, provide specials for returning customers and really listen to what your customers like and dislike about what you're doing.

It's important to remember, though that too much can be overwhelming to anyone receiveing your newsletter.  Timing and content are very important.  Instead of sending out a weekly newsletter that might take up a lot of your time, why not start with a bi-monthly or monthly newsletter.  You can include different content in each newsletter if you do it twice a month.  Your first offering might provide consumers with your monthly specials, a behind the scenes look, and a fun contest.  The second newsletter of the month might provide a free giveaway to a special customer or winner of the contest (along with maybe a customer profile) and a look at something new happening with your business.

Pictures are encouraged and short, simple copy is best.  Keep it to a page.  You can do this by putting the bulk of the contect in your blog or on your website, placing an opening paragraph in the newsletter and then providing a link which will take them to your website to read the entire article or for more information on the latest special.  Add a sidebar to run your contest, or provide fun, interesting facts and MAKE SURE you provide links to your Facebook, Twitter, blog and other social media platforms you're using.

Once you have the newsletter design set and the content ready to go, now you have to find a delivery system.  Certainly you can simply plug your newsletter into the body of your regular email and go from there.  But there are many email marketing programs out there you can use that will enhance your newsletter both in delivery and appearance.

For many, this means using Constant Contact.  But there are others, such as MailChimp, that do pretty much the same thing, without charging as much.  Most of these sites allow free useage up to a certain number of emails.  After that limit is reached, they start to charge.  Take some time to research the various email programs and figure out which one works best for your strategy and budget.

Alert, Alert!

One of the other effective ways to use your email database is to send out alerts or notices.  A 
local theater in Denver uses this method very effectively, regularly sending out notices for special shows, ticket deals and upcoming classes to their constituents.  But these aren't simply text emails.  They are, essentially, fully designed flyers, inserted into an email format.  They are eye-catching, informative and simple.  They provide a link to the website and are sent out on a regular basis.

This matters.  If you decide you want to use email as part of your marketing strategy, you have to make a commitment to using it more than just once or twice.  You have to send out your emails at least twice a month.  I tell clients that sending out emails once a week works best since it doesn't overwhelm the recipients and still keeps your business in front of them.

While newsletters and alerts are great to build customer loyalty, you can also use them to attract new customers.  If you offer a service or product that has mass appeal, make sure to ask your customers to forward the newsletter or alert to their friends.  You can also include video or fun photos into your emails that your customers will send to their own email list.

One of the best examples of this is Denver's Andrew Hudson's List.  What started out as a simple job email, has now grown into a full time business for Andrew, and a successful one at that.  The jobs were all quality, they were jobs that often couldn't be found in the newspaper or on other job boards and it actually placed job seekers with employers.  I heard about it from a friend who used to receive the weekly emails.  I then told others about it, who told their friends about it.  It grew quickly and suddenly became a local phenomenon.  It now comes out every Monday, offers hundreds of jobs, receives thousands upon thousands of hits weekly and has expanded into a fully developed newsletter and website.

Andrew's list was a draw because of what it was offering.  But you can do something similar with your product or service or with a fun video, podcast or photo.  Think LOLCats.  What started out as a fun site for amusing cat photos has turned into a worldwide hit and made its creator a millionaire.  Nothing complicated, just a site with photos that millions of people like to see and will forward to their friends regularly.


You can enhance your email marketing efforts by using your social media platforms to help spread the word about your alerts, as well as your newsletter.  If folks believe they will have an opportunity to catch a great deal or gain some insight they will sign up for your emails, particularly if it's free.

Post your newsletter links to your Facebook, Twitter your deals, use Foursquare to let folks know about your specials.  You can provide links to your website, but more importantly, you can get folks to sign up for your newsletter and alerts simply by asking them to.  If they see the deal you post on your Facebook, and let them know that there are other special deals available to those who sign up for your emails, they will join your network and gladly give you their email.

Remember, just like PR and social media, your email marketing efforts don't operate in a vacuum.  You get the best bang for your efforts if you use all of your tools in cooperation with each other.  Sending out your email alerts and your newsletter is effective, but it's even more effective if you follow up those efforts with postings on your social media sites.  It's a matter of numbers and the more people who are aware of your emails and newsletter, the more people who will sign up to receive them.  

Social media is a powerful tool, but it becomes almost unstoppable when paired with other effective strategies such as email marketing and impactful public relations.  So, get out there, and bring out the chimp...the mail chimp, that is.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Different Kind of Pitch

We've spent some time here discussing newspaper pitches and television pitches and radio pitches as part of your PR efforts.  Small businesses and non-profits depend on these pitches and stories to help raise their profile and attract customers.  In short, these pitches are often the lifeblood for PR.  But there's another type of media that often gets overlooked, particularly by small businesses and non-profits; magazines.
We've discussed magazines before, but mostly in terms of timing, the various types of magazines and how they can help boost the bottom line of a growing business or non-profit.  But when it comes to pitching a magazine, PR takes on an entirely different feel.

When you're pitching more traditional media, you have your press kit, your release and a short pitch intro.  You can still use these basic elements when pitching a magazine, particularly a local magazine.  But your pitch letter is different, and your timing is significantly different.  Let's take a look at how.

Know Your Target:

Just like pitching other media outlets, the more you know about who you are pitching, the better.  The first thing you need to do is figure out which magazines you want to pitch in the first place.  It can either be a local, general or trade magazine.  Your needs, your goals and your organization will help you make this determination.

For instance, if you specialize in business to business, a trade magazine might work better for you.  If you're a smaller business that really just wants to focus on your immediate area, then target your local magazines.  If you're trying to simply raise your profile and reach as many potential customers as possible, then shoot for a more general magazine.

Also keep in mind what KIND of operation you run.  You might run a small restaurant in your neighborhood.  Or maybe it's a nightclub or carpet cleaning service or even a dog walking service.  Unless you have something so unique or nationally relevant, getting into one of the big national magazines is going to be exceedingly difficult.  You can certainly pitch them, but don't be surprised if you never hear from them.  Your best bet might be to focus on trade magazines (industry-specific mags) or your local magazines.

Spend some time at your local library or bookstore thumbing through the various magazines on the shelf.  Figure out which ones would benefit your company best and then take some time to actually read the articles. 

What To Look For:

You're not just reading the magazines to see what kind of writing style they use.  Look to see what kind of businesses they write about.  Check if they've written an article about a company that resembles yours.  Figure out who the primary writers are, look to see who the editors and publishers are.

You'll also want to see what kind of features, departments and special sections they have.  While you might not be able to pitch a feature article, you might be able to get mentioned in a special section or sidebar element.  This is important because you'll have to know exactly what you want from them when you make your pitch.

An example of this would be Maxim Magazine.  When I wrote my article for Maxim, I knew I had a story worthy of feature status.  However I also knew that if I provided some quality sidebar elements to run with the story, Maxim would take notice.  They use sidebar and special section elements heavily and like it when writers provide information that might not be included in the story itself, but is interesting and gives insights, tips or adds humor. 

My particular story dealt with the unlikely survival of plane crash survivors in the Montana Wilderness.  In my pitch, I offered a sidebar element involving plane crash and wilderness survival tips.  They loved the idea and it was included near the end of the article.

You can even pitch sidebar and special section elements without pitching a feature article.  If you have a nightclub, you can pitch a tips article focusing on the best and worst pick up lines.  As a deli, you can provide recipes, as a dogwalker, you can offer tips on building that particular business.  These aren't necessarily feature articles, but work great as little sidebars and special section elements that magazines love.

Timing it Right:

Once you've figured out which magazines you want to target and you've taken the time to familiarize yourself with those particular magazines, you have to go one step further and find out how far in advance you have to pitch your story.  If it's a sidebar or special section element, you can pretty much pitch those at any time.  They're not hard to put together and can be published at any time.  However, many magazines have what they call, "calendars" that determine what kind of stories they print.

In Denver we have 5280 Magazine.  A great magazine detailing life and activities in and around the Mile High City.  They have a very set calendar that they distribute at the beginning of the year.  This lets everyone know when they'll be publishing their "Doctor" issue, or their "Real Estate" issue or their "Getaways" issue.  Knowing this information beforehand let's you know when you need to pitch your story. 

In general, it's a good rule to pitch a magazine three to six months in advance of the issue you want to appear in.  This is due to lead time, printing logistics and content restrictions.  Magazines often try to operate a few months in advance of their next issue.  In other words, you see the July issue of Vogue, but the staff is most likely already working on the November issue.  This means most of the major decisions for the August, September and October issues have been made already. 

Knowing this information will greatly increase your chances of success when making your pitch.  If you want to be in the October issue of Motherhood, and you wait until September to make your pitch, you're likely going to be declined simply because they have other stories already slated for that issue.  If you know you want to be in the "Doctors" issue of 5280, and it comes out in January, then you should be making your pitch sometime in June or July.  This is counter-intuitive and goes against many of the rules we follow when pitching more daily media where a pitch made too early is usually ineffective.  But magazines simply work differently, thus pitch timing has to be different as well.

Decide On Your Voice:

The last major decision you have to make before you actually make your pitch is deciding on your approach.  Every magazine article I have written has been as a freelancer and has focused on an overall story, not a particular business.  When pitching a magazine keep in mind that the larger-reaching the story, better your chances of being accepted.  You own a Deli?  Then your story should be on the resurgence of traditioanl deli's in the U.S., NOT just your deli in general.  You own a dogwalking service, then pitch a story about off-leash dogparks, NOT just your service.  Certainly you can include your company in your story, but you'll also have to have statistics, include other companies to show the scope of the story and have quotes from other business owners.  Unless you're talking about a major business like Apple or Microsoft or Shell Oil, getting a magazine article written specifically about your business is a tough sell.

This is where freelancers come in to play.  While you can pitch the story yourself, most magazines shy away from having business owners write articles about themselves.  They don't mind if you're writing an article about your industry overall, but what they don't want is an article that ends up being a free commercial for your company.

Find a freelancer that you trust, and ask him or her to make your pitch.  The great thing about this is that it doesn't cost you anything.  You can put your pitch together yourself, you can create your pitch letter and find all the contact information for the magazines you want to target.  Then, when you're ready, hand it off to the freelancer and let them make the pitch.  If that makes you uncomfortable, then send the pitches yourself, but make sure you're pitching it as if you were a freelancer, NOT the business owner.

If the magazine accepts the story, then you can simply let the freelancer know, and let them do their job.  You don't have to pay the freelancer since the magazine will pay them for the article.  I am aware of some business owners creating a nom de plume for themselves to pitch magazines, and this can work, but be careful, because if you're caught you will have burned a bridge with that magazine that you'll never repair.

The exception to this rule is that when you pitch a trade magazine, you CAN pitch as a business owner as long as the story focuses on the industry overall.  A column or a guest writer spot will allow you to comment on your industry, using your company as an example.  Still, be careful that it doesn't end up being a commercial for your organization.  Magazines will simply kill stories that sound too much like free advertising.

The Pitch Letter:

Now you know what magazine you want to target, what kind of form you want your content to take (feature article, sidebar, guest writer, etc.) and you know when you need to time your pitch.  You also know how you will approach the magazine (as business owner, freelancer, etc.).  Now it's time to actually create your pitch letter.

When you write your pitch letter for your local papers, radio and tv stations and online media, your pitch letter should be very short and to the point.  The shorter the better.  This is because you have the added element of a press release to provide statistics, background and details that you don't need to cover in your pitch letter.

However when pitching a magazine, your pitch letter has to be longer and provide details that will entice the editors to consider your story for publication.  One thing that DOES remain constant, however, is that your first line or two needs to capture their attention immediately and draw them deeper into your pitch.

Keep in mind, shorter is always better, so while the magazine pitch letter is longer than your normal pitch letters, you should try to limit it to one page at most.  Two to three paragraphs is best.  Here the basic elements of a good magazine pitch letter:

1.  An eye-catching opening line
2.  The story idea
3.  Statistics (if applicable)
4.  Details (such as who will be interviewed, their qualifications, which businesses will be profiled as examples within the story)
6.  Relevance (WHY this story is relevant to the readers of that particular magazine)
7.  Content Request (Is this a feature article, a sidebar, a special section entry, is it for a specific issue?)
8.  Your credentials as a writer
9.  Your contact information

Difference Is The Spice Of Life:

Of course, not all magazines are the same.  This is where your research really pays off.  By understanding the style of the magazine and what they're needs are, you'll be able to tailor your pitch letter to meet their specific standards.

For instance, when I pitched Maxim, I made sure to offer photos and sidebar information, which took up a full paragraph of my pitch letter.  I focused on the overall story of survival and how it would appeal to their audience, and followed that up with a couple of fantastic quotes from the survivors that were intriguing and brought home the intensity of the story.  I didn't provide statistics or dive too deeply into the details.  I painted the picture in broad strokes, hitting only the details that really mattered (plane crash in Montana wilderness, two survivors, alone together for ten days, dragging themselves back to civilazation, the frantic search by rescue workers, the pair appearing alongside a highway on the very day of their funeral services).

However, when I pitched the story of animals being rescued in the Iraqi war zone to Cat Fancy, I backed up my pitch with statistics showing the magnitude of the problem.  I followed up the statistics with some quotes from soldiers telling a more personal side of the story.  I didn't go overboard on the details, choosing instead to focus on the stats and the personal risks some soldiers were taking to rescue these animals.

Start your pitch with an opening line that immediately grabs their attention, this is so very important.  For my Maxim article, my opening pitch sentence was:
"After a deadly plane crash deep in the Montana Rocky Mountains, John and Marie surprised everyone when they showed up late to their own funerals."
This sentence immediately causes the reader to ask questions and want to read further to find out what happened.  It also lets the reader know that there was a deadly plane crash in a remote area.  The reader assumes everyone died in the crash, but if John and Marie showed up to their own funeral, then they must have survived.  They know it's a story of survival and they have to read on to find out more.

For the Cat Fancy story, my opening sentence was:
"American soldiers are in the business of protection, but what happens when some soldiers defy their own government to protect the most helpless of creatures caught in a war-torn region of Iraq?"
There's an element of intrigue for this story because the opening sentence immediately sets up a conflict between soldiers and the U.S. government.  It also dramatically personalizes the story by focusing onthe protection of helpless animals in a war-ravaged area. 

When I pitched a story to Golf Digest about an extreme golf tournament in Aspen, Colorado, I approached the magazine with this opening sentence:

"Golf takes on a whole different dimension when played a mile above sea level, but it becomes truly bizarre when played at 12-thousand feet, on the side of a mountain generally reserved for skiers and with only seven clubs in your bag."
The opening statement speaks to the knowledge of all golfers, immediately establishing some credibility, but the rest of the sentence begs the reader to ask, "what is this all about?"  The reader is hooked and has to read on to find out what the story is all about.

Be Creative:

As you can see, your pitch letter to a magazine allows you to be more creative than in your normal pitches.  In each example above, I used questions, strong statements and an element of intrigue to catch the readers' attention.  I followed each of those opening sentences with a short explanation of the story and why it would appeal to the magazine's readers.

The use of quotes and statistics is encouraged, but don't go overboard.  A couple of good quotes will add a personal touch to the pitch, and statistics will back up any statements you make about the impact of the story.  But if you use too many quotes, you look like you're depending too much on the opinion of individuals.  If you use too many statistics, it gets confusing and you'll lose the editor.  They don't want confusing, they want interesting and factual.

Also, don't be afraid to use your own personal writing style in your pitch.  The editors will be able to tell a lot from how you put your pitch letter together.  Are you organized?  Do you use humor?  Do you focus only on facts?  Are you detail oriented?  Do you use correct grammar and punctuation?  You can have a great opening sentence, but if your grammar and punctuation or spelling is bad, you'll lose them and your story won't be accepted.  Take your time to read and re-read the pitch letter before you hit send.  Have a friend read the letter and give you feedback.  If they find it interesting, then send it off.  If they tell you that they lost interest at some point, rewrite your letter.


There is a great book published by Writer's Digest that outlines every magazine in the U.S. and gives contact information, timelines, what they're looking for, how much they pay and offers some insight to their specific calendars.  It costs about $70, but if you believe you're company will be pitching magazines a lot, it's well worth the investment. 

Magazines can be a huge boost to small businesses and non-profits for this reason:  They last.  If you get a newspaper article, or TV spot or radio interview, you will reach several thousand people all at once.  But once that paper is old, once the broadcast is over, the story is done.  You have very little chance to perpetuate the viewing or reading of that story.

However, magazines stick around.  How often have you been to a doctors office, or a real estate office, a barber shop or bank and picked up a magazine to read while you waited?  Once you get mentioned in a magazine, your story is there for a while.  People who might not even subscribe to the magazine itself might see your mention, simply by picking it up while they waited for a haircut.  It takes a little more time to put together your magazine pitch letter, but it's worth the extra effort.

Take the time and pick out some magazines you really would like to appear in.  If you already read specific magazines, take a chance to pitch them your story.  Keep in mind, it's not a commercial for you, but its a chance to tell a story that impacts your industry and get mentioned in an article that will be read by thousands upon thousands of readers and will be around for a long time. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Don't Let 'Em See You Sweat!

When you think PR strategy and brilliance, it's doubtful you think of Eminem.  You know him, right?  Also known as Marshall Mathers...Eminem...the rapper?  You're not alone.  Even if you know who he is, you probably know him better as the "white guy" who raps and has a less-than-friendly relationship with his mother.

Sure you might consider him a marketing genius for carving out a niche for himself, and fairly large profile while he was at it, in a predominantly African-American dominated industry.  But a recent article on the Huffington Post site, brought up an aspect of public relations that I have covered before, but is important enough to hit again.

First, take a look at this excerpt from the article, written by Tim Mihalsky on the site.  You can click here to read the entire article.
Like 741,000 other people, recently I bought Eminem's new album Recovery. I was listening to the whole album, which is basically Eminem dissing on himself, calling himself out and owning up to his mistakes and drug problems, even calling his last album "ehh" (which is true). Eminem's honesty leaves no room for the media to question him or TMZ the opportunity to have an exclusive on what drugs Eminem did. Because he lists them off himself.
Every day on the show, I have the journalistic job of reporting the entertainment schmuck of the day. My journalism studies have gotten me far and taught me how to read blogs and report borderline true information to the listeners. Having a deep understanding of what is going on with Jesse James/Sandra Bullock, Tiger Woods/Elin and Britney Spears/Jason Trawick has led me to the conclusion that their spokespersons are the problem. And that every PR practitioner needs to take some advice from Eminem. 
 First, I have to say something about the article.  I take a little offense to Mihalsky's characterization of PR flacks as dishonest and underhanded.  Yes, there are those individuals in the industry that employ this sort of strategy.  But for the most part, quality PR professionals prefer to deal with truth and honesty.  It's just good business.

And I've constantly preached honesty, truthfulness and straightforwardness in these entries.  The big problem with PR happens when lawyers get involved.  To avoid potential future lawsuits, lawyers often butcher the language PR pro's use and often end up obfuscating the truth.  Eminem has figured out that the best way to keep reporters and paparazzi from making his life a living hell, he needs to be totally up front about his past.  In this way, he manages to stay in front of any scandalous rumors and facts that the media may try to use against him at some point.

Don't Tell Me No Lies!

This, as I've said before is a sure way to get yourself into more trouble.  Reporters have a sort of sixth sense when it comes to news.  A little red flag goes up, alarms go off in their head when facts don't fit, when a story doesn't sound right.  It raises suspicions and the last thing you ever need is a reporter snooping around your business.

But the Eminem example goes beyond simply being truthful.  It has to deal with the handling of facts, information and being straightforward about who you are and what you've done in your past.  Most of us, if not all of us, have some skeletons in the closet that we would prefer to keep secret forever.  I'm not going to preach to you that full confessions are a pre-requisite for business success.  However, there ARE times when telling the painful truth up front can help you in the long run.

Take, for example, a restaurant owner.  If, at one point in his or her career this individual had problems with contaminated food, or if a previous restaurant had a horrible track record with the health department, this is information that could prove very damaging were it to come out in the papers or a TV news expose.

But what if this individual made all of this information public at the very beginning?  What if the facts were told, completely up front, and with the individual telling their side of the story without being poked and prodded by reporters?  Is it a risk?  Absolutely.  However, one of the things you have to remember when handling your own public relations is that it is of vital importance to stay in control of the flow of information and manage the story at all times.

If you're the individual above, and you attempt to hide your past, you now have given up control of the story.  If a reporter finds this information out, they now control the flow, the timing and the presentation of the information.  Now you look bad not only for having made previous mistakes, but you look even worse for trying to cover it up.  To the public, that's just as bad as lying.  And as I've said before, the public can forgive mistakes, they don't forgive lying.

With Risk, Comes Reward:

Again, it IS a risk to come forward with that information.  But by doing so on your own, you can set the timetable for the release of the information.  You can also control the presentation.  Instead of one reporter breaking the story and then having every other outlet clamor to dig up even more damning evidence on you in an effort to get new angles on the story, you can give the information to a single reporter that you trust.  By doing this, you release your information, and you, in effect, also kill the story.  If you give an exclusive interview to a single reporter, other outlets will actually try to downplay the story so they don't end up giving their rival more exposure.  Yes, a few reporters might dig around in your past to try and find something more, but if you've been up front about everything to begin with, they'll find nothing more than what you've already told them.

Plus, by giving your exclusive story to a single reporter, you also have an opportunity to tell your side of the events.  You can also take that time to talk about all of the other wonderful things about your organization, your abilities, your charitable contributions, your message, anything you want.  Be aware that you don't want to approach the reporter with the pitch of, "Hey, I screwed up in my past, wanna hear about it?"

But you DO approach them with the pitch of, "An exclusive, tell-all interview with the owner of the city's hottest new bistro."  During this interview, you can relate your past to the reporter, but not at the very top.  This way the headline reads, "New Hip Bistro Opens," not, "Cursed Restauranteur Tries Again."  If at some point, some reporter then tries to do an expose dredging up your past to use against you, you can point to that article and let everyone know that you weren't trying to hide the information, that the information is old news.

There are certainly risks, as mentioned before, to this strategy.  However, being upfront about your organization really is the best policy.  The important thing to remember is that it helps you stay in control of your own story.  Because the minute you lose control, then your organization really will be in a crisis.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The News Cycle

I had an interesting experience over the holiday weekend, one that didn't involve fireworks or BBQ's or the summer's searing heat.  It had to do with basketball.  Forget for a moment that as an overweight 40 year old, my biggest athletic achievement of late involved scrambling around the bases in a rousing game of kickball.  I'm a big basketball fan.  From the days of Alex English and Dan Issel running the hardcourt for my beloved Denver Nuggets, I've followed the game closely with amazement and awe.

So you can imagine my interest in the latest "LeBron Sweepstakes" as the world's best basketball player tries to decide where to play ball for the next three to five years.  In these dog days of summer, it has become one of the biggest stories in the industry, and I'm not just talking about the sports circles.  Where LeBron ends up playing has touched all corners of the country and nearly all facets of the news.

It has become THE story in cities like Miami, New York, Cleveland (of course) as well as Dallas, New Jersey, Sacramento and Los Angeles.  It's ripple effects have impacted Utah, New Orleans, Houston, Toronto, Oklahoma city and even right here in Denver.

Considering the money involved and the passions of fans all around the U.S., news of LeBron's travels has moved from the sports page onto the front pages.  All of which is understandable as fans of teams everywhere wonder who will LeBron sign with and what will the fallout be from his decision.  But here's what intrigued me; as news cycles go, this one was a real doozy.

Generally, news cycles move faster than the speed of light these days.  With the advent of the internet, Twitter, social media, radio, TV and the average citizen shooting pics and capturing video on their cellphones, news comes and goes so quickly, it's hard to stay on top of the flood of information available to you on a minute by minute basis.

That's why the LeBron story is SO fascinating to me.  It simply won't go away.

Traditional News Cycles:

Back in the day, when I was first starting out as a journalist, news cycles came and went with a sort of rhythm.  A big news story would hit, it would stick around for two or three days and then simply fall back into the realm of, "updates" status.  In other words, it would become just another story we would write a short paragraph about whenever something happened that required updating.  These stories could be big local court cases, national scandals, a shocking death or breaking news of some sort, like a massive pile up.

In the newsroom, we would attempt to guage the interest level of the readers, listeners or viewers and determine if yesterday's news was still worthy of reporting on.  As interest waned, the news cycle came to a close and we moved forward with our focus on other stories, always waiting for the next news cycle to come around. 

At the time, it seemed as if a new cycle was hitting us every other day.  We had the Jon Benet Ramsey murder, the A-10 crash near Vail, The Oklahoma City Bombing Trial, an Avalanche Stanley Cup celebration, followed by two Bronco Superbowl victory parties, then Elway's retirement, followed by a massive forest fire, the capture of the Texas Seven in Colorado Springs and, eventually, the Columbine tragedy. 

We were busy.  It just kept coming.  And each those stories carried its own little news cycle.  In the case of the A-10 crash, the Elway retirement and the championship celebrations, the cycles lasted for just over a week.  Stories like the Hayman Fire, the Bombing trial and the Ramsey murder investigations, where so many questions remained and the investigations (or trial) dragged on, the cycles took on a life of their own, lasting for months.

Some, like the Texas seven capture lasted for only a few days, while the Columbine story had a cycle that lasted nearly a year.  For months on end, the Columbine tragedy remained one of our top stories as friends and family grieved, officials investigated, the community came to grips with the situation and tried to pick up the pieces. It was the news cycle that would never end. 

Over ten years later, the nature of the news cycle has changed dramatically.  Even the biggest stories come and go in rapid fire succession as the attention spans of readers, viewers and listeners grows shorter and shorter.  Let me rephrase that, it's not that the attention span has grown so much shorter, it's just that the consumer simply has so much more informatio available to them on a daily basis.

There are so many distractions, so much competition, it's simply really, REALLY hard to keep anyone's attention for very long.  Thus, a story that might have had a lifespan of a week ten years ago, might only get 48 hours in the modern news cycle.  Some stories that would have stuck around for two days, now might only get a few hours, a day at the most.  People see a story in the paper, read about it on a Facebook post, click a link to an article on their Twitter and then they move on. 

The story of a general being dismissed by a U.S. President after said general blasted the administration came and went in the blink of an eye.  Ten years ago it would have garnered much more time.  The BP oil spill is the only recent news story that has had any kind of a significant news cycle, and even that story started to fade away within a week of its reporting.  Certainly it remains in the news, but it has already been moved to the "update" pile, long before it would have been just a decade ago.

The LeBron Exception:

All of this is why I find the LeBron story and subsequent news cycle so interesting.  It just won't stop.  Every day, on sports talk shows, local newscasts, national broadcasts, in radio, TV and splashed across newspapers from coast to coast, the story of LeBron takes center stage. 

I know when a sports story has crossed over into "regular" news by using my mom-test.  If my mother asks me something about it, then I know the story has grown outside of its traditional sports boundaries.  It's a story that began several weeks ago as speculation about where he might go started to appear in newspapers and on talk radio and on sports broadcasts.  Actually, it really started a year ago, as "The King" neared the end of his contract with Cleveland.  Momentum started to build and starting at the beginning of last week, the official "LeBron watch" began, days before he was even eligible to begin talking to other teams.

It dominated the sports radio airwaves and even started to leak into regular news coverage with stories of massive rallies and citizens taking it upon themselves to try and woo the gifted one to their city and their team.

The story shifted into overdrive on Thursday when LeBron actually started talking to suitors and hasn't let up since.  In between then and now, there has been a major holiday, more BP news, more fallout from Arizona's immigration law, a major Bison meat recall due to e-coli and many other stories that, in these relatively slow news days might have made for headline fodder. 

And yet, one of the first things I saw when I switched on my local news on Tuesday morning, was coverage of the LeBron race and how it has already impacted the local Denver team.  This wasn't a story buried deep into the later news blocks, it was featured front and center near the top of the A block, a position of prominence.

Here's the crazy thought.  Even after LeBron signs with whatever team he decides on, the cycle still won't be over.  There will be coverage on the fallout, on what it means to the league and the rest of the teams, how it will impact the team that does sign him and the reaction of fans all over the country.  The story will have legs for a few more days after the signing and then will disappear for a couple of months until the start of training camp when it will start all over again and last until sometime into the first week of real games. 

In some ways, this mirrors the Tebow watch that has taken place in Denver since he was drafted by the Broncos.  There was a big uproar and several weeks of intense coverage, which has since died down.  But it will come back with a vengance, in a brand new cycle once training camp begins in August. 

And yet, no matter how much coverage there will be on Tebow in 2010, it won't even begin to hold a candle to the kind of coverage Elway received when he hit town in 1982.  Which is ironic because even though today, there will be thousands of fans following Tebow with their cellphones, taking photos and shooting video and blogging and reporting on every move he makes, on top of the crush of traditional media that will be there to cover his first days in camp, it still won't match the pressure felt by Elway nearly three decades ago. 

This is because even though there will be more actual coverage of Tebow's movements, the cycle will last only half as long, if that.  Pepole's attention will move on to other stories much faster today than they did way back then.  Tebow will be under a giant microscope, to be sure, but since the cycle will be shorter, the pressure won't be nearly as great. 

What This Means For You:

In terms of small businesses and non-profits, understanding the news cycle can help you as you reach out to newsrooms and other media outlets.  The LeBron story is one of those exceptions that actually proves the rule.  Knowing that most cycles come and go very, very quickly should help you understand how fast you have to act when a story opportunity arises.  You can't wait a day, or two days or even a few hours.  You have to have your press releases ready and your plan in place at all times so you are ready to act when lightning strikes.

This means monitoring your daily news as closely as possible, following them on Twitter and keeping up with comments and stories on Facebook and other social media platforms.  In short, you have to be vigilant and ready to strike when the iron is hot, because the cycle will pass you by in the blink of an eye. 

One of the hardest thing to teach a client is learning how to feel out a news cycle.  Often, a client will have a story that they think will catch the attention of a newsroom, regardless of what else is going on in the world around them.  But that's rarely the case.  Stories have to be timed to hit a reporters' desk at just the right time.  If they are already focused on a current news cycle, your story will be ignored.  If it falls on their desk when it might work better for future news cycle, it will also likely be forgotten. 

You have to time your pitches to fit into news cycles that are current and strong, OR pitch them with the intent of getting in on the ground floor of an upcoming news cycle.  Holidays, major events, annual activities carry their own news cycles, and although these tend to be VERY short cycles, knowing that they are upcoming allows you to get the jump on your competition and puts you first in line when newsrooms start looking for different angles on stories they cover every year.

Don't randomly tie your stories to holiday or regular events.  Make sure that your story is tailored specifically to fit into that particular holiday or event cycle.  And remember, these cycles won't last for long.  Even as the LeBron cycle seemingly stretches on forever, the one thing you have to keep in mind is that the majority of news cycles are now very short.  The sooner you can jump on opportunties and catch a cycle as it is just beginning or even right before it begins, the better your chances of having your story end up on the evening news or in the morning papers.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Radio Gaga

As some of my compatriots already know, I spent some time in radio.  I know that sounds a little like an ex-con who reluctantly admits he or she spent some "time" in the "big house" (prison, for those of you not up on your film noir vernacular).  Truthfully, for some, radio might have seemed like a prison.  Long hours, little pay no glory.  But I enjoyed my time in radio.  I have always said that if radio had paid more at the time, I would probably still be pushing buttons and speaking into microphones.

But it didn't, and I moved into television, for better or worse.  For most small business owners and non-profits, radio remains an enigma, despite being one of the longest running and most consistent media outlet formats available.  This is most likely because the inner workings of radio are still a mystery to the masses, a kind of Wonka-esque dream factory where magic happens behind gilded doors by disembodied voices.  We never actually SEE the radio process, we just hear it.  Newspapers have printed pages we can pick up and read, and you can actually see the anchors and reporters going about their work in the neighborhoods, on the streets and on the set. 

But radio happens behind closed doors while still being so easily accessible.  And maybe that's part of the appeal.  It provides entertainment, offers debate, gives us the news of the day, all with a simple turn of a knob.

It can also be a huge boon to small businesses and non-profits looking to get a little notariety.  With a little knowledege, some basic legwork and a bit of perseverance, you can build radio relationships and take advantage of the myriad of listeners who tune in every day to hear their favorite songs or listen to their favorite personality talk about the day's issues.

Options Abound:

Like the rest of the media world, radio has been deeply impacted by the digital revolution.  Unlike newspapers and television, though, the digital impact has actually hurt small business and non-profit PR opportunities, if even only a little.  More and more, people are listening to XM radio and other digital offerings.  There are fewer commercials, less talk, more focus on a particular musical era or talk topic (sports, politics, etc.). 

However, with the explosion of social media, other opportunities have opened up.  Let's take a quick look at the various kinds of radio programs and opportunties that are available to small businesses and non-profits:

Traditional Music Radio - You're already familiar with this type of programming.  In just about every city, these stations often have some kind of morning and afternoon "drive-time" show featuring two or more personalities and sometimes conducting interviews with locals.

Talk Radio Programming - You might know "Rush" or "King" or any of the other big names of talk radio already.  But every large city has their own local talk personalities you can attempt to build relationships with.  These programs often focus on news of the day topics, adding their own personal bias or political slant to the conversation. 

News Programming - These types of programs are often found on the talk radio outlets and they normally feature two or more personalities delivering news and delving into specific topics deeper with interviews or pre-packaged stories.  They also often report on business, sports and breaking news.  Generally, these are morning programs. 

Straight News Reports -  Most music stations have their deejays (is that term even relevant anymore) deliver news.  However on sports and talk stations news is often delivered by an in-house reporter or anchor that is locally based.  Sometimes stations will take wire news services, but many cities have at least one large local radio news organization.

Weekend Programming -  This is often also referred to as, "Pay for Play" programming.  To increase profits, many local talk stations will charge for hourly weekend programs.  On the local stations, you can find gardening shows, real estate shows, auto shows, etc.  If you own a business, you can pay $1,000 or more for an hour on the air to promote your business and your industry.  You can get sponsors and even make a few bucks if you do it right, all while earning some notariety for your own business.

Online Radio/Podcasts - This has been a source of confusion for a lot of small businesses and non-profits.  This is because there are online radio stations, and then there are podcasts.  Right now, it's safe to say that the actual number of online radio stations that offer interview opportunities for small businesses and non-profits is limited.  Most online stations are music-oriented and provide strictly streaming music.  However there ARE some networks out there that operate just like more traditional radio stations, with commercials, interviews and a variety of show programming including sports talk, political talk, pay for play and music.  Podcasts are different in that they are generally pre-recorded, packaged and then released onto the internet to be downloaded by fans.  Podcasts are actually a great opportunity for small businesses and non-profits since they target specific audiences and often host interviews.

Finding the Right Fit:

Garnering earned media coverage (industry speak for news stories or interviews) in radio involves a lot of the same practices you might use to get covered by your local paper or television news station.  You have to do your research, target your audience and make a pitch that is appealing to a particular outlet. 

1.  Research Your Local Radio Outlets - If you've spent any time at all in a city, you probably have a decent idea of the different radio stations available and what they do.  But knowing a stations' format isn't the same as really knowing that station.  Get an idea of which demographic that station targets aggressively, try and understand the kinds of stories the station covers regularly.  Do they offer pay for play?  What kind of remotes do they do?  Where are they in terms of audience share and ratings?  Who are the personalities?  What kind of following do they have?  What different kinds of shows does the station offer? These things matter when you're trying to decide which station or stations you want to target to pitch for an interview opportunity.

2.  Understand Their Audience -  Some stations target women, some target teens, some target an older demographic.  More than probably any other electronic media, radio stations break their audiences down into very specific demographic categories.  They look at income, ethnicity, gender, political preferences, education as well as age when they look at their audience.  You should have a very good grasp on who exactly this station wants to attract as listeners before you pitch.  You can do this by contacting the station and speaking to a salesperson.  They will give you all of that information in an attempt to get your to buy time.  

3.  Find the Right Programming -  Once you have done your research, you can begin to target not only specfic stations, but individual shows on that station.  For instance, if you want to target women between the ages of 25 and 40, you can find the one or two stations that also have that as a target demo.  Then, find the one or two shows on those particular stations that have the biggest appeal.  It might be the morning drive time program, or it could be the mid-afternoon female deejay.  This is particularly important when dealing with talk radio stations.  More on this in a minute.

4.  Make Direct Contact -  Unlike television or print outlets, the cast of characters is much smaller in radio.  Yes, the larger drive time programs have producers, as do talk shows.  Larger newsrooms also have a news director (who is like the Executive Producer/News Director in TV newsrooms).  You can contact a radio reporter directly, as well as the news director.  Because there are fewer people involved and fewer moving parts, your pitch power will be increased that much more by contacting more than one individual.  Send your pitch to the specific personality as well as their producer (if they have one) as well as a reporter, anchor and news director (if they have one).  

5.  Be Persistent -  This is no different from your TV or print efforts.  You can't simply send out a single press release and pitch email and expect an immediate response.  You have to follow up with phone calls and other emails.  Radio stations, like their print and TV bretheren are inundated with emails and phone calls.  You have to follow up to get their attention.  More than newspapers and TV stations, some kind of special media kit with food or trinkets works for radio because it's a smaller environment.  Send a case of beer with a release and pitch and the entire station knows about it.  Send it to a newspaper reporter or TV station, there's a chance it might end up in the personal stash of that individual.

Adding Knowledge:

The above tips also work for podcasts as well, but one important aspect that can't be overlooked is actually being familiar with the station and its programming.  Take some time to listen to the program or podcast you're attempting to pitch.  This will allow you to speak knowledgably about the personality and the program itself.  You might also mention something you heard recently on their program in the pitch itself. 
Mr. jones, I have been a fan of your program for some time and I was particularly interested in your interview last week with Mrs. Alberts on the plight of the homeless in Denver.  I run an organization in the city that takes a unique approach to helping the homeless...
By letting the personality, producer, reporter know you listen to their program, you immediately catch their attention.  You can then tell them about your product, business or service and request an interview.  This is important.  Just like in all of your other PR efforts, you have to let them know that you are available for interviews, but more than that, you WANT to appear on their show.  Let them know when you can be interviewed, let them know if you want to do it in studio or over the phone and let them know specifically what you want to be interviewed about.  Being flexible is your best option.  When I pitch radio stations or podcasts, I make sure to note that the client is available at ANY time, they would prefer to do the interview live in studio, but would also be happy to do a phone interview.  I also state specifically what the client will want to talk about, but also offer other topics that the client can discuss. 

When dealing with traditional radio stations, you can certainly try to snag a news interview, but this really only gets you a few sconds of airtime at the top or bottom of the hour.  If you're lucky, you might get a reference every other hour or so for about 6 hours before the story becomes stale and you're story is moved out of the pile.

This is why pitching actual shows is the better way to go.  When you pitch a radio show, whether it's a talk program or a morning show on a music station, you have no need to go through the news director (if they have one).  You're really pitching a feature story here, which is different than pitching a more hard-news story, so many radio newsrooms won't pay you much attention since they really only have time to focus on the hard news and breaking news stories of the day.

In this case, target the show producer and the personalities involved.  They make the decisions in regards to content.  In the years I worked as a radio talk show producer, I almost never dealt with the news director when considering a topic for the show.  Sometimes I would approach him for added information, but no once did he talk to me about what our show should be covering.  It was also very rare when he would come to us with a talk show topic. 

Since it's very rare for podcasts to have separate personalities and producers, you simply need to contact the show host directly.  One trick to pitching a podcast, one that might improve your chances for an interview, is to note in your pitch the fact that you have an extensive network of friends and fans that fit directly into their target audience.  By interviewing you, they have an opportunity to be exposed to thousands more potential listeners.  It's not bribery, really, just good information for them to know. Let them know that you will be reposting the podcast and recommeding the podcast on your various social media platforms for all to hear. 

Bigger Isn't Always Better:

When I worked in radio, I worked with a very strong and well known radio personality in Denver.  I also had the chance to work with some other legendary Denver radio personalities who all had a different take on what made for good radio.  Two of those personalities, Jay Marvin (before his Air America days) and Mike Rosen, a very popular Denver talk personality on the city's largest radio outlet would argue constantly over who had a better listener base. 

Marvin, a self-professed liberal and relative newcomer to the Denver market, would often boast he had a larger audience than the more established Rosen.  And the numbers often proved his point.  Rosen, however, responded by saying that he had a better "quality" audience.  Rosen, a self-professed conservative, said he wanted listeners with a higher education and income level and because of this he would naturally have a smaller audience base to draw from.

As a small business owner or non-profit, you have a similar choice.  You can go after the larger shows, the ones with a bigger listener base, or you can go after shows and stations that really cater to the kind of audience you're trying to attract.  In this case, a smaller station or show might be your better option.  Non-profits, for example, might be better served by pitching their local NPR outlet.  A deli-owner might go after a weekend entertainment show.  Business programming is also a great outlet for small businesses.  There are a ton of those on both traditional stations as well as business-oriented podcasts.

Your audience may be more inclined to listen to jazz or adult contemporary formats than the more listened-to pop music stations or sports and talk formats.  While you might not be reaching the mass audience you might reach if you pitched the bigger stations, you'll be speaking to a more receptive and interested audience by hitting these smaller stations.

Finally, don't be afraid of the radio salesman.  Because they want to bring in listeners and advertising dollars, radio salespeople will help small businesses when they can.  Of course, they'll try and sell you on buying time on a show or station.  And you should listen to them.  I still firmly believe that radio advertising represents the best value for your advertising dollar.  You can buy some time on their online station programming and find it might be a cheap way to buy your way into other on-air opportunities.  They also have incredible insight into the personalities, structure and atmosphere inside the station.  Because it always helps to have someone carrying your flag in a newsroom, a salesperson can be that person, since the personality, reporter, anchor, news director and producers simply have little time to develop a real relationship with any of their interview subjects.

You can pull the curtain back on the mystery surrounding radio stations, it simply takes a little legwork and effort on your part.  If you have time, take a morning or afternoon and go to the station and ask for a tour.  If you have purchased time on a station, ask the salesperson to take you around and introduce you.  Radio is a little more rogue than the other media outlets BECAUSE there are fewer moving parts and fewer people involved.  There is still a bit of the renegade spirit in most radio stations and you can capialize on this by being a bit of a risk-taker yourself. 

It's never a bad idea to pitch radio stations or podcasts, for the simple reason that people still listen to radio and will continue to do so.  People talk about what they hear on the radio during their drive into work and listeners have incredible loyalty to "their" station.  o get out there and get gaga over radio and podcasts.  It will only help you in your other PR and social media efforts.