Friday, August 20, 2010

Don't Get Hijacked!

I've been seeing a lot of tell-tale signs on my Facebook pages and in Twitter lately that had me scratching my head.  After doing some research, I had an "ah-ha!" moment and decided to share some of my thoughts on what I perceive as a common threat to anyone handling their own PR or social media.

I'm talking about two things here:

1.  The Target Boycott
2.  Campaign Hijacking

To be fair, even though I started seeing the "Boycott Target" posts on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't completely sure what the fuss was about.  Many of the posts were vague, the links were to confusing sites and in some cases, there was simply an icon that represented the Target boycott but with no follow-up information.
I had to go do my own research on the subject.  It didn't take long, a simple google news search and I felt I understood the issue.  This was clearly an example of social media doing its job.  It caught my eye after several postings and forced me to go out and find the information so I would be fully informed.

To that, I say, "Kudos!"  

Social movements can be extremely effective in terms of raising awareness and spreading a message.  Every day I'm hit with posts and links asking me to remember the starving children in Africa, to honor breast cancer survivors, to give to one organization or another.  Sometimes I click on the link, most of the time I don't.  Regardless, simply by reading the post, whether it's on Facebook or Twitter, the subject has, at least temporarily, been brought to my attention.

Non-profits can, and should use social media more often than they do to motivate thousands of others who share the same beliefs to help raise awareness.  I think I'm pretty much a great example of the common consumer in America, and I can honestly say that while a single posting may not catch my eye, several postings generally will move me to click a link or at least try to educate myself on the issues involved.

This is the power of social media.  A single news report can go unnoticed or be missed completely.  However if a handful of my friends begin posting on the same subject, I begin to take notice.  Something similar happened a few months ago when suddenly my Facebook and Twitter were both inundated with postings about breast cancer.  It was something very simple.  People started posting what, to me, looked like random numbers and colors.  I was confused.  There were so many postings that I finally had to ask what the hell was going on.  Within minutes I had 20-plus messages telling me it was to raise awareness of breast cancer. 

For the next two days, every time I saw a post similar to those that caught my eye, I knew it was about breast cancer.  It was impossible to ignore. 

Which brings us back to the Target boycott.  If you aren't aware of the boycott or the reasons behind it, click on this link to the Minnesota Pioneer Press for some background.  Essentially it boils down to a political donation given by Target to an anti-gay politician.

Boycotts tend to be polarizing to begin with.  It's an "us against them" situation that will divide people along idealistic lines.  But more important than the boycott itself, the originators of the boycott were likey more interested in simply raising awareness of Target's actions.  Most boycott organizers understand that boycotts are rarely effective, at least from a monetary point of view.  The most successful aspect to most boycotts is that it raises awareness of the actions of the ones being boycotted.

I know that Coca Cola, McDonalds and Disney participate in actions that I find deplorable.  I know these things because of previous boycotts against these organizations.  These boycotts forced me to look up the issues, do my own research and find out exactly what kind of employment, civil rights or political practices these companies indulge in.  And while I still will buy some Coke products, and I've been known to slam down a Quarter Pounder every now and then (I still won't shop at Wal-Mart) I do so with a better understanding of what is going on around me. 

If nothing else, the boycott of Target should have raised awareness of the company's support of anti-gay politics.  Instead, the movement was hijacked and has become the center of a much larger political fight, one where the intial message has nearly been lost completely.

Move.On's Movement:

A quick note here before we go forward:  I do not belong to MoveOn.org, nor any other political activist group.  I claim no party affiliation and this blog is not mean to side with any side in the political spectrum.  This space is merely meant to observe, educate and inform in the subjects of public relations and social media.

There that's done.  I normally have very little problem with MoveOn.  I don't dislike their message generally even though I often find myself at odds a bit with their methods of spreading their message.  Like some environmental groups or PETA, it's not really the message that outrages folks, it's the delivery.  Sadly, the message is overlooked by the stunts pulled by these extremely activist organizations.

Something similar has happend to the "Boycott Target" effort, and it happened as soon as MoveOn got involved.  I'll say one thing for groups like MoveOn and PETA; they certainly know how to attract attention.  They are masters at getting publicity and raising awareness of a particular issue.  Unfortunately, in many cases where these organizations get involved, the message takes a back seat and the organizations become the story. 

In this case, MoveOn has created online ads, videos, banners, posts and other collateral meant to raise awareness of the political donations of Target, particularly it's CEO, who is admittedly very conservative.  Taken by themselves, these efforts are excellent use of social media and PR.  However, when a group as polarizing as MoveOn becomes involved, its opponents immediately mobilize to strike back. 

What ensues is a series of name-calling, personal attacks and a clouding of the real issue.  The losers in this are the ones that simply wanted to create a grassroots campaign to raise awareness of which politicians Target was giving money to. 

Furthermore, MoveOn has a separate agenda than the original organizers of the boycott.  MoveOn is deeply involved in politics and is working hard to get progressive or Democratic candidates elected in the upcoming midterm elections.  To MoveOn, this is simply one more opportunity to help their cause.  To those opposing the boycott or MoveOn, this also is a political battle for an elected seat in government.  The actual topic of who Target gave money to and why is being lost in the all the rhetoric. 

In fact, the boycott seemed to be working on some level, forcing investors to question the political contributions of the retail giant and even nudging Target executives to the negotiation table with representatives from the Human Rights Campaign.  The HRC was calling for Target to pull back it's $150,000 donation or at the very least make an in-kind contribution to a pro-gay rights candidate or organization.  But once MoveOn became involved, Target execs pulled away realizing that regardless of what actions they took, they would continue to be hammered by MoveOn, so why make an effort of goodwill at all.

Certainly awareness has been raised and Target will lose some money at least from gays and their supporters across the U.S.  But what was meant to be a simply awareness campaign has become a campaign battleground for idealogues and political parties.

On A Smaller Scale:

Hijacking of a campaign happens all the time.  Usually it's not on this grand of a scale, but it happens and as a small business owner or non-profit you have be aware of it before you lose control of your good efforts.

We know that nothing happens in a vacuum.  Generally when a small business or non-profit gets involved in a campaign, others are either impacted, or involved on some level.  Say you own a small bike shop and you create a campaign to encourage more people to ride bikes (and hence buy more bikes or get them serviced more often).  Part of your campaign might be that bike riding is healthier or a great way to get in shape.  Or maybe you want to encourage a "greener" lifestyle.  Either way, your efforts could catch the eye of other organizations that have similar goals. 

It would not be surprising to see a non-profit approach you about joining forces to spread the message about a greener or healthier lifestyle.  It makes sense and, in reality, it's a good idea to join forces when possible.  But beware when you do that the goal of your "partner" might not be your goal. 

Your messages may be similar but your goals are different.  You want to help bring business through your doors.  Their goal is to promote a healthier or greener lifestyle, it doesn't matter if your shop makes money.  To them, you're success is secondary to their mission.

This doesn't mean you should take on partners when considering a campaign.  In fact, in many cases a partnership can be very beneficial to both parties.  You can work together to reach new audiences, fund a larger campaign and spread your message through channels you otherwise might not have been able to use. 

But if and when you take on a partner to help with your efforts, make sure from the very beginning that your messages and your goals are compatible.  In the end, it comes down to money.  The "partner" may be willing to pony up a lot of cash to help fund the campaign, but know that if they do this, they likely will feel entitled to make decisions that you don't always agree with, despite the fact that the effort and idea was yours in the first place.

An Example:

I have a client that is a non-profit and, thus, has a board of directors who sits in judgement of the organizations actions and decides on funding.  This non-profit wanted to create a social media campaign with a distinct message and aimed at helping many other, smaller not-for profit organizations that all work towards the same goal. 

The problem is, there are members of the board who's goals aren't exactly in line with the goals of the campaign.  It's not that they are against the campaign or against the smaller organizations involved, they simply have an agenda that is slightly differet than that of the campaign.

In this instance, the campaign was created with a particular message in mind.  The board, however, rejected the message and required a change before funding would be approved.  You might have found yourself in a similar position.  What did you do?

In our case we made the change, keeping two of the three message elements and finding a way to include the third message element.  Instead of giving up on the campaign, we found a way to inject that third message element into the efforts, satisfying everyone involved.

You will always find obstacles in your way whenever you propose to begin a PR or social media campaign.  Instead of giving up, find ways around them.  One of the advantages of a well-run social media campaign is that you have the power of individuals at your disposal. 

Being hijacked isn't the worst thing that will every happen to you campaign, but if it happens, know that your message might very well get lost as you try to regain control.  If you absolutely lose control of your original efforts, one of the best ways to regain control is to start a separate campaign.  You have the basic elements already as part of your original efforts and it doesn't take much to restart a separate campaign.

In this instance, you can ride the coattails of the original hijacked effort and even become a sympathetic character in the process.  By using the awareness raised by the newly-hijacked effort, you can bring the story back to the original message and refocus the story.

Monday, August 16, 2010

New Frontiers!

You've heard it before, "If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest country in the world."  This is really just another way of saying, "There are a LOT of people using Facebook these days."  As a small business owner or non-profit, it's natural that you see the potential of social media and your heart beats a little faster, your eyes get a little wider, you salivate at the thought of so many potential customers. 

With so many users on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare and every other social media platform, reaching new audiences seems like it should be an easy task.  But as many of you know, it's not as simple as it sounds.  To use an old business cliche; reaching new audiences requires you to think "outside of the box," particularly when using social media to do so. 

Identify, Target, Pursue:

When you initially enter the social media fray, your first instince will be to simply post your messages randomly to your existing audience.  This is fine.  It will help you establish a base from which to grow.  This is true for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.  You have friends, family, existing customers, staffers that will sign up and gladly read your posts.  And this is a great way to establish a solid base. The more you post, and the more interesting and entertaining your posts are, the more your links will be forwarded and retweeted and sent out to thousands of new sets of eyes who may not know you yet. 

The issue comes when you're ready to take the next step and stop talking to those who are already familiar with your organization and want to branch out to new audiences.

Many clients I work with already have a solid group of followers and friends on their social media sites.  In many cases these number in the hundreds, maybe even over a thousand.  The problem is, these are existing customers or fans.  You're preaching to the choir when you simply maintain the status quo.  In order to truly make an impact on your bottom line through social media, you have to reach out to new audiences, speak to those who might not otherwise be interested in your product or service.  You have to shout from the hilltop so everyone can hear you, not just the select few that already follow you or are interested in what you do.

In many cases, this means not only revamping your message a little, but also venturing into areas a little out of your comfort level.  When making this kind of move, you have to do three things:
1.  Target - There are a million different audiences you can target.  Do you want to reach a specific demographic, like, say, women 30 to 50?  Are you trying to reach a competitor's audience?  Are you trying to reach out to an audience that traditionally hasn't used your product or service?  You have to figure out exactly who, or what kind of new audience, you want to go after.

2.  Identify - Once you have targeted your new audiences, you have to figure out how they differ from your current audience.  In some cases the wants, needs, desires of the new audience may overlap your current audience.  In this case, you have to figure out why this new audience isn't already using your product or service.  Maybe your organization seems too old or stuffy, maybe you come across as too expensive.  Maybe you're not viewed as an essential product or service and your new audience can't justify spending money on you during these difficult economic times.  Whatever the reason, you have to identify what their needs and desires are and then tweak your message to appeal to the needs and desires of this new audience.

3.  Pursue - Like any good hunter, or salesman, you have to go where the quarry is.  If you want to reach a primarily female audience, but your friends and followers are mostly men, you have a problem.  You have to go where the women are.  This means joining groups that cater to women or have a strong female following.  This requires a little legwork on your part.  Take a Saturday and browse groups that have a large following of the audience you're trying to reach.  Sign up for as many groups as you feel comfortable with and then begin posting your message in these groups on a regular basis.
A Brand New Brand:

Another mistake many small businesses make when pursuing a new audience is that they feel the need to completely overhaul their message and image.  Again, this is a mistake.  Unless you really feel that a massive change is needed, you're better off simply tweaking your message and image to appeal to the new audience.  A major change could result in losing some of the loyal customers who are comfortable with your organization right now.  A big change could send the message that you're not happy with them as customers and might send them looking for a new organization to do business with. 

You have to stay true to your base message.  You can tweak your image to appeal to a new audience, but if you have built your image on being dependable, traditional and businesslike, then a change to a newer, flashier, more extreme image might bring in a few new customers, but scare off more older ones in the process.  There's no need to completely rebrand yourself when, most of the time, a simple tweak will do the job.

Some Examples:

Here are three examples of organizations trying to reach out to new audiences and how social media has been, or could be, an effective tool.

Non-Traditional Theater:

I spend a lot of my free time performing improv.  I love it, it has become more than just a hobby, it's a way of life now.  I belong to a handful of groups that perform in the Denver area fairly regularly.  Like most big cities, Denver offers a multitude of recreational activities for people to spend their money on.  There are movies, plays, outdoor concerts, amusement parks, four pro sports teams, three major college programs (I'm including Air Force, four if you include DU hockey) and, of course the mountains are a big draw in both summer and winter.

Improv groups face a major challenge to draw an audience.  Unlike traditional theater or stand-up, the vast majority of people don't really understand improv.  It's simply not on the radar for a lot of folks.  Like Burlesque, or rollerderby, it appeals to a specific audience.  Thus, many of the shows are attended by fellow improvisers.  This is great on one level, as it shows community support.  But in order to truly grow the improv "scene", non-improvisers need to attend shows on a regular basis.

But how to reach the new audience?  That is a question that has dogged every improv theater in town for as long as I can remember.  There are really only two improv theaters in town, The Bovine Metropolis Theater, and Impulse Theater.  For the purposes of this example, I will focus on the Bovine, since Impulse, while offering improv, is very limited in its scope, providing only short form which people understand a bit better thanks in large part to the show, "Who's Line Is It Anyway?"

Recently, owner Eric Farone took a look at what was popular among the masses and decided to tweak his usual weekend lineup.  Instead of the normal sketch comedy or double short form improv shows, he created an improv version of American Idol.  It was an improv competition that would crown Denver's Next Improv Star.  Week to week, several improvisers would be put the paces of long form, short form, musical improv, etc.  And each week a panel of judges would vote one performer off the cast.  It was a daring concept and one met with some skepticism in many corners of the improv community. 

The show didn't change the ultimate message or image of the Bovine.  It is still a theater dedicated to all things improv.  But it DID create a format that was readily understandable by the masses.  It also brought in guest judges, as well as their followers, to the theater every Saturday night.  But the show change alone wouldn't be enough to bring in a whole new audience.  That's where social media came in.

One of the first orders of business for the contestants in the show was to create a video about themselves and why they wanted to be "Denver's Next Improv Star."  Each contestant posted their video, as did the Bovine and sent it off to friends and family. The videos allowed non-improv followers to get to know the contestants, get a bit of understanding of what the contest was about and showed some of the characters involved with the show.  Many of the videos were funny. For those not familiar with improv, they got to see someone who made them laugh, received some information and, in my opinion, the videos sparked interest among those who otherwise might not have attended an improv show.

The campaign worked, along with a weekly blog, written by one of the contestants, numerous messages on Facebook and Twitter and a bevy of quality guest judges, the theater was packed for every show.  The best part was that many of those in attendance were first-timers to the theater.  Those folks left after the show having seem some great performances, with a little more knowledge and respect for local improv and now the Bovine is on their radar when considering what to do on a  Friday or Saturday night.

Even with the success of this weekend show, the theater still struggles at times to draw for the long-form shows during the week.  One of these shows includes a Thursday night show that showcases the best improv groups the theater has to offer.  The show draws other improvisers, but not so much outside of the community.

Let's think about the potential audience for The Bovine on a Thursday night.  

1.  Downtown Residents
2.  Downtown workers

The theater is smack dab in the heart of downtown Denver, easy to get to for those who live and work downtown.  It's unlikely a family living in Arvada is going to venture downtown, find and pay for parking to watc a 90-minute improv show.  Many downtown residents are older and most likely are drawn to more traditional theater.  The younger ones who live downtown are likely at more traditional bars or working on a Thursday night.

That leaves the downtown workers who are all ages and have a myriad of interests.  Why not join forces with a local bar and encourage the workers who go out on a Thursday night to make a night of it.  Offer a "Happy Hour" show that starts a little earlier than most of the other shows and offer anyone who buys a ticket gets a free drink at a local bar.  Since the theater doesn't serve alcohol, many downtown workers shy away from The Bovine since they want to drink and party.  By tying in a traditional happy hour with the show, you might appeal to those who are looking for something different, but still allows them to enjoy a few adult beverages.

The challenge comes in getting the word out once a decision has been made.  In this case, targeting a platform like LinkedIn, which caters to a more professional user, might be successful.  Or joining business groups, young professional groups and Tweeting the special show at every opportunity will do a good job of getting the word out.  It's a simple process, but it requires the theater to expand its reach into an area that they normally don't reach out to.

The Denver Press Club:

As a former journalist, I have spent many, many nights drinking, telling stories and playing poker at the Denver Press Club.  For years, though, the club has been a haven for long retired newspaper reporters and old-timers who can still remember when The Rocky Mountain news was an afternoon paper.

Not only was I one of the youngest regulars at the bar, but I was also one of the few broadcasters that imbibed at the club.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First, the club was, and has always been viewed as a newspaper club.  Local broadcasters never felt like they fit in.  Worse yet, local PR pro's who are also allowed in, simply felt it was too old and stuffy.  And while the new President of the club came in and made it financially viable again, outside of specific events, the club is still frequented by primarily older, retired newspaper men. 

I was talking to a local TV personality last Friday and the subject of the club came up.  He complained that the club simply wasn't the kind of place he wanted to spend time in, specifically because it still seemed too old, not enough fun, even though he's been asked to guest bartend on a regular basis. 

Here's what we know about journalists and PR folks.  They like to have fun, they work hard and they play hard.  They like to drink.  They like to see and be seen.  Outside of being able to drink, the club doesn't provide the kind of atmosphere that will attract most broadcasters and PR pro's, most of whom are below the age of 35. 

If the club offered a special night specifically for broadcasters, or for PR pro's, complete with drink specials or an extended happy hour, they might begin to make some headway into growing their customer base.  But it can't be just one night.  It needs to be an every week thing.  So, say, every Wednesday is a special for broadcasters (show your TV/Radio press pass or credentials and get dollar beers) they'll start to grow that audience.  If every Thursday were set aside for PR pro's, offering a simliar deal, they'd start to attract more young public relations folks as well. 

The club already has a communications pipeline to local newsrooms and PR agencies, but they don't have a large social media presence.  It would simply take a strong Facebook page and Twitter account, join the TV, Radio and PR groups in town and start messaging the specials regularly.  In no time, this new audience, who is already somewhat familiar with the club, will make it a point to check out the club at least once.  In this case, the club needs to tweak its image a bit and then use social media to get the word out.  Just by using the existing social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter, they could begin to draw customers that have traditionally avoided the club.

Spay and Neuter:

One of my clients is the Animal Assistance Foundation and we're in the process of creating a new campaign designed to reach a new audience for spaying and neutering issues.  Up to this point, much of the conversation about spay and neuter has taken place either between others in the animal care field or among Bob Barker fans.

This is troublesome since the conversation actually NEEDS to be among anyone who has a pet or cares about animals.  On social media, though, the message has been sent to others who are already aware of seriousness of the homeless pet issue.  As the campaign started, we knew who we wanted to reach.  We were going after people aged 21-35, primarily females, as a recent PetSmart study showed they were the least likely to get their pets spayed or neutered. 

The first order of business was to tweak the image of spaying and neutering.  The message remained the same, at it's core level, "Get your pets spayed or neutered."  But we had to dress up that message to make it appealing to that particular demographic. 

Let's face it, spaying and neutering isn't a flashy or particularly fun topic.  Our challenge was to create an interesting, fun image without losing the overall message.  We had to identify what the desires and needs of this audience was.  These are people who are working to establish a career, they are looking to establish their own adult relationships, they are looking to grow personally and professionally.  Money is probably tight and they like to play hard. 

We created a campaign that this demographic could relate to on a very personal level.  This is a demograhpic that has been inundated with numerous and often conflicting messages about sex and promiscuity.  We created a character that was instantly recognizeable and put it into a format that everyone is already familiar with, a sex ed. video.

But as you've notice, creating the campaign is only half the battle.  We have created several different platforms to reach a variety of differnt audiences.  This includes InkedIn, a blog, Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Youtube.  Once the campaign rolls out, these different platforms will hit groups that are populated by those that fit into the demographic.  This means hitting profesional groups, social living groups, theater and educational groups, any group that focuses on hitting this demo.

It may sound wierd to post messages about spaying and neutering pets in a group that caters more to the club life or nightlife in Denver, but that is exactly the kind of group that will receive the videos and photos created for the campaign.

In this way, the campaign will reach a group of people that ordinarily would never hear about spaying and neutering their pets.

So take a risk and reach out to new audiences.  You don't have to do a complete overhaul to do so.  You can bring in more viewers, followers and fans and ultimately more customers by making small tweaks to your message and image.  More importantly, it means expanding your scope of friends and followers into areas that you might not have thought of previously.  Any audience can work for you if you think about their desires and needs and tweak your social media efforts to let them know that you can meet those needs and desires.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Meet n Greet

It's been a week since our last post here, thank you for your patience in checking back as I've been busy working with some clients and taking a bit of a break as Growing Communications heads into what looks to be a very hectic fall.  One of the great things about taking a short break, though, is that when you return, there are a myriad of topics to discuss.  Today is no different.

A quick side note, and one of importance to every small business and non-profit out there.  If you've followed this site for the past year, you know that good PR is more than just sending out a press release.  There's a lot of preparation that goes into the effort before you even write your release and there's a ton of work after the release goes out in order to snag that interview and make it successful. 

I had a conversation with an acquaintance the other day who mentioned that, as part of her social media consulting business, she also did some PR for her clients.  The "PR" consisted of sending out some press releases.  That was it.  And while that might qualify as PR on some level, it's only one, very small aspect of public relations.  As a small business owner or non-profit, you can create and manage your own PR efforts.  But if your efforts consist simply of writing a press release and sending it out en-mass to the media, you likely will be wasting your time.  If you don't put in the time up front to do your research, monitor your local newsrooms and journalists, figure out your timing, create your press kit and compose a quality pitch letter, your efforts will be hit and miss at best; mostly miss.

Which leads us to today's topic:  "The Meet n Greet"

I'm not talking about the usual political definition of the meet n greet, where you venture out into the public, shake some hands and kiss some babies.  In PR parlance, that's generally considered "community outreach" and it does have its benefits.  But in this case, I'm talking about the media meet n greet.

This blog has continuously hammered the importance of building relationships with journalists in your area in order to help make your pitches more successful.  It's important that you know who your local journalists are and which ones are most likely to cover a story that you might pitch.  But it's even more important that they know who YOU are. 

Building relationships with reporters, producers and editors isn't easy.  They are busy, busy people.  They work long hours, they are under high stress and they have little time for visits to your office, unless they're already working a story.  So the question that gets presented to me time and time again is; "How do I start building relationships with the media?"

There a number of different ways, and, honestly, sometimes you just have to get lucky.  You might find the local watering hole where they hang out.  You might try throwing a party with free drinks and inviting them to attend.  These methods can have some success.  But the best way to get to know a journalist is to visit them where they work.

Most journalists are hard to reach.  You can't just wander into your local TV station and ask to see the producer of the 5pm newscast or the 10pm anchor or the morning show reporter.  It doesn't really work that way.  However, if you show up at 4 in the afternoon with a press release and a bevy of large pizzas, you might find yourself in the newsroom, chatting up the assignment editor or exectuive producer.  You'll have more success doing this on a weekend, when there are fewer obstacles in the way such as security and a front desk person.  But even then, it's a crap shoot. 

Tricks like these can work, I know, I've used them and they've been successful.  However, there's a better way to get into a newsroom and make a real connection with local journalists; it's called an editorial meeting.

The Editorial Meeting:

Before we go much further, I'll say this; an editorial meeting is generally reserved for non-profits and municipal representatives.  If you work with a hospital, a non-profit, law enforcement, the city or state, you likely will be able to schedule an editorial meeting.  But private and small businesses can still schedule an editorial meeting, you just have to have a good reason for scheduleing it.

As a small business owner, you're probably not on the radar of most journalists in your area.  You have to provide a reason for them to take time out of their busy schedule to sit and meet with you.  The best way to do this is to prove that you can provide some value to their newscasts from time to time.  You don't have to be the big fish in the pond to provide value, you just have to be able to show that you bring something to the table.

Here are some ways to get your foot in the door and get that meeting scheduled:
1.  Bribe them.  This is a lot like showing up on Saturday evening with a case of beer, only this time, they know you're coming.  If you own a small business, offer to provide lunch or dinner to the newsroom when you show up for the meeting.  Trust me, this works more often than not.
Value added = Free food

2.  Promise to be short and to the point.  Make sure they understand that YOU understand they are under a tight deadline.  If you say, "hey, le'ts meet for a bit," you're less likely to get scheduled than if you say, "Could you spare five minutes to meet with me?  And I'll bring food."  Journalists are nearly always willing to meet for a few minutes, especially if there's free food involved.
Value added = free food + short commitment

3.  Flatter them.  This doesn't mean you have to tell them that you watch them every night and that you absolutely love their work.  That doesn't hurt, but let them know that you came to them specifically because you are familiar with their work and that you wanted them to be the first ones to receive your releases.  
Value added = short commitment + first shot at potential quality stories in the future

4.  Come to them for advice.  This one is a great way to break the ice.  Journalists love to complain, and one of the things they complain about the most is incompetent PR pro's.  If you approach a newsroom and let them know that you're a small business, that you are putting together a PR plan and you simply want to meet with them, briefly, to get a better understanding of what to pitch, who to pitch to and when to pitch.  They will appreciate your efforts and like the fact that you don't want to waste their time.  This is a particularly effective way to schedule an editorial meeting.
Value added = establishing a relationship with a small business who understands their needs

5.  Be a community leader.  As a small business owner, you work everyday with those in and around your neighborhood.  You hire locals as employees, you give money and time to neighborhood issues and you get to know the people who live and work nearby your establishment.  Because of this, you have a good feel for the needs and the concerns of the people you cater to.  For a media outlet, these are all either current audience members, or potential audience members.  Either way, these people are important to them.  As a community leader, you can provide a newsroom with insight to what is happening in your neighborhood.  Plus, if and when a story breaks in your area, you will be an individual they will know and that they can contact for information if need be.
Added value = a reach into a specific neighborhood and a potential news contact in the future
Again, as with any PR effort, nothing is guranteed.  Some newsrooms will be very receptive to your editorial meeting request.  Others will simply ignore it.  And don't get picky.  If the third-rated TV station and your community paper are the only ones that agree to meet, schedule the meeting.  Don't worry about not hitting the big boys.  Starting small is the first step to going big time.  Get a few good stories in your community paper and on the third-rated station in town, and the big boys will start to take notice. 

Face to Face:

Once you actually get an editorial meeting scheduled, the real work begins.  Again, you have to think in terms of what kind of value you can bring to the media outlet you're meeting with.  If you just show up and tell them who you are and then leave, you will have wasted your time and theirs.  You should have specific questions in mind when you meet and have your value already established in your mind when you meet with them.
Come prepared.  This is where your press kit is very handy.  If you have press kit already prepared, make sure it's up to date and bring it with you to the meeting.  If you don't have one, then put one together.  Remember, you want a history of your organization (one page) a brief bio on the important people, some photos, a list of FAQ's, (frequently asked questions) and a sheet with important and interesting information about you and your business or non-profit.  You want to leave something behind with those you're meeting with and a press kit is one of the best ways to make sure they remember you.

When you meet with them, you also want to make sure they understand why you're meeting and what they get out of it.  Let them know that you have strong ties to the community and that you interact with their audience every day.  You should have certain goals in mind when you meet them and you should let them know what those goals are.  If it's simply to get in front of them and let them know who you are, then say that.  You have to believe you bring something to the table and that meeting with you is not a waste of their time.

Ask questions.  When you meet with them, ask questions about what kind of stories they are looking for, are they trying to expand their audience demographics, when the best time to pitch a story, what kind of releases work best, if they take video they don't shoot, etc.  These questions will help you put together a better pitch, but more importantly, it will impress on them that you are serious about creating the best pitch possible and that you don't want to waste their time.  

Listen.  They will talk, they will tell stories, they will provide you with information that you might miss if you're too busy talking about yourself.  Certainly this is a time to expound on your many good qualities, but you also have to listen to the journalists you're meeting with, otherwise you'll miss information that could be the difference between a rejected pitch and a feature prime-time story.

As always, come bearing gifts.  It doesn't matter if it's food, or a monogrammed pen or drinks or coupons.  Bring something.  

Don't pitch.  This is very important.  You're not there to pitch a story.  You're there to learn and to teach.  You want to learn everything you can about them, and you want to teach them about you.  It's an exchange of information, not a pitch.  You can tell them about what you do and about upcoming stories you might have in the pipeline, but don't hand them a press release and say, "let's talk about this great story I have for you."  They'll patiently wait for you to finish and then see you out the door before forgetting who you are.
An Example:

One of the first things I do when I take on a new PR client is to  is to take them around to all the local newsrooms and introduce them to my former colleagues who still work in the business.  These meetings don't always result in immediate coverage, but it at least puts them in front of reporters, producers and editors they will be dealing with in the future. 

Recently, I took a friend around to all of the newsrooms in town as part of a PR campaign launch.  The campaign was a summer-long effort.  While there was a story to be pitched, I recommended that the meeting be more general, mostly to talk about the organization, not the story.  She baked cookies, wrote a short fact sheet about her organization, including the story release and she tossed in a funny visual trinket that included the message of her organization. 

Of the seven media outlets we visited that morning, we were able to get into only one of the newsrooms.  We left the packet at the other six with a note asking to set up a meeting.  That might not sound very successful, but she managed to schedule a story with the one newsroom we got into.  Within a week of meeting with them, she was on the air and her story was being covered.

Since then, other news organizations have picked up the story and in the past month, her non-profit has enjoyed some great coverage from a number of local media outlets.  This isn't to say that her one meeting with that one newsroom producer has been the key to her success.  She has put in some time and has continued to pitch her story all summer long.  But in doing so, she has managed to build relationships with a handful of reporters, some of whom came to her after seeing her story on tv, aired by the newsroom that took the time to meet with her. 

Remember, PR is an ongoing effort.  You can't just send out a release and expect to suddenly get a ton of media coverage.  You have to take time to build relationships and continue to pitch your story.  Follow-up emails and correspondence also goes a long way to staying in front of journalists.  Once they know you, there's still no guarantee that your story will be picked up.  But you certainly have an advantage over those who make a pitch cold, with no relationship with the journalist whatsoever. 

As a small business owner or non-profit, an editorial meeting is one of the best ways to begin to build those all-important relationships.  Yes, it takes time and yes, you will be denied by some newsrooms, but keep at it.  You only need one solid relationship to help you grow your PR efforts.  You have to start somewhere and an editorial meeting is, in our opinion, one of the best places to start.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

All The News...

It's that time of year again.  The weather slowly begins to turn cooler, the days start to grow shorter and leaves begin to turn.  Sure, it's still 90 degrees outside, but the change is coming, it's inevitable.  And just to make sure you don't miss the changing of the seasons, your local news outlets are letting you know in not too subtle ways.

Here in Denver, August means the annual tradition of all things Denver Broncos making the headlines.  The newer tradition of following the Rockies' playoff push still hasn't quite caught on; football is still king here in the Rocky Mountains.  No one will argue that, but does it really qualify as "news"? 

This is a common question I hear from folks, including clients, when trying to determine why and how newsrooms decide on what to report on.  We've written on the newsmaking decision process in this space before, but it deserves another look before we go much further.

News is tricky, and even the most seasoned reporters, producers and editors will sometimes miss the boat on a big story or will latch onto a story that ultimately, has no legs.  And while news sometimes is more art than science, there is a basic formula that most journalists keep in mind as they decide on what will make the front page, the 10pm broadcast or the hourly updates.
1.  Timeliness - is the story happening now, or recently, or is it just about to happen?

2.  Proximity - "All news is local" is the mantra often repeated to newsrooms across the country.  If a story is local to the audience the outlet services, it has a much better chance of being reported.

3.  Impact - How much does the story impact the audience?  Is this something that impacts only a few individuals, or is it something that the public at large has a vested interest in?

4.  Relatability - This is often called, "The Care Factor" and simply means, how much can the audience relate to the issues or individuals involved in the story.  

5.  WOW factor - This is where news gets tricky.  Celebrities, sports, and all sorts of "non-news" issues fall into this category.  Certainly if Kim Kardashian gets married it has little proximity, impact or relatability to most of the audience, but it's timeliness and WOW factor will put this story squarely in the sights of newsrooms all over the country.
It's the WOW factor that often accounts for much of the confusion when it comes to the question of, "What is news".  We can all understand when a bank robbery takes place, or a murder happens or the city goes bankrupt, why it is a lead story in most local news outlets.  But when Tim Tebow's first (limited) practice of Bronco's training camp makes the front page of the Denver Post, many people end up scratching their heads, wondering how the story qualified for such a massive headline treatment.

The Competition is Tough:

When clients wonder why their story got bumped so the newsroom devote extra time to cover Bronco training camp, I have a simple one-word response; Audience.

Keep in mind that, despite all the noble tradition of journalism, it is, has been and always will be a business.  News is in the business of attracting viewers, readers and listeners.  Reporting on the simple events of the day might be the truest definition of "news" but it's also a sure-fire way to NOT attract an audience. 

Reporters, producers and editors have to keep their audience in mind when putting together a newscast or morning paper.  In the end, it comes down to the age-old argument that has raged in newsrooms for decades; Should news report only what the audience NEEDS to know, or should it report on what they think the audience WANTS to know.

In today's world of "infotainment" journalists walk a fine line between the two, attempting to report on the necessary news of the day while still providing entertaining stories that the audience wants to see and hear. 

Is the public good truly served by plastering a photo of a 3rd-string rookie quarterback on the front page, with accompanying story right below?  Probably not.  Is the paper going to sell more copies by doing so?  The answer is a resounding yes!  Like all newspapers, The Post keeps circulation and sales numbers dating back to the earliest days of publication.  Filed under, "not-so-surprising" is the fact that The Post, and The Rocky in its day, sold more copies after Bronco wins and whenever a Bronco is featured on the front page. 

Based on what I know has happened to day in training camp (I have a few friends left in local newsrooms) I can pretty much guarantee what tomorrow's headlines are going to be.  Elvis Dummervil Out For The Season!  The headline will trumpet across the front pages and lead all newscasts.  This will be followed by the news of the signing of LenDale While, a former Denver Public School superstar and more news on the QB battle between Tebow and Orton.  Look it up, I'm pretty sure I'm right on target here.

So while news of the Broncos' newest QB might have little to no impact on the daily lives of Denver residents, it's clear that there is an interest and that readers have a strong interest and appetite in all things Broncos.  Of course, there is still timeliness and proximity, but as far as impact, it falls way short when compared to stories dealing with the economy, public safety and law enforcement. 

This is why stories about celebrity screw-ups, football players and teams and water-skiing squirrels makes the news every single day.  These are cute, funny, interesting and fascinating stories.  They have a WOW factor that really can't be explained in terms of actual news, but the audience wants to see them and so journalists deliver. 

In the end, the audience is what matters to newsrooms.  Without an audience, a media outlet is doomed, just ask the Rocky Mountain News and the other myriad of newspapers that have folded over the past decade.  Larger audiences mean higher ad rates and subscribers, which leads to more money which means a healthy news outlet.  In Denver, the Broncos rule and people are interested in what happens to their favorite team.  The same holds true in Boston, New York, Dallas, Cleveland...everywhere (except maybe L.A. which seems to be interested in just celebrities in general).

Let's Play A Game:

Just a quick one, mind you.  But I'm going to repeat an exercise I used with my students at CU-Denver and one I give to my students taking my seminars today. 

I'll give you three news stories, YOU decide which one would make the headline of the daily local newspaper.  Assume that you are in Denver (or you could be in any city, just attach the local sports team to the headline)

1.  Scientists discover cure for cancer
2.  Broncos win Superbowl, Tebow named MVP
3.  City declares bankruptcy, many city services to close

Take a moment, I'll wait while you ponder the many possibilities.  (hum JEOPARDY theme here)

Done?  Okay.  I'll give you MY headlines in order and you can compare.

1.  Broncos Win Superbowl
2.  City declares bankruptcy
3.  Scientists discover cure for cancer.

Of course, that's how I believe our local journalists would rank them.  In my personal opinion, I'd make the cure for cancer number 2 and the bankruptcy number 3.  How did you choose?

Without a doubt the bankruptcy story and the cancer story impacts millions more people than the superbowl win, but the superbowl win is the story that the majority of people will want to read.  The cancer story matters, as does the bankruptcy story, but the real INTEREST from the audience is going to be in a recap of the win.  This is where the audience "wants" will dictate what story is bigger. 

The Impact On You!

What this means, in terms of small business and non-profit PR, is that you absolutely MUST take into account the audience when making your pitch to a news outlet. 

It also means you have to keep an eye on the traditional WOW factor stories that your local media covers every year.  If you live in Denver, you know that in August and September, local news will dedicate extra time and space to coverage of training camp and pre-season.  That space will be eaten up through the season, meaning less time for other stories on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.  You KNOW that the big news on Monday (or Tuesday) will be how the Broncos did the night before.  This means your story had better be a great one in order to beat out all the other stories battling for the limited time available.

Finally, it means you have to get creative in your pitching sometimes just to get a second look from journalists.  While you're always going to have better luck pitching a story with credible news content, there are times when you can use a WOW factor to help your story gain traction and get coverage.

Here's an example:

I am working with a client who runs a cat spay and neuter clinic in Denver.  Raising awareness of spaying and neutering isn't among the easiest things to do.  There are a handful of ways to grab the public's attention.  You can appeal to their wallet, pull on their heartstrings hit them over the head with scare tactics, or you can go the WOW factor route.

While talking to the client she mentioned that she used "cat condoms" as a funny way to help spread the message of cat spaying and nuetering.  Of course, they're not real.  Cats don't wear condoms.  But I was immediately struck by how effective the condoms could be to attract media attention.  It was something new, something unique, something funny.  More importantly, it was a cheap, easy gimmick that could be delivered to every newsroom in the city without breaking the budget.

The story of spaying and neutering has some real news impact, no argument there.  It has proximity, timeliness (although, since the story never goes away, it's more of an evergreen story), impact (due to the money spent by taxpayers on homeless and feral pets) and relatability (who can resist a cute pet?). 

But outside of Bob Barker, who really spends their time thinking about spaying and neutering pets?  No one, that's who.  And getting them to pay attention isn't easy.  Newsrooms know this.  It's one thing to bring on a shelter representative with a cute puppy or kitten and parade them in front of cameras to push pet adoption, but the visuals for spaying and neutering are, well...they aren't as cute.

But package the message with something funny and interesting like condoms for cats, and newsrooms will get a chuckle and take notice.  It's the WOW factor that takes a quality, but uninteresting story to journalists, and makes it worth reporting on.  Within just a  couple of months since delivering those condoms to the local newsrooms, the stories have started to roll in. 

The "Beat The Heat" campaign that featured the condoms along with a set of stills that espoused the vitures of having a spayed or neutered cat as a pet, has created a mini-stir among local journalists and has set the stage for a follow-up story that is more based on actual news content. 

The Feline Fix used a WOW factor to establish themselves within newsrooms and will find much more success in the future as they move forward with other campaigns and new pitches.  Any small business or non-profit can achieve the same with a little creativity and perseverance. 

Knowing the local audience and understanding that using a gimmick or WOW factor can be an effective way to get coverage, will help you in your efforts.  This is why, when I work with clients, I always say interesting AND informative.  You CAN be both.  You can provide content that interests an audience and still provides useful information.  If all people wanted was straightforward information, then public radio would be the most listened-to station in the country.  But it's not.  Not even close. 

So start thinking about your organization and looking for fun ways to get your product or service into the public eye.  You probably don't have cat condoms to work with, and it's likely you don't have a Bronco QB to help you hit the front pages.  But all you need is something different, unusual, fun and creative to catch a journalists attention.