To most business owners and commercial artists, how to launch a successful PR campaign or operation can seem like an impossibly complicated puzzle or a daunting and inscrutable mystery.
But the truth is that stories and segments in the national media come about as a function of an understandable process, and effective PR comes from knowing how that process works, and thus how to influence it.
As a former editor and writer for the national media who has switched sides and now does PR for businesses and commercial artists, I educate my clients about how the media works so they understand the why behind what I do for them, and also because the more they know the more they can become a partner in generating their own publicity. And I have found that even the most media naïve business owner or commercial artist can become outright media savvy over time, and come to understand how game-changing media coverage is generated.
Understanding the basics is obviously critical if you're going to do your own PR. But it is also critical if you have a publicist or a PR department -- otherwise you won't be able to make an informed decision about whether your media strategy is working, or not. And understanding how effective PR happens is essential for any business owner looking to create a commercially significant social media presence: the way to achieve 100 followers or fans is to go person by person by person by person; the way to achieve 10,000 fans and followers overnight is to be on a talk show with 1 million viewers. Solving the social media equation is, in fact, that simple.
So if you want media coverage for your business or creative venture -- and, by extension, to exponentially increase your social media presence -- but you don't know how to go about it, here are the 10 commandments to perfect PR:
Know What PR Really Is
PR is not a press release; it is not an event; it is not having someone officially represent you. PR happens when an editor, writer or producer knows about you. Period. After all, they can't cover you if they don't know about you. So PR is simple awareness of you. When I am hired to handle the PR for a business, my primary goal is to create that awareness on the part of the target media that my client exists -- everything else I do, such as sending out press releases or representing them in communications, is simply a tool for that.
Be Precise When It Comes to Whom You Pitch
The best, most saleable idea in the world is absolutely useless when sent to the wrong person. When I was an editor and writer I was deluged with pitches in areas that I didn't cover. Having not worked in magazine editorial for years I'm still being pitched by publicists because they never updated their media lists. The point is that a media list of 10 media targets that you know for a fact cover your industry and are currently in that position is vastly more useful than a list of 1,000 dated misfires to the wrong people. But if you send your pitch to the right person, you're in the game. So the first thing I do as a publicist is build a made-to-measure media list that is, above all, precise.
Don't Just Give the Media a "Press Release" -- Give Them a Story
The first step toward writing an effective press release is to understand that the editor, producer or writer doesn't care about your press release. They care about producing their story or segment. So if you give them a corporate sounding, internally micro-managed to death, self-important "press release," it is most likely going to be deleted, thrown away, or simply allowed to disappear forever into electronic oblivion. If you want a powerful press release that is read by the media target and results in media coverage that is consistent with what you want them to say, you have to start off where they are, not where you are. So when I write my client's press releases, I give the story to the target. I do their work for them. For example, do you have a new inner wear product? Tell them what's new about it in relation to what they've already covered, and why they should be interested. Are you opening up the first business of its kind? Tell them that, back it up, and give them reasons to care. Understand that they care about a story -- not that 10 executive vice presidents have signed off on an official statement -- and you'll be giving them a press release they might actually use... because you've done their work for them.
"Peg" Your Pitch to Something
A "peg" is media jargon for a date or an event that a story is attached to. So if you see a movie star on the cover of a women's glossy, it's usually because she has a new movie out. That's the peg. Pegs help orient the editor, writer or producer by giving them something timely. A peg can be literal, such as that your business is turning 50 in July; you have a cookbook coming out in May; you're launching a new service this fall, etc. But you can also "peg" what you do to trends in your industry or the culture. So if you own a salon that is offering the same highlighting technique that a pop star sports in her new video, peg your pitch to that. If you've produced a new film that relates to a hot topic -- social media, Wall Street corruption, gay marriage -- make the pitch as much about that trend as it is about your film. When you do that your pitch becomes bigger than just what you're pitching, and positions it with stories and trends on a national level that the media target is already familiar with; already thinks is important; might already be covering; and can therefore include you in it.
Get Personal and Get Physical
Imagine you're a producer for a national talk show with millions of viewers or an editor at an online magazine with millions of readers, and you are overwhelmed all the time simply getting your segments produced and your stories out. Then imagine receiving 100 group email blasts a day from publicists and just as many tweets and updates, all of which vanish forever into electronic oblivion within minutes. Then imagine adding your group PR email, tweet or update to that tsunami, and consider exactly how much of a shot you'd have at getting and keeping their attention. In contrast, imagine that you're that a busy producer or editor and someone from the messenger center comes by and hand-delivers the one physical package you'll get that day, that will sit on your desk for days, weeks or months, and that comes along with a personal call and email, and imagine your chances of getting on their radar in that circumstance. If you want your pitch to stand out and to be treated as something superior to spam, invest your PR energies in person-to-person physical pitching. (For a more thorough examination of the value of direct human communication in today's social media-driven environment, take a look at my recent piece, "In the Era of Online Networking, Offline Connections Are More Powerful Than Ever.")
Prepare an Insta-Pitch
One of the biggest mistakes people make when pitching the media is making the assumption that the media target is going to sit down and peruse all the materials like it's Sunday in bed with the New York Times, figure out what the story is, and how they're going to work it in to their production schedule. They're not. If you manage to get their attention at all, you've got about half an instant to get the story across. This is where the insta-pitch comes in. Some examples from clients of mine include the insta-pitch on the chef I represent as the "Jon Stewart of Food" and the new innerwear problem-solver as the "first backless camisole." Three little words and the producer or editor has got the story -- in the subject heading of an email, on the home page of the website, on the cover of a press kit, in a phone call or in a tweet -- in as close to no time as physics allows. If the insta-pitch hooks their interest, they'll want to know more and will then log on to your site or look at the press material you sent them or log on to your Facebook page, and take it under consideration. Note: if you already have an "elevator pitch" that takes 30 words and 30 seconds, cut it by 90 percent and you'll have an insta-pitch.
Getting game-changing national media coverage is akin to running for national office -- it requires a tremendous amount of strategy, and, if you're an underdog, just as much creative thinking. For instance, after having worked with a client for two years and looking to take their media coverage to the next level we decided that publishing a book would do that for them -- and it worked: the book got my client featured prominently in Businessweek, Fast Company and the LA Times. But being creative when it comes to media can mean lots of things: if you own a small burger chain and meatballs are all the rage in the food media, start making meatballs and promote that; instead of sending press releases, send clever post cards that will make the editor or producer laugh and want to hang it up in their cubicle or save it on to their desktop. Whatever it takes to get through the deluge of pitches and stick out -- do that.
You Don't Need Big Teams or Big Budgets
When I was a magazine writer and being feted by publicists, I was astonished at the enormous sums of money being spent unnecessarily on behalf of the client. For instance, I was once flown by a team of publicists via helicopter to a NASCAR race track where I was taught how to a drive a race car ... all to promote a new electric razor. I was picked up by a chauffeured Jaguar and taken to four-star restaurant Per Se ... to introduce me to a new kind of comfortable cotton T-shirt. All it actually would have taken was one person sending me the product. So effective PR doesn't necessarily require huge teams of people with giant budgets -- major national media coverage can happen as a result of one person who sends the right material to the right person at the right time.
The media can be chaotic, unpredictable and driven by personalities, and they will use you when they need you -- and not one second before. So one of the most important ingredients to an effective PR operation is persistence, which, tactically speaking, translates into being around long enough until the moment that they need you. From a behind-the-scenes perspective, here's why this is the case: When a media professional gets to work producing a story or a segment they look around their inbox, their computer and their desk to find anyone who has pitched them recently who would fit in. You want to be there the moment that happens. That opportunity could appear in a month, or it could take two years. So if you're a holistic nutritionist who wants to go on The View, you need to send them pitches regularly until the day comes that they do a segment on holistic nutrition; if you run a new kind of social media site and want to be in Wired, you need be on their radar the moment they assign a story on new social media sites. This is where persistence and patience -- in addition to precision -- become a must.
Hiring a Good Publicist Is All About Knowing What to Ask
By helping to create invaluable media exposure for your venture, a good publicist can be your most powerful ally. A bad publicist can be like a shady mechanic -- they keep your operation in a cloak of mystery because it isn't about doing the job; it's about making the money. But by asking the right questions you can divvy out the good publicist from the shady mechanic who is going to leave your car broken so you have to come back -- and, of course, keep paying. So if you are interviewing a publicist and they show you whom they represent and how much media they get, ask them how they did it. A good publicist will tell you. But a lot of publicists take on clients who are already well-known and take credit for the media coverage -- and they won't answer the question because they weren't actually responsible for it. In addition, just because they represent people in the same field doesn't mean it's necessarily good for you -- if you have a skin care line and they already represent 10 skin care lines, you may get lost in the shuffle. Ask about that as well. The point is that hiring a publicist you can trust who winds up being that powerful ally boils down to transparency -- a publicist who is secretive probably has reasons to keep secrets, while an honest publicist will happily answer questions. Finally, if they claim that that they can guarantee media coverage or insinuate that the media just does what they say, you've got a red flag there: media coverage is the editor, writer or producer's decision, and neither you nor a publicist can make them cover you.