REI’s awesome move to shutter stores for Black Friday reminded me many PR tips forget the real definition of PR (and also demonstrated an oft-overlooked publicity tactic, but more on that later).

I didn’t come up with this definition – I heard it from a PR professor back in the day, and I’m sure he heard it from someone else. The formula for effective PR is “Performance, then Recognition.”

The key element is your organization needs to DO something, then you can earn coverage/build buzz based on it. Not what you believe, hope, or “call for.” Now, because you’re subscribed here you know there are ways clever PR folk can sometimes pull rabbits out of hats and get attention even when there’s nothing new to pitch.

But consistent, significant, attitude-shifting communication is almost always predicated on ACTION.

Now, REI could have kicked off its “Opt Outside” campaign with merely a big ad buy or following basic PR tips. That’s what most companies do. Or if they wanted to ramp it up a notch they could have shut the stores for a Saturday in the summer or something. But to REALLY make a statement with credibility, they closed on the biggest shopping day of the year. That’s really putting their money behind their “movement.”

Now here’s the layer to this that’s less obvious – REI is also applying an approach that I’ve been teaching the last couple years called the “backlash trend strategy.” You see all those people falling over themselves to one-up each other around a trend – spending ever more money on Super Bowl ads, or unveiling ever more lavish hotel suites, or opening earlier and earlier on Black Friday? Then you do the opposite. Instead of competing against all the other people chasing the trend, you’re the single contrarian example riding the nascent backlash.

You know how coffee shops seem to have increasingly posh names for their product? A British retailer revised its coffee menu to translate “cappuccino” to “frothy coffee” and “latte” to “really, really milky coffee,” among other twists. They got worldwide publicity.

REI isn’t the first retailer to ride the anti-Black Friday backlash. Another company made a more overt attack on it last year, which resulted in the greatest retail-story headline of all time: This company sold $180,000 worth of actual B.S. on Black Friday.

Next steps for you? Build up credibility with your executives or clients so they don’t just ask you “how to say it” or even “what to say.” You don’t want to simply execute basic PR tips, do you? You want to be part of the discussion at the beginning of the conversation around “what should we do?”

REI’s awesome move to shutter stores for Black Friday reminded me of the real definition of PR (and also demonstrated an oft-overlooked publicity tactic).

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Take your time and read today’s post… Because if there’s any type of PR problem that you want to have, the one I talk about today is the one!

I first met Gabrielle Ferree last December when she attended my Pitching Boot Camp in her home city of Atlanta.

She stood out from the crowd not just for her savvy comments and sharp questions, but for the level of success she clearly had already achieved.

I saw her again last week at a big industry conference that happened to be in Atlanta. She showed me some photos from her beautiful wedding from over the summer and told me how her new husband is (also) a go-getter and was supportive of her joining my Inner Circle program even if her company won’t reimburse her.

“It’s getting almost too easy,” Gabrielle said, not bragging, just saying.

She represents a software company, and she has great relationships with the “tech nerds” (my name for them) who cover her company at the various industry publications that matter.

“I didn’t have those relationships in December,” she said, “but I used your techniques I learned at the boot camp throughout this year to get ‘up close and personal’ with them by improving my pitching and constantly trying to provide value to them.”

She told me she was looking forward to joining the Inner Circle to raise her game and work towards landing national coverage. Knowing Gabrielle, she’ll get there.

Gabrielle mastered a SINGLE element of the craft and leveraged it in a major way. She discovered how to earn herself PREFERRED status among a group of journalists and bloggers.

And now, it’s really easy for her to get great results. (This is how it’s supposed to be folks!)

Now here’s the part where you really need to pay attention:

Journalists only have so much time in the day. And they only have so much room for relationships with PR pros.

So if YOU aren’t the one that’s strategically building a relationship with them, you can be confident that someone like Gabrielle is. And she knows how to do it really well.

What’s worse is that once someone like Gabrielle earns that PREFERRED status with a journalist or blogger, that person is going to have less of a need for another relationship with another PR pro like you.

There is a first mover advantage here, and Gabrielle is proof of just how big that advantage can be.

Twice a year, I make available a way for you to get on the fast track to a higher level of the PR game. It’s called the Inner Circle.

Gabrielle joined Tuesday right after I opened it up to our early-bird notification list.

Most of the memberships available are already gone. But because you’re one of my subscribers, I owe it to you to make you aware of this opportunity.

The opportunity will definitely ends by 5 pm ET Friday… because at that time I will “close the doors.”

If you’d like to take the next step towards building a strategic network of journalists and bloggers where your name has PREFERRED status…

Join the Inner Circle here.

Either way, I’ll be back next week with more PR tips.

“It’s almost getting too easy,” she told me, not bragging, just saying. She mastered a SINGLE element of the craft and leveraged it in a major way. Now she’s tackling the next step . . .

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She was right in the front. All three times.

This week was the annual PRSA International Conference, the largest PR conference in the country. I gave three different presentations. In each one of them, this lady named Karen sat in the front row.

When I opened it up for questions, hers was the first hand in the air. One time after I answered hers and about four others, there was a lull. After waiting politely, Karen asked another one.

In one of the sessions I invited people to draft pitches on the fly and come forward to share with the crowd and get feedback. Guess who was first in line?

I admired her thirst for knowledge, and I assumed she was making a career transition and was just starting out in media relations.

After the third time, I had to talk to this person. Her full name is Karen Thurm Safran, VP of Strategic Partnerships at iD Tech. And guess what else?

She’s been pitching for 17 years! She’s placed stories in the New York Times FIVE TIMES. This year alone, she has been in Fortune TWICE.

I was really impressed that she’d be that aggressive about professional development when she had already accomplished so much. And I told her so. She seemed surprised I’d say that. “There’s so much to learn, I want to make the most of every opportunity,” she said.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that Karen’s attitude toward learning goes together with a stellar track record of success. One causes the other. Especially today, when media relations is changing so fast.

Whether you attend conferences or get your professional development through other means, go all in. Soak it up. If you treat learning as background noise while you’re working or otherwise multitask, your capabilities will be likewise second-rate.

Unless you’ve got a big mutual fund or a chest full of gold buried in your backyard, your career skills are your strongest financial asset. When you invest in honing them, the payoff comes via raises, promotions, and better business opportunities.

My next stop on the conference circuit is the PR News Media Relations conference in DC. Hopefully there will be many Karen-clones :).

She was right in the front. All three times. We would all benefit from this PR professional’s example of being aggressive about professional development.

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“The pitches you’ve shown have grammar errors and sentence fragments and lots of abbreviations – what’s your take on that?”

That was a question I got when I did a special webinar Tuesday. You see, I had been asked to help current university PR professors get caught up on all the changes in media relations so they can update the way they teach their students.

I was happy to accept the invitation because I love those folks (had some great mentors myself in school – thanks Drs. Wilson and Valenti) and I can only imagine how hard it is for them to juggle all their responsibilities AND keep up with everything.

And it didn’t surprise me that at least one of them was hung up on what I’ll characterize as the “informal” tone of the example pitches I showed.

Often when I do my boot camp and show an example, someone will say, “Well, the reporter obviously knew you before this pitch, right?” But the answer is no. I show people how to succeed with cold pitches, because if you can do those, you can easily adapt to people you have a relationship with.

Don’t get me wrong – my example pitches are not flippant or disrespectful. Neither are they sloppy. The reason they stood out to this Ph.D. who was asking is because they lacked the formal, stuffy tone that many of us used to associate with business writing.

Instead, they read like social media posts, or like a person would actually talk.

What the professor would call “grammar errors,” I’d term adaptations to acknowledge more common usage. Like starting a sentence with “like” instead of “such as.” And starting a sentence with a preposition :).

Also, sentence fragments = crisp communication. Abbreviations are fine if the reader will immediately know what they stand for – if you spell out National Football League, you’ll sound officious.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s no place for sloppiness, typos, or legit grammar errors. Read everything twice. Just read it aloud the second time, and if it sounds forced or stale, loosen up and keep it real.

P.S. If you like seeing LOTS of examples of successful pitches, that’s what we do in the Inner Circle. Here’s your last chance to get on the Preview Pass before the next Inner Circle enrollment window opens on Nov. 17.

That was a question I got on a recent webinar with current university PR professors. It didn’t surprise me. Here’s why I use an informal tone in my pitches.

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The second time somebody texted me asking me if I knew it was Back to the Future Day, I’d had it.

Yes, I knew. Every third web story I’d seen this week referenced it.

I know, I’m probably being too cranky. Maybe it’s because when the movie came out another kid called my bespectacled teen self “George McFly.”

But still – a dozen dudes on my social media feeds all thought they were the first to say, “Where’s my hoverboard?”And if I was that sick of it, imagine how journalists felt?

Companies have been tying pitches to this “holiday” since the calendar turned to 2015 (“Back to the Future Year).” I remember being in a pitch strategy session with a company in March 2014 talking about tying into the milestone. Yes, it works – there were lots of stories about the day. But for every successful placement, there were 10 less relevant pitches that strained to make a connection and therefore flopped.

Reminds me of this tweet I saw from a reporter on April 16th: “Good news – no more Tax Day pitches. Bad news – the marijuana people have started with the 4/20 pitches.”

It’s no longer enough just to claim a connection to a date on the calendar. If you thought of it, odds are lots of others did, too. Here are three things that can set you apart from the masses also using the same approach:

1. Start early – by the actual week of Back to the Future Day, journalists either already had their stories lined up or were totally sick of the whole thing. Or both. Lexus unveiled its hoverboard back in early August.

2. Actions speak louder than words – don’t merely claim some connection or offer a source to speak about it. Have your organization/client actually DO something different in honor of the holiday/event. Publicists for Universal Pictures didn’t just remind reporters that the movie in Back to the Future was “Jaws 19.” They produced a (cheap) mock trailer for “Jaws 19.”

3. Find a less competitive day to tie into – next week organizations will be falling over themselves to tie into Halloween. But a select few dentists around the country will be chuckling and waiting, because they will be the only ones tying into Nov. 1st. They’ll face virtually no competition for their programs about turning in trick-or-treating candy in return for movie vouchers, and they’ll get free publicity for a day.

By all means, have fun with your creative pitches and holiday tie-ins. Just don’t settle for what everyone else is doing.

And if I was that sick of it, imagine how journalists felt? When pitching media, it’s no longer enough just to claim a connection to a date on the calendar. Here are three ways to set yourself apart from the masses.

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Take off your “PR pro” hat for a minute and put on your “shopper” hat.

You know how you’re constantly inundated with ads and offers and options for where to spend your money? How the web, social media, and email make it ever easier for brands and retailers to tout their next best things?

You’re probably like me – all of that info overload just makes you gravitate to what’s familiar and comfortable to you. For some, that may be Amazon. You know you might be able to hunt around and find a product somewhere else for a little cheaper, but with Amazon Prime, you know you’ll get what you order in two days, you know the return policy, no surprises.

Or maybe you love Trader Joe’s. Yes, you could get thousands of more products at a big box grocer, but you’d rather have the across-the-board quality on fewer items. Maybe you can find vanilla crème-chocolate wafer cookies somewhere else, but you love your Joe Joe’s and that’s what you want.

The point is: an overabundance of options usually leads people to consolidate their trust into a few select providers.

Put your “PR pro” hat back on now. How does this relate to the way journalists and bloggers deal with the frenzy of PR people reaching out to them all the time?

Rather than taking a little bit here, a little bit there from a broad cross section of the people who contact them, they actually develop a relatively few trusted contacts and go back to them again and again.

I see this with my most successful Inner Circle members – they’ve watched as resistance to their outreach wanes and then is replaced by requests for help from media.

Journalists call such trusted folks “sources.” That’s where you want to be.

The rest are dismissed as noise, pests, or at worst, “flacks” who get in the way more than help.

So how do you go from unknown or “flack” to “source”?

We’ve covered a lot of relevant tips in these posts. But the biggest first step is to narrow your focus to a manageable number of media influencers. Just like they can’t keep up with EVERY person trying to get their attention, you can’t be all things to all journalists.

Spend 80 percent of your time reaching out to the top 20 percent of your media list.

Once you’ve achieve “source” status, everything gets a lot easier.

P.S. ICYMI last week, we’re opening up the Inner Circle to new members on Nov. 17. Last time the spots sold out fast, so there wasn’t much time to think about it. If you want to have a chance, you need to start your due diligence NOW. Get a behind-the-scenes tour of the Inner Circle by signing up for a “Preview Pass.” It’s free and you get to learn from the results members are earning.

If you take off your “PR pro” hat for a minute and put on your “shopper” hat, you may find a parallel that helps explain why journalists and bloggers deal with PR people the way they do.

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I want to introduce you to someone. She’s one of the most effective PR pros I’ve ever worked with, and I finally figured out why.

She’s comms VP at a meteoric software company and a client of mine. Two weeks ago I spent a day with her advising several executives at the company.

First of all, I was amazed that she got two sets of these guys to take 3.5 hours out of their days to sit down with me. Some had flown in late the night before and were about to hit the road again after we were done.

Typically it’s difficult to get executives to appreciate the importance and value of media relations, let alone ask them to personally invest in it.

And not only did they show up, they listened to her. And because they trust her, they listened to me. Some of them didn’t necessarily like what I had to say to them, but they trusted her that it would make their business better, so they accepted it.

Most remarkably, she has only been at this company for a few months.

In chatting with her about it privately, it dawned on me. She’s really good at a lot of media relations skills – identifying newsworthy angles, connecting with reporters, identifying opportunities and threats. But what she excels at is influencing others over whom she has no real authority.

Think about it – that’s really the essence of media relations, isn’t it? You definitely don’t have authority over your media contacts, but you seek to build trust and match interests with them to the point where they act on your suggestions.

And to have content to share with them, you need to influence people within your organization (or your clients) to work with you. Often you need to tell people that what’s important to them isn’t newsworthy. And then ask them to change their approach or invest more effort to help you in a way that doesn’t immediately support their individual objectives.

Sounds challenging when I put it like that, but it can be done. And this stellar VP is Exhibit A.

No matter what your level of seniority, are you actively developing your ability to influence others over whom you have no authority?

This comms VP is one of the most effective PR pros I’ve ever worked with, and I finally figured out why.

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The decisions you make in your job are more valuable than the work you do.

That’s the truth, even though your current work environment may not reflect it. If that’s the case, act according to this truth and you will eventually end up somewhere that does.

I was sharing this with one of my long-time personal coaching clients, a self-confessed workaholic AND perfectionist (it’s a wonder a guy like him needs a coach :)).

One of his team members had just delivered a project that was “good but not great.” My client expressed second thoughts about choosing NOT to redo it. But he also labeled the particular project as “not very important.”

Knowing how busy he is with “high importance” tasks, I praised his choice and taught him the truth you read at the beginning of this email. He struggled with it for a bit, maybe like you are now, because he’s basically been paid by the hour his whole career. It’s tough for him to justify in his mind “billing” someone for an hour of “making decisions,” for example.

Think about the most successful people in business. Do you really think people evaluated Steve Jobs on the quality of the memos he wrote? Or do people derive value from some financial projections that Warren Buffet ran on Excel? Of course not – they judge Jobs on his track record for deciding which products to develop and when they were great enough to ship. And Buffet on which companies he chose to invest in.

Now, of course, you’re not a CEO of a huge company and neither am I. We both have to do actual work to merely stay above water in our current roles (after all, I wrote this email, didn’t I?). This is a principle of degrees, not absolutes.

But think about this for a minute – how much more value would you deliver to your current and future employers if you made some or all of the following decisions?

– Decide to pitch only newsworthy, relevant stories and not cave on those you know will go nowhere
– Decide to spend an hour a week reaching out to your top media targets and asking nothing from them in return
– Decide to ignore your email and phone for two hours a day and immerse yourself in your most challenging creative responsibility for that day

Those might be scary for you to imagine implementing right away. But you probably agree that over the long term your results will increase and you’d offer far more value to your clients or employer.

Decide to decide.

That’s the truth, even though your current work environment may not reflect it. If that’s the case, act according to this truth and you will eventually end up somewhere that does.

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I was on a road trip last week listening to an interview I did with a top-tier reporter earlier this year. [Yes, that’s what we PR nerds do on road trips.] Something she complained about stood out.

She pointed out how PR pros will email her and cite something she wrote recently, then recommend their spokesperson as a source for that topic. The response in her head? “Great, but I already wrote about that.”

It occurs to me that your well-intentioned customized pitches might sometimes be misconstrued as promoting someone or something that’s now “old news.”

To be sure, referencing a reporter’s earlier work is a GREAT way to stand out from the bucketloads of generic mass pitches she gets every day. Your challenge, though, is to make sure that your pitch propels the earlier stories forward rather than repeats them.

Bad example:

Dear Reporter, I saw your piece on how unbundling is changing cable TV and thought you’d like to talk to our director of research, he’s a great source on the changing TV environment. His credentials are . . .

Good example:

Dear Reporter, I saw your piece on how unbundling is changing cable TV — you raised some great questions about how this will affect subscription services like Netflix and Hulu. I thought you might be interested in new research [embargoed until next week] that identifies the pricing structure millennials say they’d accept for access to ESPN and the other content currently only available on cable or satellite. Would you like to look at the results?

The key distinction to make is that you aren’t pitching a source, you’re pitching a new story angle that grows out of the old one.

Want to see more examples of how to do this correctly? And also tune up your approach to coming up with newsworthy and shareworthy angles?

I’ll be teaching lots more about both during a free webinar TODAY at noon ET. If that time has passed, or you’ve got a conflict, don’t fret – you can get the recording even if you register after it’s over.

I only do 2-3 free webinars a year because I focus the rest of my time and energy on the Inner Circle. This one today is being hosted by PR power blog SpinSucks.com.

Here’s their take on my stuff, with registration instructions at the bottom.

P.S. If you haven’t heard me speak, today’s webinar (or the recording later) will give you a good sample, complete with hip hop references and my Benedict-Cumberbatch-wannabe impersonation.

In an interview earlier this year, a top-tier reporter complained to me about something PR pros tend to do. We should all take note and change our customized pitches accordingly.

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This seems contradictory at first:

Media love getting fresh, exclusive content so they can be sure no one else has it and therefore their site will get more traffic. But when media don’t get things first, they will still post it if it’s clear the content will “perform well online.”

How can they tell if it will perform well online? Well, there’s old school subjective news judgement. And there’s also modern-day quantitative metrics: if a photo of a mysteriously colored dress is getting a ton of traffic on BuzzFeed, it will probably get decent traffic on a different site, too.

Many journalists and bloggers do this, but for today’s purposes think of a morning show producer. She comes in to her office and obviously looks at what’s trending on Twitter and Facebook. But she also looks at Google Trends to see what people are searching for, and also at the accelerating posts on sites like Mashable, BuzzFeed, and Huffington Post. Here’s the best news: on a smaller scale, YOU can influence this factor.

What if you can drive traffic to a story you placed in a smaller outlet, so that it’s then a proven commodity? Then you point out to larger outlets that it’s performing well online, and, in contrast to being viewed as “old news,” it’s more appealing to them.

To do this successfully it helps for you to have an existing platform to reach a lot of your followers at once. Sure, your organization’s Twitter and Facebook feeds spring to mind, but the click-through rates from those are actually pretty low.

The best platforms for driving traffic to your placements are healthy email lists and high-traffic blogs.

One of my clients is a relatively small company but has built up an email newsletter with 360,000 subscribers. Another is a much larger organization with 500,000 subscribers. Of course, like all email newsletters, only a fraction of the total subscribers open any given email, but those are still powerful avenues for sharing links to media placements with followers.

An example of a powerful platform in blog form is Spin Sucks. It’s one of the top PR blogs in the world (as ranked by Cision, Forbes, Marketwired, and Traackr) with 72,000 unique visitors per month. Its principal voice is Gini Dietrich, co-founder and CEO of her own PR firm and a gifted writer. When she wants traffic to go somewhere, she has a platform in place to make that happen.

Gini is a loyal advocate for her “community,” as she refers to her blog readers. I’m honored she invited me to deliver a webinar for them on “Pitching Secrets of the New Media Relations Superstars.”

If you haven’t heard me speak yet, this is a quick way to get more depth on my sometimes contrarian approach to earning media coverage. (I only do free webinars 2-3 times a year).

The free webinar is a week from today at noon ET. Here’s Gini’s take on what I have to offer, along with more details on the free webinar.

Media love getting fresh, exclusive content. But even when media don’t get things first, they will still post it if it’s clear the content will “perform well online.” Is there a way to influence this factor?

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