I got the horses in the back

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I stumbled onto a profound communications lesson when “Old Town Road” broke the record for most weeks at number one. In the entire 60+ year history of the Billboard charts.

I’ll confess I was astounded when I heard about this achievement. If this was a movie, it would be dismissed as too far-fetched. I mean, my kids have been singing it incessantly, and every third car that drives by was playing it this summer. But seriously?

A 19-year-old no-name buys a beat for $30 off the internet, puts together a 2-minute song, and with his first effort, knocks off the greatest artists of multiple generations? This song beat the Beatles’ best? Mariah Carey (teen-age Michael’s fav) holds the record for most total weeks at the top (79), but Lil Nas X’s sensation shot past her classics. Even Elton John’s famed tribute to the late Princess Diana couldn’t hold a candle to this out-of-nowhere juggernaut.

But when I saw the pair of songs tied for the previous record, something started to come together.

“One Sweet Day,” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men . . .

“Despacito,” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, featuring Justin Bieber . . .

Unseated by “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X, featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.

Do you see it?

These three all-timers represent collaborations, and two of the three blend different musical genres.

Clearly their popularity stems as much from their appeal to multiple audiences as from their catchy choruses.

What happens when a song unites two armies of fans, followers of two of the biggest acts of the ‘90s? “One Sweet Day” sets the new record with 16 weeks at number one in 1996.

And then what happens when a song that’s topping the Latin charts adds a remix featuring a teen pop champion? Countless millions of “Beliebers” merge with fans of Latin music, and “Despacito” ties that record in 2017.

To Lil Nas X’s credit, he hit number one by himself, and then the next week released the remix featuring Cyrus that propelled his song to 19 weeks and counting. Neither artist had anywhere close to the existing fan bases as the stars they toppled. Sorry Billy Ray, but “Achy Breaky Heart” doesn’t count anymore, and being Hannah Montana’s dad only takes you so far.

Their triumph came more through combining two masses that, until now, may have been headed in the same direction but drove in separate lanes. “Old Town” isn’t the first song to combine hip hop and country music, but it’s clearly the first mainstream hit.

There are lots more PR lessons in this success story – the role of conflict in a narrative (attention soared after Billboard dropped the song from its country chart), Nas X’s artful use of memes and social media to push the song out himself, and the influence of emerging platforms like TikTok.

But the primary takeaway I’d like to emphasize is this one:

For your next big content project, seek a collaborator who brings an audience that’s different than yours. Maybe your combined followers will power you to the business version of a runaway smash.

Peerless free pitching resource

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My primary goal with these weekly posts is to connect you with resources to increase your media placements.

This week that’s easy, because I’m going to introduce you to the FREE Earned Media Mastery summit. I seriously have no idea how the organizers have pulled together so many powerhouse presenters for one event.

And based on what they’re paying me to participate, I can’t figure out how they’re able to offer this to you for free.

This is just the top of the line-up:

I’ve got Jonah Berger’s “Contagious” on my Kindle and David Meerman Scott’s “New Rules of Marketing and PR” on my desk. I read Gini’s stuff weekly. Tom Hallman won a Pulitzer for my favorite feature story of all time. Katie Paine has been a measurement legend since I was studying PR in college. And Ronn Torossian – personality-wise and style-wise, we couldn’t be more different. That’s probably why I find him so intriguing. There are many more speakers listed on the summit’s site.

You watch on your own time (within the summit window), where you want. Sessions are about 35-45 minutes long. Mine will be the next evolution of the material I originally shared via my free webinar back in May, so if you missed that one this will be extra useful for you.

The summit is Aug. 22nd, and you get free access to all the sessions for 48 hours. So register and block some time on your calendar. And then let me know which sessions you found most valuable.

 

“Marital” Arts After School Program

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When flag football season ended, I was looking for something fun for my son to do after school. A friend referred me to this ad at her grocery store: “Marital Arts After School Program.” Now, you might think it’s too soon for my 13-year-old to start thinking about marriage and learning marital arts, but that’s what this place is offering. I can only assume they teach remote control sharing and picking up your own socks.

Obviously the ad meant to say “Martial Arts,” not Marital Arts. It’s easy to think, ‘Well, small, family-owned business, they probably don’t have a big budget.’ That’s what makes this all the more tragic. They squandered the marketing money they had because they didn’t proofread thoroughly. And proofreading doesn’t cost a thing.

No matter your budget, your creativity level, whether you have cool stories to pitch or a lame org to cover, the one thing that is in your control is clean copy. While a Fortune 500 company may have many resources and advantages that locally owned businesses don’t, clean copy is an equalizer. It doesn’t come down to money or even skill, it just comes down to effort. Put in the extra work to make sure your content is free of typos, spelling errors, grammar errors, and inconsistencies.

Here are four ways to up your proofreading game:

  1. Commit to doing it. Make it a never-skip part of your writing process.
  2. Take a break before proofreading. Give your brain time to switch gears and come back to your project with fresh eyes.
  3. Read from the bottom up. This helps you focus less on the meaning of the content and more on each word and sentence.
  4. Get someone else to do it. You’ve spent so long on this post you’ve practically memorized it. Which makes it easy for your brain to skip over words and miss errors. Ask a coworker to take a look and catch anything you’re missing.

You may not get to choose the stories you’re asked to promote. And you probably don’t get to decide your budget. But writing error-free is 100% within your control.

And if this is something you’ve struggled with (are you always a little unsure about when to use compliment and complement?), check out my Definitive Guide to PR Writing, where I devote a whole module to clean copy.

We work so hard to get the things we write in front of the right audiences. Let’s make sure that when they see them there’s no confusion about whether our event involves karate moves or marriage advice.

Don’t focus on keeping your job

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“If you want to keep your job (or your clients), then you need to be a good order-taker.”

While 100 percent true, that is some of the worst advice I’ve ever heard.

Yes – one of the easiest justifications for a boss to let you go is to think, “I asked them to do these things, and they just aren’t doing them.”

But that level of thinking is way beneath you.

Because your ultimate goal isn’t to merely “keep” your job. It’s to achieve more independence and fulfillment in your career. In most cases, you really want to “lose” your job and get a better one, right? And to succeed at that, you must go way beyond taking orders.

Obligatory disclaimer: Yes, of course, you need to complete the assignments that your bosses give you. That’s a given. The rewards and freedom come from going beyond those.

What if you’re stuck under such an onslaught of orders that it’s all you can do to keep up with them, let alone do more? I’m sorry if this comes across as harsh, but nothing is going to change unless you change. As long as you keep being excellent at completing tasks other people give you, they’re going to keep giving you more!

The top performers I work with – the ones who are on track to call their own shots about where and when they work – think ahead and anticipate their bosses’ next request. Not because they’re mind readers, but because they grasp the organizations’ business objectives and relish the responsibility to meet them. Regardless of the list of “orders” they’ve been given to fulfill.

Over time, management recognizes that they’ve got a special team member, and bosses start to back off, because they’re distracted by problems. And that frees you up to innovate and exercise your unique expertise to pursue the vital few initiatives that will deliver the most value.

And you can dive into the type of mind-bending creative work that order-takers “never have time” to even attempt. That’s the type of work that earns the best business results. And then management (or clients) do whatever it takes to keep you happy, whether that’s promotions, raises, more flexibility, or all of the above.

Have fun trying to “lose” your job :).

Some say BI, some say WSJ

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One of my favorite things about doing PR in this day and age is learning about and keeping up with all the new and developing media outlets.

During my pitching workshops I show a slide of the Top 35 digital-only news sites and everyone counts up the number they are familiar with. The average is about 20 – and I bet your boss has heard of even fewer than that.

At the same time, venerable outlets are still plugging away, some even experiencing paid subscription growth.

The key is in recognizing that there is no longer any such thing as a “national” media outlet. Every site reaches only a segment of the amorphous blob of differing ages, ideologies, and interests. It’s thrilling!

Your bosses still swear by the WSJ (because they secretly hope their b-school buddies who read it will see their names :). But sometimes they forget that the new recruits they’re trying to reach are actually surfing Business Insider instead.

Neither outlet is “right” or “wrong” – that’s where your knowledge and expertise come in.

Take Ashley Davidson of Fish Consulting, who runs a team of pitching pros focused on propelling franchise businesses to new heights. A couple weeks ago she shared this with me:

“I was already an account director at an agency and a busy freelance writer when I took your media relations workshop, but the strategies and actionable advice you shared had a huge impact. One of your core principles about strategizing our media targets immediately changed the way my team pitched, and we follow it religiously to this day. Applying what I learned from you allowed us to land placements in The Wall Street Journal, Cheddar, Nation’s Restaurant News, Business Insider, and CNN Business when we recently helped Jamba announce its rebrand.”

You don’t land the same announcement in outlets that diverse without first understanding the nuances and preferences that distinguish them from each other.

I’d love to help you get results like Ashley and her team are getting.

Join me at my next Secrets of Media Relations Masters workshop in New York in September. This is a popular destination (squeeze in some newsroom visits while you’re there – I’ll show you how) at an optimal time of year. The last several have sold out, so we added more capacity this time, but still… I wouldn’t wait.

1 pitching strategy that stands out

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There’s a common strategy that stands out among the great media relations pros I’ve observed.

They all do this one thing. And most of the people who are struggling to pitch . . .  don’t do it.

I saw it again this week during a presentation to my Inner Circle. Here’s one of the opening slides that gave just a sliver of the standalone articles my guest has landed over the last twelve months:

She’s Michaela Kron, senior PR manager at Duolingo. She joined the Inner Circle in 2015 (paying out of her own pocket) to accelerate her PR growth. And this week she gave back by sharing how she’s applied all she’s learned from the Inner Circle with tremendous success.

One of them – that strategy I mentioned that all great pitching pros implement – is building a custom media list for every new story angle.

What? On top of everything else today’s overworked PR pros are taxed with? Maybe – you might be thinking – if I worked somewhere like Duolingo, with all those resources . . .

But you’d be surprised at what Michaela has to work with. Duolingo is still in startup mode, with only 180 employees, and Michaela does ALL its social media and splits PR duties with the only other member of her team (her boss).

And she still swears by creating a new list for each pitch. Her lists are 75-100 journalists long – and it’s not as much work as it sounds, if you build it into your daily and weekly routine.

Michaela’s daily media monitoring and reacting to journalists on Twitter and via email keeps a steady stream of new contacts top-of-mind for her. After that, she researches outlets she really wants to get into one at a time to identify the right people. You won’t see any lists pulled from a media database in her office.

And that’s how Michaela and her boss are dominating the “share of voice” in the language learning space, with multiples more coverage than a competitor with four times Duolingo’s revenue.

Michaela and I also discussed:

– the simple but nuanced media placement scoring system she uses to track results, that goes beyond mere reach

– how she works with colleagues to uncover and create great story angles

– 10 word-for-word pitches she used to land some of her best placements over the past year

This presentation is only available to members of my Inner Circle group coaching program, which is currently closed to new members. But the recording lives on inside our Training Vault.

If you’d like to watch it someday – and be a part of new trainings like this every month – sign up on our wait list. That way you’ll be sure to know when we open up again.

The PR pro’s Independence Day

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Most people aren’t working for what they really want. This scourge is especially prevalent among PR pros.

Are you falling victim to it?

When you’re really honest with yourself, when you think about your job and career, does the word “independent” come readily to mind? Or do you think more of words and feelings such as “tied” or “stuck” or “pressure” or “stressed”?

Most PR people are pursuing goals by default. Goals they think they are supposed to have, based on what other people seem to think is important.

For example, the most common career goal for a PR person is: keep advancing, get more responsibility and a higher salary.

Yet when you ask them why, they often don’t have a good answer (especially after they’ve climbed past entry level).

Here are some more specific and purposeful goals that I’ve heard from a select few pros who are really in tune with themselves:

• Be the best of the best – climb the ladder and see what I can accomplish working with the best and the brightest.
• Make a fulfilling contribution to society regardless of salary.
• Make as much money as possible in the least number of hours per week.
• Save enough so I don’t need to work anymore so I can (insert noble purpose here).

You can’t achieve all four of those, but you definitely can achieve one of them. As long as you free yourself from stereotypes and assumptions based on what others think.

I don’t care what your career goal is. All I care about is that it’s yours. Not your mom’s, your group of friends’, or the collective example of the people you follow on Instagram.

This 4th of July, shun default thinking and declare independence for yourself. Like Ken Li did – this is still my all-time most popular post.

What if I don’t care about your product?

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There’s a certain distinction between pitching a “product” and pitching your “business” that makes a big difference in earning coverage.

A product can be any concrete output from your employer – a consumer product if that’s what you do. Or a research paper if you’re at a university, or a social-good program if you’re at a nonprofit. Those are just a few examples.

Products are generally designed to have benefits for their intended market – that’s kinda the whole point of their existence. So when you craft your pitch, you naturally end up emphasizing why this topic would be relevant to your target journalist’s readers or viewers.

Like, if you’re pitching chocolate-covered ice cream treats to a food site, you’re going to emphasize what makes your treat appealing. And that’s relevant to the type of person who surfs a food site for ideas on tasty things to try out.

But when your goal is to get an article or segment about your business (or school or hospital or nonprofit or whatever), that’s not as natural. I know this because the typical “company profile” pitch I see is simply a long list of achievements or milestones about why you think your company is so great, concluding with an offer to interview the CEO.

If I’m your target journalist, how does it help my readers or viewers to know how great your company is? What can they do differently after learning about this?

Most people looking for new treats to buy don’t care about the revenue growth of treat companies, or the safety awards they’ve won, or the diversity of their C-suite, or the other things you typically emphasize in a company pitch.

You know who does care about those things? Leaders and managers of other organizations who want to achieve similar successes. Who have zero interest in which ice cream treat to buy.

To succeed with journalists who cater to that audience, you need a different approach. Instead of focusing on the “what” you’ve accomplished, you deliver a specific story on “how” you pulled it off. So readers or viewers can implement what they learn for their own success.

That’s just one example. You can succeed with similar approaches aimed at potential investors, or potential employees, to name just a few different groups than your typical customer.

The key distinction you need to make is: When you shift from pitching a product story to a business story, you need to shift your audience, too.

P.S. My post last week about my radical summer experiment got the biggest response I’ve seen in years. All of it was positive, but I’m sure there are people out there who would disagree with my take. If you missed it, check it out and let me know where you fall.

A radical experiment for the summer

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I’m trying a radical experiment this summer to improve my creativity and productivity.

You may not need to take this as far as I am, but I recommend to you the goal and the principles behind this – I KNOW it will boost your results, in all aspects of your life.

If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you know how passionate I am about creating head space for clear thinking and sound decision-making. Yes, even though we work in a “service business” and need a keen understanding of quickly shifting media trends.

I’ve been striving – struggling? – to keep peeling back layers of distraction and digital wheel-spinning, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Earlier this year I even got my son’s attention with the things I don’t do when I first get to the office every morning.

But last week, during a conversation with my other son about overusing his smartphone, I realized that despite my previous comfort level, I had actually been rationalizing some fairly ineffective behavior for quite a while.

What vice am I confessing? Surfing the web on my phone.

Doesn’t sound like that big a deal – and by no means am I saying it’s a bad thing. But here’s why I don’t like that habit in myself.

I’m pretty good about only doing email and social media during set times, when I’m at my computer. Being purposeful and effective so I preserve my best time and thinking for the creative work that gets me the most value and results. Same with using the web to follow the news of our industry and important civic issues that have a direct result on my life and business – on my computer.

But now I’ve caught myself – when I have a moment to kill, or on a brief lunch break, or before bed – whipping out my phone and hopping on the runaway train of whatever kryptonite topic I’m too into at the moment. Doing the exact thing I railed against in this post from 2017 about the virtue of letting yourself feel bored.

I realized that as great as I’ve been about being purposeful on my computer, I’ve still been too impulsive with my phone when I’m not working. Wasting way too much time and energy reading about train-wreck national political spats, or my alma mater’s perennially struggling sports teams, or my latest fascination with hole-in-the-wall barbecue joints that sell out before lunchtime.

And when I look at my bedside stand, I see stacks of popular books that I’ve wanted to read for a long time. And thoughtfully written longform magazine articles about topics that are very important to me. I wish I had more time to read all this stuff . . . Aha, there’s the gap.

So here’s my radical experiment. From now until my kids go back to school . . . when I’m not at my computer working . . . if I have the urge to read something, instead of looking at my phone for “whatever is new,” I commit to only reading print.

I’ve got a personal finance book, and a marketing book, and some issues of The Atlantic and Outside, that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.

This commitment will allow me to be absolutely purposeful, instead of impulsive, and will meet the same intellectual and entertainment needs that web surfing does. Without the end result of looking up from my phone and realizing I just spent 20 minutes reading about something I don’t really care about.

Why does it have to be print? Because I don’t trust myself with my phone in my hand in these circumstances – anything with a link in it is a bit too dangerous for me :). I need to make a radical departure to re-route some neural pathways. Plus I’m a bit old-school and still enjoy the feel of a book or magazine in my hands.

You don’t need to go this far. You could set a limit that you’d only read books on your phone via Kindle or another book app. And/or only meaningful web pieces you’ve saved to a “read later” app like Instapaper or Pocket.

The point is to break the habit of pulling out your phone for mere stimulation, and instead respond to that urge for information by turning to something you’ve previously decided is valuable.

When my kids go back to school at the end of the summer, I’ll report back to you on how this experiment goes.

In the meantime, for your sake, I encourage you to take one step to make your media consumption more purposeful and less impulsive.

It’s weird talking about ethics

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I don’t talk about PR ethics in my speeches. Nor do I cover the subject in these posts.

Never made a conscious decision not to. I guess I tend to view ethics as something that is “lived” and not spoken. Anyone can talk a big game about doing the right thing, but the real test is how they act.

And then I got asked to be a guest in a podcast about PR ethics :).

Mark McClennan is an experienced PR executive, a former national president of PRSA, and someone I respect immensely. (I once saw him fulfill a speaking commitment to a bunch of college students and then drive himself straight to the hospital to treat a serious infection.) His podcast “Ethical Voices” is a great resource to our profession and a project I really admire.

But my first reaction was to politely suggest that I might not be a great guest for him. Off the top of my head I couldn’t think of any ethical dilemmas I’d confronted that would be helpful for others to learn from. And like I wrote above, I feel kinda weird talking about my own ethics.

But like the veteran PR pro he is, Mark persisted :).

I listened to a couple of the other interviews he’s done, and I felt really grateful to those PR vets who shared their thoughts and experiences. Because, I realized, if all of us are reserved about ethics, how can we all as a profession develop ethical frameworks for our decisions? How can we evaluate our ideas about emerging dilemmas posed by advancing technology?

So I did the interview. And doing so surfaced some real and lasting ethical lessons I’ve learned over the years. I really should have thought more deeply about this sooner, and gotten over my reluctance to participate in the dialogue about this important topic.

During the podcast, we discuss:

– the ethical lapses I see from media relations professionals, and how these missteps hurt their outcomes and the industry
– how I handled the age-old question of “What do you do when someone asks you to promote something you don’t believe in?”
– why every PR pro (even – and especially – entry-level professionals) needs a “freedom fund”
– my hypothesis on why most of the ethical dilemmas I faced happened early in my career, and how you can apply this yourself
– a crazy-flukey positive outcome that resulted from an ethical decision I made years before (I never connected the two until preparing for this interview. Karma is real!)

You can listen to the interview here (and check out the great other interviews Mark has assembled). And let’s all talk more about ethics.