I learned from my mistake

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Three weeks ago I had a short phone conversation that dramatically underscored an important lesson I mistakenly thought I had already learned. It was about how I determine value. More specifically, how I decide how much to pay for things.

Here’s the short backstory: My central air conditioner went out and needed to be replaced. On top of that, it turned out to be best to replace the furnace, too. See, every time we’ve had it serviced in the six years we’ve lived in this house, the various technicians will always tell me that it was installed improperly by the original builder and wasn’t working right. So I decided to look for a package deal.

Knowing me like you do, you can imagine that I was pretty thorough on researching brands and seeking bids. I had three different estimators out to the house. Our preferred heating and air company was the highest bid, which didn’t surprise me because they have a reputation for premium quality work. What DID surprise me was how low the competing company’s bid was. They had just replaced my neighbor’s A/C, and he loved them. And they were significantly less money for the same units.

So I called the sales guy back for the premium company and explained that if they could match the lower bid, we’d go with him. He didn’t promise anything, and a few minutes later called back with a revision that only shaved off a small fraction. He insisted that’s what it would cost to do the job right.

I said, “Well, thanks for the effort, but we’re going to go with the other guys if you can’t match their price.”

And in his response came the lesson: “I certainly respect your choice, Michael. But let me ask you – what did the guy who built your house choose?”

I didn’t get him at first. Did he want me to say the brand of the furnace or something? He left me twisting in the wind until I figured it out: “Ummm, he probably chose the cheapest option.”

“Yes – and you’ve been paying higher utilities bills every month for years because of that choice.”

I wrapped up the call and hung up intending to call the other company. But I kept thinking about his point. This was a real investment in my home, a decision that would affect us pretty much every day for the next 20 years. Yes, the parts were the same, but the skill and experience and knowledge of the guys doing the installation was the real value. Why was I fixated on getting the lowest price? Why wasn’t I thinking of the best long-term investment?

So I called him back, admitted that he had gotten to me, and pulled the trigger. Now that the job is done and I’ve seen all the extra attention to detail, air flow calculations, and more sophisticated duct work, I know I made the right choice.

It occurred to me that many people are unknowingly and continuously making the same mistake with their careers that I almost made with my heating and cooling.

Your career is your most significant financial asset. It’s also one of your most significant sources of emotional reward and frustration. And that’s why allocating your professional development funds is your most important decision. Investing in yourself now leads to improving your results, which in turn leads to more money via your paycheck every single month for years to come.

If you want to buy the “quick fix,” it’s going to be cheaper. Unfortunately, it’s also temporary. And the short-term thinking only leads to more short-term thinking. So you’ll pretty much be STUCK on a hamster wheel looking for the next short-term fix.

Investment in yourself is a completely different decision. The payoff is slower, but bigger… exponentially bigger. And you basically end up UPGRADING yourself over time. So problems you’re dealing with now will most likely NOT be problems again. You’ll outgrow them.

So it’s your choice which route to take. If you have the long term view and are committed to excellence, you’re in the right place. If you’re looking for short term fixes, there are plenty of other people who are willing to deliver that.

If every PR person committed to doing this, we might achieve world peace

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If you and I and every PR person committed to do this one thing, we might achieve world peace.

Okay, it wouldn’t resolve geopolitical tensions, but it WOULD achieve a significant thaw in iciness journalists and bloggers tend to feel toward PR outreach.

The “one thing” sounds obvious after the fact, but most pros I work with haven’t considered it.

Jeff Gibbons, a VP at D.C.-based News Generation, Inc., has a uniquely high success rate at booking interviews for his clients with top radio and TV news programs around the country.

He shared with me lots of things he does differently than more PR people, but here’s “the one thing” that stood out for its simplicity and effectiveness.

Before Jeff pitches a journalist or blogger, he finds a photo of him or her, and then runs through the pitch in his mind while looking at the face of the future recipient.

You can probably already see how powerful this is. If every PR person did this before pitching, it would mean that every pitch is personal and customized. That would slash the inordinate number of irrelevant emails and calls influencers are swamped with.

And the pitches that get sent would be much better. When you look at the journalist you’re about to contact, you see him or her as a real person, with deadlines and distractions, and also an insatiable need for fresh content. The language you’ll find yourself using will be more natural, and your standards will rise.

Yes, this approach will take longer than assembling a list and sending the same email to everyone on it. But your list of placements will likely be longer, too, and the list of journalists you eventually develop relationships with will definitely grow.

Jeff went on to explain the verbiage he uses at the beginning of his pitches and the rules he follows to boost the number of targets who open his emails and answer his calls. He did all this for my Inner Circle members during our August webinar.

The Inner Circle is closed to new members now. Learn more before our next enrollment window opens later this year and register your email here. Last time we sold out the premium access in 29 minutes, so it pays to get all the info early.

Systematically using Twitter to earn coverage

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Because you follow my articles and are reading this post, I can make some safe guesses about you:

– You want to get more media coverage.
– You like seeing successful examples of other people getting media coverage.
– You’re curious about using social media to help this process.

This message covers all three :).

Jeff Chandler heads PR for an infosecurity firm and is a member of my Inner Circle program. He wrote me recently to share what happened after he made systematic use of Twitter to get on reporters’ radar screens.

Instead of merely following his target media, Jeff consistently tweeted back at them and added little bits of value to the conversation. For a reminder on how to do this, here’s the article I posted back in Feb. called 5 Ways to React to Journalists on Twitter Beyond a Compliment.

One of the reporters Jeff targeted was a tech writer at CNN.com. Over the course of a few months, Jeff had retweeted some of this reporter’s stuff and also tweeted at him (“replied”), in one case about a security conference Jeff thought he’d be interested in.

Later Jeff noticed the reporter reaching out on Twitter to some industry thought leaders to ask about a computer security protocol called “SHA-1.”

So Jeff sent this tweet: “[Name], if you’re still looking for an sha 1 source, let me know and I can connect you.”

The reporter responded affirmatively and gave his email address, and you know the rest of the drill: Jeff emailed a succinct summary of his source’s credentials and also, more importantly, his take on the issue. The exchange led to an interview, and a little while later, Jeff’s spokesperson was quoted in the resulting piece, which was then syndicated to lots of other sites. Jeff’s sales team used the piece to show potential customers what his company can do for them.

Cool coincidence – the story ran the same day Jeff also had separate placements in a key industry site and also on mainstream tech giant TechCrunch.

Jeff’s email concluded: “So we had a huge press day – it was fun . . . Your system works!”

Remember, Jeff didn’t just stumble onto the clues that the CNN.com reporter was looking for someone on a topic he could help with. He was following a purposeful system. Knowing the system is just one piece – having the diligence to consistently follow it is another.

That’s a benefit that members of my Inner Circle program tell me they like – being part of a supportive community of other people who do what they do and encourage each other. Jeff’s been a member the past nine months.

Have you been following a proven system consistently to lay the building blocks of your media relations success? If you’d like help with both the knowledge of what to do AND with support, encouragement and inspiration, that’s what we do in the Inner Circle. But we only accept new members a couple times a year. Sign up here to learn more about it and be notified when the doors open.

Thanks to Jeff for sharing his great results, and here’s to success like that for you.

Do you love what you do?

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“Dad, do you love what you do for a living?”

That’s what my 9-yr-old son asked me in the kitchen a couple weeks ago. He’s actually a thoughtful kid so that wasn’t as random as it might sound.

When he was little he asked, “Why did God create bad guys? Was it so the police would have someone to catch?”

I was preoccupied with some stressor at work so at that moment . . . no, I wasn’t loving it.

But before I responded I paused and thought about it.

Candidly, if I could do anything I want with my time I’d probably go hiking in the mountains more, or take my kids to more national parks, or learn how to cook Cajun food, or watch college football.

But as I thought about it, I realized after indulging myself in those pursuits for a while, I would probably get intellectually restless.

I’m a news junkie, so I know I’d keeping watching and reading the news. And inevitably, I’d see a company or nonprofit covered in such a way that I’d wonder, “How did they get them to do that story?”

And I’d Google around for a while and make some guesses, and I even would reach out to the company’s PR reps and ask. Once I found out, I’d want to email my friends in PR and tell them what I’d learned and see what’s working for them.

And you know what? That’s kind of what I get to do for my job! I get to seek out and study the best practices that today’s most successful PR pros are using, and then share them with you.

As part of that I get to rub shoulders with really smart, dedicated PR pros who are also really good people. That’s something I’d keep trying to do if I didn’t have to work, too.

So yes, I do love what I do for a living. Not every day, not all the time, but even if I didn’t have four kids to put through college in the next few years, I’d still do a lot of it.

Do you love what you do? You don’t have to in order to be successful, or even to be happy. But it helps.

If you don’t, have you put yourself on a path to get to the point where you’ll love it? Contrary to Silicon Valley start-up propaganda, most careers require a probationary “dues paying” period. If that’s where you’re at, just make sure the ladder you are climbing is propped up against the right wall, so when you get to the top, it’s a spot you’ll love.

If you feel like you’ve put in the time and you’re not feeling it yet, earn the results you need to demand the right to re-shape your job into one you would love – most of the time :).

The digital revolution makes media pitching easier (sometimes)

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Yes, journalists and bloggers are bombarded by more pitches than ever.

Yes, mainstream outlets are consolidating and shrinking.

But the digital revolution is also making pitching EASIER in some ways, if you know how to adapt to it.

For example, one of the biggest complaints I used to hear from reporters was this:

“Oh, I hate it when I publish/air a story on a topic, and then I’m inundated with calls from PR people pushing their sources on that topic. Duh, I already did the story, it’s too late!”

But now, with continuously updated web versions, it’s not too late.

Consider this slick maneuver by Ashley Rodriguez of Fish Consulting. She attended my Pitching Boot Camp in DC in May and was kind enough to send in her success story.

Ashley represents a franchise smoothie company and is fortunate to have a CEO client who is willing to speak out on timely issues. During the chatter around New York state raising its minimum wage for fast food workers, she was shopping him around.

Ashley noticed a piece on MSNBC.com from a reporter she hadn’t pitched yet. She couldn’t find his email address anywhere, so she tweeted at him:

“Saw ur MSNBC story on $15 min wage. Are u looking 2 talk 2 CEOs or small biz owners on how it will affect their biz?”

He responded that no, he wasn’t returning to the issue, but she could send him a comment from such people and he would consider adding it to the existing piece, and included his email address.

A few hours later, a quote from Ashley’s CEO client appeared in the story.

Now, let’s not all run out and wantonly pitch sources for previously published stories. It’s important to note what Ashley did NOT do in this case, and what you shouldn’t do either:

1. Don’t scold the journalist/blogger for not including your source in the first place. You wouldn’t do this on purpose, but sometimes just saying, “You didn’t have anyone on the other side of the issue” makes you look like a whiner rather than a helpful resource.

2. Don’t suggest the same type of source and/or the same type of opinion as what’s already contained in the piece. Ashley’s CEO fit into the story because the other sources cited were politically oriented and he gave the business perspective.

3. Don’t act entitled to inclusion. Ashley’s inquiry about a future story is a good model to follow so that you come across as constructive and not critical.

4. Don’t delay. She reached him within hours of the story posting – much longer and he would have likely been far enough along on other projects to not return to it. Not to mention, most of the traffic that piece would have ever received would have already happened.

Overall takeaway – it can be easy to get frustrated by the rapid changes in our business that make things more challenging for you. But let’s look for NEW opportunities those changes open up, too.

And btw: the email formula for most employees at NBC-owned publishers is “[email protected]

One more thing: I’m apparently now old enough to be a “throwback.” Here’s my interview with PRSA for their #ThrowbackThursday series where they feature “a prominent, successful PR pro taking a look back.”

P.S. Ashley’s firm, Fish Consulting, has a really smart biz model – they focus on serving franchises. They know that’s their specialty and are okay with not landing other types of business. This allowed them to build deep expertise and connections in that one market. If you have a small- to mid-sized agency, focusing like this can be scary at first but will pay off down the road.

The three essential ingredients for a trend story media pitch

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In a recent monthly session of reviewing media pitches by Inner Circle members, I heard myself thinking this about one member’s pitch:

“You’re trying to position this as a trend story but you’re missing some of the key ingredients.”

So I recommended adding some elements to strengthen her pitch, then I thought that the “recipe” for a trend story would be helpful for you, too.

Let’s use this trend story that ran in the NY Times this week to illustrate each of the ingredients. I don’t know how this story ended up getting published, whether it was the result of PR activity or not. Regardless, it gives us a good template. It’s about the rise of computer coding “boot camps” that quickly re-train people from other fields how to write software.

Most PR people merely propose their organization or client as an example of a trend. Their media pitches totally neglect Numbers 1 and 2 below, which are actually the most important.

1. Stats that validate the trend – Find these in 9th paragraph with the stats from Glassdoor, followed by the graduation stats two paragraph later. Even though these numbers don’t show up until halfway through the story, it’s unlikely a top-tier journo like one at the NYT would do this story without them to validate his take.

2. Individual people with compelling personal stories that illustrate the trend – See the opening anecdote about the waiter-turned-data scientist, and later the English major who landed six figures from IBM after taking an 11-week web programming course. Top journalists need stats to validate a trend to their editors, but they use personal anecdotes to make trends engaging to their readers/viewers. They also need people to take pictures of :).

3. Examples of companies/organizations that are driving the trend – See the references to the coding school called Galvanize, which gets mentioned several times in this piece, along with its competitors Flatiron School and Hack Reactor. Kudos to whomever handled the media relations for Galvanize on this one, and sympathy to the PR folk at unmentioned competitors who are wondering why they got left out.

Assembling ingredients 1 and 2 takes extra focused effort, and that’s why most trend pitches to top-tier outlets don’t stick.

That’s good for people like you, who are committed to getting results. You don’t just wish for things to happen, you take action to learn what’s holding you back. That’s why you read these posts.

Your media pitches will stand out because you are going above and beyond your competition.

The next step for you is to get much more in-depth coaching and examples. That’s what we do in the Inner Circle. Some members, like the one I mentioned above, choose a level of service that includes pitch reviews with me. Sign up here to learn more about the program and be alerted the next time we accept new members.

Are content marketing and brand journalism killing media pitching?

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Knowing I specialize in boosting pitching results, people sometimes ask me if I think content marketing is making pitching less relevant.

They’re wondering this because of the growth of “brand journalism,” where companies create their own sales-free content simply to attract eyeballs.

When CMOs go to conferences or watch Gary Vaynerchuk videos, they are being told: “Look at the industry publications and sites that your customers subscribe to, and then put those outlets out of business.”

So if brands are attracting customers directly to their own material, why bother to jump through the hoops of refining your ability to pitch it to anyone else?

It’s a fair question in these early years of the content marketing revolution.

But those anticipating the demise of pitching are NOT looking to the future. They’re also unknowingly constraining their own potential by limiting their view of what pitching really is.

The real future of brand journalism

Here’s the deal: yes, over the coming years, some brand journalism sites WILL achieve significant influence in their industries. But those editors are going to be clamoring for ideas and experts and content just like traditional media sites do now. And that’s where you come in.

Actually, it’s already happening. I see coverage reports where PR pros are claiming placements on the OPEN Forum small business web site, which attracts more than a million unique visitors per month. Guess what – that’s entirely a “brand journalism” site run by American Express. But if you get your executive or thought leader is in front of an audience that’s important to you, who cares?

Pitching has never been limited to securing coverage from traditional media.

Pitching today and in the future is about 1) finding a third-party gatekeeper who has an audience you want to reach and 2) explaining to the gatekeeper how the content you’re proposing matches the needs of that audience.

Doesn’t matter if that gatekeeper works for USA Today or American Express.

Wandering eyes

There’s another reason that content marketing accentuates the need for skilled pitching pros. As the amount of content online skyrockets, consumers of it are more discriminating. The brand journalism sites that survive will be the ones that successfully earn mentions and links from other sites with heft and eyeballs.

The days of creating content and merely “putting it out there” are over. Content-driven brands will increasingly need pitching pros like you to promote their stuff to other gatekeepers to get it shared and watched. A web site owned by a traditional media company actually brought me in to train their journalists how to “pitch” their stories to journalists at other sites. If the “real media” needs to do it, then the “brand” media need to as well.

In short, here’s how you adapt:

Watch for the brand journalism sites that emerge in your industry. Study them and build relationships with their editors, just like you would with the staffers at a “traditional media outlet.” They’ll likely have different needs and operate under different philosophies, but once you figure those out you’ll see how you can help them.

And your placements will keep rolling in.

What are the best media pitching metrics to track?

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The ideal numbers to report are the ones that show your pitching’s impact on the organization’s bottom line. But those often require sophisticated analytics and CRM software and are out of reach of all but a few PR pros.

Short of that, sometimes you can identify correlations between your placements and impacts such as increased web traffic or other measurements of audience interest.

Until you get to those levels, try adding some of these categories to your coverage reports to add depth and nuance. The ambitious PR pros I know appreciate having additional criteria to push them to make their media outreach ever more meaningful to their employers.

Headline mention?

First paragraph mention?

Image/video included?

Backlink?

Recommendation?

Quoted? Which spokesperson?

Which message(s) were included?

Which key audiences does the outlet reach?

Customers included? Which ones?

Competitors included? Which ones?

All these are objective metrics. You can also make a subjective evaluation of the placement’s tone and record “positive, negative or neutral.”

We discussed these metrics, and how to assemble them into a weighted scorecard with a point system, on last week’s Smart PR Inner Circle training event. I shared examples of weighted scorecards and coverage reports from agencies and companies of various sizes. And we also tackled some formulas and equations for tying coverage to financial results. If you’d like to find out more about accessing training like this, check this out.

I guess I need to say this: Don’t be misleading when you pitch

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I’ve always taken this for granted – I don’t write about it, I don’t include it in my live training. But it needs to be said. Some pros are being taught improperly and might not know better. Others might feel it’s okay here and there if the ends justify the means. Regardless:

Don’t be misleading when you pitch.

Here’s a ruse that some people think is okay (it’s not):

We know that a journalist is more likely to open an email that’s part of a previous conversation they’ve had with someone.

So some PR pros – probably just looking for an edge – will write a cold email to a reporter they’ve never contacted and put “re:” in front of the subject line. The hope is that the journalist will think it’s from someone they’ve written back to before and therefore open the email.

And that’s where the ploy breaks down. Do the pitching pros who use this ruse think the journalists are then not going to notice that they’ve been tricked? How will that make the journalists feel?

Another less obvious shortcut some people take is to label something the “only” or “first” or “best” without actually doing the research to verify it. They feel like they can fall back on the excuse that they “didn’t know” about the competitor who actually deserved the superlative.

Maybe one of these tricks works with one time-starved journalist and the cheater gets a media placement out of it. Is that one placement worth alienating all the other reporters who received the weasely pitch? Is it worth continuing to tarnish the reputation of all media pitching pros? Of course not.

We’re in the business of building relationships. All relationships start with trust. Why begin your outreach with deception?

Truth has a certain ring to it. Even if you get away with it here and there, your media contacts are going to have an unspoken wariness about working with you. When they hit crunch time, they’ll turn back to those they trust and away from those who “just don’t feel right.”

Those are the pragmatic reasons not to mislead. There’s an even better reason:

It’s just wrong.

No set of media placements is worth your integrity. No matter how much pressure a boss or client may be putting on you.

Hold the line and you’ll be rewarded for it in the long term, even if that reward is simply peace of conscience.

When is YOUR “Independence Day”?

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We’d all love to be financially independent and not have to work at all.

I don’t have anything for you on that today :).

But we’d also like to be independent in where and when we work. And that’s closer than you think.

This might sound idealistic to you, but I firmly believe it’s entirely pragmatic and achievable.

You can build such a great track record and communicate it to your bosses so clearly that you get to set your hours and work space. If they don’t accept that, then you can take that track record to the job market and land somewhere that does.

Some examples:

I consulted for a university where the PR director never arrived before 10 a.m. (and he still left when everyone else did at 5 pm). He had been working at a big Los Angeles PR agency, and when the university recruited him, he told them, “Only if I can surf every morning and not come in ‘til 10.” They said yes, because he was that good.

At a Fortune 500 company I worked with, I noticed one of the key directors never worked Fridays. I asked about it. Someone said, “Yeah, when she had her first baby she said she was quitting. The executives wanted her back so bad they asked what they could do to keep her. She said ‘Fridays off, same salary.’” They said yes.

And my favorite:

Five years ago I was on a call with one of my one-on-one coaching clients, Ken Li, who worked at a Chicago agency. I asked, “What do you really want? What is your personal best outcome?”

He paused . . . I prodded.

He admitted, “My wife has always dreamed of living on a little farm out in Indiana where the kids can help raise animals. That’s how she grew up. She’s sacrificed so much for me and my career, I’d really like to give that to her.”

So we started charting a path that would get him there. First, he started working from home one day a week. He struggled to ask for that, even though he billed more hours than anybody else there. Time passed, and he started working from home for two days a week.

Of course, his billables and results stayed sky-high. About a year ago he and his wife started looking at properties in Indiana.

His “Independence Day” was June 25, 2015 – last Thursday. That’s when he sent this email to his coworkers (after previous consultations with his superiors):

I’ve ‘bought the farm.’ From now on, I’ll only be in the office on Tuesdays.

Congratulations to Ken and his family!

My Independence Day was April 9, 2012. I took a different route – I left my full-time job and started working for myself. Last summer my family and I lived in England for the month of July.

Nine years ago, I never would have believed you if you had told me that would happen. Why nine years? Because 2006 was the year I resolved to get on a path to independence – first in where and when I work, and ultimately if I work. Took me a while for the first two, still working on the last one 🙂

Those outcomes may seem really far away for you. And if you’ve been reading my posts for any length of time, you know I’m not about get-rich-quick schemes or magic panaceas.

But, if you’re not ready to fully declare independence just yet, you can still take the next step on your path to get there:

Resolve to get better results and earn more leverage.

If you already get great results, resolve to communicate them to your bosses/clients better.

If you’ve already communicated exceptionally and your bosses aren’t giving you the autonomy you think you deserve, that’s not their problem. It’s up to you to prove your worth on the marketplace and be willing to transition to a situation that realizes your full value.

If you’ve read this far, you’re the type of person who can achieve it. Start on the path today.

When will your Independence Day be?