A surprise from “The Great Communicator”

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This week I was surprised by a bit of trivia I learned while touring Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library with my family. It struck me that the former president known as “The Great Communicator” is still teaching PR lessons from the grave.

It’s our spring break so we’re enjoying sunny SoCal. Took a drive into the green hills of Simi Valley and checked out the library, which is much more like a museum. It has a full replica of the Oval Office as it looked during Reagan’s presidency.

It seemed a bit small to me – not that I’ve ever been to the real one, but I have watched every episode of “The West Wing,” so you’d think I would know ;). So as the rest of the tour group filed out, I asked the guide about it. She said it’s a precise replica, and then added this really cool story (I’m summarizing what she said here, I haven’t checked it out through other sources):

When Reagan reviewed the original plans for the library, he noticed that the ceiling on the replica Oval Office was only 15.5 feet – not the 18.5 feet of the original. When he called this out to the architects, they told him the county zoning would not allow any structure that high.

“You can see the little plaque the president kept on his desk,” the tour guide said, pointing to the item that read “It Can Be Done.”

At this point I was sure she was going to say that he inspired the team to rally support and get an exception granted to the zoning ordinance, or something dramatic like this. After all, this was a former President of the United States, the man who called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

He wouldn’t let some little zoning law stop him!

But no. “Did you notice how you walked down a gradual ramp to get in here?” she continued. “This floor is three feet lower than the rest of the library. And you’ll walk up that little ramp when you leave.”

The next group was coming in, so I took the cue and paced up the slight incline, pondering the lesson here for us PR pros today.

I know how to run grassroots PR campaigns that support government relations initiatives. So that’s the assumption I defaulted to. I also know lots of other communications and PR strategies that can resolve other business challenges.

But from now on, before I throw all my resources and energy into the messiness that is human relationships, I’m going to look around very carefully for a solution that doesn’t involve outsiders.

Because sometimes it’s way easier to just dig a hole.

Cooking dinner for a journalist

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My wife recently signed our family up for a meal kit delivery service. You’ve probably received enough fliers offering a free meal with one of them to fuel a bonfire.

A box arrived at our house with some raw chicken, veggies, a few spices and a recipe. We certainly could have gone to the store ourselves and purchased those same items and looked up a similar recipe online. But there was something great about it coming straight to our door, in a refrigerated box, ready to go. It made our part much easier.

Journalists are crazy-busy, and like everyone else, they appreciate when there is something that makes their life and job easier.  In this scenario YOU are the meal delivery service. You can give them everything they need to write their story, in a tidy little package all ready to go. Just like my family had to do the actual cooking, journalists still have to do the actual writing or production, but you’ve made it much, much easier for them.

I call this principle Do It For Them, or DIFT, and I’ve been teaching it to PR audiences for years. As traditional newsrooms have gotten smaller, the demands on remaining journalists have increased. They are expected to write more stories on more platforms, and many simply don’t have the time and resources to get it all done.

A reporter may like your story idea about the impact of student loans on millennials. And if that’s all your email included, maybe he’ll decide to look into that down the road, if nothing better comes along.  DIFT can help turn that maybe into a yes.

Along with your story idea, include everything your journalist would need to actually write the article. You can start by including a third-party source. This could be research not conducted by your company, or the analysis of an opinion leader unconnected with your organization. In some cases, it might even mean tracking down other similar companies for a round-up.

Next, give them a great visual. A video is ideal and even if it’s just b-roll it saves the reporter a lot of work when they don’t have to shoot it themselves. You might include a compelling chart that shows student debt increases over the years. You might even have a picture of a group of debt-ridden millennials commiserating over avocado toast. What journalist wouldn’t love that?

Tracking down real people (not executives or company spokespeople) can take up a lot of a reporter’s time. Connect them with people they can interview who have been affected by your issue and are willing to share their story.

Doing It For Them helps you build relationships who will come to see you as a trusted source. It also makes it much more likely that they will run your story.

How does the pitch end?

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People often ask me how to phrase the very first words of their email pitch – which actually barely matters at all. But nobody asks about the very end, which is crucial.

Yes – a surprising amount of people in my training sessions ask if they should begin with “Dear Andy” vs. “Andy” vs. “Hi Andy” vs. whatever else they come up with.

Doesn’t matter. Only keys are to get the name right and don’t call him “Mr. Johnson.”

Instead, look much more closely at the way you conclude your pitches. Here are some common approaches:

Let me know if you’re interested . . .

Thanks for your consideration . . .

If you’re interested, you can access . . .

What weaknesses do all those have in common?

First, they aren’t direct questions

You know how pressed and distracted these folks are. When they are skimming your pitch they are looking for a way to justify ignoring or deleting it. If you’re successful at intriguing them, you gotta capture that moment and prompt them to engage with you right then. Not a soft “let me know if you’re interested . . .”

Instead, pop a simple question. Something like, “Can I send you more details about . . .?” The goal is to turn their mild curiosity into a simple action. They can just hit reply and type “Yes.”

Second, and more subtly, they don’t communicate a lot of confidence in the pitch.

You and I know that every journalist isn’t going to cover every pitch. Not even close. But we should only be sending them stuff that we sincerely believe they’ll be interested in. Your confidence should come across in your language. No, I didn’t say presumptuousness – I said confidence.

If you’re really thinking about this, you’re realizing right about now that the real work here doesn’t happen with simple word choice at the end of typing an email. In fact, the real work happens before you ever start off, regardless of whether you’re a “Dear” or a “Hi” person :).

The real work starts way back when you develop a compelling story angle. And then match it with appropriate journalists or influencers. That makes your confidence and language automatic.

A PR Limerick for St. Patrick’s Day

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There once was a PR pro,
Who did it wrong but didn’t know.
Hardworking and bright,
He stayed late every night,
But never had too much to show.

He emailed all day,
Not knowing what to say.
He had a big list
Didn’t want people missed!
And figured he’d just “spray and pray”

Our guy felt really burned out.
This isn’t what PR’s about.
Too much on his plate,
Meant no time to create,
He was filled with frustration and doubt

Then he met a media relations master,
Who worked less, but got results faster.
Not glued to her phone,
Her time was her own.
And guess what? It wasn’t a disaster!

She taught him “Read and React;”
How to pitch less hype and more fact.
Plus solid advice,
To write more concise
And cut out things that distract.

Now his confidence is high.
No longer “that annoying PR guy.”
His results are so great,
He’s doubled his rate!
And gained happiness money can’t buy.

By Camille Metcalf and Michael Smart

If you got a kick out of this, please share on social and feel free to tag me @michaelsmartpr.

Pitching? Think like a real estate agent

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As any good real estate agent knows, location is everything. Even the most beautiful homes are unappealing if they’re in a bad neighborhood. Location is just as important in PR pitches. A great story angle is not going to attract if you put it in a terrible location in your pitch.

So let’s look at the most valuable slices of real estate in your email pitch.

Your subject line is Las Vegas. It grabs attention in a crowded and boring inbox. It stands out with its flash until journalists can’t resist opening your email. But just like Vegas, a lot of people get into trouble here. Never promise more than you can deliver. If your subject line says “Pop icon to endorse new diet trend,” your email better include an iconic pop star. Never bait and switch.

Your customized intro is San Diego. It’s warm. It’s not overly formal. And it makes the journalist want to stay and keep reading. In this very valuable space you show the journalist you know who they are, what they do, and the stories that are relevant to them.

The next section of your pitch is your compelling story idea, and this is downtown Manhattan. It’s the most valuable space you have, and you use it to put your story front and center in the middle of Time Square, not buried under paragraphs of background info (the email equivalent of somewhere in rural North Dakota.) It’s crowded here, so you’ll have to select your words carefully and may even want to use bullet points.

Lastly, your pitch should tease the additional assets you have to offer and include a call to action. We’ll call this space a vacation home in the Hamptons. It’s valuable, but often goes unused. The majority of pitches do not invite journalists to act, which can make all the difference in whether you get a response or not.

The journalists I invite to critique pitches with my Inner Circle group take about 5 seconds to skim a pitch. Which means it doesn’t matter how great your story is, if you don’t have the right info in the right location, your journalist is going to pass.

The good news is, understanding the real estate of your email pitch will lead to a much higher response rate from journalists. And who knows, that may also lead to your own vacation home in the Hamptons . . . or at least more vacations 🙂

 

P.S. The “P.S.” section of your email is where you can put in the info intended for people who have been intrigued by what you wrote earlier. For example, we still have slots available for the Secrets of Media Relations Masters workshop in Atlanta later this month :). If you’d like to dive into the pitch structure outline above in way more detail, this workshop is a great way to do that.

Why PR people are weird

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“I just can’t see people paying me that much.”

That was the response I got from a coaching client when I told her that the results she was getting typically warranted a rate twice what she was charging.

The conversation that ensued was insightful, and it led in part to an announcement I’m making later in this post.

On one hand, her reaction was . . . well . . . weird. She knew other people or firms charging that much, and knew that plenty of clients were paying that much. She wasn’t a newbie – she had a proven track record of success on her own, even after she’d excelled at significant in-house roles earlier in her career.

But on the other hand, that reaction is entirely typical of PR pros, whether they work for clients or one organization. And it’s not always about money. I often hear a similar lament about not being trusted or respected enough.

There are a few reasons for this:

-PR tends to attract highly empathetic people who don’t like the feeling of being at odds with someone else, even if we know we’re on the right track.

-People in other fields, especially executives, tend to assume that anyone can do PR, that there’s no particular knowledge base or expertise involved. It’s just writing and talking, right? And being “good with people . . .”

-We in PR hear often about the challenges in showing our financial impact, and don’t remember that almost every other discipline (except maybe straight sales) has much the same challenge.

But the biggest reason of all, that may be uniquely prevalent among PR people, is that we don’t carry ourselves in a way that warrants the respect we deserve.

We’re wired to shine the spotlight on others, so when it comes to asking for what we want, setting boundaries, and pursuing our own agenda, we shrink back and end up as inadvertent order-takers.

This problem starts with us, not with other people. And that’s super-good news and empowering! Because we are in control of us, not other people. We can change.

That’s what I worked through with the coaching client I mentioned earlier.

She changed the way she thought about herself. And that changed the way she acted. And that changed the way her clients viewed her.

And when it came time for her annual review with her largest client, she confidently told them her new rate . . . and they happily agreed to it 🙂

I want more PR people to experience that transformation from order-taker to respected expert. More people than I could serve with one-on-one coaching. More people than could afford the premium price for that service.

So I’ve created a brand-new program that bottles the training and direction that so far has only been available to a select few.

The Respected Expert Intensive starts next week and runs through March.

P.S. If this post resonates with you but you’re thinking “I don’t have time for one more thing right now,” that’s the first mind virus you’ve got to eradicate. Think about it – you’re actually too busy to address the primary issue that’s holding you back from greater success and control of your work life? Whether you join this program or pursue respect some other way, do something different. Don’t take the “busy” cop-out. That’s a big reason you’re stuck in this position in the first place.

Blame it on your mother-in-law

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PR people who come to my workshops often say the same thing when I ask why they’re approaching a pitch in a certain way.

Like, “Why do you introduce yourself in the first sentence?” or “Why are you including everyone’s job title?”

First they pause and have to think about it. Then they usually say, “That’s the way my first boss always did it.”

Reminds me of a story I heard about this guy after he got married. When his wife cooked Sunday dinner, she would serve the ham with both ends cut off. He asked his her why and she responded “it brings out the flavor better.” That didn’t make sense to him, and he was still curious. When he pressed her, she got exasperated and said, “Ask my mother, that’s how she did it when I was growing up.”

Next time they got together with his in-laws, he asked his wife’s mother why she used to cook ham with the ends cut off.  She said:

“Because it wouldn’t fit in the little oven we had back then.”

Makes you wonder what you might do just because that’s how it was handed down. Whether someone actually taught you an outmoded practice, or whether you picked it up by osmosis.

Back to the examples at the top that I cover during my workshops:

-Introducing yourself first in an email pitch is a holdover from the days when most pitching was done over the phone. With email, journalists can see who you are in your signature and they want you to get right to the point.

-Including job titles in a pitch, that’s a relic of sending news releases by fax, when people felt bound to write a full story out in AP style. Now with a pitch, you merely want to intrigue the journalist – they can get titles from clicking on a link or your follow-up info. Most of the time they don’t really care anyway.

I’ll go way deeper into the strategy and psychology of media relationship building – plus some brand new stuff I’ve added this year –  at my next “Secrets of Media Relations Masters” workshop coming up in four weeks. I recently got this really nice email from someone who took a previous version:

I have scored some huge media wins. I sometimes have a hard time coming up with ideas for what to pitch, but definitely have done much better finding reporters writing about topics related to what we’re doing and pitching them a compelling email, and getting coverage. Thank you! Just in the past two years, I’ve gotten: USA Today, Associated Press, NBC News, CNN Espanol, Inc., Forbes, NASDAQ, MSN, Reader’s Digest, U.S. News and World Report, Military Times, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Yahoo, Working Mother, Fox News, Federal Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Moneyish, MarketWatch, Huffington Post, The Hill, Mashable, Upworthy, New York Post, Catalyst, and others. 

– Amanda Ponzar, Chief Communications Officer, Community Health Charities

Check out the list of everything we’ll cover. The last five workshops have sold out, so if you’re interested, make your decision soon.

Hope to see you in Atlanta!

The most-watched TV show in . . .?

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What was the most-watched TV show in 1998?

What about 2008? (Don’t cheat – take a guess . . .)

And 2018?

No soup for you if you didn’t get Seinfeld, American Idol and Big Bang Theory.

That was just for fun. Here’s what’s important about this exercise:

The average number of viewers for those shows was 38 million, 27.8 million, and 18.6 million.

That’s right – viewership for the top-rated show has dropped by half over 20 years, even though the number of potential viewers increased 19 percent.

Don’t get me wrong – more people than ever are watching more “episodic video,” when you consider all the streaming and cable options we have now.

People are more reachable than ever – it’s just harder than ever to reach them through a few large platforms. Same thing has happened with newspapers. And network TV news. Obviously. More people than ever consume news. They just consume it across more varied platforms.

That means the credibility boost that comes from third-party media placements is more important than ever. But you can’t rely on these dwindling “reach” numbers to get your message to your audiences. You often have to help the media do that.

Content marketers and social media managers are experiencing the same fragmentation of audiences. The average number of shares for a given piece of content dropped by half from 2015 to 2017, according to a Buzzsumo analysis of a million posts.

That’s why this year in the Inner Circle our focus is this:

How to better integrate your earned media strategy with paid, shared and owned outreach.

We’ve already covered, and will soon, the following best practices:

– how to educate your leadership about these changes and recalibrate their expectations about what really matters

– new types of non-media platforms that will eagerly share your message . . . for free

– how to identify influencers, both paid and non-paid

– using paid tools to boost engagement with your earned media

– better connecting your hard-won media placements with the value they bring to your SEO team

And lots more. If you’d like to be a part of this and magnify your media relations expertise across other disciplines, apply today or tomorrow. Because we’re closing enrollment indefinitely Friday at 5 pm PT.

Check out all the details and apply here.

And check out the message below I just got yesterday – it’s from an Inner Circle member who just accepted his dream job.

Hope to see you on the inside,

Michael

 

I have learned an incredible amount by being part of the Inner Circle and from the coaching Michael has generously offered over the years. It has been an instrumental part of my professional development.

I recently landed my dream job as a Press Secretary at the Danish Department of Education. I am mindful that many people have contributed to positioning me for that. But I feel comfortable saying that the experiences, lessons, and member feedback from the Inner Circle played as big of a role as anything in getting me to where I am today. 

I couldn’t recommend the program highly enough. The value is second to none. And on a personal note, you will rarely find a person as thoughtful and friendly as Michael. I hope that I can repay him with Danish treats and a tour of Copenhagen soon. 

Soren Dal Rasmussen

Departing as Media Relations Manager, Voices of Justice

Best Pitches of the Year

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I recently determined the winners of my annual Best Pitch of the Year competition, and here’s what you can learn from them.

I also have a brief announcement to make below.

Average word count

No surprise that they were short. Average word count was 209, but most were shorter than that – a couple skewed the average higher.

Turning vanilla into llamas

Two honorees were handed less-than-stellar materials and dug deeper to deliver more than their clients expected. One agency lead didn’t stop when the foundation she reps offered her a great spokesperson. She asked lots more questions and poked around the organization until she turned up an amazing visual. She’s used it to book segments on mornings shows in major markets up and down the East Coast, and also on Fox & Friends.

Another intrepid PR pro literally climbed a mountain for her client. She was hired to do local publicity for a popular trail running race. She hiked up to an aid station at 10,000 feet and learned about the team of llamas race organizers use to pack supplies up that high. What story can’t be made more appealing with a llama angle? Her placements got picked up Runners World, a bonus her client told me they are thrilled with.

Land the New York Times – 3 and 12

The two pros who shared the overall Best Pitch of the Year honor both landed positive placements in the NYT without major news or a big organization behind them. Their approaches both revolved around the numbers 3 and 12.

Both used a three-paragraph pitch structure: a customized intro that tied their idea into the writer’s beat; then a brief description of their idea; then a call to action with offers to help.

The 12? That’s how many months it took for them to get that precious placement. Lots of back-and-forth with the journalists led to further story development. A nice blend of patience and persistence is evident when you read through their long email conversations.

Want to see the Best Pitches of the Year?

You can check out all 15 pitches, word for word, along with the placements they landed (WP, Wired, New Yorker, LAT, USAT), as well as my commentary and takeaways. I deliver this exclusively to members of my Inner Circle group coaching program.

If you’d like to get access to all that you can learn from these great success stories, apply to join the Inner Circle here.

An Announcement

If you’ve been considering the Inner Circle, be sure to decide soon, because enrollment in the Inner Circle will be closing indefinitely on Feb. 15.

This is a return to the process we used for the first eight years of the program – we carefully guarded access, only opening from time to time. Last year I experimented with year-round access to see what that would be like. The user experience stayed great, but things are much easier for us on the backend with more control over when people join.

Doing thought leadership “backwards”

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Last Thursday, about the time my previous post went live online, Jeremy Littau sat down to post some tweets.

He’s a journalism professor at Lehigh who had about 3,000 followers, and he had some thoughts about the demise of local newspapers that he thought people have been overlooking. I don’t know this for sure because I haven’t contacted him, but I doubt he anticipated that his tweets would be retweeted 18,000 times and liked 39,000 times.

Now the thoughts he shared are important and valuable for us as PR pros. But that’s just a bonus to the lesson I learned from this case study.

Our PR takeaway grows out of what came next: Jeremy placed an op-ed in Slate, and a separate one in Wired, that each said much the same thing as his Twitter thread.

That flow might seem obvious to you – the popularity of his tweets proved interest in his ideas, so editors naturally wanted to publish his writing.

But that logic flies in the face of what has been PR conventional wisdom forever, that “the media demand to be first,” that if you share your ideas on your “owned” channels first, they’ll consider it old news.

In fact, that’s a point of tension between many PR teams and their content marketing counterparts. Both want to go first, but the PR teams often win the battle because of the contention that media won’t take seconds.

Not so, as this case proves. In fact, publishing your own ideas first often buttresses your subsequent media pitches. “People really want to talk about this idea,” you can insist.

The part that makes this extra fascinating to me is that Jeremy didn’t write a blog post or an article in a trade pub. He wrote a tweet and replied to it literally 39 times.

I’ve seen this approach with increasing frequency from people with interesting things to say that won’t fit in one tweet. I guess Twitter users who can’t be bothered to click a link to an article are more likely to get sucked in by an initial tweet and then keep scrolling down.

Here’s how you apply this as a PR pro: As you’re developing your thought leaders and trying to place op-eds or contributed content, think about ways you can get quantitative proof that their ideas are provocative. Build up metrics on other platforms – your own web site, Reddit, social feeds – that show their thoughts are resonating.

And then use those numbers to land your thought leaders third-party publishing venues (like Slate or Wired for a digital journalism professor) to boost their credibility and reach new audiences.

Congratulations to Jeremy and Lehigh – thanks for the lesson, and for the advocacy for local journalism.

Here’s the original Twitter thread, and the Slate and Wired pieces.

UPDATE: Jeremy reacted to this post via Twitter.

PRSA members, a special free offer for you

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