When personalization backfires


Yesterday an earnest, hardworking young PR pro asked me repeatedly during a phone consultation “what not to do.”

She already knows not to rely on generic pitches blasted to the same list. So I talked about how you can inadvertently take personalization too far.

When you’re crafting your pitch for your target journalist or blogger, you know it’s a best practice to prove in the first sentence that you’ve researched her and her audience. It’s usually best to keep this focused on her work. I say that because often you might see also something in her Twitter bio or an Instagram post that you could use to make more of a personal connection.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to make a personal connection. That’s the ultimate goal of great media relations. Just not so soon – so save that thought.

Lead off with the professional reference, e.g.:

I’ve noticed your posts connecting millennials’ job-hunting preferences and big-company recruiting tactics tend to get shared most frequently on social . . .

And then get right into your pitch that propels that connection forward.

There’s been an evolution in the last few years among the influencers I interview for my Inner Circle (Today producer, WaPo editor, writers for USAT and WSJ). When I show them pitches, they still register appreciation for personalization at the top, but now they get anxious and even frustrated if that personalization “drags on” into a second point of reference. They say, “I want to know what he’s offering here.”

So to recap – first professional personalization, then pitch, then call to action. But what about that great personal tidbit you saw that could open the door to a great connection?

Save it for your P.S.

That’s where you note that you’ve visited her alma mater to see your best friend from high school who also went there – beautiful campus. Or your quick take on this season of the Netflix show she tweeted about binge watching. Or whatever.

Just make sure it’s:

– sincere – because relationships only work when founded authentically
– specific – because even if you really do LOVE that show she won’t believe you unless you prove it with some detail
– not stalker-ish – no explanation necessary

These influencers are so strained by all the pressures of their job (not to mention being called “enemies of the American people”) that they deserve every effort on our part to make our outreach relevant and accessible on their terms. Helping them do their jobs is what helps us.

Buckets full of influencers



The media landscape has fragmented so much, I’ve found it helpful to segment the various types of third-party influencers into 8 buckets.  I bet you’re not working with all 8 (reply and tell me about it if I’m wrong).

Each group needs to be handled differently – some of them you even pay (gasp) to collaborate with. The common thread is that each bucket contains third-parties your audiences trust.

1. Traditional media – duh, I know, but it would be confusing if I left them off. For definition’s sake – outlets with an offline component, like a dead-tree newspaper or TV feed, as well as their online version.

2. Digital-only media – Outlets with multiple staffers and advertisers that exist only online. BuzzFeed, Business Insider, Quartz, Refinery29. For now I’m putting podcasts here, although there’s an argument for #5 as well.

3. Trade media – industry-specific, online or offline.

4. Bloggers – single-author blogs have a ton of pull with their core audiences, even if content is paid. Tim Ferriss or Ree Drummond at the top end, or your fav less-huge style or food blogger at the other end. If they have multiple authors (occasional guest poster excluded, then they’re #2).

5. Power social influencers – somebody otherwise not famous with a meaningful following on Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, or whatever platform and TRUSTED by those followers.

6. Celebrities – not just entertainers who are household names – could be anyone from a mayor to a speaker/author/thought leader who has a channel that reaches your people.

7. Other organizations’ content marketing – they have an audience and they need to keep serving them fresh, useful content. Who cares if they’re another business or non-profit? Establish a personal relationship with the content team and work out a way to share each other’s stuff. Start by looking at your: customers, suppliers, vendors, and industry groups.

8. Aggregators – this is where I’m putting theSkimm, even though it’s functionally more like #2, because it’s a great example of the power of this overlooked bucket. Another daily email that aggregates news with outside influence is the Aspen Institute’s Best Ideas of the Day. Trade associations and industry groups usually have well-read aggregators. Those editors welcome well-targeted, highly relevant suggestions just like anyone.

Each one requires different research, is measured by different metrics and tools, and responds to different forms and styles of outreach. I covered all that on this week’s special training for my Inner Circle members, with emphasis on Buckets 4-8. We examined case studies from big brands as well as success stories from current members like you.

To find out how to get access to that training and others like it every month, register here for a free Preview Pass.


Glad to set you straight


Every Thursday I send an email to a list of subscribers. Every Thursday people hit reply and write back to me.

One said this:


I didn’t add the all-caps. That’s how he wrote it.

The message gave me pause. Not because it’s a little weird someone that successful would feel the need to tell me that. Not because he wasn’t interested in my emails – that’s fine, people unsubscribe every week. Thousands keep reading.

It gave me pause because I personally can’t relate to his attitude – I’m way too curious about life.

Am I the weird one? I just think there’s always something more to learn. I’ve been really blessed the last ten years to grow and advance in life more than I thought possible. And that just makes me want to grow more.

One of my favorite things about my job is that I seem to attract people who have a similar attitude about personal development. One of my longtime Inner Circle members lands 10+ NYT hits a year, and she’s still participating in this monthly training program. I recently had a Senior VP of corporate communications not only attend the pitching boot camp I did for her team but actively participate in the activities and brainstorming. Just like the SVP for Global Comms at GM did when I worked with his team last year.

The desire for continuous learning and improvement likely contributed the MOST to those people’s success. And they are smart and humble enough not to change it now.

I certainly haven’t “achieved all I’ve ever wanted and then some.”

If you haven’t either, keep seeking. Keep learning and growing. If my stuff helps, great. If somebody else’s stuff helps, that’s great, too.

Just don’t shut the door early on your potential.

How Trump’s election changed PR forever


When I saw that electoral map on the night of Nov. 8th, I knew one thing:

There is no longer any such thing as the “national media.”

Every outlet serves (and is trusted by) only a segment of the population. It’s imperative that we make sure we’re targeting outlets that match up with our audiences’ worldviews, not merely those that we or our bosses’ consume.

“Trust” is the new “reach.”

No judgment here, just real talk.

This doesn’t relate merely to political ideology. A Gen Xer could glance at a lifestyle site targeted at Millennials and see nothing but celebrity gossip and idle chatter. But a regular consumer of the site looks at it and feels like, “they get me” and trusts the information. And she’ll trust the story the Gen Xer later pitches about his product or issue, after he studies the site enough to “get” it, too.

A couple weeks ago I assembled the latest list of the Top 40 Digital-Only News Sites – all have more than 10 million unique visitors a month – across various topics. I was only familiar with 25 of them. I polled my Inner Circle members and their average response was 22. I bet your boss has heard of even fewer than that.

You really have a choice. You can ignore the evolution of our profession and run the risk of getting “locked out,” or you can join the FIRST MOVERS who are already building relationships with these new channels.

Someone is going to do it, it may as well be you. And I see a tremendous “first mover advantage.”

I’ll be teaching how to take advantage of these dramatic shifts in my next live workshop on Building Media Relationships in Atlanta. I’ll cover:

     – Free online tools to determine the channels that matter most to your key audiences
     – A step-by-step, repeatable process to get noticed by journalists/influencers at those outlets
     – How social media can be used – and abused – in relationship building
     – How all this still works with the venerable outlets that your boss still insists you be in 🙂

When I last taught this workshop, two separate people heard back from cold contacts at The New York Times before the workshop was over.

The day after this workshop, I’ll also teach my Pitching Boot Camp – almost everybody comes to both.  

Registration is limited – sign up here.


“We’re committed to being one of the best corporate communications teams in the world, and Michael Smart’s workshop was a great resource for that pursuit. He was a wonderful addition to our meeting and his session hit just the right spot for us. I’ve received great feedback across the board.”

Tony Cervone, SVP Global Communications, General Motors

“On a scale of one to ten, this workshop was a 9.5. Great nuggets of information that I’ll find ways to implement in my career. Best advice: when to call, when not to call.”

 Will Zasadny, California Healthcare Institute

“Probably one of the best professional development experiences I’ve been to because Michael gives us time to implement what we are learning on the spot. He’s there to answer questions and walk us through areas that may have been difficult in past outreach experiences.”

 Kristina Rozenbergs, C. Blohm and Associates


A rude guy’s elbow


I’m writing this on a plane to Atlanta. The last time I was on a plane I was working intently on some stuff I needed to finish that day. For like three seconds, I took my hands off the keyboard and looked over my shoulder.

In that tiny window, the guy sitting to my right slid his entire elbow over the armrest between us!

The only way I could still use my right hand to operate the trackpad was to squish my whole right side and lean awkwardly. I wasn’t brazen enough to actually talk to him about it, but I wasn’t going to just take this kind of treatment.

So I kept subtly pushing my arm into his elbow to let him know I wanted my territory back. Felt weird, but hey, I had work to do. Take that, anonymous stranger next to me!

After about a minute of this contortion, I finally got up the nerve to turn to him to ask for a bit of space. And lo and behold, he was sound asleep. Then the craziest thing happened.

Where one second previous I had been mad and offended, all of a sudden I empathized with him. I know how hard it is to fall asleep on planes. And I was worried that if I picked his arm up and moved it back onto his lap, I would wake him up. So I decided to stick it out.

And guess what? Leaning the other way suddenly didn’t seem that bad. Now that my emotions were balanced around serving or helping someone else, I was way less bugged than when I’d been defensive. Eventually, he woke up and we joked about the movie he hadn’t been watching. No big deal at all.

I believe about 75 percent of our frustrations with the news media are just like this situation I experienced. We as PR people assume the worst, that they’re trying to stick it to us . . . or they’re lazy and careless . . . or they have a hidden agenda.

When all along, they are just oblivious to the issue that has you concerned. They’ve got so much going on, and so much coming at them, they don’t have time to even think about you, let alone to think of ways to spite you.

And when you put yourself in their seat and think of times in your life you’ve felt overwhelmed or stretched too thin, suddenly your irritation dwindles, and you start to think of ways you can be helpful to them.

Want to know how to start? Pick a key influencer you haven’t heard back from. Write her an email that says nothing about you. Just observe what her life must be like, based on the work you’ve seen from her, and thank her for it. Click “send.”

Then preserve that feeling you have at that moment – whether she writes back or not. Keep that feeling when you pitch, or ask for a correction, or follow up. It will color all your outreach in such a way that will make her notice and appreciate you back.

Doesn’t guarantee coverage – you’ve gotta have news judgment and framing skills for that – but it helps, and it sure feels better than the alternative.

2017 and content saturation


There’s no silver bullet channel or platform that will persist long enough for you to make it your career. But there are two strategies that were effective yesterday and today that will also endure well past your retirement.

Here are some quick reminders of the new techniques that were supposed to “change everything” just during my short career:

2006 – “Bypass the media,” was the watch cry. You could optimize a news release, and Google News indexed it just the same as an article from a real newspaper! Your audiences would find it when they searched, so why bother with those pesky reporters? Google figured this out, and now they ignore or even penalize links from news releases.

2011 – Facebook follower numbers seemed to grow on their own. People were actively looking for Facebook pages to “like.” And Facebook actually showed them your posts! Young Mr. Zuckerberg and his friends kindly shared their platform with us and gave us a free way to take our message directly to our people. Then in 2012 they took the company public and revenue actually mattered. Now, unless you pay to boost, fewer than 10 percent of your own followers will even see your own posts.

I’m NOT saying that press release SEO or Facebook community management are bad. Great tools that contribute to great outcomes. Just remember this history when you’re tempted to go all in on one channel because it seems like it may be an easier road.

A PR “strategy” that relies on a particular channel or platform is not a strategy at all. It is a temporary tactic that will eventually become saturated and dominated by the biggest budgets. And the early-mover advantage has decreased from years to months.

Two strategies that will always endure are:

1. Produce content that’s 10X better than what your target audiences are used to seeing
2. Get your messages shared with your audiences by third-parties they already trust

That’s hard, you say? That’s the point. Your ability to execute these two strategies makes you rare and valuable in the content-saturated environment of 2017 and beyond.

Master them and you’ll be independent well before retirement.

When you really need to make stuff happen


He pushed the Fortune piece across the table to me, just a hint of a satisfied smile sneaking onto his face.

I was meeting with an Inner Circle member while I was in his city. He’s at a big agency, and he confided that he feels like a foreigner there much of the time.

He was working on a new account, and they hadn’t achieved the top tier placements they had listed on their Statement of Work. The initial engagement was coming to an end, the review with the client was coming up, but others on the team had resigned themselves to the situation.

“Everyone seemed okay with this,” he explained. “It’s the way things go, I guess. This is a smaller client that isn’t doing very remarkable stuff.”

But that didn’t sit well with this guy. Whether they were going to lose the business or not, he felt like they ought to exhaust all their efforts in doing what they said they were going to do.

And even at the biggest agencies, there are no secret methodologies to making top-tier placements materialize.

He just made a short list of the journalists who’d likely be most interested, and vowed to “send them each two emails and follow up with three phone calls and see what happens.”

If that level of follow-up freaks you out, that’s okay. You’re applying it to situations where you don’t have a deep-seated belief that you have something of value for the journalists you’re targeting.

This guy was beyond that. He had that belief, and now he had the resolve to power him through natural reticence and fear of rejection.

Before the final client review, he had landed the Fortune piece and had booked calls for the CEO with two other top-tier outlets.

Speaking as much to himself as to his collective PR peers, his voice rising a bit, he explained the lesson this experience had taught him:

“Stop looking in the mirror after every failed pitch and evaluating whether you belong in this business,” he said. “If you know you have a good story, keep calling until someone runs it.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself :).

To your success,


P.S. This is the level we work to achieve inside the Inner Circle. We start with the tactics and research that allow you to KNOW what your targets want and how to frame it so they immediately recognize your value. Then we build on top of that mindset shift you saw in this pro’s story. Register here to see how we do it.

My LAST year’s resolution – 2016 edition


It’s taken me 43 years, but I finally cracked the code on keeping New Year’s resolutions. See if my approach can likewise help you branch beyond diets that disappear in February and gym memberships that go unused.


In 2015, I resolved to send you an email every Thursday. Did it.

And I did it again last year – this is the 105th Thursday in a row I’ve emailed you (with the exception of a very significant event two months ago that justified moving it up to a Wednesday).

At the beginning of 2016, I resolved to finally get a huge monkey off my back. I’d been teaching my daylong boot camp on pitching media for more than 10 years. And about half that time I’d been “wanting” or “hoping” to package it into an online format so that more people could access it more conveniently and reap the results that so many had already achieved.

But two things don’t mix well:

       – Being a perfectionist about how I present content
      – And the natural limitations on technology in reproducing the experience I love about connecting with a          live audience

So I’d take some steps forward, get frustrated, and then allow other priorities to take over. Not to mention it was straight-up hard mental exertion, and I’m as lazy as the next guy.

What I learned about myself

Turns out I’d become quite good at keeping commitments and meeting deadlines WHEN PEOPLE ARE WATCHING. Like, when I book a speaking engagement, I know there will be a bunch of people there expecting a great speech, and a meeting planner who deserves to look good for booking me. So I push through obstacles and procrastination and deliver.

But my weakness was in following through on resolutions where I was the only one who knew “what could be.” Nobody was asking me to write an email every month. And, last January, I had no client expecting me to deliver an online training course on media pitching.

The twist

So in each of the last two years, I picked the ONE thing that nobody knew about that would allow me to deliver the most value to the most people. I focused all my willpower on that one internal promise I made only to myself. Knowing that my inherent “people-pleaser” personality gravitated to naturally accomplishing all the external commitments I’d make throughout the year.

The result for last year? Focusing on all the people who (unknowingly) would benefit from my labor fueled the fire. Once that course was finished and launched, it immediately tripled the number of PR people who have access to the resource they need to skyrocket their media pitching results (I got emails over the holiday sharing placements in the WSJ and NYT – congrats Mitch and Giovanna!). And then they enjoy the fruits of that success, like earning raises, promotions and, more significantly, more independence to choose time with those who matter most to them.

Sitting here writing this now, it’s so exhilarating. Makes it that much easier to resolve my one thing for the new year that will deliver the most value to the most people (check back on the first Thursday of 2018 to find out ☺).

You try

Ignore the stuff that other people already want you to do. What your boss expects, or people close to you. Pick the one thing that will most accelerate your ability to deliver the most value to the most people.

Take the focus off yourself and put it on those people you’re striving to serve (coworkers? journalists? family?) and it will happen. And then you can spend 2018 watching all those people benefit from the value you created for them 🙂

P.S. If your resolution involves getting better at your job – and impact on your freedom and financial security that goes along with that – consider the Crafting the Perfect Pitch online course to help you get there.

Most fun I had at work this year


If you’re working this week, you absolutely should pitch any media you can think of. This is the easiest week of the year to get coverage for stuff that otherwise wouldn’t get noticed. NOBODY is calling newsrooms this week – your competition is dramatically limited. True, more journalists/producers are out themselves, but the ones that have to work are much more interested in story ideas than usual.

If you’re not working this week, here’s an otherwise irrelevant, fun experience I had recently for your reading pleasure during your break.

I had to call the customer service number for the federal government’s vendor approval unit (yes, it’s as intimidating a bureaucracy as it sounds). My assistant-extraordinaire Camille had been handling this process for me, but they wouldn’t go further with her because they had to verify that it was really me on the phone.

For reasons you are about to discover, this requirement horrified Camille. She tried everything she could to get around it and have them make an exception, but this is the federal government we’re talking about here.

You see, earlier she had been just cranking through all the applications. When she got to the part where you set up your security questions, she didn’t pay much attention to them. She certainly never thought anyone else would ever see the answers she gave, let alone that I would actually have to admit them to another human being.

Well, she got up the nerve to confess all this to me via an email and I could not stop laughing. I mean, I feel bad she was worried to tell me, but to me this was the best prank ever.

So when I called the 800 number I made sure Camille was on the line, too. Here is the actual conversation I had with the rep:

Rep: Okay Mr. Smart, now I’m going to ask you your security questions. What is your favorite color?
Me: Pink.

Rep: That’s funny, I don’t usually hear that from the gentlemen I speak with. And what is your favorite book?
Me: Twilight.

Rep: Yes it is. Okay, what’s your nickname?
Me (cracking up): Bossy McBossface.

Rep (neutral pause): Yes, that’s right. Okay, here’s what you need to do next…

When I asked Camille if it was okay to include this in a post, she responded: “With time, the mortification has faded and this has become a favorite work memory. Feel free to share!”

Here’s to awesome coworkers who keep us grounded. Happy New Year!

When Steve Jobs made me cry


In keeping with what has become an accidental tradition, this message on the Thursday before Christmas is more about life and values than media relations. And this year, it’s because of an experience I had a couple weeks ago I can’t shake.

I was awake at 3 a.m. Nothing was wrong, sometimes that happens when I’m on the road speaking – changing time zones and a blur of hotel rooms can do that to you.

So I opened up my laptop and watched the Steve Jobs movie – the Michael Fassbender one, not the Ashton Kutcher one.

At the end, he quasi-reconciles with the daughter he had earlier denied paternity of. And I found myself with wet eyes.

Not because of the redemption, or because I was overtired, or because of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue.

But because I was so sad for what he missed out on all those years to that point. (I’m extra vulnerable here because my own daughter is the same age his was in that climactic scene.)

There’s another aspect of that movie that brought me pain. It depicts his head of marketing, a woman portrayed by Kate Winslet, as his trusted right-hand. She’s the only one who can stand up to him. But the price she pays for this access and influence is that she has to watch while he verbally abuses employees – even his closest friends.

There’s one point when Winslet perfectly nails the tortured expression of the person who briefly questions, “What am I doing here being part of this?” and then compartmentalizes her conscience and puts her head down to keep working.

That hurt because I’ve seen that look more than once from a veteran PR pro, tops in her field, working for her own version of an autocratic CEO. The brief pause, and then “But it’s okay…”

In Jobs’ defense, by most accounts he eventually became a good father to that daughter and his later children. And that marketing head cried when he passed away. I firmly believe in forgiveness and second chances.

But isn’t life better when you’re not always asking for patience or forgiveness, and instead making the most of the time you have?

The business media and the success literature teach that dramatic success in the workplace justifies temporarily sacrificing people who should otherwise be close to you.

That’s false. There is NO OTHER SUCCESS that can compensate for failing people who love you.

The holidays tend to make us more reflective and bring our real feelings closer to the surface. Those are our core values, and we’re always happier when we act consistently with them.

Don’t work for people who make you sacrifice those values. Even if you might not be around when they invent the iPhone later.

The holidays certainly make me even more grateful for you and your trust in me. Thank you for reading this year, and warmest holiday wishes to you and your loved ones.