Rosemary O’Neill

How a Two Sentence Email Became a Top News Story

By: Rosemary O’Neill | May 28, 2013 | 

Top News StoryIt all started with the best Monday staff meeting ever.

My husband/CEO and I decided over the weekend to offer unlimited paid time off to every one of our staff, no strings attached.

In our minds, it was a matter of respecting our colleagues as adults and teammates.

We would set the goals and milestones, and let them decide how to get there.

When we made the announcement on January 25, 2010, you could’ve heard a pin drop, and then smiles spread all around the room.

We felt proud, elated, and rebellious all at the same time.

What Makes A News Story?

I was so excited I thought it would be fun to share this news. After all, how many companies have the cojones to do something like this? We knew it wouldn’t become a top news story, but perhaps we could get a little blip in the paper!

(Here’s where I note I had been studiously sending out old-school, boring press releases for about 10 years with little or no effect. Facepalm. I’m a business owner, not a PR professional, folks.)

Read Content from the Outlets and Journalists You’re Targeting

At the time, I was a big fan of the Seattle Times, which was led by journalist/blogger Monica Guzman. I read it consistently, but only interacted a couple of times. Based on reading her content over a long period of time, I knew that this was the type of story she might like.

I sent her a quick dashed off email. All of two sentences, including something like, “Hey, just thought you might like to know that we’ve just announced a policy of unlimited paid leave for all of our employees, no strings attached.”

In preparing this Spin Sucks story, I asked Monica what she thought when she saw my original email.

“I do remember your email making me stop and go, “Hmmm…”It was a bold step, and I was curious how common the practice was, or was becoming. It seemed ripe for conversation, and I appreciated the short, to the point email that didn’t try to dress up the topic.”

The next day, she wrote a brief story on the Seattle Times blog. We were psyched.

Be Ready for Success When it Comes

The day after that, the phone was ringing off the hook…local news was first, vying to get the interview. I gave a TV interview on the sidewalk outside my son’s basketball game. Yeah, that was surreal.

The snowball kept rolling, and we ultimately got coverage on CNN Headline news, Fox & Friends, the Wall Street Journal, multiple radio shows, the BBC, HR Executive, and more. There have been followups during the last three years as well, including a detailed interview on All Things Considered on NPR.

Business Lessons and Takeaways from the “Kerfluffle”

Don’t keep doing something if it’s not getting the results you want. If you are churning out traditional news releases and not getting anywhere, evaluate your strategy. Or hire a pro (hey, I know some people…).

Find the media outlets and journalists who write in your niche, and read their content consistently. Get intimately familiar with their topics, likes, dislikes, and style. Be genuinely interested in their material.

  • Be brief and to-the-point. Always. Everywhere.
  • Be flexible. If the news outlet needs to bump you, move your time slot, or hold the interview on the sidewalk, roll with it.
  • Be ready. Almost every interviewer ended with “is there anything else we should know?” Have your 30 second answer to that question ready and down cold.
  • Be camera-ready. If you’re lobbing out a news item you hope will get coverage, go get your hair color touched up, buy a camera-friendly suit, and be ready for your closeup.

Journalists pay attention to each other. Once I sent out the initial email, I did nothing to keep the ball rolling. Every bit of coverage after that was the result of journalists picking up the story (some without even talking with us). I didn’t know we were featured on CNN until my parents called me.

I had sweaty palms when I clicked “send” on that random email. But I did it anyway. Follow your gut instincts and don’t be afraid to take a leap.

What are your best tips for making that initial publicity spark?

About Rosemary O’Neill

Rosemary O’Neill is Co-Founder/President of Social Strata, which makes the online community platform. For the last 14 years, she has been evangelizing the social conversation. You can find her online via Twitter, on her small business blog, and on Google+. She also makes a mean blueberry pie.

  • That’s a great story, Rosemary. For me, the most important tip that comes out of this was not listed, but implied: have real news. Too often, PR people are sent out to pitch stuff that isn’t newsworthy.
    And regarding the policy, very cool. I worked for a company — I forget which — that gave us x days leave a year and said, in essence, “Use it how you want. It can be vacation, sick leave, whatever. You’re adults and we trust you.” I thought that was a bold step, but you took that 10 times further. Imagine: trusting people to be responsible for getting their work done. Bravo.

    • Thank you Rob! I agree, news is in the eye of the beholder 🙂 and I always love hearing about other companies who “get it!”

      • photo chris

        rosemaryoneill I would love to hear more about companies who “get it.” I feel like half of our staff here is/was flexible but that it’s becoming harder and harder to maintain…and suddenly we’re talking about 30 minute increments of time for pete’s sake.

        • photo chris rosemaryoneill I’d be happy to chat offline if you want to email. Just connect with me on Twitter and I can DM you my address. I think that unless you’re having to account for your increments for a govt contract or something, that’s counterproductive.

    • RobBiesenbach Rob, get back to work!

      • belllindsay Hey, I was taking a Personal Hour!

        • RobBiesenbach Oh, that’s what the kids are calling it these days, eh? 😉

        • belllindsay <rimshot>

        • RobBiesenbach Yeah, not in top form today. Sorry. 😉

        • RobBiesenbach Or, *nothing but net*!

    • RobBiesenbach rosemaryoneill Ah, “real news.” Great point. 
      I, like others here, have been on both the PR and journalism sides, so even though it takes more time, I will look for the quote or photo of the local student from our college, because that is what the local paper is going to care about, not the junior basketball star from Michigan. No offense. But the bigger challenge becomes managing the expectations of people in your company or organization who think everything is news. They don’t understand why you don’t write a release about IT. They don’t understand why their “big event” only becomes a blurb in the calendar section. They don’t understand how much time it takes to cultivate good relationships with reporters and editors. 
      Part of our job then is helping them to understand that. When I’m asked to cover an event or follow up on a lead that I know isn’t necessarily newsworthy to a broader audience, I briefly explain why the story might be a better fit for our website, or I will probe a bit deeper and ask questions that will help me discover if there is more to the story that will appeal to the newspaper’s’ readership–one with whom we in PR should be familiar if we’re to write releases that matter to them (and get published). Hm…think I just started my next blog post. Thanks for the idea!
      ALSO, very cool on the unlimited PTO, Rosemary and ginidietrich!

      • Word Ninja RobBiesenbach rosemaryoneill ginidietrich I’d love to read your post when it’s up!  Also, good insight about helping to explain what’s a good “fit” for a news piece vs online content. I envision that there are journalists out there wallpapering their houses with press releases about how ABC company was selected to do work by XYZ company.

        • rosemaryoneill Word Ninja RobBiesenbach ginidietrich I’m sure that’s true. I’ve found a great photo and enough information to make a meaty caption gets picked up way more often…at least by our local papers (printed and online). Thanks again for the post!

  • voxpop

    Of course, it might also be to your advantage to know where particular items, such as Seattle’s Big Blog, actually appear. In this case, it’s, not The Seattle Times.

    • Argh. Fail. Apologies to the P-I for that. I’m turning in my blogging license right now.

      • voxpop I’m the content director for Spin Sucks and Arment Dietrich. Mistakes sometimes happen. It’s been corrected and linked.  rosemaryoneill  Rosemary, consider yourself reinstated. And thanks for a fantastic article! 😉

  • I love this! You knew what you had was newsworthy, you knew exactly what publication was likely to publish news like yours and you kept the email simple and to-the-point. I think your advice to “be ready” is probably the best I’ve heard in a while. It is so true — and we all need to be ready whether we’re fielding questions from the press or not. You never know who is going to ask you about your business or who THEY might know.

    • Thanks Tara! Every biz owner should be like the Boy Scouts, prepared, right?

  • If I’d been the reporter, I would have had the same reaction. Would have been amazing to get such a short, succinct and to the point news item. I was a journalist for 20 years and virtually never got a press release worth reading (unless it was one I was already expecting and needed for the specific details the folks didn’t want to have to repeat 8,000 times). Kudos!

    • I have to give props to Monica for being so completely awesome too!

  • What a great story Rosemary, it’s a nice illustration of what we should all be doing all the time: knowing what matters, and saying it. 
    Personally I’m a little colloquial, I wouldn’t recommend stealing my favorite phrase…. “DUDE. You would totally find this interesting” unless you know your audience, but, it speaks to your idea: know what matters to the people you are communicating with.

    • JoeCardillo Dude, I would totally respond to you if you reached out to me thusly.

      • belllindsay JoeCardillo Ha! As would I =)

        • JoeCardillo WAIT! Where’s the facial hair gone….???

        • belllindsay JoeCardillo Ha. Y’know, cause I look so old and I need to appear hip

        • JoeCardillo belllindsay but hipsters are required to have handlebar moustaches these days, right?

        • rosemaryoneill JoeCardillo belllindsay Oh gawsh. Yes. Wait, are you calling me a hipster?

        • JoeCardillo rosemaryoneill belllindsay Sorry, forgot the difference between wanting to “appear hip” and “being a hipster.” Haven’t watched enough Portlandia episodes yet….

    • This makes me laugh because my kids say dude all the time…they picked it up from SOMEone…lol

      • rosemaryoneill Wasn’t me. I *have* noticed the 9-12 age group loves the word though. I kind of miss that about teaching, hopping into a class and students saying “hey dude! uhh….I mean, Mr. C”

  • “Journalists pay attention to each other.” That is so true, Rosemary.  Nobody watches the media like the media.

    • Frank_Strong Truth.

    • It was so surprising to me how they all piled on! Of course it cuts both ways, right? You just have to hope it’s a good story and not a bad one.

  • Loved this story and the encouragement to follow your gut instincts. Also thought your tips were really good.

  • You already know we’ve taken the unlimited PTO idea and incorporated it this year. So far it’s working! But the point of your blog post is even bigger. This is exactly what I pound home all the time. It’s not about mass distribution of a news release. It’s about a perfectly timed email or phone call that reaches a journalist or blogger when they most need you. I’m using this story…I’ll give you credit when I tell it!

    • It’s so cool that you’re doing the unlimited thing Gini! Thanks for the chance to tell my crazy story. And I’d be honored if you want to share it any time. Hopefully it will help other biz owners like me!

  • rdopping

    Trying to comment using my crap mobile device and finally got whose to the mobile theme. Its ok. I’ll be alright. I made it this far in life.
    So, I have to ask. No restrictions at all? How has productivity improved or has it? Is this an attract and retain thing? Very curious ovah heah.

    • rdopping

      Clearly I can’t spell either…..meant to say I finally got wise to the mobile theme. Sigh.

    • rdopping I can’t speak to productivity, but it’s attractive…I think if you’re hiring smart, capable people who want to help build your organization or brand, it’s a great incentive. 
      It also communicates that what you care most about is becoming better, not some arbitrary number of vacation days.

    • rdopping No restrictions at all, except that we make people take at least two weeks (so they don’t try to prove how macho they are by not taking any time off). Productivity is better than ever. For me it really is a respect thing. It forces us to really hire and keep people who are grownups and are self-motivated. (And no, we aren’t hiring at the moment…)

      • rdopping

        rosemaryoneill rdopping Haha…quite happy where I am, thanks. I was more wondering about those who may take advantage but you really answered that by saying “grownups” and “self-motivated”. You do know that that the NA workforce takes the least amount of vacation of the “first world”. Why does the European model seem so attractive?

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