Early in my business life, I had a friend who was a bigwig at one of the telecom companies. When another merger occurred and he found himself on the street, he invested his golden parachute money into a startup.
He and I were really good friends, and he called me immediately to tell me what was up and, of course, to invite my agency to work with him in the startup. It was an exciting opportunity, and I was genuinely interested in what he was building.
A week after he signed the contract, the Chicago Tribune wrote an article about new startups to watch in the city. The moment he saw the article, he called me and asked me for a meeting in his office. When our managing director and I arrived, he berated us because he wasn’t included in the story. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, let alone rationalize with him. He thought that because he had signed a contract with us a week before, we would have called all the media outlets to inform them about the new company.
(As an aside, I went back and read that article and only four companies still exist!)
The company didn’t have messaging or any news yet (other than they would be opening their doors later that year), but by all means, Gini! Call your reporter friends and let them know we are here!
I learned many lessons in that short-lived client experience with someone who is no longer a friend; I could do an entire article about it. But I’d rather focus instead on what happens when a story runs about your organization’s (or your client’s) industry and you are not included.
A Little PR Story
Like me, you’ve probably heard at least a handful of times during your career, “My competitor was featured in (insert media outlet here). Why weren’t we included?”
In my former friend’s case, the story in the Trib was written long before it was published. Even if we had called all of the reporters in the city the moment the contract was signed, his company still wouldn’t have been included. It takes time for a reporter to do their due diligence, interview an exec, talk to some competitors, and then decide to include the company. None of that would have happened—and allowed the reporter to make their deadline—in less than a week.
In the same case, they hadn’t even opened their doors yet, which made them just an idea, not a company. No reporter in their right mind will include an idea in a story about startups to watch. Every one of the companies included in that story had been in business for at least a year.
To boot, if the website lacks polish, the social media accounts aren’t live or don’t have a lot of content and engagement on them yet, and there isn’t any content on the website that demonstrates expertise, a reporter is going to pass on to the competitors who do have those things.
This organization had none of that stuff yet. We were just getting started. And yet…the F bomb was dropped and everything. It was one of the most unprofessional experiences I’ve had in my career. I remember leaving. We were standing at the corner of Michigan Ave. and Wacker Drive. Our managing director at the time looked at me and said, “So we’re firing him, right?”
As an aside, his business didn’t make it, so he never got the fame he wanted. The idea was great. The management was not.
PR Is a Long Game
But even if the organization has been in business for years, there are other reasons it isn’t included in stories even when the competition is.
We have a current client who, when we started working with them almost four years ago, had never done any marketing or communications. They managed to build a $30MM business without marketing or communications of any sort, which says a lot about the tenacity of their founders and the sales team they have.
Their investors told them during the pandemic that they had to start marketing or they wouldn’t make it out. They hired us to serve as their external marketing and communications team. And guess what? We didn’t start with earned media. We started with owned. We slowly built their online presence on their website and social media and created a brand of experts.
When we added earned media, it was a good 18 months into the relationship, and we started small. We went to trade and regional and local publications first. Once we gained momentum there, we launched a satellite media tour to reach morning news across the country. And just this year, we’ve added national media. It’s taken nearly two and a half years to play the PR game, and it’s just beginning to gain some traction. We anticipate 2024 to be their year—a full four years later.
But. There have been many, many meetings where I have had to talk the CEO off the ledge. He didn’t (maybe still doesn’t) understand why it was taking so long and why we couldn’t track results directly to sales.
Were qualified leads up? Yes. Were sales up? Yes. Could we say this new customer came from a specific story or TV appearance? No.
So, I continually educate him on why PR is a long game. While measuring directly to sales is incredibly challenging, we know it’s working because all of the indicators point in the right direction. Plus, there is almost no better test than when a stranger introduces themself to the CEO at a trade show or event and says, “I keep seeing you everywhere!”
It takes time. Lots and lots of time.
And It Requires the PESO Model™
One of the reasons I started to explore doing more than media relations in my agency was we kept having clients leave when there wasn’t a lot of media activity. It was super frustrating to finish a big campaign with lots of media coverage only to have the client tell us a month later that they didn’t want to pay us if the activity didn’t continue.
I wanted to figure out how to fill the valleys when media coverage just wasn’t possible or because we were working on big national stories that took months to occur.
That’s why we started to incorporate the PESO Model™ into our client work, which was, of course, not called that back then, but it was the start of what we would launch to the industry later.
With owned and shared media—and sometimes even paid—we were able to fill those valleys, have more consistency for clients, and demonstrate results that did drive toward sales.
What also happened along the way is that reporters began to expect to see the way executives think through content and their social media accounts.
So, if you’re working to pitch a story and it’s falling on deaf ears, take a look at the content on the website, what your execs have published, and what their social media channels look like. I’m willing to bet just about everyone needs to increase their presence in those places.
Just like we do when doing our research, reporters use Google and a company’s website to learn more. Get those sections beefed up!
Showcase Subject Matter Expertise
So what do you do when you have a polished website, lots of great content, and active social media channels…and reporters still ignore you?
There are a couple of reasons for that, as well.
The first might be that the competition is perceived as more relevant or compelling. Their CEO might be more charismatic, or perhaps they spend a lot of time on the road, speaking and attending trade shows and events. Maybe they know the reporters from being “out in the field,” so to speak.
As you pitch stories, you can’t just say you have an expert for them to talk to you. You have to show them. This is akin to saying you’re the smartest person in the room. First, if you have to say it, you’re most definitely not; second, if you don’t demonstrate it so others say you’re the smartest person in the room, it doesn’t matter.
Demonstrate the expertise of your executives or clients.
You can do this through content via the website, social media channels, a company-produced podcast, podcast interviews, trade interviews, and more.
Share success stories, subject matter expertise, insider knowledge, and unique industry point-of-view.
With that said, I know this is incredibly challenging for most. It’s not easy to create content for an executive about their unique industry point-of-view without being able to get in their head—and not everyone will create the content themselves.
Below, I’ll give you some ideas to work around that so you get what you need—and reporters begin to see them as the experts they are.
Make Earned Media a Top Priority
Another reason your client or executive might not be included in a story that the competition is is the bane of existence for all of us: the competition got there first.
How many of you have had a situation where a reporter needs information, they’re on deadline, and you can’t get it to them quickly enough? That’s happened a few times during my career, and it’s incredibly frustrating.
This is a good time for education. You can explain that if a reporter needs a story source, they are on deadline—and those who respond first have the advantage. If a reporter calls, texts, DMs, or emails you, you drop everything to help them. And you work to create a culture where the client or executive does the same.
If they don’t do that for a particular story and then are mad that their competition is included, as much as you’ll want to say, “I told you so!” use that as a learning opportunity. Discuss why responding to a reporter immediately is imperative, even if it means leaving an important meeting for a few minutes. This should be one of the top priorities of the organization. If it’s not, you can explain why they can’t be mad about it.
Improve Your Pitches
And the last reason you might not be included in a story is, well, it’s your fault. You’re pitching wrong.
I cannot tell you how many bad pitches I get every day. I’m not just talking one or two. I’m talking 20 or 30. Every. Single. Day.
Do you know how many I respond to? None.
Not a single one.
That’s because most of them are pitching a guest for the Spin Sucks podcast. We don’t have guests on the podcast. So I immediately delete those. Then there are the ones that pitch me Chicago happenings. I don’t cover Chicago happenings on the blog. Never have. Never will. Then there are the guest post pitches that are rarely written by humans. And trust me, you can tell. Occasionally, I get some interesting research or a study, but I download it and save it for a future episode. I still don’t respond to the email.
Now put that on steroids. I’m willing to bet reporters get hundreds of emails from PR pros every day. They wouldn’t have time to do their jobs if they read them all and responded. That’s not your fault—it’s the fault of the industry. But you can cut through the clutter.
First, do your research. Just because someone lives in Chicago does not mean they cover city happenings. And just because they have a podcast does not mean they accept guests. I know it’s hard to research everyone you want to pitch, but it’s far better to have a small list of targets and have 100% success than 2,000 targets and 0% success.
Write a compelling subject line that shows you’ve done your research and they’re missing out if they don’t at least open your email.
Don’t send a three-page-long email once you have a short list to pitch. Two or three sentences will suffice. Gauge interest and follow up if they want more.
Your pitch game needs work. Trust me. I haven’t received a single good pitch in months. Your odds are already low. Stand out from the crowd by hyperpersonalizing your pitch.
Use These Effective PR Strategies
For many reasons, the competition may have gotten a story that you didn’t. It could be their CEO golfs with the publisher or their kids go to school with the editor’s kids or the CEO and the reporter grew up together or live next door or myriad other reasons.
You can’t control all of the variables, but you can control the following:
- Improve the website. Polish it. Make it look professional. Add in content and subject matter expertise.
- Pay attention to the company and executive social media channels. They should have consistently new content and be engaging.
- Grow your owned media library. This is the best way to share your expertise with a reporter who is looking for sources at midnight.
- Don’t quit media relations after a few months. It’s a long game. Start with trade publications and then move to local and regional. After you master that, move to national. This process takes years.
- Focus on small wins along the way to the bigger wins.
- Schedule a bi-monthly meeting so you can interview the execs and get into their heads for the sake of content development.
- Measure what you can. This includes increased direct traffic to the website, branded search volume, and traffic from specific stories.
- Improve your pitches.
I’ve learned a lot about setting client expectations since that F bomb meeting with my former friend and client. We must educate execs on how this works, what to expect, and when. Without doing that, you, too, could enjoy being berated in front of your colleagues.