inbound-prIn many ways, the world of PR has become a lot like the world of marketing automation: regardless of your question, one tactic is always the answer.

Write a press release.

Hired a new executive? Write a press release. Painted a wall in your office? Duh -- press release, everyone is going to want to hear about that. Shipped a teeny tiny feature? To the press release we go!

Here’s the problem -- we've already established that reporters aren’t over the moon about inboxes chock-full of press releases, and the act of writing them isn’t particularly thrilling for any marketer. And yet, I think the heart of the problem has less to do with the age-old argument of whether press releases work or not, and more to do with the need for a seismic shift in how we think about media relations.

The Problem With Press Releases

Howard Wolfson, Deputy Mayor of New York City and a long-time communications advisor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Hillary Clinton said it best:

“The biggest mistake people make when it comes to PR is doing exactly what everyone else does: boring press releases, robotic executive briefings, and dry advertising and campaigns. At the end of the day, reporters live for a great story they can share, and that starts with a unique perspective, a new angle on an old story, or a scoop no one else has.”

The next generation of effective PR starts with being remarkable, reflects the reality of a Twitter-fueled news cycle, and drives significantly greater results than spamming reporters with unhelpful releases and alerts. (P.S. If you want to get started with that kind of PR, we've released a guide that'll help you get started, which also includes a press release template that'll make your life a lot easier, and generally far less hair-pulley.)

So what do we do? Well, it starts with recognizing what we're doing wrong. And wrong looks a little something like this:


Yikes. Any of that look familiar? (Before or after you strip out the hyperbole?) Alright, here's how to change how you think about PR, your company, and how the two relate.

Be remarkable.

For far too long, we’ve kidded ourselves into thinking that great media coverage starts with a great press release draft. In reality, exceptional press coverage typically starts with a truly outstanding idea, product, or narrative.

For example, Evernote, like HubSpot, offers unlimited vacation to all employees. They also offer complimentary professional housecleaning to employees twice a month and a thousand dollars to spend on the vacation of their choice annually. An innovative idea and commitment to company culture by Evernote’s CEO, Phil Libin, has helped the company develop a great employment brand, but it’s also driven coverage in the New York Times, The Next Web, and Forbes. The ongoing coverage didn’t emerge from a release, but rather a commitment to rethinking the “typical” office culture and pursuing a unique strategy to attract and retain top talent.

Lest you think we are just unlimited vacation junkies, here’s another example to consider. The online dating world is a highly competitive market. Each of the top sites (such as Match and eHarmony) compete by advertising the promise of a lifelong relationship, touting their track records of success in matching people for a lifetime of wedded bliss. One site decided to do things very differently: FarmersOnly. FarmersOnly decided not to compete on a track record of success, but rather to identify a niche market and cater exclusively to rural residents who, as the company’s tag line suggests, agree that “city folks just don’t get it.” But just because FarmersOnly caters to a rural audience doesn’t mean they missed out on big city media. In fact, the company landed on the Today Show and has over 100,000 members, all from choosing the marketing path less traveled and doubling down on their target market and story.

But my company's different!

I know what you’re thinking: those are two outrageous examples, and my business can’t or won’t do that. My co-founder is too conservative. Our business is B2B. There's no chance in the world my CEO will go for that.

The good news is that you don’t have to start with an outrageous business idea or a massive stunt to benefit from being remarkable; instead, demonstrate the success of this approach by starting with a remarkable tactic.

For an example of this principle in action, I turned to Joe Chernov who, in addition to being the VP of marketing at Kinvey, is also a startup PR genius. I asked him what a marketer should consider if he or she doesn’t have a new rocketship to launch or a CEO with the personality of Elon Musk. He shared an example from personal experience:

Kinvey was moving their offices from Cambridge to Boston and wanted to let media, customers, partners, and potential job applicants know where to find the company. Their team could very easily have teed up a press release touting why the move was good for their business and their employees, but more than likely, it would have ended up in the recycling bin of reporters Joe had worked hard to develop relationships with over a period of many years, so he chose a remarkable tactic. Kinvey capitalized on the broader trend of startups moving downtown and created a map that showed fellow innovative companies that called Boston proper home.

Then, being the fabulous inbound marketers that they are, they created a blog post about it. The post not only encouraged people to check out the graphic; the company also offered to add startups they missed and gave visitors the code to add the map to their own site if they so desired.

The result? Coverage in the Boston Sunday Globe and the Boston Business Journal, not to mention significant goodwill from the other organizations Kinvey included in their graphic, many of whom may not have the budget or time to create one themselves. Kinvey’s innovative approach put them on the map of reporters and customers alike (pun very much intended), and their team’s innovative approach is a great example that anyone can make a stereotypically boring announcement (an office move) into something remarkably interesting to media.

Hone your nose for news ... and non-news.

Once you've been at a company for a significant amount of time, it’s often tempting to lose sight entirely of what is newsworthy and what isn’t. This disease is highly contagious within an organization and has several strains, such as:

  • Hyper Company Disorder - You work at a ridiculously awesome company that is growing like crazy and you truly believe in your product. You can’t stop telling your friends how much you love it, so you assume that media are just a natural extension of your colleagues. As a result, reporters must be dying to hear every little tiny bit of news that comes out of your organization, including the arrival of a new water cooler in IT and the new outfit Jill in marketing acquired over the weekend.
  • Influence-za - Your executive team has developed legitimate thought leadership in a given area (be it the popularity of cupcakes or the proliferation of social networks) and thus you believe your CEO or CMO is the absolute authority on everything. To that end, you ping any and all reporters who even show the slightest hint of interest in hearing from people on a topic to tell them how incredible, authoritative, and knowledgeable your executives are. There is no story too small or far-reaching, everything can benefit from a little knowledge dropped by your execs.
  • Front Page Fever - Your incredible growth last year lands you a top tier media placement with the Times, Journal, or Bloomberg. Executives rejoice, your customers celebrate, and all is right with the world. So you naturally assume that every bit of news you churn out next should also be front page news, leading to unreasonable expectations from your colleagues and outrageous demands on reporters you reach out to regularly.

The cure for all of the diseases outlined above (along with many more we don’t have room to cover) is an honest assessment of what is newsworthy and what is not. Marketers who hone this skill develop a deep understanding of trends in their industry, and unmatched awareness for what constitutes a meaningful storyline and what doesn’t. This candor often makes for difficult conversations, but they are necessary ones to build a media relations program that drives long-term success and high quality relationships with reporters.

HARO founder and recovering publicist Peter Shankman says it best when he notes:

"Occasionally, PR people simply need to grow a pair at the risk of offending the client or executive for the greater good of the company. Let's face it, painting the conference room is not "news," nor is "new person hired for second eastern region assistant sales position." News is news that matters to more than your company. It's information that's beneficial to an industry or a whole host of readers. If your client has that kind of news, pitch your heart out. But if not, sometimes the best thing you can do to save your clients' (and your) reputation, is to say no."

Watch your language.

Imagine that you’re a reporter, and every day when you log in to your email you receive a deluge of subject lines, each of them claiming to include the BIGGEST, the BEST, the MOST SIGNIFICANT development in the history of the universe. According to David Meerman Scott’s official guide to Gobbledygook, the word “next generation” narrowly beats out “flexible” and “robust” on the list of the most absurd jargon used in most releases. Between massive doses of gobbledygook and incredibly high expectations for both the quality and quantity of content they produce, it’s no surprise that most reporters have developed a healthy level of skepticism for traditional public relations strategies.

Barb Darrow, senior writer at GigaOm, captures this sentiment perfectly, noting “if you (or your client) can’t articulate why your technology really is interesting or matters to normal human beings without graduate degrees in computer science, there is no reason for that product to exist, let alone get coverage.” Don’t expect to hyperbolize your way to press coverage; if anything, the most absurd superlatives are often deleted the fastest.

Beyond avoiding gobbledygook, keep an eye on your word count. No reporter is sitting at their desk anxiously awaiting your email (trust me, they get plenty), so be sure that your correspondence is clear, concise, to the point, and includes all the relevant links he or she will need to make an informed decision about whether your story is worth exploring or not. Don’t be coy or too cute: Get to the point and show that you know your stuff, and their beat, quickly. Our team also uses Signals to track whether emails and links were opened; doing so helps us improve the quality of our email outreach the next time around so we're always optimizing for success.

Finally, when it comes to language, have a sense of humor. Everyone on earth sends serious news releases with tremendous claims, whether your business is edible insects or email security. Part of sticking out from the Screen_Shot_2013-10-16_at_11.32.26_PM-2pack is having a sense of humor about your company, your brand, and yourself. For example, Warby Parker’s Annual Report includes core metrics on their tremendously successful business, but it also includes “Employee Fun Facts,” one of which is that a Warby Parker employee has attended 13 Hanson concerts, and a breakout of office lunches by the pound. Reporters, like the rest of us humans, prefer to do business with people who are smart, funny, and perhaps a tad self-deprecating -- so act accordingly.

Remember that great PR is more than just a press release.

Even if you write the world’s greatest press release and secure a fantastic story to start off launch day, reporters for online publications file stories up to five times per day, which means your headline will quickly be buried below stories filed later in the day. Moreover, if you’re a global company, chances are that your customers and stakeholders are in many different time zones and not always glued to their favorite news site.

As a result, to ensure that all the people you care about see the news you’re launching, it’s imperative that you develop a plan that goes well beyond just a press release and pitching. This includes blogging -- on your site, and others' sites as a guest blogger; promoting and monitoring your announcement on Twitter (we use Social Inbox to set up alerts); encouraging employees and investors to share the news on LinkedIn; reaching out to influencers with wide social reach to get their opinions and reviews on your announcement, or possibly even some content.

In other words, top-notch PR is not a one-and-done deal. The days of relying upon one release and a morning spent smiling and dialing are gone. Those with a willingness to think, be, and operate differently from what companies in your space “traditionally” do will ultimately win the day. So instead of relying upon superlatives to see your name in lights, develop organizational discipline around what is (and isn’t) news, and identify ways in which your company’s storylines intersect with national trends and coverage. Doing so respects reporters’ time, reflects your understanding of his or her beat, and ultimately drives the results and coverage you need to help your business stand out from the pack.

Image credit: nostriimago

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Originally published Oct 18, 2013 8:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


Public Relations