The Storyteller


She who tells the best story wins.

Your PR Program Will Fail If You Don’t Do This

I have a pet peeve. (Actually I have a lot of pet peeves, but that’s a subject for my personal blog.)

I really get frustrated when people start discussing marketing tactics in the absence of a business objective. Let’s do a whitepaper! Why? We should host a webinar! Why?

PR, in particular, is a function that is prone to failure if you don’t have a strong objective defined. To illustrate this I’m going to outline a couple of specific objectives and some ideas on the tactics that would help meet that objective. I think it will show how very different the activities will be depending on the objective.

Objective #1: We need to raise money. For fund-raising you want hits in TechCrunch, ValleyWag, Business Insider and similar publications that are read by the VC set. You want to articles to focus on what makes your business hot and interesting. You also want to try and get on “The Top XX Start-ups to Watch” lists. Profiles of your founders can also be good, especially if they make the business seem hot/cool.

Objective #2: We are a B2B company and we need revenue. You need articles in the top trade publications that are read by your prospects. And you need those articles to focus on the problem you solve. Research is very helpful here — can you publish data that shows that some (large) percentage of companies struggle with the problem you are solving? Remember that negative news gets more ink, but positive news can work too. You also want to focus on speaking engagements at your industry’s top conferences. Thought leadership is the focus of your efforts so content creation is the key. Think about hiring a few freelancers to keep it cranking out.

Objective #3: We are a B2C company and we need more users. I’m not a consumer expert, but here you want to think about placing articles in mainstream articles that are focused on how cool your service is or how you solve a consumer problem. But you might also consider that this is an objective that doesn’t have a PR solution. You might need SEO instead, for example.

Objective #4: We are planning an IPO. This objective is similar to #1, but the audience is different. You aren’t looking for VCs anymore, you are trying to impress institutional investors. So you want mainstream business publications like WSJ, NYT, BusinessWeek and so forth. But the story is also different now. You want stories that illustrate a combination of growth (nowhere to go but up!) and stability (this is no flash in the pan business!). Data that shows the size of the market you are going after are important.

Objective #5: We are hiring (and man is it harder than we expected given the economy). Also similar to objectives #1 and #3 in terms of possible publications to target, but here the story is about how great your company is to work for. Focus on culture, unique perks and the opportunity to be part of something cool. Think about what positions you are most focused on. The messages that will attract engineers might be different from those that will attract sales guys. Also, submit for “top workplace” awards. Start with ones that cover your local market since they tend to be easier to win, then move to national awards.

See? Five objectives, five really different PR plans. Outline your objectives in order to figure out the activities that are most likely to meet those objectives. Your chances of success go up exponentially when you know what success looks like.


Filed under: Marketing

Do journalists hate infographics?

I’m going to go ahead and open this blog post with a caveat: it’s based on feedback from just two people. I’m aware that the plural of anecdotes is not data.

With that caveat I found the feedback interesting enough that I want to share.

This week my company put out it’s first infographic (I know, I know. We are behind.) Kudos to the incomparable Tom Sather who created it.

Journalist #1 is a guy who knows our company well, knows our industry and is a big fan of ours. His reaction to the infographic was (and I’m nearly quoting here): “I hate infographics! But I’m happy to interview Tom.” He wrote a great story.

Journalist #2 is a woman who knows our company a bit, knows our industry well but may not fully understand what we do and how we are different from other players in the space. She’s also very skeptical of vendor research, though she did cover our last report. Her feedback was basically puzzlement. She wanted to see “the full study.” We gave her the press release and a blog post Tom wrote. So far no coverage yet but hard to tell if that’s because it’s an infographic or some other reason. The lack of a proper “paper” does seem to be a factor.

In terms of overall coverage it’s a bit too early to tell, both because clips are still coming in and because we haven’t analyzed it yet. But a couple quick thoughts:

1. Some people like pictures, others like words, serve both: Infographics are great, but some people need to *read* something. And I’m guessing that a lot of journalists fall into this camp. So having something written to accompany the infographic is important to.

2. The press release, despite many obituaries, isn’t really dead. This is related to #2, but deserves it’s own call out. The release can serve as the written piece, especially for things that just wouldn’t work as a study or research paper. Key is for the release to be interesting and to have real news in it. Did I have to tell you that?

3. Relationships matter. Journalist #1 has such a great relationship with us that he’d likely have covered our story if I’d just given him a call and pitched it to him cold. Much of the other coverage is coming as the result of a lot of work building relationships with key reporters by giving them good stories for years. I can’t imagine we’d get this kind of coverage just chucking an infographic across to a bunch of people who don’t know us.

4. Tell a good story. Infographics aren’t interesting. Stories are interesting. Infographics can be a great vehicle for telling a story. But if you don’t have a good story then you’ve got nothing. Start over.

What’s been your experience with infographics?

Filed under: Media Relations,

If you feel stressed out, it’s not your imagination

Apparently, PR executive is the seventh most stressful job in the US.

And that is the good news. Last year it was #2.

Personally I feel better already.

Filed under: PR Management

J.D. Falk

Last night my colleague and friend J.D. Falk died after a year-long battle with cancer. My company’s CEO wrote a post on our company’s site that gives more insight into J.D. and his work in the email industry. This is my personal memory of him.

I think it’s appropriate that my first real interaction with J.D. was over email. We were trading emails in the weeks leading up to him leaving Yahoo! to join Return Path about how we were going to announce his appointment. In one of his emails I noticed a line of type at the top of the email that said MY FROGS ARE ON FIRE. It struck me as very odd because it was in a place that I had never noticed any text before. I was so fascinated that I spent several minutes figuring out how he’d done it. (It was the “flag” field in Outlook which can, as I learned, be customized.)

I was so proud of myself for figuring it out that I replied to his email and changed the custom text to say AND MY SNAKES ARE DROWNING. I can’t remember his exact response but I do recall that I got his trademark *grin*.

In in the spring of 2010 he and I embarked on a large project to launch a second company blog at Return Path called Received:. It was a project that he was very passionate about. We had already solidified our collaborative relationship through my editing of his writing, but this took us to a new level. He was moving from being simply a writer (though that was a very important contribution) to becoming an editor as well. Over the course of that summer, through to launch and for several months after we had bi-weekly “editorial chats” via phone or, when technology cooperated, Skype. In many ways those chats were like recess for me — a half hour to just talk to someone smart about the things were both passionate about. What an absolute treat.

It was also a treat to serve, as humbly as I often felt I did, as his editor. J.D. was an amazing writer (he confessed to me once that if it paid a decent living he’d have become a professional writer — and he certainly had the talent to do so) and he always wanted to be better. He enjoyed the collaboration of the editing process. I am a better editor today because of my work with him.

I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to work with J.D. and I will miss him terribly.

You can read much more about J.D. on the memorial site that has been set up to celebrate his life and record the amazing impact he had on the world.

J.D. Falk

Filed under: Inspiration

The Continued Rise of New Media

Last year I wrote about the Rise of New Media based on this Chart of the Day from Silicon Alley Insider.

At that time I marveld that HuffPo had outpaced The Washington Post. Now it’s ahead of the New York Times. This is no doubt in part due to the paywall model that NYT now uses. Note that the WSJ is way below all of these properties because of it’s paid subscription model.

Doesn’t mean WSJ isn’t still hugely influntial. And the NYT isn’t going away anytime soon. But the pattern seems pretty clear. New properties are on the rise.

chart of the day, huffpo, new york times, wall street journal, uniques, june 2011

Filed under: Media & Publishing

Palin’s Problem Really Isn’t Her (Mis)understanding of American History

It’s that she strings together random words in the hope that they will turn into a sentence.

She really needs to work on answering questions off the cuff. She sounds dumb, even when she does know what she’s talking about (although to my reading of her statements, that seems to happen infrequently).

Palin is such an interesting conundrum on so many levels, but especially as a communicator. On the one hand, she has undeniable star power. Watching her give a good speech is electrifying, even if you disagree with everything she is saying. And she knows how to play to her base. The bullsh*it about the “lamestream media” and “gotcha” questions is completely manipulative.

But then you watch her try to answer a simple question off-the-cuff and she completely discombulates.

At the end of the day, she just doesn’t sound like a President. And that, more than anything, will (likely) mean she never will be.

Filed under: Politics, Public Speaking

No Comment

It’s a familiar trope. The disgraced politician facing flashbulbs and screamed questions from hordes of reporters shouts back “No comment!”

Of course just like you probably wouldn’t want your doctor to do the things she sees on “Grey’s Anatomy,” saying “no comment” in real life situations is a very bad idea.

“No comment” is universally interpreted as “I’m a big fat lying liar.” It also tends to inspire journalists to dig into whatever you aren’t commenting on.

A recent post on offers 5 alternatives to no comment. While there are few good ideas here, I think the author misses a big first step. Why are you not commenting?

Times when you are tempted to say “no comment” fall into three buckets:

1. You are asked a question that you don’t know the answer to and you don’t have access to the answer. I tell people all the time, it’s perfectly okay to say you don’t know the answer to a question. It can get tricky if the writer believes you *should* know the answer. (Example: “Mr. CEO what precautions did you take to be sure this big, bad thing would not happen?” Answering “I don’t know” is rarely going to take you down a good road.) But if you being asked to comment on something about which you don’t have information you can say so, and make it clear that you aren’t hiding anything, you simply don’t know anything.

2. You are asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, but you could get an answer. This is easy. Get the answer. Or give the journalist directly to the person with the answer (working with your friendly neighborhood PR pro, if applicable). This is where you can say “I don’t know the answer to that question, but my colleague Bob will. Let me send him an email and see if he’s available to talk to you.”

3. You are asked a question you don’t want to answer. Ah well. This is really the problem, right? This is where the suggestions on can probably help you, though truthfully I see most of them leading to something like “Mr. BigWig would not comment for this story.” Which is the real point, right? It’s not about whether or not you say the words “no comment” — if you don’t answer the question you will be called out for not answering the question. So at the end of the day you have to pick your poison. Do you answer the question and take the hit (presuming the answer is bad)? Or do you refuse to answer and get portrayed as hiding something? Only you (and your execs) can decide what is the worse scenario.

Filed under: Crisis Communications, Media Relations

Being a Better Public Speaker Is Child’s Play

Want to be a better public speaker? Read to your kids. Don’t have kids? Borrow some.

Like a lot of things in life the best way to get better at public speaking is to practice. But unless you are pursuing speaking engagements as a professional activity there’s only so much real world practice you can get.

But reading – out loud – comes pretty close. Reading is different from talking. And children’s books are great – if you get a good one they have good rhythm and pace. Dr. Suess is great for really loosening up your tongue.

It also helps to read the same story over and over and over (which is very easy to do if you have a toddler. “No Mommy, read this one again!”). After a couple readings you need to do something to keep from losing your mind, so you play with the voices, vary the pace and pitch. You start to play with the story and, in turn, play with your voice.

Try it.

Have you got an unusual trick for improving your public speaking skills? Post it below!

Filed under: Public Speaking

The Year in Ideas

This week’s NY Times Magazine is the annual Year in Ideas Issue.  This is my favorite issue of the whole year. And this one is the tenth anniversary.

The whole thing is worth a read, but I’ve done the work so you don’t have to.  Here’s my picks for stuff that is most relevant to us:

Cybercom:  (What the Pentagon is — and is not — doing to secure the internet.)

The Long-Life-Span Smartphone:  (Interesting as smartphones get more and more ubiquitous.)

Emotional Spell Check: (Fascinating idea that you could have something to check your email for “tone.” Posits that some companies could prevent you from sending a message that violates their “tone policy.” Ugh.)

Social Network as Social Index:  (Interesting all around, especially the quote about using social networks for market research.)

Lebron James’s “Decision”:  (While noting that James screwed this up, it just shows the ongoing erosion of establishment media. We all own the printing presses now.)

The making of the cover with a QR code made out of balloons: (I confess I still don’t understand what the heck these codes do and I just figured out how to read them, but the cover is very cool.)

Virginia Heffernan’s Medium Column is on Tor, a system for sharing information anonymously: (Very interesting and very cool.)

In Pursuit of the Perfect Brainstorm: (Thinking about thinking. Plus, watch consultants who get up to $500,000 per month! Oh, and this one contains a good media relations lesson. Never, never, never ask a journalist not to write about something. Not only will that guarantee that they will write about it, but will also guarantee that you will be quoted asking them not to write about.)

A Physicist Solves the City: (Fascinating anyway, but mostly interesting for the part at the end where the physicist applies some of what he has learned about cities to corporations.

Filed under: Inspiration

Can bad publicity be good?

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” You’ve probably heard that a few times. You’ve probably said it a few times. It’s a cliche that tends to make non-PR people roll their eyes. “Of course a publicity person would say that.”

Of course PR people don’t really mean it. What they really mean, I think, is that not all bad publicity is bad. And some is good.

Well, now we’ve got some research to back that up.

As it turns out, negative publicity can be helpful for raising awareness of an unknown brand.  It’s less helpful — and more hurtful — for well-known brands.

But it also matters what the nature of the bad publicity is. Bad publicity about a product or service has negative repercussions. (Think of what has happened to Toyota sales.) But bad publicity that is unrelated to the product has far less impact. The example they give is the Gap logo imbroglio. It’s unlikely that publicity about a bad logo is going to have any negative impact on sales.

What’s the takeaway here? I don’t think it ever makes sense to pull a PR stunt to try and raise awareness for your business. It’s too risky. But it likely means that you can worry a little less about negative publicity if you are small brand. Conversely you need to worry a bit more as your brand grows — you have more to lose. In any event you have the most to worry about if the negative publicity about your products. Of course I don’t think you really needed a study to tell you that.

Filed under: Crisis Communications, PR Management

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