A whole bunch goes wrong in PR. More than most practitioners would care to admit.
It’s because, as a process, PR is variable, uncertain, heavily dependent on human beings and their dumbass whims.
As someone whose agency has dealt with its share of idiot clients, I want to tell the story of a pitch gone right. This tale speaks to a variety of things that are essential for PR (the process) to work. These are the elements that are, from my humble experience, almost always absent when the PR process fails.
In late 2012, we began working with a client that makes cognitive training software for hockey. The client had a variety of interesting and newsworthy things about them, not least that their software was originally designed to teach fighter pilots how to dog fight. A number of NHL players had trained on their product and they also had affiliations with a smattering of large hockey programs.
On January 9th 2013, after the US won gold at the 2013 World Junior tournament, I pitched Jeff Z. Klein of the New York Times on a story about USA Hockey’s use of the product. It did not take Aristotle, Einstein or Steve Jobs to figure out the timing was opportune and that this was the right reporter for the story.
On January 10th, Klein replied saying he was interested. He talked to my client that day (this is important because as of January 10 the client knew this media opp was in play).
Between January 10th and February 20th, Klein and I exchanged a few emails. He was busy covering the Rangers beat so these were what I’ll call “check-in emails” on my part.
On March 10th, Klein visited a Major Junior club that was then using the software as a reference team. Both the client and I were buoyed by this because it suggested a story was in the offing.
Between March 10th and the end of April, I sent Klein a few more emails re this story – most tying in with macro environmental events like the U18 World Hockey Championships or the NHL draft.
At the end of April, Klein suggested we wait until the Fall to work on this story. I figured things were done.
In June, I sent an email to outlining which NHL draftees had used the product. I heard nothing back and again guessed this was going nowhere.
In September, I touched base again and finally, by the end of the month, Klein said he was interested in speaking to a newly signed Major Junior club that was using the product.
We setup the interview for Klein in September, and then had to wait until December to hear back regarding the story. Again, I was certain we weren’t going to realize much for our efforts.
Between the 10th and 21st of December there was a flurry of activity as we organized interviews, set up photo shoots, and helped the reporter with other necessary info.
Finally, on December 22nd 2013, at the peak time for our client’s sales, we were rewarded with this piece in the New York Times. I can say with certainty that the reporter, the client and the agency (us) were happy with the process and outcome.
I recount this saga in detail because it reinforces many classic lessons. Among others:
- The value of patience and perseverance in media relations. Yes, it was the New York Times – an outlet worth waiting for. But the bloody process took almost a year! I know a lot of clients that would have told their agency to “push harder” or “make this story happen sooner.” Frankly, there were plenty of times when we thought nothing was going to come of our efforts. However, thankfully both client and agency were patient. Part of the perseverance flowed from knowing we actually had a cool story.
- The value of “checking in”. Some journalists hate “checkins” and “follow ups.” I’ve always found this funny, since they’re the first people to complain about a deluge of email and info overload. However, that aside, I always counsel younger staff to follow up with reporters. Not 22 times, but a reasonable number – especially if a journalist has shown interest in a pitch. Follow ups/checkins are a delicate art – the PR equivalent of making souffle is the best way I can describe it. Simply put, if we had not checked in on this opp, it would not have come to fruition.
- Busy-ness. Most of us like to claim busy-ness. Some of us actually are. I am pretty sure beat reporters at the Grey Lady number among the “actually are” faction. It’s important to know the difference and conduct follow ups and checkins accordingly. Client pressure aside, this variable’s critical when assessing whether to continue putting effort into pursuing a story.
In the end, good clients make good PR easy. Our client, in this case, is superb. Beyond having an interesting story their execs know that PR is not lightning fast, and is a delicate dance.