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#FakeNews is an opportunity to gain consumer trust—for real.
#FakeNews is an opportunity to gain consumer trust—for real.

As a former journalist, I appreciate the grit and heart that it takes to produce accurate and informative news stories day after day. I cringe every time I see an attack on the press. With #fakenews regularly invoked by politicians at the highest levels, the hashtag has become a punchline, and it’s easy to feel despondent about the future of our democracy. But I’m an optimist, or at least aspire to be, and as a public relations professional, the era of #fakenews offers an opportunity for people and businesses doing good to shine.

Scrutiny of the press has made consumers more discerning, but that’s good news. A discerning customer is a good customer. By the time they’ve found and vetted your product or service, they’ve determined they can trust you, and that trust will hold as long as you continue providing a solution to their problem and living up to your values. Here are four ways to strengthen trust with your customers through earned media.

Know your audience. Marketing 101 teaches you about understanding the likes and behavior of your target customer, but now more than ever, brands need to understand what media sources are trusted by their audience, and where and how targeted consumers get their news. A customer may have their guard up when they see a commercial, billboard, or digital ad, but when your company is featured in a beloved news outlet, you’re one step closer to gaining their trust. According to a study done by Nielsen, 58% of consumers trusted editorial content over just 33% that reported online banners as trustworthy. If a news outlet your target customer respects has determined your company is worthy of a positive news story, that customer is more inclined to agree and purchase a product or patronize your services.

Hire a trusted team. With PR pros outnumbering journalists by six to one, it’s not just consumers who have their guard up. Members of the media are understandably suspicious, and it doesn’t help that they often get pitches that are not a fit for their outlet or beat. Make sure your PR team researches the types of stories reporters are looking for and knows how to pitch to them in a succinct, respectful way. In the face of staff layoffs and budget cuts, many news outlets face pressure to crank out content quickly and frequently, so if your team gives them a story that’s worth writing, they are more likely to engage with you or at least give your pitch full consideration.

Walk the walk. Your company lands a big story in a best-fit publication, and your inbox is lighting up with sales leads. That’s great, but you’ve still got to play the long game. Your company must deliver an excellent product or service that lives up to its brand promise and values, delivering on your claims of transparency, character, and backbone. If you’re not living up to the promises you make, consumers will sniff you out as a fake and you may lose them for good. When acquiring a new customer can cost up to five times more than retaining one, your company’s success relies on maintaining a positive relationship with customers who have already converted.

Be newsworthy… for the right reasons. Most businesses exist to solve problems. Many of these problems are extremely compelling, at least among my clients. Whether your business is trying to end the childcare shortage and support high-quality early education or dismantle the traditional barriers to women succeeding as attorneys, hone in on the most interesting messengers to help tell your story in the press. Stand out when it aligns with your brand’s personality. Be creative when you examine your press release from a journalist’s perspective. Find a way to capture the attention of your target audience and tell a story that makes a lasting connection.

Businesses Should Support Real Change, Not Just Rainbows, Especially in Red States

Pride season is in full swing (pun intended), and corporations are decking themselves out in rainbows and sponsoring parades.

That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not meaningful brand activism either.

As someone who grew up in a suburb of Boise, the LGBTQ hub of my deeply red state, I’m heartened when I see major Idaho corporations publicly supporting Pride. My jaw dropped when I drove past the billboard on JUMP (the nonprofit community center built by the heirs of french fry magnet J.R. Simplot) advocating the 30th anniversary of Boise Pride.

As a kid attending public school in Nampa during the 1990s, I didn’t know a single openly LGBTQ person. The messages I heard about sexuality were overwhelmingly straight, white, Christian, and conforming. In my town, gay men were considered disease-ridden perverts; lesbians were unattractive tomboys who couldn’t “get a man,” and bisexuals were confused sluts, if they existed at all. (Trans+ people certainly didn’t.) It wasn’t until I left Idaho in 2005 that I began the journey to accept my queer identity.

My upbringing in Nampa was 20-plus years ago, and I’d like to think a child in school today would have a better experience. Yet just two years ago, a gay man named Steve Nelson was murdered in Nampa because of his sexual orientation. And the Idaho legislature is comprised of many of the same old, white men who ran the state when I was a child, who are related to many of the same people who ran the state when my parents were growing up. Because of their lack of leadership and understanding of people who are different, we still lack state laws to protect basic LGBTQ civil rights.

This underlies why a rainbow float in a Pride parade doesn’t cut it for me when it comes to corporate activism. If you care about supporting full equality for our community, challenge yourself to do better.

Real change means using your corporate platform to advocate for adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s human rights laws so that no one can be fired, denied housing, or public accommodations based on who they are or who they love. It means sending your C-suite to the legislature to support the programs that support the 40% of homeless youth who identify as queer. It means showing up to support access to healthcare, including STI prevention and comprehensive sex education in public schools. It means working with law enforcement to end violence and murder of transwomen, particularly transwomen of color. It means cutting a check to organizations like Pride Foundation or volunteering your time to increase access to scholarships for LGBTQ students and grant money to the nonprofits working toward real change.

What is PR, Anyway?

More than once, a client has asked me what public relations actually means. It’s a fair question. Public relations, much like its umbrella industry, marketing, can be hard to pin down. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying: “Advertising is what you pay for; publicity is what you pray for.”

Publicity doesn’t come from the gods, but rather hard work and a solid strategy. PR is defined as any effort toward creating a favorable opinion of your company or brand in the eyes of the public. Yet who is the public? Unless you are a mega-brand, chances are Jane Public will never know who you are, and probably doesn’t care. That’s why I prefer to define PR this way: Any effort, aligned with business goals, that creates a favorable opinion of your company or brand in the eyes of your target customers.

PR is valuable because you have to earn it; it’s not paid advertising. This is why it holds greater credibility than advertising in the eyes of a brand’s target audience. PR strategists often refer to “earned media,” meaning press mentions such as print, online, radio, or TV articles, social media posts (but not social ads and not paid influencer posts), guest blogs for third-party sites, op-eds and letters to the editor. The reason brands invest in PR is because trust equates to a higher conversion rate at about 5%, versus paid advertising, which is less than 1%. Even in the era of “fake news,” most consumers still have particular news outlets, blogs, and people that they trust. The key is to get your brand’s story into those best-fit outlets, based on what your target audience finds credible.

I’ve found PR to be most impactful when buffered by an overall marketing strategy that includes paid, earned, owned, and social media and measurable goals around each. Known as PESO, the good folks at Spin Sucks invented this model and have all kinds of resources to help you leverage it for your company.

5 Questions to Ask When Vetting a PR Agency

Let’s face it, public relations is an odd profession. Everyone thinks that they know what PR is, and many companies and individuals purport to do it. If you’re after professional help that gets results, make sure you ask these five questions before making a hiring decision.

1. Who does the actual work? In many firms, especially larger ones, the people who pitch you to get the contract are not actually doing daily work on your account. Smaller firms or solopreneurs might be the way to go if you are interested in someone with ten or more years of experience doing the work.

2. What is their pitch to placement ratio? Public relations is an industry for hustlers, sure, but hustle alone isn’t enough. You want to make sure that whoever you hire gets results. Do they have a decent track record for getting press mentions, or do they tend to spam reporters with mass emails?

Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay

3. Can they pivot? Sometimes, the storyline you and your client think will capture the mind and heart of a reporter or editor doesn’t work. A strong PR strategist can think on their feet and knows when it’s time to think of some fresh ideas for how to skyrocket your company into the news media. When interviewing someone to help you, it’s a good idea to ask them about a time when they pivoted successfully.

4. Do they know the right people? An excellent PR person tends to have great relationships, a mind for strategy, and the ability to get shit done. Relationships vary by industry, geography, and work history, and they can (and should) be built and cultivated over time. Depending on the timing of your needs, and the location of the market you’re trying to reach, evaluate the relationships held by prospective agencies or solopreneurs. For example, my relationships are strongest in the areas in which I’ve worked: social responsibility, progressive politics, the Pacific Northwest, and Montana. That doesn’t mean I can’t pitch successfully in other markets (I do and have), but depending on a client’s goals, I may or may not be the best fit. But never doubt that a young woman from Idaho can get a client into the grab bag at the Golden Globes, because I’ve done that too.

5. Do you like them? Life is too short to work with people who don’t share your values and who struggle to get along with others. If your gut tells you it’s not a fit, it’s probably not a fit. At the end of the day, everybody’s skill set is replaceable, but the human factor isn’t.

The Incredible Experience that is #AltSummit

I spent the last week of March in beautiful Palm Springs, California, attending the Altitude Summit, one of the nation’s top conferences for female creatives and entrepreneurs.

From meeting Chicago-based Candice Blansett-Cummins who finally clarified for me what the heck “masterminds” really are (oh yeah, and she runs 15 social impact companies), to finding my conference buddy-turned-lifelong friend in Anderson Street TV founder and host Victoria Cumberbatch (take a gander at her provocative web series on YouTube and Instagram), for me, Alt was about making connections and affirming my recent choice to launch my own business. It also forced me to take the important step of leaving my two-year-old son home with Dad for five whole nights. (Spoiler alert: We all survived).

Between bouncing between gorgeous mid-century modern hotels where Alt hosted breakout sessions, keynotes (yes, Joanna Gaines and I were in the same room), and roundtables on topics ranging from SEO to finding your calling, my brain and heart are full. Here are three lessons that will stick with me now that I’m back home.

Lesson #1: Be yourself. My phone was down to 1% battery life, and I needed an Uber to get back to my hotel. A friendly lady with curly hair and a big smile approached me in the conference hotel roundabout and insisted that she would give me a ride. As I got into her very normal-looking Prius, I briefly considered whether or not she would murder me, but I figured anyone attending this conference was probably pretty cool. On the 15-minute drive, she asked all sorts of questions about my background and business, and I told her, truthfully, how I’d just started Full Swing, and while things are hopping, setting out on a new course can be scary AF.

Courtesy of Alt Summit

When we arrived at my hotel, she handed me her card. Turns out, she’s the president of television for a major L.A. based studio. Had I known what a high-powered job she had, I might have been afraid to bring my full self to our conversation. But because I was authentic, she took to me and now I have an incredible professional contact who is also a pretty great human. Win-win.

Lesson #2: Just create the damn content. One of the things I really wanted to focus on at Alt was podcasting. I’m not necessarily creating one for myself, but I may be co-producing one with a client, and I find myself pitching a lot of podcasts these days. I was thrilled to learn how easy it is, not to mention affordable, to get started. That $40 mic on Amazon.com? Totally sufficient. Thanks to the co-founders of Rock Your Wedding Biz for leading such a great session on how to get started.

Lesson #3: Ditch the excuses when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And, when in doubt, buy the sequin pants (diversity speaker and trainer Monique Melton rocked a fantastic pair). For a white woman, I fancy myself pretty up to speed on when it comes to the impact of systemic oppression in our country having worked with intersectional organizations like the YWCA, Pride Foundation, and Philanthropy Northwest.

Yet home base for me is Idaho, which is 93% white. When you consider that for every 91 white friends a white person has, they have just one black friend, the consequences of calling a state like Idaho home become pretty apparent.

Chilling out at the meditation lounge at Alt

Then consider how many white people find jobs because of someone in our (mostly white) network, and you start to connect the dots around why economic, social, and political inequality persists. Besides hiring Monique to help your company improve, one of my favorite personal resources for identifying and combatting white fragility and thought-provoking reading on topics like racial justice and performative allyship is Layla Saad. We can all do better.

What’s the best women’s leadership conference you’ve attended? Will you be at Alt Summit next year? If you can’t wait that long for your next women’s leadership fix, I highly recommend registering for the Athena Pack in Bozeman, Montana, May 1-2.

5 Signs Your Press Release Isn’t Actually News
5 Signs Your Press Release Isn’t Actually News

Would your press release pass a journalist’s smell test?

One of the hardest parts of being a public relations professional is educating your clients about what constitutes news and what does not. One of the most annoying parts of being a reporter is sifting through all the bad press releases that clog up your inbox.

I tend to be an enthusiastic champion of my clients and their products. I work with women-owned businesses, as well as campaigns and nonprofits that align with my values. But just because a company is doing good in the world, doesn’t make it inherently newsworthy. To be a good advocate for my clients, I have to be honest with them. Even if I sound like a Debbie Downer sometimes, it’s my job to them to tell them if their “news” sounds more like a press release than an actual news story.

Here are five warning signs that your press release won’t pass a journalist’s smell test and is likely to die on the wire or better suited to the company’s blog.

  1. It’s boring. Do your eyes glaze over after the first graf? Does the lede sound like some corporate robot wrote it? If you feel that way (remember, you’re an enthusiastic advocate for your client), guess how a reporter or editor is going to react?
  2. It’s too long. Face it, we live in a get-to-the-point culture where many platforms are competing for our attention. If you can’t draw a reader in with a compelling lede followed by what journalists call a “nut graf” that addresses the “why should I care” factor, don’t bother. No one is going to read on to solve the mystery of what you are trying to say, because frankly, ain’t nobody got time for that. Don’t be afraid to use bold fonts and bullet points to make your news stand out and easy to skim.
  3. It sounds like PR. Get creative on who is the best messenger for a story. For example, holding an event is not a story in and of itself. A quote from your CEO about the event may not be interesting to anyone (other than maybe your CEO). Can you tell the story of an actual person who now has a dramatically better life thanks to your product or service? Can you concoct a panel discussion of industry insiders who can speak more broadly about the trends and opportunities in your sector? Is there a leader of a nonprofit who is working with your business in unique and impactful ways? Think outside the box on what’s the best vehicle to get your story in the news.
  4.  It’s irrelevant. A stand-alone press release with a quote or two from the usual suspects is rarely news. You’ll have better results if you weave your timely content or expert source into a larger regional, national, or global trend. Connect the dots for the reporter. Show how you are adding value to the conversation (hint: this means you have to actually monitor the conversation). The less work you make a reporter do, the more they will appreciate you and be inclined to read – and maybe even respond to – future pitches.
  5.  It contains dumb mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, typos happen to everyone. We’ve all had that one time we meant to write “public” but instead wrote “pubic,” which slid right through spellcheck. Or was that just me? 🙂 But seriously, egregious errors should be few and far between. Get another set of eyes on your stuff before you publish or distribute it, and install Grammarly or a similar tool on your computer to minimize errors, and never, ever use passive voice (because zombies!). Always triple check subject lines, headlines, dates, as well as any math or figures stated as facts in your release or the “boilerplate” language at the end.

What warning signs would you add to this list? Post it in the comments or tweet me @caitlincopple.

Caitlin Copple Masingill brings more than 15 years of experience in journalism and strategic communications for corporations, CEOs, authors, political campaigns, and nonprofits. Read Bio

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