PR for women-owned businesses
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Whether you’re a public figure, small or large business, or a nonprofit, it’s not a matter of if, but when. Are you prepared?
A crisis communications plan is a must for any client working with a public relations agency, including small business owners and solopreneurs. In an era of mass shootings in schools and workplaces, sexual abuse and harassment scandals, and racist behavior uncovered at even the most policed of mega-brands, scenario and response planning is essential for any senior management or communications team.
I’m always surprised at the size of some of my clients who tell me they’ve never had a crisis communications plan — until I developed one for them. Many work very hard to build and articulate a strong brand, but then forget about planning for reputation management as part of a crisis communications plan. A well-defined plan is worth developing now to ensure your organization (or your client’s organization) is aligned and prepared when crisis strikes. To help you get started, I’ve identified a few key elements you won’t want to overlook.
For starters, identify the core team who will be responsible for your organization’s response. This team should be small, nimble, and have a high degree of trust in one another as well as among the larger community of stakeholders (think board members, investors, major B2B customers, local elected officials, community or market influencers). Ideally, one member is regularly a spokesperson for the company and will have existing relationships with members of the media.
Step two is figuring out what to say. Until you have all the facts, less is more. I’m not suggesting you stonewall the press, but it is essential that you provide accurate information to the media. After all, your reputation (and your company’s) is on the line. When a reporter calls, it’s 100% okay to ask about their deadline and scope of the article. Tell them you’ll call back as soon as you have all the answers to all of their questions, and then follow through on that promise.
Next is to remember your values. Not just corporate-speak values, but what you really stand for as an individual human being, as an executive team, and hopefully, as a company. I specialize in PR strategy for women entrepreneurs in the fields of travel, health and wellness and social change. That means most of my clients are pretty clear on why they exist in the world and what they care about. If this feels intimidating, do the hard values work now because it otherwise, when a crisis strikes, you’ll feel much more terrified. And if (high five!) your values are clear and already guiding your behavior and policies, internally and externally, that means your crisis response will be of higher quality and way less stressful. A major bonus of a values-based approach is that it’s less likely you’ll feel like you need a shower after you make that first statement to the press.
Lastly, consider the timing of your public statements. Like a chess game, figure out how the crisis is likely to unfold, power-map the key players, and don’t forget about how it may impact your employees and other internal stakeholders (note to nonprofits: never neglect your donors when it comes to crisis communications). Depending on the nature of your business and its partners, consider how local government officials will react. Do you really want them to read about this crisis in the news, or would it be smarter to give a quick “heads up” to your mayor and city council or even Congressional delegation or key members of their staff?
Any statement about the crisis should contain the following elements:
- What caused the crisis and what happened
- Communication of compassion for any victims involved and respecting any confidentiality needs stemming from personnel issues
- A timetable for future plans to remedy the situation.
A lot of the tactics common in crisis communications are not one-size-fits all. For example, an op-ed response may bring more unwanted attention to a scandal, whereas cultivating a relationship with a reporter from a competing newspaper or TV station and providing them with a new angle or better access may yield a better story that’s seen by more people.
Does your organization need a crisis plan? Book a time with me here.
A version of this piece previously appeared in Trendkite’s PR Forward blog.