The PR success formula from an accidental flack

Chris Boyles spends a lot of time speaking with journalists on behalf of Chaotic Moon, a creative tech studio in Austin, Tex.

I never envisioned myself running public relations campaigns. After all, I’m a content marketing guy, not some 22-year-old girl fresh out of Kappa Delta Mu. So how did I end up doing media relations full time? By accident.

I’d just spent several weeks helping my employer — a scrappy dev shop — search for a PR partner with nothing to show for my efforts but a low opinion of the people I spoke to. Seeing how I could both walk and chew gum at the same time, I figured sending a few emails to journalists was completely within my skill set.

Sure enough, I was right. After a slow start, I ended up getting more than 60 articles written about my company and its clients in a three-month period. If you have more time than money, give it a go yourself. It’s not that hard when you follow these four rules:

Don’t be a jackhole
This seems like a no-brainer, right? You’d be surprised. Now that I’ve gotten to know a few writers and editors, they’ve shared some of their publicist horror stories. These include tales of threats, bribes and other unscrupulous acts — one editor even told me he’s been offered sex in exchange for coverage (he passed).

To be completely honest, I think my success can be attributed to the simple fact that I come off as a nice guy — instead of coming on too strong.

I also rarely shill the first time I make contact. Instead, I try to get a dialogue going. I might start by chatting them up about something they wrote, asking for their take on an event we both attended, whatever. I typically do this via email, but will jump into a conversation on Twitter when the opportunity presents itself. Fair warning: while most are open to chatting on social media, many hate being pitched there.

Once I have a nice little rapport going, I look for ways to be useful — like setting up calls with my team when a writer or editor could use a practitioner’s perspective. A few journalists have liked these insights so much, they’ve sent their colleagues my way, too.

Last month, however, I really stepped it up and invited tech reporters I’d never met to work out of my company’s office during SXSW. I promised a quiet workspace near the convention center, reliable Wi-Fi and plenty of outlets to charge their devices. It was a shot in the dark, but 14 writers and editors ended up camping out.

While I would’ve loved for all of these guys to write about my company during SXSW, I never pressured them to. Instead, I used the face-to-face time to have some informal chats I hoped would lead to future talks. Of course, when you casually mention projects with news pegs — like a stun-gun drone or a virtual reality video game — it certainly doesn’t hurt your odds of getting coverage.

Have a story, not an agenda
Everyone has a boss who says, “Make sure this is everywhere!” And with few exceptions, that’s near impossible. Like many professionals, journalists specialize. So if you carpet bomb every writer and editor out there with a one-size-fits-all email, most will pass. I know this because I did it my very first time pitching and didn’t hear back from anyone.

Fortunately, with a little research, it’s pretty easy to figure out what reporters like to write about. So if a certain writer doesn’t cover what I’m pitching, I won’t waste my time (or theirs).

This may all sound obvious, but you’d be surprised. It’s worthwhile to think why a particular outlet might be interested in your news (outside of the fact you need to place it somewhere).

Even if you think certain pubs or sites are the right fit for you, what they’ll want to know what about your story could be decidedly different. Just ask the folks at Fast Company and Inc. That’s why I recommend doing your homework before you pitch. If the reporter you’re targeting doesn’t have a handy cheat sheet, study his or her writing for clues to what they might want.

Apply the scientific method
In addition to noting journalists’ hot buttons, another thing I’ve paid close attention to is which stories have triggered “bonus” coverage. During SXSW, I noticed 12 outlets credited one of two news sites in their articles about my company. My a-ha moment: for maximum exposure, I should always pitch those two sites first.

You don’t have to be Nate Silver to figure out how your stuff is tracking. All that’s required is Google News and some careful reading. When I was monitoring my company’s SXSW coverage, for example, I only talked to eight journalists about our stun-gun drone. But Google News indicated 30 people wrote about it.

Ditto with a previous story I’d placed the week before that talked about some cool client work we’d just wrapped. In that instance, I’d only talked to two reporters, but six articles had been published.

Discovering who drove those 26 extra stories was easy. All I had to do was look for citations and back links, which most reputable journalists will include in their posts.

Swing for the fences
Just because your company is small, your story isn’t huge or you’ve never done this before, don’t let that hold you back. I sure as hell didn’t. Worried you might not have something cool enough to pitch? Take that $15K a month you’ll save on PR fees and see what you can come up with.

Image via Shutterstock

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