PR on PR: N.J.’s experts step out from behind the curtain to offer insight into their sector

The insights of public relations professionals are masked behind what they do: help usher their clients onto the media stage with the promise of quotes, commentary and those clients’ own insights.

As part of the behind-the-scenes chain of events that serves as a precursor to what appears in publications, they’re not accustomed to offering their own voice. But some of the region’s PR gurus were willing to step onstage for a change, and provide some commentary on how businesses might approach their sector’s services.

Here’s what they told ROI-NJ:

ROI-NJ: If you’re thinking about hiring a PR firm, maybe for the first time, what questions should you be asking? What should you be looking for?

April Mason.

April Mason of Violet PR: When considering hiring a PR agency, I think it’s super important to understand what experience that PR firm has in working with clients in similar verticals to you. If you’re a retailer, for example, what other retail firms have they worked with recently? I would always ask for case studies and examples of their successes. And, if they can’t come up with any or the case studies don’t relate to what you do, I would definitely press for more relevant information. Oh, and check references as well.

Chris Rosica.

Chris Rosica of Rosica Communications: You want to ask about what their longest client relationships are. That you’re likely to hear about, but what it’s harder to determine — and an agency might not give you a straight answer on this — is whether the team that’s talking to you at the start is the team you’ll actually get on your account. You want to know who you’ll be working with on a regular basis. One of the reasons we’ve been doing great lately is, we always go in with the team working on an account. And that team has longevity. So, there’s no bait and switch.

Nina Dietrich.

Nina Dietrich of Nina Dietrich LLC: Besides making sure the heavy hitters and senior people a firm is bringing forward when making a pitch for your business is actually who’s serving as a day-to-day contact, you really want to ask how much you’re going to need to be involved. As a small and medium-sized business, that’s going to be an important issue. Because, while PR professionals can learn about your industry and issues, ultimately, clients are going to have to relay a certain amount of information and be open to some level of involvement. So, you should find out how much time you’ll need to set aside in a month to work with your PR team.

Jonathan Jaffe of Jaffe Communications: Businesses need to consider their PR firm as a close, trusted partner, an entity that wants to help solve day-to-day challenges and stand as a consistent, reliable resource. The best firms are the ones that feel as if they are your internal communication department — always available, always reliable and always considering your objectives as the top priority.

Francisco Cortes.

Francisco Cortes of the Setroc Group: When hiring a PR company, you should make sure the agency can fit your company culture and style of working. In addition, here are a few key questions you should use when vetting a PR company:

  • Provide an example of a crisis communication campaign you managed, and what was the outcome of the campaign?
  • Do you have any case studies you can provide that can illustrate the client’s PR need and how you solved it?
  • What influencers do you work with often?
  • How large is your journalist rolodex and what networks do you have direct access to?

ROI: What value should you expect to see from pairing up with a PR professional? How do you measure the ROI of the dollars you put into it?

Kyle Kirkpatrick.

Kyle Kirkpatrick of Antenna: It’s not always easy to quantify, and PR firms have had different ways of measuring it over the years. … But, basically, the first thing a PR firm can do is hone a company’s message. And a company might already feel like they have that, but it’s easy to be too close to know whether that message would resonate in the press. Maybe it’s too much inside baseball and niche language that has been iterated on over time. So, a PR firm can simplify that to make it more digestible. You often want an outside party with experience shaping messaging to take a fresh look at how we contextualize the value of your business … and, ultimately, to get more eyes on that message.

Glori Gayster.

Glori Gayster of GDG Consulting Inc.: People often think to measure the value of PR by whether they’re getting on TV or in newspapers, and how often. While that might be one way to see if it’s working, to drive that ROI down to the bottom line is hard. And, sometimes, PR companies will try to sell you the moon. You can’t promise coverage, and anyone promising you’re going to get regularly picked up in ROI-NJ, or get op-eds in the Star-Ledger or the New York Times — that’s something you should be very leery about. Because, at the end of the end of the day, if there’s a massive snowstorm or a damaging hurricane, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve been promoted to a top role at AstraZeneca or that your company has donated a million dollars to charity. Media coverage is dependent on many other factors.

Scott Marioni.

Scott Marioni of R&J Strategic Communications: Fortunately — or maybe not so fortunately for those who have to invest in it — almost any organization can really benefit from good PR counsel and support. With the media landscape today being so fragmented and specialized — it’s so diverse. There’s any number of options to reach target markets right now: from traditional media relations to social media and speaking opportunities. It’s hard to know, unless you’re dealing with it every day, the right mix of tools and tactics to engage with that landscape. … And a good PR firm will make sure you’re working within your budget and ensure that you’re not taken advantage of.

Liz Thomas of Thomas/Boyd Communications: Public relations centers around message creation and ways to deploy the message. A critical aspect of a successful campaign involves third-party validation; that includes media relations efforts. How’s the headline? What about the lead? Does the short TV news clip or radio interview capture the essence of who I am, who my company is, what I stand for? ROI includes what others think; what the buzz is on the street; how many shares and comments are received on social channels; number of website visits; and, in some cases, the length and the placement of a story. Measurement is easier when ad/promotional dollars are added to a PR campaign, as tracking mechanisms can be built in, allowing for programs to be tweaked and adjusted along the way.

FC: The ROI for each PR campaign is different. If you are trying to promote an event or a product, then media placement should be your ROI. If you are dealing with a crisis or need to correct messaging regarding your company, a statement and media monitoring will provide you with the ROI you need. We always tell our clients: Marketing is what you want the world to know about you, but PR is how the world perceives you.

ROI: What are some things you advise clients to generally avoid or be aware of when interacting with journalists and their editors?

JJ: Never lie. Never spin. But be smart about the information you choose to share.

ND: I think the most important thing is to avoid not returning calls or answering emails. With shrinking newsrooms, journalists are working under tighter and tighter deadlines, so, you have to respond — and if you’re precluded from doing so, or if an inquiry is just not in your wheelhouse and you don’t have expertise to comment, respond and maybe you can help find someone else. Another thing: Be able to provide some examples. Use data to substantiate stories. Getting on the phone to self-promote only is not going to get the coverage. Also, don’t ask reporters to review their story before it goes to press.

AM: When we set up interviews for clients, we explain to them these conversations are on the record. So, they have to come in with an understanding that everything you say is fair game to be used in a story. They also should understand in advance what the interview is about. Write down main points to emphasize in an interview. And, lastly, you don’t always need to talk very long, because a journalist might be looking for just a few sound bites. You might just occupy one quote in a story about your industry.

GG: You have to realize that, if we’re pitching a story, you have to make yourself available. Maybe it’s not at the drop of a hat, but if you want to get a story out there, you have to be ready to give the journalist the 10 minutes or so he or she needs. That’s No. 1. No. 2 is to keep ideas in mind for when you’re interacting with journalists. It could be something you think no one wants to hear, but just throw ideas out there. It’s a spaghetti-on-the-wall approach — you want to see if it sticks. It might be hard for you to know exactly what storyline or angle the media will want to pick up on.

FC: As former journalists ourselves, we often remind our clients not to let their guard down when speaking to journalists or editors. Often, the job of a journalist is to break the ice and provide small talk and exchange pleasantries, so you forget that you are in an interview setting. All of a sudden, you feel like you are speaking to an old friend and saying something you should have not mentioned — which is now “on the record.” At the Setroc Group, we ensure that all our clients go through a specialized media training prior to interviews or satellite tours.

ROI: How about the upcoming holiday season? As everyone’s attention and availability goes into a sort of hibernation, how do you get a message out as a company during that time of the year?

ND: There was this thinking that only bad company news is put out on Fridays in the summer or during holidays, because no one is there to see it. Truth is, we’re always connected to the news these days. And I would even suggest we have more time to sit down and read and catch up on the news than we do during peak workweeks. Reporters and editors still have to get newspapers and magazines out. So, while reporters are maybe working at a less time-pressured pace, it’s really an ideal time to make a pitch to media contacts … especially evergreen stories, or anytime stories that work well when there’s breaks in hard news.

CR: We represent a number of nonprofits … such as the Salvation Army in New Jersey. And, typically, they have a great story to tell over the holiday season. So much so that, even for our for-profit clients, what we like to do is make the case for partnering with a nonprofit during the holidays, because it can help heighten the visibility of both parties. It’s also something that’s not only good for employee morale during that time of the year, but good for business.

AM: If you do have a holiday-related message, make sure you prepare news way in advance. We know journalists and their editors need to take time off as well. So, media outlets might be on a skeleton staff for something like the Thanksgiving holiday. That means that if you have a pitch about Black Friday, and send it on Tuesday of that week, we know it’s probably too late to get it in. You need a longer lead time, and if it’s something like a holiday gift guide, sometimes those are prepared months in advance.

LT: Make sure you know you know who you’re talking to — read/watch, understand the tone and approach to their stories so you become familiar with their style of reporting and their areas of interest to ensure your interview is aligned with their reporting. Ask the deadline question. Knowing the deadline will enable you to decide if something needs to be answered immediately or whether you have some thinking time. Watch being too concerned with on and off the record. While a useful tool, that can become cumbersome and confusing. Ask if you can begin an interview on background, for context, then move to on-the-record conversations. Realize that every interview does not automatically become a story, immediately. This is a process that can take time. Sometimes, interviews establish you as a subject matter expert, setting you up for the next time — meaning, a story does not necessarily follow the interview.

JJ: We see the holiday season as a shrewd opportunity. As we are former news reporters, we know the news-gathering process does not take a break. Reporters need to file stories daily. So, while other PR firms are sipping eggnog and playing Secret Santa, we are pitching media and scoring tangible results for our clients. The holidays are when we crank things up and best position our clients for the new year.

FC: Plan ahead! Like many companies, newsrooms are short-staffed during the holiday season, so if you can get your planning done in advance it will help the news outlet line up future stories. One size does not fit all: Worst thing you can do is prepare a pitch deck and make it the sound the same for everyone.  It is very important that you tailor your pitch to the people who will receive it; let them know that you understand that your story can fit their readers. Don’t waste a word! — reporters received over 300 emails in one day.

ROI: Anything else companies should know about working with PR agents?

Fran Kirschner.

Fran Kirschner of Frantasy Enterprises LLC: If someone wants me to write press releases for them, the first question has to be: ‘What’s the news?’ You have to make sure you have some news. Because you might want to talk about your company and your personal story — and that’s great and maybe interesting, but that’s not always going to get published. So, businesses have to have news that you, as well as reporters, will want the public to know. And they also have to be prepared to give the who, what, where, when and why as part of that.

AM: Clients often confuse PR with advertising. Clients are paying us to connect with journalists, not paying for ads. When you’re pitching a news story, you don’t have control over the outcome. It’s not paid content, so clients have to know they’re telling a story but it can’t be controlled — and you have to know if that doesn’t work for you. But I think there’s a lot of benefits to it, because people tend to consider news stories more credible than an ad, even if you lose some element of control over the final product.

KK: Before anything else, you have to know what it is you want to say about your business. And PR firms will have an initial conversation about what the ultimate goals from a business standpoint are, whether that’s having more of a pure awareness of your business or reengaging with all the necessary audiences in your market. Maybe you want more potential partners, or more centers around owned content creation (such as blogs), that are not necessarily flowing through a third-party media outlet. Perhaps it’s email marketing or other paid content strategies. So, it’s really important that a company starts with looking at what they want to achieve.

LT: Longevity, reputation, approach, experience and a never-say-never attitude toward getting the work done in a timely and effective manner are major differentiators when interviewing and hiring a PR firm. How well do they know my subject matter? How well do they know the local landscape for storytelling and placement purposes? PR, except in a crisis situation, can take time to gain the traction a client seeks. A methodical, thoughtful approach is often required. Shrinking newsrooms and fewer media outlets, while challenging for placements, require PR professionals to be even more creative when deploying elements of a campaign. The ability to generate and place your ‘own news’ has opened countless opportunities to tell your story. Judging from our firm’s growth over the past few years, PR services, either alone or as part of a larger marketing approach, are in high demand.

JJ: Unfortunately, you don’t need to pass a licensing exam to portray being a PR professional. Anyone with a phone and an internet connection can attempt it. So, you need to ensure the firm you select is experienced, with a long track record of success in New Jersey and a reputable client list of companies you know. Moreover, you need a firm comprising experienced news writers who have worked in the state’s media under deadline pressure and have built lasting relationships. Your job is not to teach your PR firm how to do its job.