All small businesses should know how to work with the media (remember, they don’t work for you!) and most small businesses benefit from a proactive media relations strategy.
Unfortunately, every day I see bad examples of PR agencies and small businesses not knowing how to communicate with journalists and what media relations should look like for their business or clients. Common mistakes include:
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- spamming journalists with irrelevant emails and media releases that are more like advertisements than news
- not tailoring pitches and story concepts to suit a publication and its readers
- treating the media as suppliers or employees who can do you favours
- not responding to media inquiries in a timely manner or not having basic information that a journalist will need to know.
To help clear some of these misconceptions and to help you with best-practice in media relations, Good Business Consulting is pleased to bring you an interview with Simon Sharwood, editor of My Business, a magazine for ambitious small business owners. He is also the editor of Government Technology Review.
-Phoebe, Managing Director, Good Business Consulting
Can you tell me about My Business magazine?
My Business magazine is a monthly magazine which aims to serve ambitious business owners – folks who want to grow their business rather than just stand still.
What is your role at My Business, and what does it involve?
I’m the Editor – I choose the content, write rather a lot of it, and then do all the fun parts working with our fine graphic design team to make it look nice. I help to devise and execute our marketing and circulation strategies. There’s also our website, which needs daily feeding. And just for fun I also edit another magazine called Government Technology Review.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I was raised by bears on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia after my parents died in a plane crash.
I eventually made it to Australia, did a degree in Communications, got a job at long-dead weekly enterprise IT magazine PC week, spent 6 years in PR, 8 years as a freelancer journo and copywriter and clambered aboard at My Business in 2010 after being its technology writer for six years.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I start by updating mybusiness.com.au, have a coffee and a muffin, then things get unpredictable. But somewhere in there is a mix of interviewing, writing,, editing, meeting people, planning, strategizing, overeating and cycling.
As an editor, you receive lots of emails every day from PR people, in particular, media releases. On average, how many would you receive a day?
More than 20.
Do you read all of them?
How many of these are actually relevant?
What causes you to delete an email from a PR person or a small business wanting media coverage?
Often the email is just not relevant. I get all sorts of stuff about appointments in listed companies, new mining ventures in the Philippines and expos in China.
I also get an amazing amount of stuff from people suggesting stories that just aren’t the type of things we do in My Business. We’ve never had an event listing or a book review page, for example, but the pitches still roll in. They make me stabby – to me it’s pretty discourteous to pitch something like that because it shows the PR has not even looked at the publication and therefore has not considered my true needs. That’s not PR. That’s direct mail.
Another great way to get your release deleted, unread, is to send it as a PDF or some other hard-to-open file format. I’ve even had a release sent as a ZIP file.
I get more than 100 pitches a week. The ones that are easiest to read have a better chance of being read. So text in email is the best approach.
Also try not to use media release distribution services. They’re not very good because their classifications are woefully broad. Because we are classified as a ŒBusiness‚ publication we get all that Filipino mining stuff along with local material that might be relevant, but the trust factor with those services is way down for me.
How many phone calls a day would you receive that are initiated by PR people?
Many fewer than I feel is appropriate – less than one a day in fact. In fact I sometimes have to ask for calls.
I like calls because they offer the chance for rapid fire Q&A, and also because they introduce non-verbal communication to a conversation – on the phone you can hear if I am grumpy or happy.
I’m always surprised that PR people go for the nuance-free, context-destroying medium of email instead of picking up the phone and using a richer medium.
Do you have many small businesses contacting you (doing their own PR)? What have your experiences generally been with small businesses doing their own PR?
A few. I like it when small business do it – they’re so genuine. And they know their business really well. It’s often easier to find an angle talking with a business owner: PRs just know the messaging.
How can a PR consultant or small business owner cut through all of those phone calls and emails, competing for your attention?
Know the product and pitch me something that clearly resembles stuff we have done in the past.
Come up with a non-obvious angle about the ins and outs of being in business.
I get pitched “social media is important and you need to turn your customers into a community” about ten times a week. I get “I’m a mumpreneur and that’s SO HARD!” three times a week. I get “business x has grown and is therefore worthy of a profile” daily. I knock nearly all of them back because we don’t want to write about the outcome – which is usually someone ending up in a business that does okay. We want to write about the things they did along the way to get there because that’s what our readers can learn from.
A lot of PRs can’t quite get that difference. I suspect it’s because getting a profile in a business magazine is considered a nice to have PR win, but most pitches start out with the intent of informing the public and/or creating demand. The messaging in those pitches isn’t right for us because we’re not informing potential buyers. We’re a source of education for people who want to learn from and learn how to emulate successful people.
How do you prefer to be contacted by PR agents/small businesses?
Call! But be ready for some rapid fire Q&A.
What are some of your gripes or the biggest mistakes that people make when contacting you regarding potential media coverage?
PRs who pitch without ever having read the magazine or website are, I believe, being profoundly unprofessional. And rude because they waste my time. I also get a lot of folks calling with products and ideas for small business, but the real target is big business. Another waste of time. I also find the angle that “it’s cheap, so small business will love it” pretty funny because business people need value, not just low cost.
I also wonder if sending a press release is really a way to start a relationship with a journo. About once a week I get a release from a company I have just never heard of. If you win a new account, or feel I belong on a distribution list, is it really so hard to call me, tell me about your win and ask if I’m interested in their news? Or explain why you think it is relevant to My Business? Just popping people on yet another distribution list seems an awfully blunt way to do PR and rather a long way from the “we’re strategic, we set media agendas” statements I read on PR company websites.
In an ideal world, how would you like to collaborate or work with PR people (if at all!)?
I’d have actual conversations with PRs who know my product and can see a benefit in gaining share of voice, rather than messaging, in our magazine.
What advice would you give to PR people and small businesses that want media coverage?
Pitch story hooks, not a tired meme (social media yet again) or an assertion.
Also think about the staff you use to pitch. I’m a man in my 40s with a lot of history in the industries I cover. Is a junior in their early 20s really the right person to talk to me? I know that PR juniors must start at the coalface. But sometimes I feel like they are hung out to dry because it’s hard for them to sustain a conversation when there’s a big experience gap.
How has social media changed the way you research articles and find sources?
A little. I use social media for reaction quotes, and it offers me a fast and easy way to find them. Sometimes it also throws up story ideas.
If you have any questions for Simon Sharwood, or any comments/questions regarding media relations, share them in the comments section below.