And why this matters even if you’re not pitching to one.

Years ago I went to see the father of guerilla marketing – Jay Conrad Levinson – give a talk in Brisbane. He was great (and it was his first and only time in Australia apparently), but it was one of his ‘warm up acts’ – for want of a better phrase – who really got me to sit up and listen.

His name was Joel Roberts and he used to be a ‘shock jock’ on radio stations in the US. After giving us a bit of his background he talked about how he used to decide who to interview on his radio show. He’d speak to them over the phone and have to decide in seconds whether they would make a good guest or if it was worth giving them a short slot.

He then went on to demonstrate on the audience – and clearly people didn’t know what was coming. He was pretty harsh. People put their hands up and he’d invite them to tell him about their business or what they did. When they tried to encapsulate what they did in a few words eg ‘I help people realise their dreams’ etc. he’d cut them off and shout ‘No!’ and move on to the next person.

He was being brutal but was just doing what he did on his show. Finally, when he got to someone who piqued his interest he said ‘Tell me more!’. This happened a few times and invariably the person was picked because they were very direct about what his or her business was …and it had an interesting angle.

He then called a few of these people up to the stage to help them perfect their pitch.

If you’re anything like me you walk around with an ‘elevator pitch’ in your head – or a number of different ones depending on who you’re talking to. Invariably though, whatever you’re saying has to cover a lot of things (at least  you think it has to) and the net effect is that it tends to get dumbed down into generic ‘helping’ type language. Which is why so many people failed the Joel Roberts test.

I had a big wakeup call when I started talking to journalists at the very beginning of my involvement in PR. You have roughly 30 seconds to get your point across to a harried journo over the phone before they lose their patience and say something like “not for me I’m afraid” or, worse, “contact the advertising department”.

The key is preparation.

Which – in PR – brings it back to the most important component – writing the news release. A news release is of course something you send out to the media hoping it will pique their interest. But actually writing it serves yet another purpose – it forces you to truly consider what is newsworthy and prepares you for when you get in touch with media outlets. In fact the most important part is the headline, and if you’d feel confident just repeating your headline down the phone to a journo, then you’ve got it as right as you can.

After the grilling session, Joel Roberts made the point that – if you could draft a news release or pitch which could get the attention of a journalist – it would work really well on everyone else you needed to pitch to, like prospective customers for example. So not just a PR tool, a marketing tool too.

Public relations is a world away for many business owners and years ago I remember a lady I knew through a networking group, probably around a year after we had first met and after I had even given short talks about PR to the group, saying “I still don’t really know what you do!” And I’ve been asked ‘what exactly’ I do before (generally not by the client!).

On one occasion I – perhaps flippantly – answered “I sit at my desk staring out the window thinking about what my client does and how everything fits together. Then with a bit of luck I have an ‘aha’ moment and have an idea about how I can help them really get some great coverage”*. PR agencies have brainstorming sessions to get the creative juices flowing and client meetings can also work well if they turn into mini brainstorms. Failing these, staring out the window works too.

*this answer was to someone who worked at a business for whom we got multiple stories in major media and a major national business magazine!

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