Press Release Best Practices and PR Pitching advice with Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans joins the show for episode #27 to chat about:

  • Creating a cohesive social media marketing strategy
  • How to Make your company stand out online
  • Social media best practices for business use
  • Customizing the social ask, PR pitches that work
  • Press release tips and tools to use
  • Building in a promotional work flow into your blog

Sarah, @PRSarahEvans , is the owner of Sevans Strategy,  She’s been mentioned in Forbes magazine as one of the top 14 women to follow on Twitter. She has a great blog over at PRSarahEvans.com, and she’s really the go-to girl in the online PR game.


    Transcript

    David:             Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of HubSpot’s Inbound Now. I have a very special guest with me here today, Sarah Evans, @PRSarahEvans on Twitter. She’s the owner of Sevans Strategy, a public relations and new media firm. She’s been mentioned in Forbes magazine as one of the 14 top women to follow on Twitter. She has a great blog over at PRSarahEvans.com, and she’s really the go-to girl in the online PR game. So welcome to the show, Sarah.

    Sarah:              Thanks so much for having me. It’s exciting and I’m glad we could make this work.

    David:             Yeah, totally. We had some technical difficulties the other day, but it looks like everything’s got itself worked out.

    Sarah:              They were on my end, not your end.

    David:             Right. Everything is in shipshape over here at HubSpot. All right. So I wanted to get you on the show today to talk a little bit about how social media is changing how PR is done online, and then dive into press releases, some best practices around there, how companies can leverage press releases, some of the biggest mistakes to avoid, and things like that. So how does that sound?

    Sarah:              I think that sounds lovely.

    David:             Sounds lovely, all right. So let’s get into it. So basically, you teach a lot of companies out there how to build relationships with customers and influencers online via social media and through different kind of PR mechanisms there. Social media strategy is often confused with the tools and the tactics that people are using and the strategy is kind of the afterthought. So what could you tell the companies out there that are trying to pull together a cohesive social media strategy right now?

    Sarah:              Well, I hope that any successful business owner, and especially a lot of the bigger brands that we work with, already have some type of goal in place and really we try to treat the strategy like the overarching goal. So what are you trying to accomplish [inaudible 02:38], and if it’s to [inaudible 02:42] most visible, insert whatever your expertise is in the industry on the Web [inaudible 02:48]. We always begin with that[inaudible 02:51] that everything drives. So I would tell corporations to look at what you already have that exists. You probably already have a corporate or a business goal of what you want to [inaudible 03:01] a notch. A lot of departments within big organizations will have specific [inaudible 03:06] or overarching goals. The marketing communications team, if that’s where social lives, already has those goals. So you can look to see what already exists, and if nothing exists, then put something together before you start working because there are a million and one tactics, a million and one resources. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed. You need something that you’re driving towards.

    David:             Okay, cool. So you give talks on how companies can make their brands stand out online because there’s a lot of noise these days, especially within social channels. It seem like everyone is jumping on board. So how can companies effectively stand out and rise above the crowd there?

    Sarah:              Well, I would like to say also that it’s overwhelming when you start to think about how do we actually stand out? Sometimes it’s not about standing out, it’s just about connecting or making an impact with where you’re trying to reach, where your consumers are, where your customers are. So there are times when you can stand out, and you can do that through many ways, through just being innovative or creative using a newer tool like a QR code to do something innovative, releasing a white paper, doing an infographic, which I’m sure you’ll mention. You can do innovative things to stand out, but you really just have to get connected first of all. It’s not always about being the biggest, baddest kid on the block with social media, but just that, hey, I tweeted something about a company and they responded to me. Or I feel more connected to Company X, Y,Z because I signed up for mobile alerts or I’m connected with them on Facebook and I see them when I sign on and they’re providing valuable information and resources to me. So I’d caution people about it, because it’s a lot of stress to think about how do we consistently always stand out online or how do we just get to stand out online versus creating an ongoing or sustainable plan that connects you with your audience.

    David:             Right. So really just getting in there and engaging with the people, not just kind of blasting out stuff, right?

    Sarah:              Yes. Some of it’s not rocket science, the engagement part. One of the quick tips that I offer to people who are looking to hire someone who might fulfill that online community manager role is look at people who are natural connectors, people who naturally engage with people, because the computer or whatever resource you give them, their mobile phone is going to be a natural extension of how they already connect with people. It doesn’t mean they’re the only ones right for the job at all. Just a tip when people are looking to kind of fill that role.

    David:             Okay, cool. So you also talk a lot about how we’re connecting directly to the media these days via these social channels where they’re much more accessible than they were in the past, and you can connect with them via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. So what are some of the ways that you tell companies to approach these media? What are some best practices there?

    Sarah:              Well, I’d also like to just say I’m lucky enough that I get to talk a lot about this, but Sevans Strategy is lucky to have a whole plethora of clients that we actually get to do this work for. So we’re in the trenches, and when I get to talk about these things, they’re usually because of things that I’ve learned from either making the mistake already or things that people hire me to tell them because we’re not afraid to jump in and learn them.

    So how to find those journalists online, I would encourage the people, especially if it’s a PR person, when you’re building what was a traditional media list, to think about it in terms of three segments. You’re going to have traditional media, the bloggers, people who have an online space where they share their thoughts, and then that kind of buzzword of influencer or enthusiast. Those are people who are active online conversationists. They may or may not have a blog or a website, but they have a very active presence on a social network. So look at in terms of those three things.

    Honestly, a lot of the work we do to find those people and build those lists, a lot of it’s kind of done manually, but we also use paid resources, like Cision, who’s one of our partners and sponsors, but I’ve been using them throughout my entire PR career. So that’s a good starting point.

    But then we’ll do things, like let’s say we find a journalist who writes about a specific topic. We won’t just stop with where they write for the traditional outlet. We’ll look to see if they have personal blog. A lot of people are hobbyist bloggers or don’t make a full-time income off of what they’re writing about, but they have a place where they like to express their viewpoints. So we want to see what are they writing about personally, and then we’ll see if they have a Twitter feed. Maybe they have a public Facebook fan page. So we’ll do a little of our due diligence and see where else they live online.

    It helps us in a few ways. One is if they have a personal blog that, if it interests us, we actually want to read it and comment on it, so that way the first time we pitch them we’ve had another touch. We’ve had something where we’re not just asking for something. We’re an actual avid reader of what they do. The other thing it allows us to do is customize our outreach. If we know a writer maybe writes about a specific topic for their mainstream outlet, but we know they have another personal interest, we might kind of cross pitch them on stories because we know they’ve got something else they’re passionate about or we can actually customize that pitch to them. So it was, “Hey, I saw that it was your daughter’s birthday last week.” We can actually mention something that connects us to them. That’s the engagement side of things. So it’s not just about how to find them, how to connect with them.

    A quick tip when you’re building your blog list of who you’re doing outreach to, one of the easiest things you can do is look at a targeted blogger’s blogroll. See who else they’re linking to, who they’re talking about. It’s probably in the same arena or in the same niche area, and it’s a good starting point to help you build that list.

    David:             Okay, cool. Yeah, I like that idea of having that initial touch point to kind of start to build that relationship before you start pitching, right?

    Sarah:              Yeah, it’s nice. But I’ll be honest, I’m on the PR side of things. I also blog, so I get pitched. If someone sends me a great story and a great pitch, I don’t necessarily care that I had the personal relationship with them if they’re sending me great stories.

    David:             Right. Okay, cool. So on your blog you talk a lot about moving away from the generic social ask, where everyone out there is like, “Hey, fan us on Facebook. Like us on Facebook. Plus one us. Follow us on Twitter.” How can companies flip the switch on that and move away from the generic social ask and make it a little bit more meaningful?

    Sarah:              I want to be clear about this, the social aspect. You said, “Follow me on Twitter. Fan us on Facebook.” It’s okay to let your consumers know you’re there, but why do they need to go there to interact with you? What are you offering them that’s different or unique? Are you giving special coupons away? Are you doing early access to news information or events? Are you continuing a story somewhere? If you’re a media outlet and you’re doing a news segment or a live show and it ends, you might say, “We’ll continue the conversation on Twitter. We’ll continue on Facebook. Share your thoughts with us there.” So offer something, an incentive to people almost to want to friend you on another outlet, because if you already have them captured somewhere, why do they need to go somewhere else to be with you? So I think it’s partially answering that question.

    The other thing is capturing customer information, if you’re a business owner and you’re pushing everyone to Twitter or Facebook, and let’s say those platforms go away tomorrow, I consider that platform dependency. If you haven’t captured their contact information or don’t have them at a centralized hub, no pun intended, like a website or a blog, you have some missed opportunities there because you don’t have the customer’s information.

    David:             Gotcha. So it’s really important and critical then to build up your own in-house mailing list, right?

    Sarah:              Yes!

    David:             Exactly, cool. So on Twitter you started a Twitter chat, journchat. Is it a weekly chat or . . .

    Sarah:              It is a weekly chat. It’s primarily talking about the changing media landscape, and by media, I’m actually talking about news media. It’s primarily for journalists who are asking questions about how journalists are using these new tools, experiences that they’re having. We talk about popular news topics. But it’s a place where PR people can also jump in and offer news and insight, because we’re all using a lot of the same tools. We actually have advice that we can share with one another, and it’s a neutral ground. So it’s not a place where PR people are pitching journalists, but we can share information and get to know one another. It’s every Monday night from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. Eastern, and we’re getting ready to celebrate our third birthday in November. It’s been exciting.

    David:             Nice. So I like your thought process behind setting that up because there wasn’t a conversation thread around that, and you kind of brought all these people together and you were kind of the crux of that, as it were. So do you think this is replicable for other industries that may not have an online kind of chat that goes on?

    Sarah:              It sure is, and in fact, I could be making this number up and I apologize, but journchat has inspired something like 300 plus, maybe more now, live industry Twitter chats since its inception. I’ve done a lot of work talking to the people who run the chats or are being interviewed about what works for journchat. But it’s a relatively easy model to follow, but you are using a tool that wasn’t developed for live chats. So usually you have to use third party applications. It’s also tough getting the buy-in as a moderator because no one necessarily has to respect me as a moderator. Everyone who comes and joins in chooses to and let’s me lead that conversation. [inaudible 12:54] because it would be really easy to kind of hijack that and people actually want to learn and participate, so they’re willing to kind of forego some of that control, I guess.

    I do think it’s easy to implement for people. But when I say it’s easy, there has to be a need, number one. You can’t just say I want to have a conversation about this. I did research before I started it to make sure other people were asking similar questions, kind of crowd sourced to see if there was a need for it. Then figuring out some of the logistics, like how often should it happen? When should it happen? Just to make sure that you can get the maximum number of people involved.

    I know one of the kind of downfalls of journchat is that it’s at 8:00 p.m., and a lot of people on the West Coast say, “Can you make it later.?” If we go any later on the East Coast, it’s going to be midnight and we’re going to lose all those people. So it is what it is.

    David:             Gotcha. So let’s stop there for a second because your video just froze. All right, now you’re back, cool. So we’ll just chop that out. But awesome.

    Let’s see here. Lost my train of thought. So what advice would you give to people that are trying to participate in Twitter chats? Is there a certain tool that you use, because I know stuff flies by really fast? Is there a certain tip you could give?

    Sarah:              Yeah. So I’m a fangirl of TweetChat and I always have been. It’s my favorite third party application. However, you can use something like TweetGrid that also exists. When I say third party application, they are tools that utilize Twitter, but they’re not Twitter.coms. So you can use them. So what TweetChat does is almost make it appear like the old-school chat rooms, kind of like the predecessor to what we’re doing. So it looks like a chat room. It automatically adds the hashtag journchat into the conversation because you need to have that hashtag added in, in order for your tweets to show in a chat. It kind of takes care of all of that for you. If anyone would show up and spam or try to hijack that conversation, you can block people in the app. So you’re not necessarily blocking them on Twitter. You’re just blocking them out of the particular conversation. You can feature other users, like the moderator or sometimes we have special guests that come on from NBC, CNN, wherever they’re from. You can actually highlight them so you can see everything that they’re saying.

    David:             All right, cool. Yeah, I participate in a blog chat every week. I use TweetDeck and I’ve tried a bunch of different things. It’s just flying by. I can’t keep up.

    Sarah:              It’s hard. It’s just difficult.

    David:             Right, yeah. So, cool. So let’s switch gears a little bit and start talking about press releases. What are some tips you can give companies that are trying to run better press releases, and what are some of the common mistakes to avoid?

    Sarah:              Well, one of the things that we’re doing and, again, it’s going to depend on a journalist’s preference, but we really work in the social media news release platform. We’re making things more multimedia friendly. In my company, we’re thinking of ourselves as a resource, almost as a producer for the media that we’re targeting. So when we’re crafting a release, it’s something that would benefit the journalist or blogger or influencer who wants to write about this, but it’s also being written for the forward facing consumer. So, it’s not as lengthy. It’s not as word heavy as the predecessor old-school press release, eliminating a lot of that industry jargon when necessary.

    We’re also doing something different, and the platforms that we use allow us to do this, but anyone can do this. It’s crafting something different than the headline that can be used for a social network pitch or a Twitter pitch. So we make sure everything is less than 140 characters. It might be a sexier sound bite from the press release, but it’s something that the consumer might want to share, or if we’re pitching the journalist or blogger and let’s say they think it’s a really cool idea, but they don’t have time to write about it, they can share it that way. Because many times we’re writing headline that are SEO friendly, so we want them to be picked up in search results, we want to make sure that they make sense for search results and they’re not always the sexiest of headlines. They might be a bit more boring, or they’re just not crafted for social networks, meaning there might be a Twitter ID for the company that you want to include in the pitch. There might be a hashtag that goes along with that or another link that you want to include, and that just wouldn’t make sense in a headline.

    We’re also keeping it . . . well, at least we know with our first 250 words, we want to make sure that those are always optimized for the Web, making sure that we’re using words that people actually search for the industry and following just good practices with how we link for our clients. One of the easiest things you can do, and I hope I don’t confuse anyone here. If I do, you can tweet me and I’ll clarify. Many people will include the business name in the press release and link the business name back to the business homepage. If people knew that they were looking for you, they probably wouldn’t need a search engine. What people are really looking for, for your business when they’re looking for your business, they don’t know that they’re looking for your, business they’re searching keywords. So you want to make sure that you have the strongest keywords in that release linked back to your business homepage or the most appropriate page. And I’d say that’s one of the biggest mistakes that happens online and it’s [TD].

    David:             Yeah, I gotcha. It’s getting that keyword anchor text pointing to your business page, that’s kind of key. So that’s one of the reasons I see a lot of companies doing press releases, it’s more like an SEO play sometimes when they kind of push something out there that’s not really news to anybody. Have you seen that happening out there?

    Sarah:              Yes, it’s people who are abusing the content marketing side of things. It does happen, but for some people it might work. I’m of the PR approach, so anytime we’re executing a tactic, it’s usually because we want to connect with an audience. I’m not necessarily on the full-scale marketing side of things. So usually when someone’s hiring us they want to see actual results from what we’re doing, they want to see the engagement. I jokingly always say, “Marketing gets people in the door and PR keeps people coming.” So I need to show, how am I getting people coming back? So I don’t necessarily want to abuse those tactics.

    David:             Gotcha. So I know there’s a lot of services out there like, PRWeb, PitchEngine, there’s a lot of stuff out there to use to do press releases,. Are there any that you’d recommend to any of people out there?

    Sarah:              [inaudible 19:34] and I’ll be very honest, I’m on the advisory board for PitchEngine,. So they’re my go-to tool and resource, but also in that same vein, I was a super user, I’d like to say, of PitchEngine long before I ever did work with them.

    I want to just give one example of why it’s so powerful. Before I started my business, I was the director of communications at a community college. We landed segment or a news piece with one of our students in the USA Today. She was [inaudible 20:08] across the country. When know when that USA Today piece was going to go live, so we scheduled our social media new release on PitchEngine to go live at about the same time. What happened was, once that USA Today article was live and you googled it, our PitchEngine release came up as a related link as a related news article. Then other mainstream outlets, like CNN, started covering the segment, and because our piece came up as related news article, our student got featured much more than anyone else. So we tactically used the benefits of PitchEngine and social media releases themselves to make a bigger splash.

    David:             Gotcha. So in a social media release, it’s really about making the content kind of bite sized and embedding like videos and giving them the actual embed code, making it as easy as possible for people to kind of take the content and put it out there on their own stuff. Is that right?

    Sarah:              It’s putting on that producer hat. It’s our job as PR people to make really good pitches to have something that’s newsworthy to get it in front of the right people, but you also want to make it as easy as possible for them to write the segment. So if you’ve got great video, great photos, condensing every link that is appropriate for that story to help condense some of that research time for them. Your social network profile, everything that a journalist may want you can package together in a very easy way.

    You don’t have to use another tool or resource to do that. You might be lucky enough to work for a large corporation where you can build your online newsroom. You have a web team that can do that. You can build your own social releases. That’s fine as well. There’s a certain way you can do it no matter what you’re using.

    David:             Right. Okay, cool. So do you utilize Peter Shankman’s service, Help a Reporter Out, at all, or is there any kind of tool like that you would recommend?

    Sarah:              Help a Reporter is a great resource. Peter was a genius taking something that once we had to pay for and made IT free to the public. You can get click hits from something like Help a Reporter. In fact, they have a Twitter feed that is @ Help a Reporter. I keep it on mobile alerts, so that way when urgent stories come through, because they only tweet our urgent queries from journalists, I can be among the first to respond if I find a hit. I find that if you wait too long to respond to those queries, the journalists get inundated with responses, so it’s nice to get the them kind of first.

    David:             Right. Okay, cool. On your blog, you wrote a post, “Four Ways to Maximize Your Online Content Using PR.” You talk about building in a promotional work flow after you create the blog post. So could you talk a little bit more about that?

    Sarah:              Yes. In fact, I think stemmed from a HubSpot article.

    David:             Hey, all right.

    Sarah:              Which is ironic. I think it was a stat actually that came out. It’s takes on average five different tactics to drive people to your website or blog. So you write that blog post, you want to get people there to see it. So that’s one portion of your promotional work plan. So how do I get people there? How do I repurpose this content, if it’s not only timely, but it’s relevant information that makes sense maybe three months, five months, a year out? What are all the other ways you can kind of link back to it or pitch it when necessary? Also in our work flow is what do we do if that blog post gets picked up elsewhere? Do we tweet the person who wrote it? Do we feature it on our website? There’s a whole host of tactics that we’ll look at or consider. So we have one portion of it to drive people. Then what do we do if it gets picked up elsewhere, and then how can we repurpose that content for the long haul? Because as bloggers, we’re producing a lot of content, really quickly usually, and you want to make sure that you can make it worthwhile longer than just the day you posted it.

    David:             Right. Okay, cool. So kind of like producing that evergreen content and making it easy for people.

    Sarah:              Yeah.

    David:             Okay, cool. So what are some of your favorite PR resources out there? What do you keep tabs on? What can you share with our audience?

    Sarah:              It’s not necessarily PR resources for me. It’s probably different, either actual resources, like a Mashable or like following Peter Shankman, Brian Solis, Deirdre Breakenridge. There are actual people that I’ll follow what they say. But really what I do is look to keep building our online arsenal lists. What are all of the tactics that we have available? So it might be looking at what’s the newest innovation with QR codes and then start to think creatively as a team. What are all of the ways that we could use that if we had the right client? If we don’t have someone that can use it yet, let’s test it out ourselves and see what can happen. Then let’s talk about our experience. So we’ll produce thought leadership pieces on it or tell people at a very tactical level how you can use or apply that information. So I don’t have a quick hit list of resources that we use. A lot of what we do is kind of more organic.

    David:             Right. So it’s kind of customized to fit the client’s needs, right?

    Sarah:              Yeah.

    David:             Yeah, gotcha. Cool. Where can people find you online?

    Sarah:              Anywhere. You can type in “prsarahevans,” but on Twitter it’s @PRSarahEvans. Blog is PRSarahEvans.com, Facebook, facebook.com/prsarahevans. If you go to one of those three places you can pretty much find any other outlet that I have available. I’d love to tell you that our team that puts together a resource for PR folks called Commentz that comes out every Monday through Friday around 9:00 a.m. Central. You can sign up for it on our blog, and it’s just a short condensed aggregation essentially of our five favorite stories about PR and social media from the day prior.

    David:             Okay, cool. And that’s your newsletter, right?

    Sarah:              Yes.

    David:             Cool, awesome. Well, yeah, thanks for coming on the show, Sarah. I think you shared a lot valuable PR insights with the audience here.

    Sarah:              Well thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

    David:             Yeah, no problem. I want to get you back some day in the future, and thanks for coming on.

    Sarah:              All right. I’ll have a plus one with me.

    David:             Yeah, there you go. Awesome.

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    About the Author

    David is Founder of Inbound Now and a Fanatical WordPress Designer & Developer. He believes that the internet is a magical place where wonderful things can happen. Say hi to him @DavidWells

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