PR is More than Press Releases

Episode #038: Lindsey Groepper, President at BLASTmedia

Raise your hand if you’ve heard, “PR is bullsh*t.” When done correctly, PR has the power to create invaluable momentum for your organization.

In this episode, we chat with Lindsey Groepper, President at BLASTmedia. Lindsey has been with BLASTmedia for the past 15 years and has experience managing campaigns, overseeing the strategic direction of the company, and so much more. In addition to her role, Lindsey is the owner at Statwax and hosts the podcast, SaaS Half Full.

We’re talking about why PR isn’t bullsh*t, how to develop a thought leadership strategy, ways to create news without news, and so much more.

Stephanie's Strong Opinions

  1. You can’t create a press release and expect to immediately get coverage. PR is so much more than that.
  2. The PR team needs access to both the business strategy and the spokespeople.
  3. You may not be ready to invest in PR if it will be your biggest marketing line item spend every month.

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Episode Transcription

Stephanie Cox: Welcome to Real Marketers, where we hear from marketers who move fast, ask forgiveness, not permission, obsess about driving results and are filled to the brim with crazy ideas and the guts to implement them. This is not a fireside chat and there’s absolutely no bullshit allowed here. And I’m your host, Stephanie Cox. I am more than 15 years of marketing experience and I’ve pretty much done about everything in my career. I believe speed is better than perfection. I use the Oxford comma, I love Coca- Cola, have exceptionally high standards and surround myself with people who get shit done. On this show, my guests and I will push boundaries and share the real truths about marketing and empower you to become a real marketer. Thanks for coming on the show, Lindsay.

Lindsey Groepper: Hey Stephanie, thanks for the opportunity. I appreciate it.

Stephanie Cox: Well, I am excited to talk to you today about all things PR, but the first thing I always ask guests is tell me one thing about yourself that few people seem to know.

Lindsey Groepper: That I have won several eating competitions.

Stephanie Cox: What kind?

Lindsey Groepper: Well, I have won a Skyline cheese coney. These are unofficial eating contest, but I’m very proud. I ate 10 Skyline cheese coneys in one sitting and won$ 100. I have been a female hotbox pizza eating champion. And then I have also finished the Bubs burger, one pound burger challenge, here locally, for those that know about it.

Stephanie Cox: That is amazing. I think I’m more impressed by the Skyline cheese coney. I grew up in Cincinnati. So Skyline is life to me.

Lindsey Groepper: I grew up in Cincinnati as well. How did we not know this?

Stephanie Cox: I don’t know, but when you said Skyline, I was like, you picked the right one, you did not pick Gold Star.

Lindsey Groepper: Absolutely. My mom is a Gold Star fan. So it’s a house divided.

Stephanie Cox: Same situation. My dad is a big Gold Star fan. I’m like, that’s wrong. Dad, like wrong on so many levels. He’s like, “It’s like the same.” It’s not the same.

Lindsey Groepper: No, it’s not. Same concept, but not same taste.

Stephanie Cox: But not the same taste. And for the rest of you that don’t know what we’re talking about, Skyline and Gold Star are a version of Cincinnati chili that is nothing like regular chili, but is better and more delicious.

Lindsey Groepper: Check it out. There is a Skyline in Castleton right off 82nd and 69 if anyone here is local in Indy listening, there is a Skyline there.

Stephanie Cox: Yes. And you can buy it, Kroger carries it, Walmart carries cans, all kinds of stuff. I could probably talk to you for an hour about Skyline, but no one else would likely want to listen to that besides you and I. But let’s talk about PR and one of the biggest challenges that I think a lot of PR professionals face, which is perception of what PR is and what it isn’t. So can you talk to me a little bit about this perception problem that PR tends to have with a lot of marketers that I think you and I both would agree is false?

And based on your experience with PR, your own experience is your reality. So there are many people who have had really bad experiences with PR agencies specifically, and there are just as many and equal advocates and lovers of PR that invest in it regularly. So it is always a very lively discussion and there’s always two different sides of the discussion, which I love. But we built a business at BLASTmedia on PR. We are not a full-service marketing agency. We exclusively do PR for B2B SaaS companies, and we’ve been doing it for 16 years. So if it was not a viable area of marketing, we just simply wouldn’t exist. But where PR gets a perception problem, and I don’t know from where it stems, but it’s frustrating to me because I’d like to think that we’ve moved beyond it. There’s still this idea that PR equals press release and that PR is simply a news-driven function. So you have an announcement, you put it out and rinse and repeat. And that is so far from the truth. And there are many companies though who say “PR is bullshit, PR is old school, PR is a waste of money.” And all those things can be very true if you’re still viewing PR as a press release machine.

Stephanie Cox: So if PR isn’t news and it’s not press releases, what is PR today and what should it be?

PR is really perception relations as opposed to public relations. So the cool thing about PR is that if you are competing with a much larger, more well-known company and you cannot compete on revenue, marketing and advertising budget, company logos, employee count, PR can be a perception equalizer. PR can give the public the feeling that you are a growing company, that you’re making moves, that there’s momentum, that when your sales team picks up the phone or sends an email, and inevitably that prospect goes online and searches, right or wrong, there’s a built-in layer of trust and it gives them this feeling that things are happening and that you should be checked out as a potential vendor. And that is something that PR can deliver and that’s invaluable. And that just isn’t a strategy that’s driven by press releases. Now press releases, I will say, I’m not throwing shade at press releases. Press releases are important. Press releases do show momentum, they show growth and it’s a stamp in time. But what do you do in between those moments where you don’t have news? Because a press release doesn’t tell a story, a press release doesn’t solve problems for your prospects who might be looking to buy a product or solution like yours. And a press release certainly doesn’t lend itself to what we consider thought leadership. It doesn’t position your experts as industry leaders. So you have to take a look at what do we do in between these big moments to help drive a consistent narrative that is going to help move our prospects down the funnel through media.

So if you talk to someone, a marketer let’s say, and they’re very focused on press releases and news, and everything’s a press release, which I think we’ve all seen marketers that do those, or they don’t do any other media communication except for press releases, how do you help convince them that they need to think about PR the same way they might think about brand awareness and how it’s an essential component of that?

Lindsey Groepper: And I would say, Stephanie, it’s less about convincing them and more just educating them because oftentimes the question I get back is, “Lindsey, how do I create news? How do I get my brand in the news without news?” Or, “It’s not worth it to invest in a PR agency because we might only have one press release a quarter. So it’s really not worth our investment.” I would say if you’re looking to invest in a PR agency and all you’re looking for them to do is write and distribute press releases, save your money. That is not the best use of your budget. You can distribute press releases on your own without the fee of an agency, but they don’t know what else to do. So if I don’t have something to announce, then what do I do? And there are so many tools in the PR toolbox that can be leveraged to get your brand and executives in the media in an earned way. So we’re not talking any advertorial or sponsored posts, we are talking full, no price, paid, earned press. So many different tools that we can leverage to make that happen that have nothing to do with a press release. So I can walk through some of those individually.

Stephanie Cox: That was my next question is, please tell me more.

Lindsey Groepper: Yeah. So I’m sure Stephanie, you’ve been in this situation where you’re reading just insert. It could be an industry trade pub, potentially. You could be reading marketing props or Ad Age or Adweek And you see that there is a column that’s been contributed by the CEO of some company that you’ve never heard of. When you go online and you look them up, you’re like, “My gosh, they’ve only been around for a year. They hardly have any customers. How the hell is this person being positioned as a thought leader in getting this article?” That is a thought leadership strategy, or what would be considered a bylined article strategy. That is one of the strategies that you should be levering leveraging for PR. And it’s just one that is not done all that effectively. And normally it’s because as a marketer, you say, “I don’t know who to pitch from Ad Age, and I don’t have enough time from my senior executives to understand what they want to say and what they can potentially write about.” So have you come across that situation that I’ve described where you’ve seen a contributor article and you’re like, “Why are they in that?”

Stephanie Cox: Yeah. Why are they in that? Why am I not right? I think we’ve all had that feeling where you look at other brands who maybe are even smaller than yours and go,” Why are they getting more coverage than me?”

And typically that’s because they either have an in-house PR person or they have an agency. To get consistent PR coverage, it’s not something that a Jack of all trades marketer can do outside of distributor release. There just isn’t enough capacity to do so. So that thought leadership strategy, when it comes to more of that longer form, that byline article strategy, that really requires putting a half hour on whoever your spokespeople are in your organization. Sometimes it’s a CEO, it might be a VP of product. It could be a consumer insights lead, whoever those people are. If you can schedule 30 minutes with those people once a quarter, that will get you all the information that you need to begin pitching them as thought leaders. So what you do is you put time on their calendars, you explain that you are going to be essentially mining their brains for perspective and commentary about the industry, and then pitching those topics to the press to try and secure interviews or contributed content opportunities. And when you come sit down with that thought leader, you need to come prepare with very specific questions. So it does require work on the marketer’s end. But you want to come with questions that you have developed from researching the industry. So what are trends? You want to come with recent announcements that competitors have made and getting perspective. You want to ask some up in the air questions, maybe like, “What’s something that you believe that most people disagree with?” Or, “What do you think are the underlying currents happening in the industry that senior executives are afraid to talk about right now?” And from these sessions, you’ll be able to pull out two or three really interesting perspectives that you can then take and pitch to the press. And sometimes you might pitch someone like you, you might pitch a podcast. And you might say that whoever our CEO of X company believes that these three things are not being talked about in the industry, but are emerging trends and he wants to discuss them with you. Any interest? That could also be pitched as a potential byline article, where again, same pitch. But the ask is any interest in receiving a full written piece with his or her perspective. Now, if you get a request for that full written piece then it’s like, well shit, who writes it? Who’s going to write it? If you have a willing participant in your thought leader, then they can write it. And you can, as the marketer, make sure that it is ready to go. However, most senior executives do not have the capacity or interest to write it. So in that scenario, you will, what we call ghost write on behalf of that executive, send it to them for approval and for any tweaks. And then you send it to the press for consideration to post. And this is a strategy that you can do every single quarter. And trust me, if you get an interview request or get a byline published as a result, your spokespeople will give you their time every quarter, if not more often, because everybody likes to see their name in lights.

Stephanie Cox: You mentioned finding your spokespeople for your organization and obviously in smaller ones, the CEO makes a ton of sense. But how do you think about, if you’re a larger corporation, who should be your spokespeople to make sure you’re thinking about not just maybe the primary faces of the company, but also people that are subject matter experts that have a ton of institutional knowledge. It would be great to talk about very specific topics. How do you figure out who it should be?

You hit the nail on the head there in terms of the SMEs. So if it’s a larger organization, your CEO or founder will likely be the corporate spokesperson. We’ll talk about reactive news here in a bit, but if you are reacting to maybe an IPO, if you are doing, if it’s a company feature or a CEO profile, or it’s really more of industry perspective, that’s really where you’re going to tap that CEO spokesperson. But to your point, for larger organizations that maybe deal with multiple verticals. So let’s say that maybe you sell into financial services and more specifically, it could be a CTO at financial institutions, you’re going to need someone who really understands the technology and maybe a secondary person who really understands financial services industry. And those people can work really well to participate in more of those trade type opportunities that tend to get more technical or in the weeds where you really need to have that knowledge of the industry or particular vertical, or really deep knowledge of the product if it’s going to be more of a technology outlet. And that’s where you want to leverage those additional spokespeople. You don’t really want to tap your CEO necessarily for those. So the more spokespeople you have, by default, the more opportunities you’ll have to participate in. And the other thing to keep in mind too, is that not all spokespeople have to be media-facing, and I know that’s confusing. But you don’t have to have every spokesperson actually be media trained and interface with the press. Sometimes you just need to use them as really more of that brain behind the words where you are story mining with them and then you’re putting their perspective into words and attaching their byline to the article, because not everyone’s going to be great at a podcast interview, not everyone’s going to be great at a Zoom interview, or if we get back to in-person interviews. Those can be reserved for those that you feel comfortable doing so, and that they also feel comfortable with it. But you can have spokespeople that don’t necessarily interface directly with the press.

Stephanie Cox: Perfect. So you mentioned a couple of other tools in the toolbox. Would love to hear you talk about those.

Yes. But one of the biggest areas of opportunities that I believe is the shortest putt is a rapid reaction strategy. You might hear people call this as newsjacking, which is just gross to me, or trend jacking. But essentially it’s reacting quickly to either emerging trends, competitor news, or news of the day. And this is going to be completely industry and company-dependent. If you are a consumer marketer, you are going to be monitoring something completely different, a completely competitive set than if you are a B2B marketer working within the ad tech vertical. But I will talk through how these strategies work. So when you have those initial story mining sessions, you’re going to be asking about competitors and competitor news and reactions to such. So you will already have, hopefully, a lot of this information on hand that you can react quickly. But if you don’t it’s okay. So one of the things that you want to do is set up, if you don’t already have it, is set up Google alerts for your primary competitors. And you want to monitor your primary competitors for big news coming out of those organizations. So this isn’t where they hire a new CEO, or they have a new product update. Typically, you want to reserve a reactive strategy for a acquisition. So if one of your competitors makes an acquisition, gets acquired, gets a large round of funding or files for IPO. This is a great opportunity for your company to gain share of voice in your competitor news, which trust me, nothing pisses off your competitors more than when you start to show up in their new cycle, because-

Stephanie Cox: I was going to say, and I think there’s so few companies that actually do this.

Yes. And it is literally the shortest putt. And you know that your competitor CEOs have Google News alerts set up for you as a competitor. And you know that they are monitoring that. And every day they’re seeing who’s included in what news. And so when you start to show up in theirs, it’s infuriating, but it’s such a big win for the companies that do this well. So an example of this would be we have a client who is a sales enablement provider, and they’re two big competitors that play in this space, Seismic and SAVO. And Seismic acquired SAVO, and it made big news at the time. And Mediafly at the time, because this was a couple of years ago, Mediafly at the time was a emerging competitor, certainly not of the size or scale of either of those. But we saw early in the morning that this acquisition was happening. So we quickly got ahold of the CEO from Mediafly and got his perspective on what this means for the category. So not throwing shade at any particular customer, or excuse me, any particular competitor, though you could do that if that was a strategy of yours, but really how does this impact the industry? What does it say for the industry and what message does it send to investors? And we pitched that quickly to the media that we knew would be covering the acquisition who typically cover the sales enablement space. And we were able to get in 10 articles that day perspective from our client’s CEO in that competitive acquisition for that particular day. And that was a huge win for them because again, a much smaller emerging competitor that was being looked to as a source in this major for their industry major acquisition. So that’s an example of reacting quickly to an acquisition. The same thing can be said for a company that’s in your category that IPOs. If you see news of that happening, that’s going to be a pretty long news cycle. So they’ll have their initial filing and then there’s going to be stories leading up to it. And then actually when they go public. So this is even a longer tail strategy. But again, get with your CEO and get an understanding of his or her perspective on maybe what investors should be looking at in the future if there’s been a major investment in this particular category, or what does it say about the category, what you think might be the next emerging category or player. But get your thoughts together on that and then pitch the press that are covering this IPO and offer up your spokesperson. Say whether you’re working on stories now, or as you lead up to the company going public, here’s a person that can offer commentary and here’s a couple of bullet points on the perspective. We’ve had a lot of success working that strategy as well. And then the other is simply just reacting to either news of the day or emerging trends. News of the day is tricky. You have to make sure that you’re not reacting to a natural disaster or reacting to something that happened in your local market, in a way that’s going to seem self-serving or opportunistic. During the height of the pandemic, we had many of our clients who ended up offering their software products for free to government and higher ed and those in need or in healthcare, for example. And so that was worthwhile to pitch those stories and pitch that news out because it was actually helping the greater good. If your news that is reacting to something happening in the news of the day or world news, if it really only benefits you or your customers, then don’t do it. But if it benefits the greater community at large, then it’s recommended.

Stephanie Cox: So as you think about a company investing in PR for the first time, whether that’s through an internal hire or through the use of an agency, where would you suggest they think about getting started in terms of finding the right partner? Because it sounds like, just from my experience, you have a very different view, I think, on PR than even other agencies I’ve talked to, and different PR professionals. And so how do you know what to hire, whether that’s internal or external and how to find the right partner? Because I do think based on what you’re saying, the partner makes a big difference.

It absolutely does. And they’re really good agencies and there are really lazy agencies. You pick your industry and there’s going to be ones that are shining stars and ones that give the industry a bad name. So insert industry, it happens. And honestly, our best relationships are those companies that do have an internal PR manager that serves as our main contact. And we’re able to work in tandem and work together because media relations is just one part of PR. There’s a lot of other pieces that make up that pie. And it’s always best for us when we’re working with an internal PR person, but realize that that is that’s as we swim upstream and work with larger companies. And internal versus external is you just have to weigh, are you ready for that big of a PR investment? So you can make one internal hire, a mid-level hire, for less than you would spend on an agency. I think more than whether it’s internal or external, is, are you ready to spend the money? Does it make sense for you to spend the money on it on an agency? Because there’s times that it just doesn’t when you’re not quite ready. So when I know a company is not quite ready for PR, is a few things. One is when the CEO is going to be managing the PR agency. That is not the highest and best use of the CEO’s time, number one. The PR firm needs very regular access to their primary contact, and that’s not typically something that they can always get with a CEO. And inevitably, as a CEO’s responsibility is, is all about revenue and revenue generation and ROI on spend. And PR being a brand spend, it is going to be a very difficult relationship if the PR spend is being looked at as a ROI driver. So that’s where I know companies aren’t ready for PR. The other time you’re not going to be ready for PR is when you haven’t quite figured out your ICP, your messaging, you haven’t quite found product-market fit. You don’t have very many customers under your belt. You’re still in that exploratory phase. You’re not ready for an ongoing PR spend. It might make sense to hire a firm to do a large announcement. So if you have a seed round or a series A, or announcing a new product, to do a quick 30 or 60-day project just to get quick air cover on that announcement, but it doesn’t make sense. Probably the number one question that you should ask yourself in terms of am I ready to invest in PR is if your PR spend, whatever that investment is with an agency, if that is going to be your largest marketing line item spend every month, you are not ready for PR. And this is oftentimes where conversations with prospects ends with me because I will straight up ask it. PR is a brand spend that should be building on top of a well-functioning and fairly well-oiled demand gen program, where you have your search, your AdWords, your other marketing tools up and running. You have other tools in your MarTech stack and PR is added as another layer top of the funnel. So if your choice is I’m spending X on PR every month or X AdWords, spend it on AdWords. PR can’t replace your AdWords. So if PR is going to be your largest marketing line of spend every month, guys, I won’t say every time, but many times that means you should not be spending on PR quite yet.

Stephanie Cox: I think that’s really helpful to know because I think it’s something that a lot of companies struggle with is when’s the right time. So once you bring someone on, what should you expect as the primary contact with a PR agency? So that’s my role as a marketer to help them. What does that really look like for me? How do I get them up to speed in a way that they can be highly effective for my business and my industry?

Lindsey Groepper: Yeah. The number one thing that PR teams need is access, and I’ll break that down a little bit. So the PR team needs access to the spokespeople. So if you’re, just like I described before of that quarterly story mining session with our spokespeople, the PR team needs access to those people. The PR team needs access to those people’s calendars to schedule interviews. Those people need to be available to approve content. If they have a bylined article associated with their name, and they’re essentially the author, we need to have their approval. We’re working on media deadlines, not our own. So we have to have a reasonable approval process. The other thing that the PR team needs access to is the business strategy. So while it isn’t always the best situation to have the CEO as a primary contact, it’s also not the ideal situation to have a junior, maybe content manager as our only contact either because while they might be able to help on the access side, they’re not able to give us access to the business strategy. So it’s really difficult for us to engineer a PR program that is going to drive any business value because we don’t know where the business is going. So an example of that is if we see a competitor make a new product announcement and it’s a brand new offering, it’s not a build on, and we come to you and say, “Hey, we just saw this competitor make this announcement. I heard in our quarterly call earlier that you guys were having plans to do this. Is that still in the product roadmap? Is this part of the overall strategy?” And they’re like, “I don’t know, we’ll get back to you.” Or if we have a reactive opportunity and we’re like, “We can participate in this, we need some perspective, and is this something that you think you guys can participate in?” It’s like, “I’m not sure. I don’t know if that’s the direction where we’re going.” That’s a tough situation. So we access the spokespeople and their time and then we also need access to somebody who can help us understand the business strategy and answer those larger questions.

Stephanie Cox: So if you had to tell a senior level marketer one piece of advice, as they think about a PR strategy for their company, what would that be?

Lindsey Groepper: My advice would be to get creative and don’t rely on a press release to get press coverage. And what I mean by that is people will say, “PR doesn’t work for us.” I hear that all the time. And Stephanie, I’m sure you’ve heard that too. Right? “Well, PR just doesn’t work. What does work mean? What were the expectations?” Well, we put out three releases last month and didn’t get anything from it. When you say you put out three releases, where did those go? Well, we put them over PRWeb or PR Newswire, Business Newswire.” Guys, I will tell you, in 16 years I can count on one hand how many inbound emails or phone calls I’ve gotten from a journalist from putting a press release on a wire service. Those go into the unknown. There’s so much noise. And I promise you, your press release that you paid to put over Business Wire and a brand new startup with one employee and no customers who puts a press release out at the same time, in the same industry to the same press, you guys will get the exact same number of RSS feed pickups. The exact same. It is not coverage, it’s an RSS feed and it absolutely won’t do anything for you. So yes, PR absolutely will do nothing for you if you are just putting releases out over the wire. Releases over the wire, there’s value and then it’s a stamp in time. It shows up in Google news search and it comes across as a Google alert to whoever’s following you guys with a Google news alert. It shows momentum and there’s value in that, but it will not yield PR stories unless you have someone who is individually pitching an editor and telling the why behind the what of the release.

Stephanie Cox: You’ve been listening to Real Marketers. If you love what you’ve heard, make sure to subscribe, rate and review our podcast. And don’t forget to tell a friend. All of this marketing goodness shouldn’t be kept a secret.