By Sherry Alpert The longer I'm in PR, the more I realize what a fickle business it is. First, let's talk about contacts. Outsiders assume the major reason for media success is that you have contacts. Occasionally, contacts help, because these people take my phone calls and read my pitches. But having contacts has rarely resulted in a story that I would not have secured otherwise. Conversely, I've gotten some terrific placements with some of the biggest names in newspapers, magazines and TV on the strength of a single contact. Some took a couple of weeks, others many months. A feature in a leading women's magazine took all of 18 months to reach fruition.
I look at PR as I do a romantic relationship. Success in each is two-thirds luck and timing. As far as love goes, the other third is chemistry. In scoring publicity, that final third is a combination of chutzpah, persistence, and skill -- meaning a well-written pitch and an articulate, concise voicemail.
STRATEGY AND TACTICS. Strategy envelopes the entire process -- we in PR are strategists, first and foremost, as every business owner needs to be when setting out to raise the profile of his or her business. We must figure out creative ways of pitching a client to a multitude of markets, and target that pitch to the specific media. We uncover opportunities as we go along. Sometimes they sprout during a conversation with an editor or reporter to whom we have pitched a different client. We should turn on a dime at these unpredictable moments, or when a news story presents an opportunity to see a client quoted as an expert. Whether you're a pro or a gifted amateur with just the story of your own business to tell, always keep an eye peeled for the opportunity that will help your message go a long way. Opportunity, and the ability to recognize it, is essential.
Nevertheless, a lot of guessing is involved. That's right, guessing. PR is neither an art nor a science. In fact, it's a very strange animal, one with very few rules. For example, how often do you contact the same editor or reporter, if you've never received a response to an e-mail or a voicemail? Do you e-mail first or call? Reporters and editors are individuals. One editor might be happy to speak to you after four voicemails and e-mails within a month, but another may tell you to cease and desist forever. I've been told, "I'm glad you were persistent -- I've been swamped and keep meaning to get back to you." I've also been told, "If I were interested in this, you would have heard from me. You're a pain in the posterior." As you set out to promote and publicize your business, prepare for a similarly mixed bag of reactions.
What is continually frustrating is that there is scarcely any correlation between the amount of work you put into pitching a potential story and the success you achieve, whether local or national, broadcast, or print. What I often think will be a slam dunk can fail, only to see something I consider a long-odds bet succeed. For example, the reporter may like your idea so much that he or she interviews a couple of competitors -- and then, when the story appears, you find you haven't been mentioned due to lack of space. Be warned: Reporters aren't obliged to point back to where the whole story began, although it's always gratifying when they do.
UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES. That's the way it goes. It's our job to figure out a way, a "hook" to get the client interviewed, quoted, and mentioned -- be it our own businesses or, for a PR pro, that of a client. The end result may not be what the client wants. There's very little fairness or justice in this business.
Which leads me to managing expectations. Promise a client nothing, absolutely nothing, other than that you'll do your best. You don't know if you can score a mention in the quality media. All you can do is your best. Come to think of it, the only sacred rule in PR is to learn from experience.
Have a question about the best way to promote and publicize your business? PR pro Sherry Alpert is here to help. Click here to e-mail your queries, or write to Spread The Word, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. The principal of Sherry Alpert Corporate Communications & Graphic Design in Canton, Mass., Sherry Alpert, 51, has been representing clients ranging from corporations, retailers, and nonprofits to books, trade shows, and entrepreneurs for more than 25 years.