ICYMI, I moderated a wonderful panel of three smart people at General Mills last week as part of the Social Media Breakfast-Minneapolis/St. Paul series. The panel consisted of General Mills’ Kevin Hunt, US Bank’s Monica Wiant and Hubbard Interactive’s Melissa Young.
Photo credit: Debbie Friez
In preparation for this event, I drafted a series of questions for the panelists and collaborated with them on other questions. But, it was interesting to hear their answers to those questions first-hand at the SMB event along with the sold-out audience.
As I moderated, and listened, a number of common themes emerged. Nuggets that started to become clear. Best practices that you should be considering if you’re thinking about starting a podcast for our company or organization in 2020.
Here were five big lessons I heard:
#1 – Your employee audience may wind up being your biggest audience
We heard this message loud-and-clear–especially from Kevin and Monica. In both cases, Kevin and Monica believe their employee audiences for their podcasts are substantial (The Taste of General Mills’ most recent podcast actually FEATURES an employee’s daughter!). So, it’s hugely important you keep that little fact in your frontal lobe as you plan your new podcast. If employees are a big audience, what kinds of content might they find interesting that your customers and external audiences would find interesting, too?
#2 – You don’t need a full-blown studio to pull off a podcast
Only one of the three panelists (Monica) records their podcast in a studio–and that’s only because their agency partner offered up a space! You simply don’t need a studio to pull this off. Would it be ideal? Absolutely. But, it’s definitely not necessary. What’s more, you really don’t need 20K worth of top-end equipment to do this either. Kevin and I have developed the Talking Points Podcast for years with nothing more than a couple Snowball mics! We recently upgraded our equipment, but even that investment was relatively small (well under 2K). You don’t need a lot of money or a fancy studio space to do this. That excuse won’t fly anymore!
#3 – Beware of the download metric and manage expectations appropriately
Here’s a surprising stat: Only 20% of all podcasts get 1,200 downloads or more, and only about 5% of all podcasts get 8,300 downloads or more. Translation: Don’t expect your podcast will generate tens of thousands of downloads! It just won’t. Much more likely, your podcast will have fewer than 1,200 downloads per episode. So, get ahead of that fact with management. Coach and educate them on the fact that downloads aren’t everything in the podcast game. There’s a lot to be said for the fact that a podcast allows you to do a different kind of storytelling. There’s a lot to be said for the “cool factor” podcast can give you and your company right now. And, there’s a lot to be said for the brand affinity podcasting can drive for your brand. Start managing expectations now.
#4 – Focus on creating interesting content–not acquiring new listeners
Another key theme that came through loud and clear to everyone in the room–you really need to focus on making your podcast INTERESTING! Monica talked about how they do this at US Bank by giving each year a theme and talking about a variety of interesting, non-banking-related topics (like how you deal with Gen Z in the workplace, for example). Resist the urge to focus on acquiring new listeners. That’s more of a marketing goal anyway. Instead, if you focus on creating content your customers and employees actually want to listen to, the listeners will definitely follow. That’s what I heard from all three panelists.
5: You CAN do this yourself
All three panelists host their show in some way, shape or form. They don’t hire outside talent to host. And, they all produce their own shows (largely, at least). They don’t have fancy studios either, as I mentioned above. So, you CAN do this. Might you need a bit of help along the way? Definitely (shameless plug: I can help in this area!). But, you CAN do this. It’s not impossible. It’s not too much to do. It is doable. So, if it makes sense for your organization, GET ON IT!
Today, I celebrate 10 years as a solo social media and PR consultant.
Truth be told, I don’t know if today is the actual anniversary. I can’t remember my “first day” in this role 10 years ago. It really doesn’t matter. What does matter is what’s happened in those 10 years. Because I’m about to fill up an entire blog post–and then some–talking about just that!
This job has been life-changing for me in many ways.
Because of this job, I’ve had the opportunity to watch my kids grow up. To walk (or drive) them to school most days. To attend band concerts and soccer games that start at 4 p.m. (why Holy Angels, why, with the 4 pm start times?!?!?!!). To volunteer at their schools once in a while. It wouldn’t have been impossible to do this if I had a job at an agency or a corporation, but it would have been much more difficult.
Because of this job, I’ve had the opportunity to work with the biggest Fortune 500-level brands in the Twin Cities. General Mills, Sleep Number, Cargill, Andersen Windows & Doors, Patterson Companies, Toro, Trane, Thermo King, UCare, Allina Health and Starkey have all been clients over the last 10 years. It’s an amazing list I would have never dreamed I’d have the chance to work with–and, I’d put it up against almost any agency in town.
Because of this job, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible people, and make some new friends. I think of clients and friends like Kellie Due Weiland who I’ve worked with for the last five years at Sleep Number. People like Sarah Panus who’s been and off-and-on client at Sleep Number for 10 years. People like Andy Jacobson at Trustmark whom I’ve worked with for the last four-plus years now. And people like Brian Bellmont, Jen Bellmont and Shelli Lissick who I worked with on one of my first clients all those years ago. Far too many people to list in a blog post–and I apologize for that. But, there are so many people I’ve worked for and with in the last 10 years that have absolutely changed my life. Thank you!
Yep, it’s been a crazy 10 years. And, it went by FAST! As I thought back to the last 10 years, a few fun facts came to mind that I wanted to share:
- I’ve worked with 80-plus companies over the last 10 years including Walmart, Walgreens, Mall of America and all the orgs I listed above. Before I started ACH Communications, I have almost zero experience with Fortune 500-level orgs.
- I’ve written 1,280+ blog posts over the last 10 years. With an average length of 500 words, I’ve written approximately 640,000 words! Given the average novel includes 90,000 words, I’ve written the equivalent of 7 novels!
- With my partner, Kevin Hunt, we’ve recorded 120+ episodes of the Talking Points Podcast in the last 5 years. With an average length of 45 minutes per show we’ve now recorded more than 5,400 minutes worth of podcasts!
- I’ve also created and shared more than 350 editions of the Talking Points E-newsletter. I’ve been developing this resource since 2013!
What about ACH highlights? Well, there’s been far too many to list out, but a few that rise to the top include:
- Training dealers at Toro’s annual dealer event at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina. And, getting the opportunity to play famed Pinehurst #2 with my client and friend, Braden Happel.
- Speaking before a group of 100+ communicators at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. A great opportunity made possible by friend, Chad Mitchell.
- Having the opportunity to work, truly, as a part of a team at Sleep Number for the past 10 years. And, having the chance to work with people like Kellie Due Weiland, Gabby Nelson, Sarah Reckard and Sarah Panus.
Lessons learned? Oh, there’s been a few. But, a handful of the key lessons that stand out to me are:
- First, don’t over-complicate things. Something I noticed early on in my consulting journey–people were needlessly over-complicating simple things. Like, your web site. Yes, it should showcase your best you. Yes, it should feature your services, client list and testimonials. But, it shouldn’t take 9 months to get it up! I’ve made a habit of adopting a principle that has carried me far in my professional life: 80% is usually good enough. Now, do I sometime give 110%? Absolutely. Probably more than I know. But, in many cases, 80% is just fine. And it’ll save you a whole lot of stress.
- Second, be patient and learn to say no. Two things I had a really tough time with at first. But, the more I practice them, the better I got at them. Being patient means learning to wait for the right client opportunities and not jumping at the first thing that comes your way (which is really hard as a solo!). For me, that’s meant narrowing my focus to doing social and PR work for larger companies in Minnesota. I don’t work with start-ups. I don’t (typically) work with non-profits. I stick to my focus. And, learning to say no–that’s all about focus, too. I don’t say yes to every coffee invite. I don’t say yes to every client request. I don’t say yes to every person who pitches me a guest post on my blog (come to think of it, I haven’t said yes to this in at least 7 years!). I say no. A lot. And it helps me keep my focus.
- Finally, never turn off the new business engine. For me, that means treating new business like a client. I budget time for it every week. That means time to blog, time to podcast, time to create the Talking Points enewsletter. Time to manage the Mastermind meetings. It’s all part of new business for me. It’s not easy. It does take a lot of time. But, I believe it’s also why I’ve been in business for 10 years and a big part of why I’ve been so successful.
One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is legacy. It’s a big part of the reason I started teaching at the University of St. Thomas recently. What am I most proud of over the last 10 years?
- First and foremost, the notion that I started my own business, made it work, and had the opportunity to work with the people and companies listed above. It still kinda blows my mind that I could essentially put my client roster against any agency in town and feel like I measure up. That’s insane!
- Another thing I’m really proud of, but don’t talk about a lot, are the two Mastermind groups I started a few years ago. One group is made up of senior-level communicators in town at the biggest companies in town. Life Time, Medtronic, General Mills, Toro, UHG and US Bank are just a few of the companies where these people work. It started as about 12 people and has now grown to more than 30. And each and every one of the folks in that group is a valuable contributor. I’ve easily learned as much from that group as they have from each other over the last few years. And, it’s a group they tell me they find invaluable. I’m super proud of that considering the positions many of these people hold.
- Finally, in the end, my legacy will probably be all about relationships. I have a reputation as someone who’s connected. I get a lot of asks for coffees when people are looking for jobs. And in many cases, I like to help! I like the pay it forward. I like to lift people up when they might be feeling down. And I put a ton of time and effort into nurturing relationships across our industry. Whether it’s with folks on the PRSA board, a new intern with one of my clients or a new prospect. I’m constantly working to build relationships. And I hope that shows.
So, the logical closer to this discussion: What’s next for me? What will I be doing in 5-10 years?
That’s interesting timing. Because in 5-6 years, both my kids will be out of the house. And, in 5-6 years, we will have our home and mortgage paid off. And, in 5-6 years, we’ll be in a spot to live a financially independent life. So, I guess my honest answer would be “I’m not entirely sure.” But, I know this much: I love the consulting work. I don’t see that changing. I’ll probably do this for as long as people will hire me. I’m also finding I love teaching (as I thought I might). It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding as heck. I could see myself doing more of that in 5-6 years. For now, I love the mix I have, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
I guess that’s it. That’s me celebrating me (no one else is going to do it for me, right?). And that’s me clinking my glass celebrating 10 years of solo consulting. It’s been a helluva ride. And I hope it continues for a long while. Thank you to all my clients, partners, colleagues, subcontractors and friends I’ve worked with over the last 10 years. And, a huge thank you to my wife, whom, in many ways, makes all this possible. This post is never written without the help of you all. Much like raising a child, it takes a village to start and maintain a healthy solo consultancy!
OK, so I know this kind of headline sounds pretty self-serving coming from me. And, you know what? You’d be right!
But, biases aside, the fact remains: There are few (none in Minnesota, as far as I can tell) awards programs specifically for solo PR, marketing and social media consultants.
And, I think it’s high time that changed.
Consider the fact that there were 57.3 million “freelancers” in the workforce in 2017. Now, I know “freelancers” includes a lot more than just PR/marketing consultants, but that’s a big number. And, it’s going to get a lot bigger. Statista predicts that number will climb to a whopping 90.1 million by 2028.
In fact, one survey found that more than 50% of the workforce will be freelancers in 10 years if the current trends continue.
Bottom line: There’s a lot of us solos out there–and there’s about to be a whole lot more.
This is a thriving, growing group of professionals that increasingly is making up a growing segment of our workforce and we don’t recognize them. AT ALL.
What’s more, think about the value solo consultants add to corporate, non-profit and government teams. A decent majority of the solos I know have 20+ years experience. These are senior-level advisors who are counseling senior-level leaders within all sorts of organizations across our country. And again, they’re going largely unrecognized.
Finally, we have an awards program for everyone under the sun in 2019. 30 under 30. 40 under 40. Heck, we even have 50 under 50 now! We have the MN PRSA Classics Awards. AdFed has “The Show”. But, as far as I know, we don’t have a single awards program designed to recognize solo or independent consultants.
And that’s a shame. Because the solos I know are doing great work—just like the agency and corporate folks who are recognized so often.
We’re the unsung heroes of the PR, marketing and social media worlds. It’s time to change that.
Here’s to hoping someone or some organization steps up to the plate.
Media relations is getting harder…much harder (but here’s a few tips for how you can get more stories placed)
This just in: media relations is getting tougher. Much, much tougher.
The stats back up the claim. Consider the following:
- Demand for media attention is high: Most top-tier writers now receive 100, 250 or 500 pitches a week for 5 story spots.
- Media is outnumbered: PR Pros now outnumber journalists by a factor of 6 to 1. This ratio has doubled in the last 10 years. What’s more, employment prospects for PRs will expand even more to 282,600 by 2026 (up 9 percent from 2016) according to projections from the Labor Department. On the other hand, jobs for media types are forecasted to decline 9 percent to 45,900 over the same period.
- PR pros say so themselves! A majority (68%) of PR professionals say media relations is getting harder or much harder. This is up 17% from last year where 51% said media relations was getting harder.
One more stat to share: Only 5% of publishers want phone calls, according to recent surveys. The rest surveyed (95%!) were adamantly against using the phone! This isn’t great news. Why? Because the name of the game in media relations is building trust. One big way many of us used to do that was via phone. After all, talking to a journalist on the phone is a much better way to build repoire than via email, text or social media. It just is. It’s more personal. It’s warmer. IT’S EASIER! Now, with just 5% of journalists saying they prefer the phone, that advantage has been taken off our plate, too.
I’m seeing this, anecdotally, with my clients, as well. It’s tougher to get the media’s attention that it was five years ago–for lots of reasons (in addition to those listed above). For one, the media are much busier than they were in the past. See this recent Jason DeRusha (anchor at WCCO-TV here in MSP) comment on my LinkedIn post on this same topic a few weeks ago for proof.
Second, newsrooms continue to shrink. I mentioned this above in one of the stats, but UHG’s Ellen O’Brien sums it up well here:
We’re also seeing “pay for play” expand. Outlets like Forbes are almost entirely pay-for-play now. And, publications like Harvard Business Review are so much tougher to get into than just a few years ago. All these factors are figuring in.
So, the big question now: What do we do about this? Our clients and companies are still expecting media coverage. Media relations, as a practice, isn’t going away. People still watch TV news and read the paper. This will continue.
Cutting to the chase: We need strategies to break-through and get the media’s attention. How do we do that? A few ideas that have worked for me recently:
- Subject lines are everything. Treat subject lines like you’re a copywriter at a big ad agency and you have to write a killer headline for a new ad. That’s how important they are in 2019. My pro tip: Write 10 subject lines for each pitch. And, make them short. No more than 10 words. Max.
- Pitch early–literally! I’ve had better luck pitching early in the day vs. later in the day. Maybe it’s because I’m getting in inboxes before they’re cluttered. Maybe it’s just dumb luck. I prefer to think it’s the former.
- Lean on trends, research and case studies. When it comes to building thought leadership for a client, these are the key themes I’ve seen work the best. Of course, there are always exceptions, but by and large, these work awfully well. Especially the research piece. And, if you do have research, don’t be afraid to share a bigger chunk of it (or, ALL of it) with the media. They’re so thirsty for interesting, thought-provoking research–and your client/company may not always have a great feel for what customers find interesting and what they don’t.
Since I know so many great media relations experts (including a few former media members) in Minneapolis/St. Paul, I thought I’d ask a few of them what they suggest for tips to reach media in 2019:
Keegan Shoutz, PR, Best Buy
Focus on relationships. Cast a small net and build personal relationships that will last. Be genuine and honest. If you know something isn’t a fit for them — don’t send it. Reserve your communications with your key contacts for meaningful opportunities that will benefit them as well as you/your client/company. Consider offering them exclusives or a perspective you’re not giving to any other contact. Lastly, communicate with them outside of the times you want them to run a story.
Find a focus, if you can. Find an industry and corresponding set of reporters you can work with on an ongoing basis. It’s easier to build meaningful relationships with reporters who can get to know you as a resource on a specific industry. Work to be known as a “go-to” for insight from a specific company or on a specific topic.
Get face-to-face time. Look for opportunities to meet your contacts in person when you’re not looking for something from them. Ask them meaningful questions. Show them you understand how their world works and that you have a bigger view outside of just what is happening with your client or company. Buy them coffee! Make their lives easier.
Dan DeBaun, PR specialist, Life Time
Before joining the Life Time communications team I was a journalist for about five years across radio (WJON-St. Cloud) and print (The Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal). One reason media relations can be challenging these days is that reporters are busier than ever (yes, it’s true). Journalists these days aren’t just journalists. They’re also expected to manage social media, shoot photos and video, run blogs and network to maintain fresh sources. Oftentimes, PR pitches I received (even good pitches) would sometimes fall through the cracks, just because I was too busy with breaking news or other priorities.
The opportunity for PR pros today is to establish relationships with journalists and influencers. As a reporter, my favorite PR professionals were available and knowledgeable about their company/client and could offer me information, resources and connections when I needed them. To shamelessly self-promote: Life Time’s communications team always stood out to me because they gave me access to interview executives and gave me timely news tips when they were ready to discuss them.
On top of this, there’s been growth in corporate communications teams and fewer journalists. Recent reports say there are now six PR pros for every journalist (Editor’s note: I’m not the only one who paid attention to this stat!). This makes it much more important for media pitching to be timely, relevant and customized.
Aimee Jordan, senior communications specialist, M Health Fairview
I have tried to maintain the same journalistic sensibilities I had when I was working as a journalist for 15 years. The hardest part is recognizing a good story when you see one, which often requires you to look beyond marketing campaigns and company initiatives. Then, pitch that story to the right reporters. Know their beats and what they’re personally interested in. Write a killer pitch and then be fast and helpful throughout their reporting process. Also, be friendly and approachable! And honest! It’s very much the same approach I took as a journalist: killer story ideas, strong pitches to editors, and fast, accurate reporting and writing. Be someone you would want to work with!
Lynn Melling, communications manager, Starkey Hearing
I think now, more than ever, you need to invest time in developing authentic relationships with individual journalists. Get to know them as human beings. Invite them to coffee and don’t talk shop. Ask them about their kids and their recent vacation destination. Pretend you’re a salesman trying to close a deal– because that’s basically what you are. You’re trying to sell a pitch. As a former reporter who received dozens of pitches a week, I often gave preferential treatment to pitches that came from people who didn’t make me feel like I was a tool in their marketing plan. This takes time, but it pays off in the long run– big time.
Last week, the PR Daily folks released survey findings from a recent survey among comms types about 2020 budgeting (nice work, Ted Kitterman and team!). Timely, right? Not surprisingly (at least to this consultant), most PRs said budgets will remain flat in 2020. I don’t disagree.
Where it gets interesting, though, is when the PR Daily team asked PR where they would increase budgets if money were no object.
Among the areas where PRs said they would spend more:
- Video and visual comms
- Social media
- Additional writers
I will never argue with the idea of adding more visual communicators and writers to your team. Those are two huge needs in the year ahead–especially given the burgeoning needs of the storification of the social web.
But, I also see a few obvious areas where I would definitely add budget. If I were a brand-side PR leader, I would be bolstering my budgets in the following areas–and here’s why:
- Video AND audio production. I just read a social media trend post yesterday that claimed 50% of brands would start or plan to start a podcast in 2020. 50%! While I think that number is very high, it’s also indicative of where we’re at in 2019. Yes, video storytelling is at an all-time high in terms of interest. But, so is audio. I would invest in finding either people who could do both–or, add audio production to my list.
- Data analysts. I was actually shocked not to see some representation of this key skill set on the list. Because it’s imperative to our success as communicators. And, to building credibility with the C-suite. We need to bolster our data mining and analytical skills if we’re to get that coveted “seat at the table.” I’d be doubling down on finding resources that could help me measure, track and analyze every piece of data we had. And, then I’d double down again.
- Senior-level social content. I know, the survey did say “additional writer” and “brand journalism” were near the top of the list. But, I’d be more specific. I’d want more senior-level content specialists on my team–either in-house or contract. Why senior-level? Because they understand the nuances of social content vs. more traditional content. And, because “senior” means 10-15+ years experience, they’ve also been around long enough to understand how the whole puzzle works. I’d want more people like that on my team.
- Professional development. This is a glaring omission. And, sadly, far too common in our industry. We need to invest in our talent people. We need to give team members the opportunity to attend conferences (and not just conferences in our home towns!). We need to give team members the chance to get trained on new skills (not just asking them to teach themselves!). And, we need to give team members the resources they need to grow professionally. Judging from what I hear from friends in our industry, largely, this isn’t happening. Sure, some agencies are doing a nice job here. But what about the rest of us? This starts with annual planning. Budget for professional development. Or, risk losing your best talent in the years ahead.
That’s what I’d invest in if I were a PR manager. What about you? What are you budgeting more for in the year ahead?