Better PR Now with Mark Phillips

Helping leaders build strong brands and stakeholder relationships with effective communication.
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Better PR Now with Mark Phillips




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Jan 2, 2019

Fred Wellman is the founder of ScoutComms, a niche agency in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He specializes in public relations and marketing efforts in support of corporations and nonprofits focused on veteran and military family support, as well as veteran-owned and focused businesses.  In this episode, he explains why he started his own PR agency that focuses n service and why running a B Corp (a mission-driven benefit corporation) can create a competitive edge in attracting top quality clients and employees. He also explains the importance of serving pro bono clients and why we should hire against our weaknesses. As the hardest working man in public relations, Fred Wellman is the James Brown of PR.

As the hardest working man in public relations, Fred Wellman is the James Brown of PR. A graduate of West Point and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, he ran for mayor in Georgia, served as an Army Scout and Blackhawk helicopter pilot in Iraq, worked for Generals David Petraeus and Martin Dempsey (later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). General Petraeus selected him to become an Army public affairs officer.

Fred started his own agency at the bottom of the last recession.  He found a niche that focuses on veterans’ issues.  His business, ScoutComms, is based on one simple idea: There are very few veterans in the agency world, so ScoutComms would serve as the expert in that niche for larger PR agencies initially and, eventually, for corporate clients directly.

There is a bias against hiring senior practitioners who have not previously worked in agencies.  This seems to be based on the assumption that it’s difficult or impossible to learn how to manage client relationships and develop new business.  This bias precludes hiring talented communication professionals with deep experience, rich insight, and a robust network in a particular sector.

It is important to integrate all communications (PR, marketing, internal, executive, digital, etc.) across an organization.

Know your clients.  Bring on experts who know the client’s business, culture, sensitivities, language, and how they communicate.

It’s important to know how your organization is different. What is your competitive advantage or secret sauce?  

Forming a B Corp can cost more money, but also can be a good fit if your business is founded on more than making money.  Much of ScoutComms’ business is in corporate social responsibility, so having an organizational framework that reinforces that social good creates a strategic, competitive advantage.  The B Corp certification process can serve as a coaching tool. 

Fred refers to his former employees as “graduates” and he is very proud of what they have gone on to do. One runs a USO center in North Carolina, one is running an environmental organization in northern Virginia, and one works for Dr. Jill Biden.


Nov 13, 2018

Curtis Sparrer, principal at Bospar PR in San Francisco, shares terrific insights on why celebrity interviews are like a high-performance sport. He also explains how to set up really successful media engagements, tips on working with celebrities (he's done award-winning work with George Takei of Star Trek fame), and how to grow trust-based relationships with clients.

Working with a celebrity or CEO on successful media engagements:

  • Consider what they can and can’t talk about; do a deep dive with them and their management team about those issues before any media interviews.
  • Before an interview, clarify with the journalist what questions will be asked; ask for a written Q&A beforehand; be clear about ground rules; let them know what you want to focus on. Be clear about anything you’d like the journalist to include in the story. Send a follow-up note with thanks and a reminder of the key point(s) you’d like to have included in the story. If your key message isn’t included in the final version of the story, contact the journalist to politely ask that the message be included in that or a future story.
  • Crafting the message:  First, ask celebrities what they are planning to say.
  • Repeat the message: Working it into every interview in several ways helps ensure that key messages are included in the final article.  Use pep talks with spokespeople to help keep them on message and excited to keep delivering the messages.

Why celebrity interviews are like a high-performance sport:

  • For media tours, consider how many engagements is enough versus what is too many.  For a celebrity, after about five interviews, you often have diminishing returns as they get tired.
  • Manage the message and the energy in interviews: For longer interviews or media tours, include refreshments to get their sugar levels/energy up so they can perform. Avoid including dairy products to keep the voice clear. Include long energy foods that won’t lead to a sugar crash; fruits like bananas are great. Check with the talent’s management or agent to information on what they prefer.

Media training:

  • Use recorded media simulations to prepare senior leaders or other spokespeople for their on-camera interviews.
  • Give criticism in private to help them learn and develop their skills without needing to save face in front of their staff.
  • Arrive early to media interviews to give them a chance to get a feel for how the show is flowing.
  • Ask production assistants if they have a copy of the script, because it might have a copy of the questions.
  • Make sure your clients read the news on the day of their interview and give them a run-down on that day’s news in their sector, because they could be asked their opinion on breaking news.  This keeps them from being caught off guard.


  • Pay attention to the news for opportunities to give your perspective on breaking stories.  Local news producers are always looking to localize (find the local angle) national or international stories to make them relevant to their local audience.
  • When a story breaks, journalists are trying to figure out what will happen in the future, what people can expect in the next X days.
  • To get coverage that matters to your client’s business, have the CEO give a three-sentence statement, including what this news event means, what people can expect in the future, and why we are an expert to talk about this.

The importance of speed when responding to media:

  • Don’t perfect a statement to death; perfect is the enemy of the good.
  • A good-enough statement on time is far more valuable than a perfect statement that is too late.

Personal branding and networking for PR professionals:

  • Share with your boss what your professional priorities are; helps build your reputation with your coworkers and leadership.
  • On LinkedIn, talk about your core values and why they are important to you; make sure you also live those core values.
  • Don’t depend on building your brand on only one social platform; cross-pollinate content across your social platforms; show your personal side.
  • Brand consistency in developing your personal brand is important, with some exceptions: Authenticity that is not self-promotional (such as sharing photos from your birthday or other important personal event).
  • The biggest turnoff with LinkedIn is that it can be an echo chamber of bragging, so break that up with something other than how great you are professionally.
  • Be willing to talk about your mistakes and the lessons you learned. Failure is the best teacher and we can learn from it.
  • Fail fast, learn from your mistakes, and tell the story as you go.
  • Be willing to be vulnerable; it makes you human. This isn’t appropriate for all CEOs, so it’s important to know your client and what will work for them.
  • Media tours are a great way to bond with your CEO (or other client), because you’ll spend hours with them in the process. This presents opportunities to get to know them better and to identify other PR opportunities for them.
  • Make it a point to attend awards ceremonies and other events that are important to your client. They need to see you as someone who really is in their corner.
  • You want to be seen by your client as the trusted, safe counsel for them.
Oct 1, 2018

Josh Elledge built and runs two very successful businesses:  Savings Angel and Up My Influence. He generated more than $6 million dollars in publicity, essentially for free. Josh shares with us how he did it and he lays out the steps we can take right now to build our authority and promote our own businesses in the same way.

Aug 14, 2018

Authority Marketing is Michael Greenberg's secret sauce for positioning people and brands. It is the act of positioning someone as an expert in order to bring in more business. As founder and chief strategist at Call for Content, Michael shares his uniquely powerful method of building authority through content and leveraging that for B2B marketing. He also provides a free link to download his Authority Marketing Playbook. Michael's word of wisdom: "Start creating content; just do it."

Jul 28, 2018
Amy Sutton, founder of Enjoy PR, takes us on her journey from law to PR. She shares why diversity is key to powerful Public Relations. We also explore the importance of relationships in PR and communications, and how to set expectations in client-agency relationships.
Amy recently published an article on LinkedIn titled “Kill the PR Girl,” in which she challenges the stereotype of “the PR Girl” and why that stereotype hurts both public relations professionals and their agencies, in part because of the reinforcement of glass ceilings. We explore the importance of diversity in public relations planning, specifically how diverse perspectives drive creativity and effective problem-solving.
Jun 25, 2018

I'm joined by Jake Eisenberg, president of Reach Digital Group. Jake shares his approach to local marketing and explains how he uses social media to boost lead generation and acquire solid leads. His company specializes in helping local businesses, but his approach works for national brands as well.  

Q: Jake, you're president of the Reach Digital Group. How did you get into this business and why did you choose to start your own agency? 

Originally, I got started with a mixed martial arts blog that I had in 2009, before MMA really took off. This website was gaining a lot of traffic, and I was generating money through ad revenue, and I saw how to bring new traffic in. I started getting familiar with search engine optimization and started thinking to myself, "What are other ways that I can bring this up?" 

As I was going through school, and working, and all these other things, I started working on other projects and I stumbled across doing some e-commerce websites, and I got familiar with doing Google AdWords. That lead to search engine optimization, Google AdWords, Facebook Ads, and running social media calendars. 

I was having great success with these strategies that I was working on and building through time. Some friends or family members started to approach me and say, "Can you give me a website for my business? We liked what you were doing; let's kind of see what you can do for us." 

These strategies were working at a local level and at the national level. Actually, it’s easier at a local level, because there's not as much competition. 

So, I started having success with that and it quickly turned into family members who had businesses, became my testimonials, or my case studies. I was able to then get new business through referral. That's how I got started with it: I tapped my own network, did the work well, and was able to use that to leverage new business. 

Q: What are some of the biggest changes that you've seen since you started that MMA blog in 2009? Technology changes at warp-speed, so in the online marketing space, what have you experienced in terms of changes? 

A lot of the changes I've seen are from the platforms growing. Search engine optimization used to be something where you could just do what they call "keyword stuffing." If you wanted to rank for a certain keyword, you could just put a bunch of that same keyword on a page and you would rank. That's changed, because now there are so many more websites out there. So everyone's doing that, and now you've got to find new techniques, and new ways to do it. 

The same thing with Google AdWords. The pay-per-clicks have gone up a lot, because more people are using those channels. Facebook advertising is still relatively new and it's just gotten even more acknowledgment in the media world, because of everything that's just happened. So, we can still kind of consider the Internet to be new. 

There are a lot of unknown territories and directions that we can go. We're all learning and it's constantly changing and evolving. There's just so much more competition that you've got to come up with new strategies, and the platforms have become a lot more advanced. 

Q: I'd like to explore that a little bit more. For your peers, what should they be focusing on, in terms of skills they need to be honing or new platforms that they need to be becoming more adept at using? 

With how the marketing world is changing, it's a content-first world. You've got to build this customer loyalty. If you're selling a service or a product, you want to provide the information to the potential customer, what it is that you have that leads to it. You can put content out there in the form of video or blog posting, and be able to share that. 

The two top converting platforms right now are still Facebook and Instagram. If you're able to meet your customers at least on those two channels, as well as having a blog to explain what your business is, because that will help bring in keywords and maybe some backlinking to boost it; start with those. 

You don't need to be on every single channel. You just want to be able to meet them on at least the two biggest channels. I recommend tapping those three sources and provide information about yourself and your service. 

Q: There are many platforms, and it seems like new ones popping up every day. Obviously, it's better to go where your audience is and Facebook and Instagram are where they are. It seems like a lot of people feel compelled to be on as many platforms as they possibly can, almost like the shiny object syndrome, "There's this new thing; I have to do it." What is your advice for people who feel like they're getting spread too thin? 

Realistically, it's because they are getting spread too thin when you're trying to keep up with all the new trends. Coming from a business perspective, you look at the analytics and ask, "Where's my engagement coming from? Where am I getting the most clicks, the likes, the shares?" I would focus on those and chop off the ones that you think you're getting spread too thin on. Because you're wasting valuable time or effort that you could be putting towards something else to just try to keep up with these other channels to maybe meet a small percent of your client base. 

Q: So you focus your efforts where there's the likelihood that you're going to get the biggest return on that investment? 

Exactly; just make sure to keep checking on that and making sure that your engagement is there, because it can change. 

Going back to the idea of how this world is evolving and new technology, one platform could be big now, and in two years it could be a different one. Keep an eye on it and make sure you know where you're actually getting the best benefit. 

Q: You mentioned analytics and following this data-driven approach. What are some of the key performance metrics that you use, and what platforms or tools do you use to gather data and analyze those metrics? 

That really depends on the approach. If it's paid outreach, look at your cost per conversion and your cost per click, because if your cost for conversion is too high, there's already going to be something wrong there. Always look at it from the monetary standpoint. 

For social media, do the posting and look at engagement; see what posts are working, what posts aren't working. 

I take a different approach than most: I actually track through my own spreadsheet. I'll give a score to posts that I think were better or worse, and how they did. And I'll go back at the end of the month and review those scores. It's just a method that I found to work. 

Q: The only wrong way is one that doesn't work for you. 

Right, and I just feel that the analytic software is -- it's data driven, but they don't understand how people are responding to a certain question. So, if you're asking a more human-type question than one that's systematic, those programs aren't going to be able to tell you that. That's something that it's easier to keep track of by going through and judging those type of posts … and constantly seeing if you're going up, what pages were doing better, and focusing on where those numbers are going. 

Q: With Reach Digital, you focus on, primarily, helping local businesses? 

Local and small businesses. We started locally and have now grown into doing some business at the national level, but we've got a lot of local businesses. 

Q: To what extent do you find that small business who tend to do business locally, have more limited resources? How does that affect how you start to help them?

That's one of the reasons they'll approach us. A small business might not have the resources to hire someone in-house for marketing. So we're able to offset those costs. Often they're saying, "We want to be on social media; we want to be on blogs; our expertise is focusing on the business; we want someone else to handle the online efforts." 

Working with us is a way to offset the cost of getting someone with knowledge. They don't have to train, they don't have to get benefits, and so that's kind of where we found that connection point with local businesses. 

Q: Can you describe for me who your ideal client would be? 

Our ideal client is someone who has a little bit of knowledge of online marketing, already started to attempt it, and is looking for repairs and someone to monitor it. So we're kind of looking for that now, companies with semi-established to established online presence. 

Q: When you have a conversation with a potential client who has some knowledge, and has attempted it on their own, do you find that they come to you with a better sense of where their limitations are, where their needs are, and where their particular pain points are? 

Oh, yeah, 100%. When they've actually rolled up their sleeves and attempted it and have got it going, they know where their weakness is and where they need help. They also have a better idea of the message that's going to connect better socially with their customer base from actually trying it. So, it's not as much of a learning period. For us, as a business, we're able to go in there, talk with them, get their knowledge that they've already learned from their client base, and then apply that to help correct those challenges. 

Q: What are the typical questions that they ask you when you have that first conversation? 

They actually all range. Some of them say, "We know what we're doing, but can you just help us schedule?" Or, "Can you show us how this will bring us ROI (return on investment)?” 

That's one of the biggest things. With online marketing, a lot of companies have a hard time seeing how social media can bring a return on investment. That's when we tell them that, “Let's look at the analytics, let us show you where your traffic is coming from, and let's set up some type of conversion campaign to show you that people are calling or signing up.” That's really what they're looking for. 

Q: When you're looking at metrics like cost-per-conversion, that gets right at their bottom-line.

Right. So they're able to see exactly what's going on, if it's making them money. Because, if it's not making them money, they don't want to pay us. We have to show them that what we're doing is working. 

Q: You have a Chief Barketing Officer; tell me about him. 

That's my good boy. Actually, it's his birthday today. 

Congratulations! Happy birthday. 

I'll be sure to pass it along. So, yeah, my dog Bear is a black Lab mixed with a Newfoundland, so he's a big boy, and he keeps the spirits up. He makes sure that everyone is happy (when he's not sleeping), he's always got a toy in his mouth, and he gives us some good suggestions [laughter]. 

Q: Having a Lab around the office is always a good idea, I think. 

Oh, yeah. It keeps morale high! 

Q: As you're paying attention to what's happening in the marketing space, you see organizations that do some things that you think, "Wow; that was really brilliant." And then you also see others do things where you just feel like smacking your forehead and going, "What were they thinking?" Tell me about something that fits the latter category, where you wonder where their brains were on that day. 

People are starting to take Twitter a lot more seriously than they did a couple of years ago. You'll see now a lot of gaffs on there. They say something that may offend a group of people, and the next thing you know it's a public relations nightmare. I'm seeing people and businesses making that problem. Then having another problem cleaning up that problem, either by over-addressing it (and upsetting other people because they over-addressed it), or not addressing it at all. 

Everything is about finding that middle ground. In social media, now, with the way everything is going, is like stepping on glass. A lot of companies are starting to realize that they shouldn't have said something. And especially recently, that's really the biggest thing. I'm like, "What are you guys doing? Filter.” 

Q: The feedback that you get when you misstep, as an individual or as an organization, can be swift and severe. 

Right. Public opinion can crush you. 

Q: Yeah, it seems like there are examples of that in the headlines just about every day. Let's flip that around; for an organization that's done something in the online marketing space that was really quite clever, have you seen any where you said, "Oh, I need to make a note of that; that was brilliant?"

Yeah. A lot of it is becoming these grassroots campaigns, especially with e-commerce, how people are tying in with social media influencers. I've seen a lot of really funny campaigns that they've mixed in their products with an influencer and it’s gone viral. I always kind of take note of what the campaign was, how they did it, and just something to keep in my back pocket if I feel that I have a similar product. You've just got to be funny and it's got to connect with the audience. It's amazing how quickly something can go viral. 

Q: Are there any that are particularly memorable for you? 

There are so many. There's a phone case company that every time they put out a video, it was just using real-world situations that people could really relate to: Dropping your phone or leaving your phone on top of the car, or needing to take a selfie. It was a self-adhesive phone case that could stick to surfaces and it was just using those situations like walking by a mirror wall and they just stuck it on there and took a picture. It was really creative how they tied in actual people’s situations to connect consumers with their product 

Key advice

Q: What advice do you give to CEOs or business owners when you're advising them on how to increase their return on investment for their online marketing programs?

When it comes to social media marketing, it's:

  • Stay consistent with what you're doing
  • Stick to the brand message
  • Never stop marketing, because once you stop marketing, you're going to stop getting sales and you're going to stop getting leads.

The importance of testing

And another thing I tell them is to constantly A/B test, which is split testing.

  • Try different headlines.
  • Try different subject lines.
  • Make sure you're mixing it up, because you never know what message will stick. It could be one word that could change the complete engagement of an entire campaign. So always test to find that right messaging.

Online Marketing Tools 

Q: Are there particular tools that you use to do that split testing, or any other testing, to continue to improve the ROI? 

For email marketing, MailChimp has an option for you to do that (split test). If it's building landing pages, there are a couple of companies (Leadpages and UnBounce) that already have those options built in. Whatever program you're using, just check to see if they have an option for you to be able to test different headlines, different subject lines, different blocks of text, images, all of that. 

Q: How big is the Reach Digital team now? 

We have four people who are full time and we have a couple that freelance for us on some bigger projects. Five if you want to include my Chief Barketing Officer.

 Well, you got to include him. You have to feed him, so he needs to work, too. 

Right, there you go. 

Q: Are you guys all co-located or are you geographically disbursed? 

We are a mix; it just depends on the service. We are a mix, because with it being a digital world now, everyone doesn’t need to be working in one location. We've found that we have some better employees that we've worked with who are located in different parts of the country and it's just easier to keep them working from their location. 

Q: That's another one of those big things that's changed in the last decade that you don't have to all be in the same building and the same room to do work really well. 

Right. We've found that using Google Hangouts, you can video chat with everyone at one time, so if you need to have a meeting, click of a button. 

Management Tools 

Q: What are some other tools that you use to effectively manage the team? 

We use a project management tool called Asana. It's just really easy to keep our clients in there. We'll give our clients the connection to it and they can see the projects they're working on. Everyone can effectively communicate and it's a really good way to stay focused. 

Another tool that we use for our back end and CRM is Zoho One. 

Those are the two main ones that keep us on our path. 

The Future: Voice, Video, Bots, and AI 

Q: We talked about changes since you started in the online marketing space almost 10 years ago. Look 10 years into the future, where do you see that space going and what should we be doing to prepare ourselves to be effective as we move into the future? 

A lot of the future is going to go to voice and video. Most of the Google searches right now are being done on voice. So, it's preparing those new search keywords to work that way. 

Another part will be messenger bots. Having messenger bots using artificial intelligence technology is allowing small businesses to compete with big business. They're able to build these messenger bots through Facebook and other tools that are allowing them to, almost, build out a full support staff, to where they can really have all the customers’ questions answered. 

They don't need to have these big rooms of customer service reps, and it keeps the customer happy because they're able to handle business without leaving the app. 

Voice, video, and artificial intelligence are where I see us going. In 10 years, who knows; look how much technology's advanced in the last 10. So, I can only imagine the next 10. 

Q: It could be both scary and very exciting, with a lot of opportunities. 

Right. It's going to be a roller coaster! 

Q: Are you strapped in and ready for the ride? 

Oh, yeah. I love it. 

Going back into your history a little bit, you got a bachelor's degree in media and information from Michigan State. Any chance you'll go to the University of Michigan for a master's program [laughter]? 

Our family is divided. My entire family went to the University of Michigan, and my sister and I are the only two to go to Michigan State. We've had that in-house rivalry for a while, and it's been great, because Michigan State, athletically, has been on top the last six or seven years now. It's been good that I've been winning the argument. 

Q: That's wonderful; congratulations. I was at an event recently with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and he's from Lansing (Michigan) and is a big fan. So he was singing the school’s and the team's praises. So I think he's there as much as he can to cheer on the Spartans. 

Some of the best experiences of my life.

Online Marketing for Local Businesses 

Q: There you go, that's perfect. Reach Digital focuses primarily on five areas of work, in which you're able to help small business owners:

  • Local marketing
  • Website maintenance
  • Facebook advertising
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Business listing management

Tell me about business listing management. What is that? 

Business listing management is where, if you have a business, it will be in any of the business directories: Yelp, Citymapper, Google, My Business, Bing Places, Yahoo, there's so many different directories. 

A big, big thing about that with your search engine optimization on a local level, especially, is having yourself listed correctly in all these directories. 

There's something call the NAP, which stands for “Name, Address, Place.” Search engines want to make sure that the name, address, and place are correct for all the businesses listed, that is, all the business directories that you're in. 

If it's incorrect, they see inconsistencies and it's harder for them to score it. It's harder for them to give you that trust score or ranking, because they see that there's some inconsistency. So it's good to be consistent across the board. 

Another thing we're able to do is monitor reviews that come across those listings. If you get a bad review, we're able to let you know so you can respond to it. If you get a good review, we're also able to let you know, so you can thank them and be engaged with your client base. 

Q: I would think that would a critically important service, and a strategic investment that small business owners could make to continue to build those key relationships and manage their online reputation. 

Yes, online reputation is very important. A lot of people will look at reviews before they even decide to call you, and it's just that extra trust factor. So, you want to make sure that you're on top of it. 

Q: In terms of your overall business, how would you rank order those areas of work in terms of where the team spends the majority of the effort and time? 

Regeneration Campaigns 

For the majority of our effort and time, we do a lot of regeneration campaigning. Which is, if someone's got a service to offer or a product to sell, we're trying to get them leads, so they can call. A lot of our time and effort is spent building those landing pages, and then running page campaigns, mainly through Facebook advertising to send traffic to generate those leads. The main effort is testing and building those pages, and building out those campaigns. 

Q: When you do that, do you manage the CRM on your end, or do you use the CRM and relationship management tools that your customers already use? 

We will integrate within their CRM. We'll have it set up to where those leads are going to go right into the clients’ systems. Their ads are all run into their own ad managers. 

We're not like a normal agency where we'll say, "Okay, you’re going to spend $1,000 a month, and we're going to hit you with 10% on top of it," or something like that. We say, " It's in your ad manager. Those campaigns are yours. Once we're done creating it, it's yours, and we run it.” We'll optimize it, but everything is through their programs. 

Q: To what extent are you agnostic about whatever platforms they're using?

Really good question. There are a lot of these programs and platforms. Most of our clients are using the bigger CRM platforms, and point of service systems that we've had experience with. A lot are using Salesforce, Zoho, and Lightspeed, which is a point of service, point of sale system.

Q: Your team is capable of helping them regardless of how they've implemented on their end?

We'll tie into either their email marketing platform, or we'll tie into a web form that was created within their CRM. That web form will link to their system. We will format that form to have the same name to match, so if something is typed in on that form, and they hit submit, it will automatically be properly implemented into that lead form. It's really matching the field names that they already have set up.

Q: Jake, what have I not asked you that I should have?

Let’s touch on the local business aspect. If someone has a new business, one that's struggling, I can help them get that domain name, web hosting, or a contact management system that they should probably be looking at to use.

Q: Sounds like they need to give you a call.

They should.

Q: If you've got a small business and you need help getting online, or you've already gone online to increase your marketing, and you've realized that you need some expertise and some more horsepower, Reach Digital sounds like a really great place to go. How do they get in touch with you?

Jun 2, 2018

I'd like to share strategic communication and stakeholder engagement lessons from the commandant of the Marine Corps.

So to set the stage, in Washington D.C. the Marine Barracks Washington is downtown. If you've ever heard of 8th and I, that's Marine Barracks. It's the oldest post of the Corps. As the oldest post of the Corps, they do something very special every Friday evening during the summer called the evening parade. And according to their website, the parade has become a universal symbol of the professionalism, the discipline, and the Espirit de Corps of the United States Marines. The story of the ceremony reflects the story of Marines serving throughout the world. Whether aboard ship, in foreign embassies, at recruit depots, or in divisions, or in the many positions and places where Marines project their image, the individual marine continually tells the story of the Marine Corps. 

So the evening parade, let me paint a picture for you. You pull up and immediately, even though you're on the streets of Washington, D.C. and it's really crowded, lots of traffic. You're immediately met by a group of Marines who are in their full-service dress. The white hat, the blue jacket, the white pants, and they're just exquisite. They've got all their medals and they meet you, they park you, they bring you in, and they're very, very welcoming and professional. I was able to go to a VIP reception that the commandant hosted for about 200 people. He gave remarks and he also introduced the guest of honor, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and then there were 3 other congressional members who participated that evening, along with about 24 NCAA coaches. And those two groups are really important. There were many other people there that night. And then typically, after the reception which lasts about an hour and a half, out on the parade deck there are bleachers that hold probably 2,000 people, and they give an hour and fifteen-minute performance where they have Chesty XIV, who is the current mascot of Marine Barracks Washington. He's an English bulldog, he has all of his uniform and decorations on, all of his medals and awards. The silent drill team which is just absolutely astonishing in their precision and the Marine Band also gives a performance including numbers by John Phillip Sousa, one of the most famous Marine Band leaders.

So altogether, it's an evening where you get to experience the Marine Corps on parade, but you also get to engage with both enlisted and officer marines. So during the reception, we had both officers and really junior enlisted marines come up and ask us how we were doing, welcomed us to the Barracks, talked about their role in the Marine Corps. They are very much steeped in their tradition in history and it gives you a very personal welcome and really heartwarming experience, being part of that whole evening. After the performance, the members of the VIP reception were able to take photos with the Commandant and his wife, with the drill team, with the mascot, and with some of the bandsmen. It's a really wonderful evening and lasts a couple hours. 

So here's some strategic communication lessons. For the purpose of this exercise, I'm talking about strategic communication in terms of the stakeholder engagement that affects your organization's ability to survive and thrive. I'm not talking about media relations, I'm not talking about broad public engagement. I'm talking about focusing on those stakeholders who have some kind of really important effect on your organization and its ability to exist and continue to operate. So the lens I would like to share with you, that we'll look at this through, is, and if you're a marketer, you're familiar with AIDA, A-I-D-A, which is an acronym that stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. So if you think about this being a funnel, at the very widest, open part of the funnel is attention. You have to get somebody's attention. Once you've got their attention, you have to create interest in what it is you're doing, your organization has to offer, whether it's a product or a service. Then you have to move them from interest to desire. You want them to, in the case of sales marketing, you want them to buy your product or purchase your service. In the case of the Marine Corps, you probably need to attract recruits, and there are other things that the Corps depends on as well. And finally, once you have that attention leading to interest leading to desire, you want them to take action. 

So in this case, there are three groups of people who are there participating. You have the Congressional members, you have coaches, and you have members of the public. All three of those are important for the future of the Marine Corps. So for the Congressional members, what does the Marine Corps, like every other government organization, rely on from Congress? One of the main things is funding. So that night we had the House Majority Leader and three other members of Congress. Through that process, they have a better understanding of the Marine Corps. They certainly have a positive impression of the professionalism and discipline and the polish of the Marines, and that probably leads them to be predisposed to positively supporting the Marines when they put in their funding request. 

Same thing with the coaches. These are NCAA coaches from a lot of different sports, from, I believe, that night were Division 3 coaches from around the country. Those coaches, whether they are just coaching or they're coaching and they're teaching on campus, are interacting with students and with parents, and they are in a prime position to make recommendations and suggestions for avenues that the students might follow for the rest of their careers. Being able to recommend the United States Marine Corps only serves to drive talented, professional, disciplined, young people to the recruiters. That also helps the Marine Corps because they're always looking for new enlisted and officer recruits, and to have the parents also being exposed to the Marine Corps in this very positive setting, that gives another voice to recommend the Marine Corps as a potential career path for young people. 

If you think about what the Marine Corps is entirely dependent on, they're dependent on recruits and funding. Those are the two big things. So over the course of one summer season, you could have all of the members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees that play a major role in determining the funding for all the military services, you could have most of the professional staff members that work on those funding packages, you could have most of the members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees for Defense also participating. And so if you have just the majority of them coming through over the course of a couple of years, now you've reminded them of who the Marine Corps is, what role they play in national security and national defense, why that investment in the Marine Corps is important. You also have touched thousands and thousands of either potential recruits or influencers of recruits, whether they're parents or teachers or coaches. And so those become positive voices to represent the Marine Corps when young people are trying to making a decision about what path they are going to follow in life. So if you think about this from a marketing perspective, in terms of creating influence and positive impressions and getting these groups of people to help you with your messaging to those who are potential recruits and new members of the Marine Corps or to those who make funding decisions about the Marine Corps's budget, the evening parade throughout the summer is a fantastic way to do it.

So, is that an opportunity that's only open to the Marine Corps? Absolutely not. Every organization could do that. The United States Army does it with their Twilight Tattoos in Washington, both of which, if you are in Washington or come for a visit, make sure that you see one of those events because they're absolutely spectacular. But if you think about it, any organization, whether it's a school or a manufacturing company or a services company, could take an opportunity to create some kind of personal experience, personal engagement with the stakeholders that are most strategically important to your organization.

So for me, that's the takeaway. It's understand who your strategic stakeholders are and why they are so important to you and your organization. Find ways to connect with them that are meaningful and that help to build understanding, and in the AIDA model, they build attention, they create interest, they create desire, and ultimately, they can lead to action that is mutually beneficial for you and your organization and your stakeholders.

So that's the lesson for today. I hope you find it valuable. I really want you to get as much value out of this podcast or video series as possible, and I want to know what you have questions about, so if you have a question about public relations, marketing, organizational communication, drop me a line at If you have a question about this episode or about the field in general, let me know. Also if you want to nominate a guest for the podcast, drop me a line. Again it's I'd love to hear from you, and finally, before we close out, I want to remind you about my transcription partner. They've got a great 25% off deal. Just go to I'll catch you on the next episode. Thanks a lot.

May 22, 2018

The most important thing with PR is asking your clients what business results they want to achieve. And then reverse engineering a PR program around that.

Welcome to another episode of Better PR Now.

This episode is sponsored by our official transcription partner, If you'd like to see an example of their terrific work, check out the "notes" page on the Better PR Now website. For a 25% discount on their services, go to

Today, we're fortunate to be joined by Curtis Sparrer, principal at Bospar in San Fransisco. Bospar recently won the PR Week Boutique Agency of the Year award. Congratulations and welcome, Curtis.

Thanks. Thanks for having me.

So, as we jump in, I'd like to find out about how people got into public relations, how they started their career in communication. You graduated from UT Austin with a degree in Radio, Television, and Film. What's happened between graduation and ending up in San Fransisco as a principal at one of the nation's leading agencies?

Well, I think what happened in the short term is I got smart. But the long-term is a much more complicated story. I went to LA, worked for Roger Corman. He's a famous B-movie producer and discovered that I just did not have the patience to pay my dues in Hollywood. When I was going to school at UT Austin, I worked as a video film editor for the local TV stations, and I used that skill to go back into news. And my first job as a producer was in Toledo, Ohio. I cut my teeth as a producer there for about three years rising up the ranks and even moonlighting as a restaurant critic and advice columnist. I then moved to Huston where I worked the overnight show there. And then I got an amazing offer to produce the 9 PM news at [inaudible] in San Fransisco. I worked there. I won a regional Emmy. And I was promoted to the executive producer. And then as I kind of ended my career at [inaudible], I was faced with the choice that I could either move to a different city, or I could change my career trajectory so I could stay with my friends. And I gave it a long thought and determined that it would be best if I took all my skills and applied them somewhere else. I applied at a lot of different PR firms thinking that would be the best use of my skillset. And I was really surprised by the obnoxious response of a lot of people.

How so [laughter]?

I got some responses like, "Oh, I couldn't possibly qualify to do PR. It was far too complex." "Oh, PR is just so difficult and you would not just understand it." A lot of self-satisfied responses about how complex PR was. And I didn't get a lot of encouragement. I answered a Craigslist ad for a PR position, an internship really, and I met this woman named Kris [Balkie?]. And after Chris and I had a very long conversation, she called me back and said, "I don't want to do an internship. I want to get married. I want to hire you as our senior associate and I want to get things started." And so I started as a senior associate and started learning, very quickly. And I learned that a lot of people in PR were really good at telling clients no. And I decided that my fastest route for survival would be learning how to tell clients yes. And I I treated clients like anyone would treat a television anchor, with the utmost respect, and I learned that really paid off well. I also learned that a lot of times the press release material that clients were trying to get in the media was not useful for any journalist having both been a TV producer and also having been a writer.

So before we go any further. Why was it not useful? Was there a pattern there?

Yeah. It was. A lot of the content was jargon-heavy. A lot of the content was something that would not fit in any kind of current narrative or current story that journalists were already talking about. It was very tone deaf. A lot of the content was just tone deaf and it was as if a bunch of marketers were thinking I want to have this content run in TechCrunch without really bothering to think well, what is TechCrunch right now? What's important to them? And so my point to all our clients was that we needed to understand what our journalist contacts were working on and then reverse engineer our story so we would better match their priorities.

That sounds a lot like in the startup community where people are tempted to-- they have an idea and they say, "This is a really cool thing. Let me go find a market for it." As opposed to looking at the market, seeing where the pain points are where people are having challenges, and then coming up with a solution for those challenges.


Just because I have a story I want to tell in a certain way doesn't mean that anybody is going to be interested in hearing it.

That's exactly it. And that's the problem that a lot of companies have and they kind of-- the expression, of course, is drink their own cool-aid but it's kind of a reality distortion field where they seem to think that the news that's important to them will be important to other people and the thing that I try to tell our clients is that's not the case. And I even been so much as vulgar to one client and I said, "Knowing a plot until you masturbate [laughter]."

That's true.

So the client was

And how did the client take it?

-- like, "That is pretty stark but point taken.

So were you able to convince them to take a different path?

I have. I have been able to convince a lot of clients that the crazy thing they want to do is not really what they want to achieve and I think the most important thing with PR is asking your clients what business results they want to achieve and then reverse engineering a PR program around that. And I also counsel our clients that just because a story is published doesn't mean your target is going to see it and that you need to take that story and put it in front of your target's face so that the can actually see it. And I think it's resonated with me more now than ever since I'm a principal at my own firm and I use PR as our principal means of business development.

Yeah. That's absolutely true and what you're talking about is helping them shift from focusing on tactics which is where all the bright shiny objects are to focusing on a more strategic level what do you want to achieve? And then, figuring out from there okay, how do we get there?

Absolutely. And I find that when I do that that I am providing a much more full-service approach along the PESO model where some clients will say, "Well, I really want the sense at this convention that everyone's talking about us." And then I can say, "Well, that's really not going to be any story placement. What you're going to want is you're going to want to buy advertising space all over that convention so that you are the only thing people see." And  the client's like, "That's what I want to do. You're right." And sometimes it's a   matter about counseling a client out the bead idea. I remember one client wanted to have a press conference and if you're Facebook or Google or Apple you can probably do that but when you're a startup that's impossible. And so I had to work very hard to not insult the client but to convince him that that was going to provide the results he was looking for.

Yep. That's absolutely right. And frankly, that's really challenging sometimes.

That is really challenging sometimes and I think that it's one of the big things that all agencies and all people of marketing really face.

Yeah. Absolutely. As you've been around the public relations world for a while you've seen people execute in ways that I'm sure are just [eyewateringly?] stunningly brilliant and you've seen I'm sure people do the opposite where they fall on their faces. And I'm not asking you to out anybody [laughter] but can you describe an example where somebody did something just incredibly dumb in public relations. And the reason is I think there's a teachable moment and good lessons for all of us every time we see something like that happen.

You know, I think everyone has done something really stupid that they regretted. For me, when I think of all the dumb things I have done, I think the stupidest thing I ever did is I was trying to get a story placed because I had a crush on someone and I thought that this would be helpful and I had the whole backstory with the journalist about the crush and how great it was. And so finally the journalist coughed up the story and I was so excited about it that I forwarded the whole thread to said crush without realizing that I forwarded the whole thread to the [crush?] [laughter].

Talk about being transparent.


Yeah. Yeah. How'd that work out?

Well, let's say I'm not married to them [laughter].

Okay. Got it. Got it. Okay. So flip it around. What's the most brilliant thing that you've ever done in your career or that you've seen somebody else do?

You know, I will probably think of the brilliant things a lot later as I'm doing something else mundane and boring. I think one of the prouder yet smaller things I did is I was faced with this press release that needed approval from this marketing company and everyone from the marketing company had gone home for the day. Their New York line was closed, their San Francisco line was closed and I really was beginning to panic until I realized that this marketing firm was an international marketing firm. So I called their Australian affiliate. They were up. They were just starting their day and they managed to approve the whole thing. And while that not a, 'Oh, my God. I'm the next Einstein," sort of thing, it's that kind of thinking that has saved me time and time again where we get in the mode of thinking in just a very narrow, narrow focus and I think the more that you can expand your thinking and expand your approach the better you're going to do.

Yeah. I think you're absolutely right there. You recently wrote a blog post on the [inaudible] blog about how audience targeting is changing in the age of digital transformation. In that article, you talked about turning brand ambassadors into influence. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

You know, when it comes to turning brand ambassadors to influencers it's all about increasing their reputation and their footprint. It's not just a matter of them to be kind of these solitary people who are working on their own. You really need to promote them as you would promote any brand or company. And you need to do your very best to amplify what they're saying, so that more people will see it and more people will see them as a respected third party who's credible.

Yeah. That's absolutely wonderful. If you were talking to your younger self, as you [laughter] were getting ready to finish college and start your career, what advice would you give yourself? Or what advice would you give young people who are just getting started or contemplating a career in communications?

Take more Botox; take more Propecia [laughter].

I've never heard that advice before. It's usually about "Hey, take more of these kind of classes." But, okay.

I take them as an important thing that you can do is take an internship because  I think that everything is good in theory. But learning about something, that scholastic environment versus doing it are two different things entirely. And I think if I could have done something differently with how I was approaching that, I would have brought in the scope of my internships. I focused very heavily on a journalism set internships. And I wish I had done a public relations or marketing internship because I think that would have given more experience in the other side. And maybe I would have started off with PR instead of broadcast news.

Just because the economics that are happening now, there are so many people moving from journalism into public relations. So that transition that you did, there are a lot of people doing the same thing. And so you look around the field of PR practitioners, and there are lots and lots of former journalists. People with journalism degrees, who, for whatever reason, made that change.

Absolutely. And one of the things that I find is that I frequently counsel people who are looking to make the switch. And how they can do it and what they can do. And my number one advice to media people, journalists who are trying to transition to PR, is to start doing charity work. So that you can get your toes wet, and you could really get an understanding of how it works. And I also recommend that they start taking informational interviews. And finally, I recommend that they work at an agency, and they don’t go too big too quickly. I think the biggest example of a kind of Icarus falling situation was with one CNBC reporter was brought in to this war between Facebook and Google over privacy concerns. And it was revealed that the former journalist was trying to get people to place contributed content under various names of reporters that would raise privacy concerns about the two companies. And it just blew up in a space in spectacular fashion. And I think if he had been in PR longer, that would not have happened to him.

Yeah. I mean, it sounds like the ethics lessons that we learned as we're studying public relations or earning our accreditation, ethics is a major component to that. And that would have helped, I think, stir that person away from whatever temptation there was to take that shortcut.

I think there are a lot of marketers who want PR people to practice theblack arts. And I've always advised marketing people who brought that up that generally, there's always have a habit of blowing up in your face and just making you look bad, for lack of a better word. And I have recommended often that you should just stir away from that. That's just something that's going to haunt you. It's always the cover-up that's worse than the crime.

Oh, that's absolutely true. And it always comes out.

It always does.

Whatever it is, It will always eventually come out, and it will be worse.


What's your perspective on the importance of relationships in public relations practice [laughter]?

It's only the second word in public relations [laughter]. I think that media relationships are so important because they give you a sense of what you can and can't do in a story. And they really give you the reality check you need outside of your experience with the client. And so I make sure that I attend journalism conference every year. I'm a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. Your listeners may have been able to figure that out themselves by the butch tone of my voice [laughter]. But I find that being able to talk to journalists on a regular basis is the best way to inform a strategy and then come up with creative ideas. And so I encourage every one of my colleagues to meet journalists, to take them out for lunch, breakfast, dinner, drinks, whatever. And to really get to understand what they're up against professionally and personally, as well as understand what sort of story narratives are really important. And I find that those relationships are key in really making some stories really work well for our clients.

That's right. You mean, you talked earlier about knowing what stories they're following or what they're interested in. And in reverse engineering, your plans to fit that when you only know if you're talking with them.


And you can only intuit, or even better, have them tell you, "Hey, here's what we're lookin for. Do you have anything that would fit?

Absolutely. And during a crisis situation, having one of the journalist friendlies to go and help you with your response or your reaction. Or even as a sandbox the testing's out is critical.

Yeah. Yeah. I think that's spot on. When you think about this as a career, like any career, there are challenges. It's hard. It's busy. I know in every job I've ever had in communications, there's way more to do tha you can possibly get done in a day. What keeps you inspired? When you wake up in the morning, and you think about going to work, what really gets you psyched up to go and tackle everything again, one more day?

The fear of being homeless [laughter].

You're very practical.

No, I'm kidding. I think that the thing that makes me most excited is when we do something wacky or crazy that just might work, and it does. I think that when I hear my colleagues achieve something that they didn’t think they could do, I love being a part of that. Or saying that, I love cheerleading. I like to see people excited about what they're doing. And I like to see people overwhelmingly happy and feeling realised with what they're doing, and how they're doing it. So ultimately, I'm very, I guess, platonic, if you will, in the sense that I believe the end goal of life is to be happy and if people are getting that happiness out of their work, then I'm happy too.

Yeah. Yeah, I think that's right. And if you think about, sort of, the real essence of public relations, it's to help organisations have better relationships with the publics that they depend on and that depend on them, and as a result, things should be better for everybody, everybody should be happier if we're really effective at doing our jobs.

Absolutely. And so that, generally, is what gets me going. I think what is the challenging part of this job is that I get that what we're doing is of real value, and because what we're doing is of real value and is transformative and has the opportunity to make sales and make budgets happen, that there sometimes is high anxiety and high pressure and sometimes nerves are rattled and sometimes tempers get really, really, kind of, out of control. And so I bring that to bear when I'm working with these people who are some brilliant executives, some brilliant minds and sometimes are really needing PR to be transformative in their business designs, and I get that.

If there was one thing that you could do better, what would it be?

Everything [laughter]. I recently had a colleague call me and she was complaining about an email I sent that it wasn't deep enough, it wasn't thoughtful enough, and I'm not going to out her, and I said, sometimes I just suck, and I just suck because sometimes there's just not enough time to be as good as I need to be or as you need me to be. And so I think that if I had anything, it would be more time in a given day, and I know that's pretty pat and cliche, but I think that that is the one thing that you need in order to do your best work. That said, I think the thing that annoys me the most is people who let perfection be the enemy of the good and will sit on things forever, and ever, and ever til the moment is lost. I remember one colleague who met a journalist who said she was interested in any kind of pitch, and that colleague took two months perfecting her email [laughter] to the journalist until she sent it. And the journalist probably forgot who she was and never responded. And so I'm a big believer in get things out quickly, and fail quickly, and improve quickly.

Yeah. I think that's right. The nature of the business we're in, those windows of opportunity close pretty quickly. And if you're spending too much time on perfection, the window of opportunity is closed.

Yeah. I was a journalist and I didn't have time for you to come up with your Gettysburg Address. I just needed someone to cobble together five sentences so I could get it out and meet deadline. And I think a lot of marketers will fool themselves into thinking that if they write the Magna Carta or something, that that's really going to move the needle for them, and it's not that which is going to help them, it's being responsive and being quick.

Sure. So there's that time component. There's also the expectation of what it is the journalist might need from us. They don't necessarily need us to write their story for them. They might just need a quote, or some facts, or something that allows them to complete their story on deadline.

Yep. And I can tell you as a journalist that that's so important. I think the other thing that I'm seeing is since I'm writing for a variety of outlets as well, I'm seeing some very lazy pitching. I had this one person pitch me this story, and she wrote, "Thought you might be interested in this," and slapped the press release, and that was it.

No personalization. No doing some homework, trying to figure out why you might actually be interested in it and making that obvious to you.

I mean, in this very interview, Mark, you have shown that you have looked at my blog entries, my LinkedIn profile; you've done your homework. And this PR person did nothing. And so, I wrote back and said, "Why?" And I forced her e-mail after e-mail after e-mail to do the work that she should have done from the beginning. And I know that that's not possible in every pitch. I know that that's not something that can   scale, but I do think that a lot of our new crop of PR people are needing to put in a lot more energy and a lot more thought in what they write. And so, whereas, I'm seeing that more and more on those bar, for example, and of course I can plug my own company, I have seen a lot of people—

This is a plug-friendly space [laughter]. So.

I have seen a lot of people pitch me who clearly have not ever considered what a journalist would need for a pitch to be successful.

You got to know what they need. It's no different than any other business. You have to understand what problem you're solving for somebody, and then make it easy for them to understand how you can solve that problem for them. It's no more difficult than that.

Yeah, it's no more difficult than that. And yet it's still that difficult [laughter].

I hear you.

[crosstalk] with time and just focus.I think even the simple things are hard.

Yes, that's true. We talked about what kind of advice you would give to people starting their careers or to your younger self. What advice would you give or do you give to CEOs or other organizational leaders to help them be more effective in their communications?

Talking to shorter sentences.

Soundbite size.

Very, very true.

I find that a lot of CEOs are brilliant people, and because they're brilliant people, they think in a thought process that almost comes off like an impressionistic painting when they are talking. And yet, for a reporter who is trying to write it all down into short succinct sentences and thoughts, it becomes very difficult. And so, I find that the reporters who come back to me are the ones who've been exposed to CEOs who could speak simply and easily–like you would talk to any regular person at a bar.

Is that more of a problem either sort of the brilliant people talking at a level that other brilliant people can understand or talking in search for [Bossidy?] that it is hard to keep up and extract the good sound bites and good quotes out of. Is that unique to the tech world?

I don't think so. I think the higher up you go, the more likely brilliant you are going to be. And so, I would say that a CEO of Home Depot is going to be just as brilliant as the CEO of an AI company by virtue of all the work and talent required to get there. And I think the challenge they find is that they have been used to speaking in so many different kinds of dialects if you will; professional dialects. And so, whereas I as an AI scientist; might have a AI shorthand for all my researchers. When I'm talking to a journalist who may not have AI as his/her only beat, I'm speaking at a level that they can't possibly understand.

And sometimes, that might actually be okay if the audience speaks the same language. But if the audience doesn't, if you're speaking not to your peers, but you're trying to speak to, say, consumers, it might go right past them.

It absolutely might go right past them. And so I think that that's the real challenge is calibrating it correctly. And also, calibrating in a way that isn't obnoxious. When we trained CEOs and other executives   to talk to journalists, one of the things that we do is we say, "You should put the onus of selling your message on yourself." So instead of saying to the journalist, "Did you understand that," which makes it clear that the journalist might be the idiot in the room, you need to say, "Did I explain that well?”

That's brilliant. So you're keeping ownership and responsibility for communicating.

Absolutely. And one of the ways that this has really kind of come up is, I mentioned we are doing PR for ourselves just like we would do it for any of our clients, we practice what we preach at [inaudible]. And so when I went in to the hot seat to do a TV interview, I really had extra pressure. I wasn't just presenting this as the executive of a company, but I was also doing an interview as a expert in how to do an interview. When I was doing that, I really had to think about how I should take an interview and what are the best practices. And that made me super evaluate everything I did, from what I would eat that day and what I would avoid - like dairy, for example - to how I would stand and how I would react facially, physically to questions because this was on TV. And so I think that when executives are going in front of the camera, they really need to take an extra step to make sure that they are completely ready for the experience because TV interviews are the very interviews that could make you a internet meme forever if you goof it up.

That's right. That's right. If you look 10 years or so into the future, how do you see public relations and marketing changing particularly in the tech space?

think that PR is increasingly going to adopt artificial intelligence. We already use artificial intelligence in a lot of our sales communication. And one of my clients, Conversica, for example, is telling me that probably one in five Americans have already talked to its AI platform. And that's just one company. So if we're looking at one in five Americans talking to AI right now, that number is going to increase where it's a matter of how many times a day we're interacting with AI. And the reason why that'll be important for PR people is in their outbound communication. I mentioned the bad pitch I got from this random PR person. I   suspect that if an AI platform had crafted the pitch, in about 10, 20 years, it'd probably be way better than this person had ever written. And it would be thoughtful and filled with links. And I think that's one of the things that's going to happen is that AI will be increasingly used for outreach. I also think that AI is going to used for analytics that make the current analytics we're using seem like caveman-like drawings by comparison. And I think that while that will be scary for a lot of people, I think that just like any sort of computer or  technological revolution. It's those people who really lean into it who are going to do well. And so my advice to my PR colleagues would be to get smart about AI and understand what it does and what does not. And I think that's going to be the real challenge PR professionals face in the next 20 years. I think the other challenge, of course, is going to be just the variety of outlets. We always hear about outlets shuttering and outlets closing and people being laid off. And I think that that's going to continue to be a part of the PR landscape. And that's also going to be why social platforms are going to continue to grow importance as they replace in some instances the media content that new sites used to have.

Is there anybody out there right now that you're aware of who's leading the charge on using AI for either analytics or for outreach?

I would say when it comes to outreach, one of the companies that is leading the way is a client of mine, and it's called Conversica. And what Conversica is, is a sales assistant. And it will send people emails or text messages about something that they showed interest in. So if you were looking at a car, for example, on a website, you might get an email from someone who says, "Hey. I saw you're looking at this Lexus. And I was wondering if you'll be interested in a test drive? We can schedule something." I think that is going to be adopted more and more for our PR model. I think that it's going to take some further sophistication before we get to the point where a journalist gets a story like, "Hey. I saw you wrote about Battlestar Galactica. I thought you'd be interested in this prequel. Would you like to go and see a reel." But I could very well see the day when that does happen.

Can you see a day when bots are pitching bots [laughter]? That there's AI on both ends, and we don't even have to be part of that.

I do see that. I do see that. And I think that's interesting. And I'm not sure what we'll get. But I would very much like to see that experiment take place. I know that not all AI has worked out. I think the biggest example of AI that kind of blew up was Tay. And that was too bad. It did blow up because of humans were mean. But I think that bots pitching bots will happen. I think the question is, will they produce anything that people will find interesting to read.

On a day-to-day basis, what tools do you use? And these could be hardware or software. What do you rely on to be successful every day?


Don't we all [laughter].

Caffeine, and more and more caffeine. The other tools I rely on-- I really love email [laughter]. And I know it actually sounds very old school.

I've never heard anybody say that.

I do. I love

Seriously. I've never heard anybody say, "I love email.

I find it is effective not only as a means of communication but as a means of a public record, and as a means of organizing projects. And so I can follow a project from start to completion by an email thread. And I can make sure that things happen in a timely fashion. And so I know that there is a rush to go into all sorts of project software. But in my estimation, or at least for me, that seems like an extra step. Whereas the email thread is a perfectly fine way of following a project on how it's going. But I find that when it comes to looking at resources, I'm fond of Harvest. I think Harvest is a very easy way for us to track where time is being spent. It's also good for expenses because who's going to want to get all your receipts. At some point of the day, it's much better to expense as you go. And so Harvest is a great tool for that. I'm very fond of Zoom, and any kind of video conferencing service. And I find it to be so much more superior than any kind of pure audio conference. Because looking at people physically gives you clues and ques. I can tell when someone wants to interrupt me. I can tell when people are bored with me. And that's very useful for someone who probably is on a lot.

That non-verbal feedback really is important.


What have I not asked you about that I should have?

I think that the big question that PR people have to face is not the coming AI invasion. It's really going to be what people read, and how people absorb information. More and more young people are reporting that they are just visual. And they are following Instagram. And they're getting a lot of their content from that. And so as PR people, I think the big challenge is how do we make an impact when words seem to matter less and less. And I think that's why video is going to have a Renaissance. Because if younger people are focusing less and less on words and more and more on pictures, then the best way to reach people will be through video. And that's what I see as important as the years go on.

Curtis, this has been a fantastic conversation. I tell you what, I've learned so much from you.

Shucks. Thanks [laughter].

And that was Texas coming out right there. Thank you so much for being on the Better PR Now podcast. And I look forward to hearing from you in the future. And maybe having you back on.

Mark, I would absolutely love it. And I would love for you to talk to my PR colleagues, too. So let's see what we can work out.

Yeah. Let's make it happen.

Thanks for joining us for episode 14 of Better PR Now. I want to give a shoutout to professor Enrique Planells of the University of Valencia in Spain. He wrote a wonderful note expressing how he was using the podcast as complementary material for his students. He also noted how the podcast was bridging a gap between academia and the professional world. And that really is part of the main intent. Thank you so   much for listening and sharing the podcast Enrique. TranscribeMe is the official transcription partner of this podcast. And listeners can enjoy a 25% discount on transcription services just by visiting PR Now. They really do terrific work. And the turnaround is super fast. If you enjoy this podcast and find it useful, please pay it forward by sharing with a friend so they can get some good news too. I'll see you next time on the next episode of Better PR Now.

Apr 6, 2018

I have a conversation with Jason Anderson, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications at Capital Impact Partners in Washington, DC.

This is the first podcast ever recorded in a Wholefoods Supermarket, and I know it's the first podcast recorded in the Wholefoods Supermarket in Pentagon City, Virginia. The reason we're here today is there's a tap takeover by breweries from Richmond, Virginia, and I'm joined by Jason Anderson, somebody I've known for a long time who is a really fantastic communicator. Jason, welcome to the show.

Thank you, Mark.

So your current position?

I am the Senior Director of Communications and Marketing at Capital Impact Partners.

Fantastic. Now you've had a really fascinating career. We'll talk about your education, and then you worked for CNN. So tell me about how you got into communications and what drove you towards a communications career to begin with?

Yeah. So I grew up in Southern California, and went to Claremont McKenna College where I actually majored in Government and Literature. I actually had an opportunity to attend USC for a broadcasting degree but decided that I wanted to really get the fundamentals of a hardcore political background. Because really my goal at that time was to get into political journalism. And that ultimately fulfilled itself by joining CNN for about 10 years where I literally started as what they called a video journalist, a VJ, at that time. Making roughly $15,000 a year.

Killing it.

Killing it. And there we did everything from running the camera to running the teleprompter with paper scripts. Which is something in this day of digital age if you think about it. And even robotic cameras, which we didn't have back then. But there I saw a number of fascinating things, really cut my teeth on what journalism was. Learned how to edit videotape, learned how to produce a segment and did a whole number of things with them, but ultimately decided after a number of events, ultimately concluding with the Monica Lewinsky episode in Washington DC, that I decided it was time for me to move on and pursue some of my more personal goals along with journalism. Which was at that point thinking about the environment.

That's wonderful. And so after a decade or so at CNN where you focused on political and other reporting, you moved over to the non-profit world. Tell me about that transition.

Yeah. So I saw an opportunity at an organization called Conservation International, which does international, non-profit environmental work in communities all across the world, and the opportunity was to take my journalism skills and apply them to public relations. How do we take the things that we do as an environmental non-profit and translate them into actually what news is, and serious news not just marketing, and talk to reporters about covering that news? So I did that actually for a division of Conservation International which was called the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, and it was really thinking about, how do we work with corporations to reduce their environmental footprint, to contribute to the things that we were doing at Conservation International and translate that all into good. You know ultimately, the public relations part in a sense was marketing, in a sense was how do we drive fundraising, how do we drive other corporations to do good things?  How do we put pressure on the organizations that we're working with to do more good things? But ultimately, it was a really fascinating experience.

And then after Conservation International, you stayed in the non-profit world?

I did. At that point after 10 years of working at the global sphere and working with Fortune 500 companies like McDonald's, like Starbucks, like Walmart to change their footprint and actually do some interesting marketing things with them. I really wanted to focus more in on local communities. And I found a small organization doing really fascinating things called Rare. And they would actually run marketing campaigns in local communities and these are hyper-local communities. Places you've never heard about or can't even find on the map in Indonesia, in Africa, throughout Asia. And what they would do is, they had the ability to take over the radio, take over the newspaper, create mascots around essential message because you have that hyper-local opportunity to not talk about a product, but to talk about environmental conservation. And perhaps it's water, perhaps it's a species, perhaps it's pollution. And you get folks really thinking about ways they can change their practices locally and using mass-media to do that. It was fascinating to watch how that would happen. Now again my job wasn't to do that work. We had specialists with a whole theory of change and the use of psychology, but my job was to get people interested in what we were doing. So again ...

Were they trying to change behavior?

Behaviour change, exactly. That was at the core of it, which you can do in a place like that. Much harder where we are in Pentagon City to get people to recycle the cups that they were drinking from these fine, Virginia breweries. But you can do it in these awful places and getting donors interested in thinking about that was part of my job.

So give me an example of one of the projects that you worked on.

Sure, so we worked in a village in The Philippines where they essentially had no fish, which is a problem when fish is what you rely on to eat. So we had to really go in ...

Was this because of over-fishing?

It's over-fishing. So ...

So you really needed to change that behavior or you'll never fix the problem.

We needed to change the behavior of over-fishing. So we created a mascot called Malloy. And Malloy was sort of central to this media campaign. He appeared in billboards. He appeared in local restaurants. He appeared in the newspaper. He appeared in local parades that you might see down our main streets. And eventually people got the message. I need to think about the fact that I can't go out every day, 24-hour days, and fish. I need to think about okay, how do I fish responsibly with everyone else who needs to feed their families and also maybe some of the companies who are coming in and using us to buy fish to sell to distributors? And eventually, the metrics showed an uptick in that particular region in terms of number of fish available but of course fish take a couple of years to spawn and reproduce and create a viable colony. But we are starting to show that halfways to guess that was happening.

Then you move [inaudible] to Capital Impact Partners. Different mission, but also in a nonprofit world. Tell me about their missions.

Capital Impact was sort of my way to come back home. This is after the great depression, after the big financial crises that we all faced. And I thought to my self, certainly, there's a great [inaudible] outside of our boundaries, but then, in the United States, we have a lot of communities that are suffering, and how can we help them recoup from what has happened to them. And so I joined what's called Capital Impact Partners, it's what's called the community development financial institution, which is a long-winded way of saying, "Where are the good guy bankers?" We are a bank with the mission behind us. So we make loans to other nonprofits essentially, hospitals, healthy hood ventures, education, or people and organizations that are really trying to change the paradigm in their communities. But because they're operating in low-income areas, big banks won't finance them. So you can't build that house center, you can't build that grocery store that'll sell healthy food, you can't build the apartment that'll have affordable housing. Big just won't support it. We will, that's our mission. That's the risk we take, and in fact, we don't measure our end of the year success by our profit, we measure it by how many desks are being built for students, how many more affordable housing units have been built.

That's really tangible good in the community.

Yeah. What drew me to it is, they were interested as more than just a lender because they [saw all of it?], just bringing money into a community wasn't going to do it. So we had to be [inaudible] so we had to bring research, we had to bring a team that would develop programs that addressed this systemic issues being faced and think about how to do it differently, how can we do it this way and instead of the old way. A classic example that we use is around the nursing homes system. You put people into institutional nursing homes, nothing changes, people grow old, they get sick, they eventually pass away. What we've decided was, there's got to be a better way. So how do you go in, and develop a different type of nursing home that's as a community where you'll have your own room, where you go to a kitchen that feels like your home, where you communicate with the outside world? It's called the greenhouse model. We were able to deploy it in multiple states across the country, and it's become a real success. But it really shows that money is one thing, creating systemic change is a whole different paradigm, and that's what really drove me to the organization.

So how do you tell that story in a way that's going to [inaudible] and engaging to people who either might be in a position to support it or might be a potential customer or beneficiary?

Right. No. It's something I struggle with each and every day because we don't just working agent, we work across seven sectors. And how do I tell that one story to people in seven sectors, whether they want to borrow money from us, or change a program, and then how do I elevate that story to ...

[inaudible] to interruption. Is it possible to tell a story that reaches different audiences and is equally compelling across different sectors, and people who have maybe different motivations, and [inaudible] paying attention, or do you have to tailor the story based on your audience?

So I approach it from literally story telling. What is good storytelling? And that begins with someone who really has to overcome a barrier and how do they overcome that barrier, which is, if you think about any Hollywood movie, and I just took my kids last week to see Black Panther.

Yeah. Me too.


Good movie [laughter].

How do they overcome that barrier of the mineral that they are trying to mine and save the world? Are we saving the world? Maybe. So one of the things I did was when I came into the organization about three years ago was to create a story section to the website. It doesn't market our learning activities, it doesn't market any of the other kind of programmatic activities we do, what it does do is tell the stories of the people it was serving. So in the greenhouse model, we literally sending a photographer, journalist. He spent a couple of weeks with these residences, and he told their stories to a series of photo captions. And it's sort of that heart versus brain effects. How do I [inaudible] in your heartstrings to really get you understand this is what you're doing at this kind of visceral level.

And we know. I mean, we know from theory that we also know from the experience that you can make a really, really good logical argument that makes perfect sense to the brain, but if doesn't have that emotional impact, it doesn't matter, people might not even pay attention to it. So if you don't make that emotional connection, you need to be able to follow it up with a logic. But sales are made through emotions. Donations are made through emotions. People care about emotions. They want to follow it up with logic to prove to themselves there's nothing else that their emotions were sound if that makes sense.

So [inaudible] make an example of that. We could talk about the greenhouse model as here are 10, 12 group homes with individual rooms, it serves maybe 30 to 50 percent of the residence around Medicare. That's great. I mean, honestly, that's a fact that's excellent. Again, there was a guy named Ervin who we talked to. His wife, basically, she didn't have the capabilities of living in the same room because she could become violent. So what he would do is he would go while she was sleeping and literally cuddle up with her at night, and sleep with her, and then wake up in the morning, get up, and go back to his own bed. And she wouldn't know but now we have this opportunity to show this individual who is still able to be with his wife in their old age at a time when they went to the traditional nursing home. She actually might be institutionalized, but this was not the case.

[inaudible] able to let them empower them to keep their relationship alive for months or years harder than they're normally would have.

And I was so proud as a person in marketing to tell a story that value that relationship.

That's wonderful.

Which I don't often get to do.

Okay. So, all right, you just got my heart strains, right?

Yeah [laughter].

All right. So now I'm ready to make a donation which is sort of [inaudible], right? I mean, you want to make that emotional connection, and want to get somebody walk into your want to understand it and feel it, maybe feel it first. Then understand it, then get involved, and support it. So, thinking about when you were going to school, when you were starting your career, what do you know now that you wish you had known then?

I think it is the personal aspects of what I do. Drilling down into emotion and storytelling. I went to a school that valued-- I went to Claremont McKenna College, which was mostly an economics school. I was sort of an outlier as someone who wanted to do nonprofit work. And so there it was research, it was analytics, it was data. Which was great, because it got me thinking about those things, because I never really thought about those things. But somewhere I knew deep inside me that there was still emotion and story that drives us. Maybe that was I was drawn to USC, because of their film elements and all of their production elements. Toss up whether I should've gone there or not, but ultimately I think that now is what makes me a successful marketer, is driving story versus data. Because I could easily talk about, we're a lending institution at our heart. Before I came, we talked about, oh we financed this building. Oh, it's 26,000 square feet. It's in this area that has a 200% under the certain net worth for individuals. Government data, and I can't remember. I can't think of it, because it doesn't drive me. I wanted to [inaudible] that building.

And that's your proof right there.

Right. Who goes to school there? Who now has a home there? Who's getting health care in that building? That's what I care about.

And one person's personal story can negate reams and reams and reams of paper of statistics and facts.

Absolutely, yeah. And I do think that you need to back it up, with the ultimate, we have the great story of Irwin, but I could tell you any number of stories. There's a woman who was once homeless. She went to a health care center that we helped finance in San Francisco. [inaudible] San Fransisco, does that mean health care? Well, there are huge amounts of homeless people in San Francisco who have no access to equitable health care. Now it's part of the mission of this-- now she got off drugs, she got off alcohol, and she has now literally a board member of this hospital because they want a certain amount of their patients to be on the board. That's not data, that's a story, that's a person's life who has changed. But the data ulitmately, we still need to talk about. This hospital went from an alleyway to a building that serves 20,000 patients, who are uninsured possibly, and so they now have healthcare. That saves X amount of health care dollars. Yeah, so you need that data to back up the story.

So for somebody who's an aspiring storyteller, regardless of the medium that they're interested in, what are the things that they need to know, what are the skills that they need to develop?

You need to be emotionally involved in your projects. One, the word I always give to people when they think about communications and all of the things and the tactics and all of that is what is your authenticity? You can have your strategy, you can have your tactics down, you can have everything to a T, but if you're not authentic, it's not going to resonate with people. And ultimately, that's going to  you may get a-- the phrase is, "Fool me once it's on you. Fool me twice it's on me." Authenticity is the same way. You may fool a donor or funder or an investor a couple of times but ultimately they're going to get it. So make sure you have an authentic story to tell. And then don't be afraid to tell it from the rooftops. Just yell it, scream it, promote it, put it on video, put it on social media. Don't be afraid to be hyperbolic. If it's authentic, it's real.

Right. I think that's really wise council. What tools do you use that you absolutely can't do without?

Well, I'm old school, so I use a lot of pen and paper. We've been experimenting with a tool called Trello which is a kind of electronic tool for project management. I think you do need an editorial calendar of sorts because it allows you to be proactive versus reactive, especially for someone like me where I have multiple sectors to promote. And all those sectors need to ramp up into corporate objectives around social and racial justice. I need to think ahead about, "All right. We've got this day coming up. We've got this conference coming up. We've got this project coming up." How does that react with everything else that we're doing? So that the messaging can be funneled up to, kind of ultimately, what we're trying to talk about.

What advice would you give for somebody, who is either starting school or starting their careers right now, who's interested in following a path similar to yours?

So I may be antithetical to most people. I did not get a background in marketing. I did not get a background in communications or any of this stuff. I'm not saying that's not valuable. I got an education in what I loved and what I believed in. At that point it was government and literature. Now if you think about it,  I know work in finance so-- and with a stop over, a 15 year stop over, in the environment. So I was just say be passionate. Explore. Which also comes with a lot of self learning reading everybody else's e-newsletters, websites, understanding what they do. And there was some self learning about what does the consumer journey look like. What is the donor persona look like? All of those things so that I could apply kind of what I had  hints of in my brain and make them very [tactical?].

That's wonderful, so these last two questions are sort of fun ones. What's the dumbest thing you've ever seen somebody do in communications and marketing?

All right. So off the top of my head I can't think of the dumbest thing I've seen. But I will say that it's funny watching an organization I left, and I will not name them, reuse a tactic that we used. And used to sort of minimal effect. It felt like an organazation that was out of ideas and was just trying to think about, "All right, we'll just reuse that in a different way," Without really undersanding what can be we actually achieve with this. It was a social media campaign about investing in a certain project and who knows in terms of the actual tangible value of it? And I'll pick another which is another organization that I work with, do a multi-million dollar campaign. Hollywood superstars, literally Hollywood superstars - I can't name them because they would give me away - using cutting edge multimedia techniques, putting this out on every communication channel possible, but ultimately almost no [inaudible]. I've heard my superstar say this. I'm interested, because I've heard it in three or four different ways. Now what do I do? Well, what I do was give 10 bucks.

Yeah, we're not going to have anybody. But I take your point that you need to craft your strategy and your tactics based on the existing situation, which means whoever is working in communications marketing needs to be acutely attuned to strategy and organization. They need to understand the situation, and they need to bring something fresh and creative. It's not sufficient to continue to rehash what might have been a great idea before, but's already played out.

Yeah. And I'll also add to that. The idea that you're going to run into a CEO who thinks that they can create a movement-- and God bless you, if you can create a movement, do it. And don't not try. Definitely try it. But go in with what is what the market research of what the general public says. And I'll take the environment for example. So I did that for 15 years. And creating a movement for the environment was always top of mind of CEO for marketing. You can affect any environmental space, 5% of the population, with what we call the dark greens. And they will give a ton of money. You cannot affect the 95% of the population to give their $10, which will equate to billions if they did it. And if you said, "Oh, hogwash," think about yourself. I'm an environmentalist, and I do all the right things. I compost, I recycle, I drive a Prius ...

Yeah. Me too. We might actually be parked next to each other [laughter].

But are all of these people going to give their 10 bucks? It's been proven time and time again that that's not going to happen. And that's for children's charities, it's for multiple charities. I would say the one example would be the Bucket Challenge.

I have the Ice Water Bucket Challenge ...

Ice Bucket Challenge. Okay. Let's talk about that for a minute. I know we're doing my last questions, but let's talk about that for a minute. I heard the woman who was on-- I can't remember the organization, which there in itself, right, should tell you something-- talk about the Ice Bucket Challenge, made millions for that in a short amount of time. We don't talk about them anymore. It was actually not self-constructed. It was an anomaly of a guy-- I think it was multiple sclerosis?

Yeah. I think so. Or ALS, maybe.

ALS -- who did it. No affiliation to the organization. He sent that video to three or four people, and it literally went viral. The organization literally had no idea how to harness that or what to do with it. They just rode the wave. And year one, they made X number of dollars. Year two, they tried to recreate it, were unable.

Of course, because the underlying dynamic was not theirs, and it's since morphed into the cinnamon challenge and the Dadbod challenge and something else that somebody's going to come up with.

But there was an authenticity in the original Ice Bucket Challenge that people loved.

Which made it powerful.

Which made it powerful. And you can't create that. Sometimes you just have to ride it.

Well, right. And you can't program or [inaudible] morality. If you're lucky enough to do something that goes viral, awesome. But don't count on it. That should not be your main strategy, because it's so unpredictable and so unlikely. Try. Try. But try with caveats to your CEO or your chief marketing offer or whomever that you're not getting a ding for that if it doesn't happen.

Yeah. Absolutely.

Okay. So the last question I asked you was, without outing anybody individually [laughter]-- no. The dumbest movie you've ever seen in communications-- what got around? What's something that's remarkable, that's memorable, that you think is particularly powerful and well-done in the way of marketing, communications, public relations?

I had a boss who stressed ad nauseum about the power of visuals. And to me back then, I was like, why are we agonizing over one photo over another? And I think the best example I think to give of that is if you watch the movie about Steve Job, where he talks about the 57 shark that he used in his powerpoint. Now I mean that's sort of an example, but what it shows is - and it goes back to storytelling - people are very visual. Iconography goes way back to when we lived in caves. That tells you something. So something about visuals and thinking about your powerpoint presentation with 100 lines of text per slide. No. Stop it. Steve Jobs did presentations. It might not have any text.

Changed my life. And now we're gold.

Yeah. In fact, have you ever read Presentation Zen that Garr Reynolds does? Phenomenal book.

Read that. Yeah. Read it. Yeah. A piece of advice that I give to people who work for me is, you're going to get a lot of information about a particular project. And they're going to want data, they're going to want analysis, and they're going to want all this stuff in their communications. But what do we all do? I call it the finger-up analogy. You flip your Facebook, and you just finger up through your phone.

You're swiping up, or you're scrolling up and down, or you're swiping left and right.

Maybe you're swiping right, if that's how your thing is.

But you're swiping.

You're swiping. And you're reading quick and fast. What catches your eye?

If you're reading at all. You're looking.

Right. You're looking at visuals, and you're getting maybe 50 characters of text. You got to boil down your message to that to really communicate well.

Yeah. I think you're absolutely right. So Jason, thank you so much for being on this episode of Better PR Now.

Yeah. Thank you so much.

Appreciate it.

And that wraps up another episode of Better PR Now. Really want to hear from you. Let me know what you think about the podcast overall or about this particular conversation. Like to know what you think about recording on location. I know there was a lot of noise. But let me know. Was it too distracting? Was it okay? I want to hear from you. And also if you have any questions about public relations, marketing, or corporate communications, let me know, and I'd love to address those in a future episode. Also I want to remind you about a special offer that we have from the official transcription partner from the podcast, TranscribeMe. You can get up to 25% off their transcription services. Just go to That's it for this episode. Look forward to visiting with you again on the next episode of Better PR Now.

Jan 21, 2018

Founder and CEO of EvolveMKD
As a business owner, she likes controlling her destiny, who to work with, who to hire, how to invest in the business, and whether to expand.
How she fell into a career in public relations, intern boss suggested it. Loves how dynamic working in PR is and how you get to “peek into” and get a behind-the- scenes view of other industries and companies.
Likes: You have to continue to learn and grow. You will always be challenged. As technology changes and, how we consume news and media also change, you have to adapt. The importance of balancing
the needs of your organization, your clients, and the media.
Advice: Early in your career, recommend people get well-rounded, diverse experience, rather than immediately get pigeon-holed (e.g., digital, media, writing press releases, handling budget, developing
strategy, etc.).
Courses recommended: Take writing classes (e.g., business writing), “If your best-foot- forward includes typos, that’s not good enough.”
Accounting (get comfortable with numbers), financials, “You have to have an understanding and appreciation for math.”
Frustrations in the PR field: Lack of education among potential clients, who don’t know what PR is now (it’s changed: digital), working with clients to broaden their understanding of what PR encompasses; PR
can be used for evil as well as good (current politics);
Strong PR people are a voice of reason.
The importance of reputation management: “Our job as communications professionals is to gently remind business leaders that you can say whatever you want, but if you don’t have the proof to back it up, you shouldn’t be saying it.” Our job as communication specialists is to ensure the business folks have thought through what they want to say and how they should act. “Good PR people want their
company or client to speak the truth; that’s an important part of the job.”
Some clients can be short-sighted. “The energy you put out there, the words you put out there, the actions you put out there carry weight and have business implications.”
How she advises business leaders: You can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. Think about what is behind a clever or fun campaign; what will you need to do to reinforce the campaign’s message.
Education about how media relations and social work together.
What do your leadership teams look like? Do they reflect the consumers you’re trying to reach?
“If you don’t interact with the people you’re trying to sell to, how can you have an effective strategy?”

Genius PR move: Alyssa Milano’s support for the #MeToo movement on social media to drive real, meaningful discussion.
Dumbest thing you’ve seen in PR: United Airlines’ handling of removal of a passenger from a plane and the communications follow-up. How they could have better handled it.
When a company gets it wrong, but handles the aftermath well: Alaska Airlines’ prompt, on-target handling of Randi Zuckerberg’s complaint about sexual harassment by a fellow passenger. They took
immediate accountability, were public about it, and resolved the issue in a classy way. Just because you make a mistake, doesn’t mean you’re doomed, but you do have to own the problem and proactively
solve it. This keeps a mistake from turning into a huge scandal.
Most PR crises start as operational issues that are mishandled.
What does the future hold for PR and marketing? PR and social media are so intertwined that they will require integrated communication strategies. Communications must be integral in order to truly have a positive reputation.
Must-have tools: Cell phone, laptop, Cision, access to social media platforms (Twitter is a great resource for understanding what stories reporters are working on and for following the news, as well as what competitors are doing), Mophie battery packs to keep mobile devices charged.
Social media for research: Twitter, private groups on Facebook to stay engaged with other communications professionals and journalists, as well as Instagram.
Helping clients avoid the shiny object syndrome: Everyone wants to be on Snapchat, but just because it’s new doesn’t mean it will fit. Unless you’re trying to reach teens and those in their early 20s, it’s probably not right for you. Snapchat is not the tool to sell anti-aging products.
Facebook might not be cool anymore, but it might be right depending on who you’re trying to reach and to what effect.
“Having great media relationships isn’t enough to be a great PR person, you also need to understand the consumer your client is trying to reach.” That will identify the appropriate media and engagement
Current projects: Had a client (Lia Diagnostics) who won TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield at Disrupt 2017 in Berlin with the first major update of the pregnancy test since it was created in the 70’s. Also working with Merz USA, another client, on a partnership with Christie Brinkley.
Words of wisdom to new college grads: “Be ready to work.” “Roll up your sleeves and get in the trenches.” You grow and learn by having a lot thrown at you. Instagram Facebook
Instagram: @megankcraig
Twitter: @mkdrisco
Look for her book coming out in Spring 2018!

Dec 21, 2017

Doreen Clark, Director of Public Relations at SmartBug Media, shares some of her secrets to generating great press coverage, coaching executives to communicate more effectively, and the intertwining of PR and Marketing. 

Media relations:

According to Doreen, public relations is a powerful tool and that we should, “Communicate in a way that is not just beneficial for us, but also for the people we’re reaching out to.” This forms a trifecta of solid media relations that comes together when we understand and communicate:

  • What our audience needs to learn,
  • The information reporters need to know to cover the story, and
  • What we want to deliver for our company or client.

She notes that, for media relations professionals, it’s easy to deliver the facts that journalists need. But journalists also need us to offer an opinion, because that helps them craft stories with perspective and emotion.

Media training:

Doreen has trained a lot of senior executives to be better spokespeople for their organizations. When she provides media training for senior executives, some of the key lessons include:

Coaching leaders on speaking to the common person, by using language they can understand. Executives are used to speaking with other experts in their industry; they frequently use jargon and technical language that the man on the street might not understand. Shifting their focus to be able to communicate with those who are not experts in their industry takes work, but helps them be much better communicators.

Helping executives learn to speak in soundbites during interviews. Long-winded, detailed explanations allow the speaker to be precise, but they run the risk of losing control of the messages that will come through in the final news report. Making the information digestible by giving clear, but concise quotes, helps ensure their most important messages are included in the story.

Everyone is a spokesperson:

In an age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, everyone connected to an organization essentially is a spokesperson. Having a strategic plan, in which everybody knows their role and what they are expected to do, is key to success in public relations. Doreen also recommends that we identify the subject matter experts in our organization, train them to be effective spokespeople, and that will lead to more opportunities to engage the media. It’s important for communication in an organization to be “by all, for all” and not just downward from managers.

Working with freelance writers:

When asked what she is most excited about, Doreen said that working with freelance writers has become a secret weapon. Her force-multiplier tip is to build relationships with freelance writers. It’s common for them to write for many different media outlets, both online and off. These relationships can help us get more coverage, if they are willing to share the work they do for us with their contacts in these outlets.

Merging PR and marketing:

Looking into the future, Doreen expects that “Public relations and marketing will become even more intertwined and might become synonymous.” She sees a blurring of the lines already, with paid advertising taking the form of earned editorial coverage. She sees a future in which PR will have more pay-to-play coverage, as advertising does now. While such changes could present signification challenges for those currently working in both PR and marketing, it could have certain beneficial effects, as it will drive improvements on both sides. For example, she notes that, “PR measurement tools are getting better and will eventually be on par with marketing measurement.” “

Doreen also sees a future in which podcasts and videos that are engaging, but brief, will become more important. After all, journalists need things to write about and to share as examples within their articles.

Lesson learned:

When asked what she knows now that would have been good to know when starting her career, Doreen said, “You don’t have to be everything to everyone; hone your craft; it’s okay to specialize.”

Quotable quotes:

“If you really pay attention, you can become an expert in anything.”

“Relationships are everything.”

“Stay up to date on your craft; you have to always be a learner.”

“PR is necessary, 100%.”

“PR is about elevating reputation and building credibility.”

Nov 8, 2017

Jered Martin discusses OnePitch, which he co-founded with Rebecca “Beck” Bamberger in San Diego.  OnePitch serves as a matchmaker to help journalists and publicists find each other with the right story idea at the right time.  Think of it as eHarmony meets Bumble, but for communication professionals.  OnePitch screens out the vast majority of pitches that are not a good fit for a particular journalist, and delivers only those story ideas that are closely matched with the journalist’s interests.  The journalist can browse pitches anonymously and connect with a publicist when they see a story idea that interests them. According to Jered, “We’re offering a platform that’s relevant, but not invasive.”

Jered described the value proposition that OnePitch offers journalists in that the use a categorization process to tailor pitches to journalist’s needs.  “You are going to receive at least one email a day that is going to have only the most relevant things you want to write about.”  He noted that, “The beauty of OnePitch is that, as a journalist, you can expect to only receive the most relevant inquiries.”

For publicists, OnePitch helps them connect with the journalists who are most interested in their story.  Say goodbye to the “spray and pray” approach of blindly sending releases and pitches to every journalist in the hope that one will be interested.  Jered noted that, “We care if their story gets coverage.

In discussing the rise of chat bots in a wide range of customer-facing businesses, Jered noted the unique value of engaging a human being.  “One thing we pride ourselves on at OnePitch is the high level of customer service and personalization.”  He pointed out that, “It’s really important to understand how folks communicate and why they communicate.”

Prior to co-founding OnePitch, Jered earned a BA in Communication Studies with a minor in Marketing from Cal State Long Beach.  He gravitated to a career in communications out of a deep desire to help people.  He entered the public relations and marketing world through work with BITE San Diego, which he described as “A walking food tour with history.”  He started as an intern and worked his way up to eventually being the head of operations for BITE San Diego, as well as working for Beck at BAM Communications.

In discussing how the OnePitch and BAM Communications teams maintain high performance, he noted the importance of senior leaders taking the time to mentor their employees, having regular face-to-face communication, and having an internal messaging tool, such as Slack.  According to Jered, Slack is a great way to easily keep everyone on the same pag

As for project management for the OnePitch team, Jered discussed how the team ran into scaleability challenges as the team’s work grew.  The project management and collaboration solution they settled on is a combination of Hubspot, Trello, and Slack.  Jered noted that, “We have to have a solid system to organize and manage everyone, and without Hubspot, I would be pulling my hair out.”  He also discussed the importance of tools that work well together, noting that “One thing that is great about Trello is that it integrates with Slack.”

In addition to his work on OnePitch, Jered also is part of Tech Coast Angels, the largest angel capital firm in San Diego.  He’s working with them on a volunteer analyst program, in which his team conducts due diligence on start-up firms.

In addition, he is also working with the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, to support their program for entrepreneurial women.  This program brings female entrepreneurs from countries throughout the Americas to Southern California to see how business is done in the United States and to provide them with mentoring opportunities.

Nov 1, 2017

Public Relations expert Deb Radman discusses the power of harnessing the four horsemen of public relations: Leadership, Ethics, Intuition, and Courage. She explains why she would advise her younger self to shut up and listen, so she could really understand what’s being said. She contends that there is great power in taking time to think about something before you formulate an answer. We should then leverage the power of persuasion to engage, motivate, and activate.


Because of changes in the media landscape, PR now has “the opportunity to be the primary source of ideas for our companies and our clients as they seek new ways to communicate.” To do this, we have to venture way outside the box we’ve been in for so long, and have the guts and courage to do that.


Deb also is in favor of integration across the communication spectrum. She argues that public relations professionals have “to be strong enough to go to clients with recommendations that transcend specific disciplines; we cannot be afraid to recommend integrated campaigns that include advertising, digital, promotion, direct response, and public relations.” According to Deb, all of these disciplines are part of PR, because they are all part of trying to persuade an audience to do what you want them to do. In her words, “Paid, earned, shared, and owned media all have to work together.” If paid, earned, and owned are not consistent, they will not help people share our message, because it will be fragmented. With this in mind, she argues that social media now is the province of public relations, because it is part of what PR practitioners do in the earned media arena.


According to Deb, mentoring adds tremendous value by helping our people develop creativity and that “it’s no longer sufficient to be able to write; we must also be creative problem solvers.” She describes the PRSA College of Fellows‘ work with educators to create momentum for mentoring. She also urges junior PR practitioners to “Find teachers and mentors who will teach you what they know and what other people know.” While public relations people might be well-trained in communication techniques, they need to be even more capable of understanding what motivates people to engage. Deb stresses the importance of lifelong learning and the value in being exposed to marketers, innovators, researchers, and creatives in the advertising world and beyond.

High points in her career have included winning the USO contract, when she won her first Silver Anvil award, presenting the James C. Bowling Executive-In-Residence Lecture at the University of Kentucky, and serving as project lead for the IBM centennial celebration, which included IBM’s Watson supercomputer competing on Jeopardy.

Oct 25, 2017

PR veteran Deb Radman explains the value of non-traditional hires in public relations, the power of intuition, and the necessity of courage. She explains how PR nightmares come from bad decisions. She presented the James C. Bowling Executive-In-Residence Lecture Series in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Integrated Strategic Communication. She also draws on lessons from Harold Burson, Richard Edelman, Betsy Plank, CKPR and the USO.

Oct 18, 2017

Interview with “The Measurement Queen” Katie Paine, about the importance of measuring communications and the challenges of linking communication activities to the organization’s bottom line.  Better PR Now provides clarity so business leaders can communicate strategically, which creates competitive advantages for the business by creating favorable conditions that maximize long-term profits, by growing mutually beneficial relationships with the people you most depend on (employees, customers, suppliers), which creates opportunities (leads, sales, business intelligence) and reduces costs (employees, customers, litigation, regulation).  Better PR Now provides communication strategy for executives.

Oct 12, 2017

Discussion with Boston University's Dustin Supa on sharing research, and the importance of bringing Public Relations research to the forefront. Better PR Now provides clarity so business leaders can communicate strategically, which creates competitive advantages for the business by creating favorable conditions that maximize long-term profits, by growing mutually beneficial relationships with the people you most depend on (employees, customers, suppliers), which creates opportunities (leads, sales, business intelligence) and reduces costs (employees, customers, litigation, regulation). Better PR Now provides communication strategy for executives.

Jul 31, 2016

Mark recaps the public relations lessons, insights, tips, and tricks he learned at Podcast Movement 2016.

Better PR Now is a podcast created for communicators, whether in public relations, public affairs, media relations, government relations, strategic communication, marketing, or corporate communications. Every episode delivers great insights, tips, and professional advice from some of the smartest, most experienced people in the field. Mark Phillips talks with top practitioners and cutting edge researchers to find best practices as we explore new ways to hone our communication skills. Learn the secrets to success, the tools they use, and lessons learned.
Knowledge for communication and public relations professionals.

Jun 14, 2016

Interview with Professor David Dozier (San Diego State University) and Lou Williams (Lou Williams Companies) as they identify what's wrong with Public Relations today, along with four corrective steps to take. Better PR Now is a podcast created for communicators, whether in public relations, public affairs, media relations, government relations, strategic communication, marketing, or corporate communications. Every episode delivers great insights, tips, and professional advice from some of the smartest, most experienced people in the field. Mark Phillips talks with top practitioners and cutting edge researchers to find best practices as we explore new ways to hone our communication skills. Learn the secrets to success, the tools they use, and lessons learned.

May 15, 2016

Professor Dustin Supa of Boston University’s College of Communication presents findings from a pilot research project that explored “The Dude Deficit” in undergraduate public relations classrooms. Why are so few young men choosing to major in Public Relations, as opposed to related fields like Marketing and Journalism? Dustin’s research points to an explanation and suggests some ways to address this issue.

Better PR Now is a podcast created for communicators, whether in public relations, public affairs, media relations, government relations, strategic communication, marketing, or corporate communications. Every episode delivers great insights, tips, and professional advice from some of the smartest, most experienced people in the field. Mark Phillips talks with top professionals and cutting edge researchers to find best practices as we explore new ways to hone our communication skills. Learn the secrets to success, the tools they use, and lessons learned.


Apr 10, 2016

Col. Mike Lawhorn (Army public affairs) explains:

  • The importance of asking “why?”
  • How changing the words you use can have powerful results.
  • Three key questions to guide your work.
  • The importance of reading professionally.
  • The importance of being a team player.
  • How you can help the boss articulate the outcomes they are looking for.
  • Why you should ask these 3 questions:
    1. What problem are we trying to solve?
    2. Why is this a problem we need to solve?
    3. What do you think it will look like when we solve this problem?
  • The power of substituting the word ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ when disagreeing with somebody.

Better PR Now is a podcast created for communicators, whether in public relations, public affairs, media relations, government relations, strategic communication, marketing, or corporate communications. Every episode delivers great insights, tips, and professional advice from some of the smartest, most experienced people in the field. Mark Phillips talks with top practitioners and cutting edge researchers to find best practices as we explore new ways to hone our communication skills. Learn the secrets to success, the tools they use, and lessons learned. If you want to be a more effective, more influential, and more successful professional communicator, join Better PR Now as we improve Public Relations, one conversation at a time.

Apr 1, 2016

Dylan Phillips discusses the importance of formative research in brand communications, the power of storytelling, how to use specific online resources at just the right time, and the VCU Brandcenter experience.


Welcome to Better PR Now, Episode 1. I’m Mark Phillips and today we are talking with my son, Dylan Phillips. Now, before you start thinking this is just going to be one big bag of nepotism, there’s a reason I wanted to talk with Dylan, particularly at this time.

                   When this interview was recorded, he had just finished graduate school and was just starting his career. I wanted to explore his experiences as a student and intern, as well as his hopes for a future working in communications.

                   We’ll explore the importance of formative research in brand communications, the power of storytelling, and how to use specific online resources at just the right time. I think you’ll find this interesting. Let’s jump in.

Mark:         I wanted to save this very first interview for Dylan, because it’s a special occasion. He just finished graduate school just a week ago, and I wanted to give him the absolute first interview. So Dylan, you just graduated from the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University; tell us about that program.

Dylan:        Well, it’s a two-year graduate program for advertising. It’s really intense, sort of boot-camp style. There are different tracks that people take, whether you’re more art direction, or copywriting, or someone like me who is a strategist. They also have an experience design track, which is essentially creative technology. The program is two years, with lots of presentations and a lot of student work for big brands, small brands, and sometimes live clients.

Mark:         So why did you pick the Brandcenter? There are a lot of graduate programs in advertising and marketing around the country; why the Brandcenter?

Dylan:        Well, I was really interested in getting into advertising strategy. There are a lot of options for people who are looking to get into art direction or copywriting, whether it‘s The Creative Circus or the Miami Ad School, but Brandcenter is the only place that has a full program for strategy.

Mark:         Tell me a little bit about the strategy track; what does that entail?

Dylan:        We do things like ethnographies, where we go to people’s homes and learn about how they use products. We do things like digital anthropologies. We are professional Googlers, but there are ways to be more affective at that.

                   We make subculture documentaries and really get entrenched in a subculture that we aren’t part of to learn as much as we can about those sorts of people. And really, the whole point of the track is to learn how to learn about people, to think strategically, and how that applies to advertising.

Mark:         So tell me a little bit more about this idea of thinking strategically from a marketing and advertising perspective; what does that mean?

Dylan:        Well, a lot of it has to do with asking “Why?” So you need to understand what the essence or the soul of a brand or company is. You need to figure that out and if that’s already defined for you, then you need to figure out who cares about it and why they care about it.

                   And so, when you can understand both who, on a DNA level, the brand is and who the people are that love it, or could potentially love it, then you can see a bigger picture of what you need to do to make a commercial. But it needs to be based on knowledge that you have that that will connect with audiences you want to connect with. I think that pretty much sums it up.

Mark:         So that knowledge gives you insight into the connection that the company or its products have with the people that might be consumers of those products or customers of that company?

Dylan:        Yeah, usually you figure out who the people are that love it, or who the people are that you want to love it, and that way you can not only figure out where you want to talk to them, whether that is on the Internet, television, or channels like newspapers, but also how you talk to them. It can inform, and this is the side that I am more interested in: it can inform the creative decision that goes into the communications.

                   And a lot of advertising is heading towards a lot more content creation that’s actually less advertising and more just entertainment that happens to be connected to a brand. So if you can figure out what people love, then you can create things. Content is such a buzzword, but you can create value that can add to their lives, rather than just trying to distract them for a minute to get their attention about a sale or something.

Mark:         That’s interesting. So you’ve talked about this understanding, this insight and you’ve talked about being professional Googlers; how do you go about doing that and, in addition to using Google, talk about different ways to use tools like Google. How do you go about doing this research or getting this insight that you are able to help a brand better understand and make those important connections?

Dylan:        Brand planning or strategy came about in the late 80s I believe, but it came over from Europe. And so there have been strategists for you know a number of decades now that didn’t have the Internet at their fingertips to do this stuff. So a lot of it was focus groups, man-on-the-street stuff, just trying to get people’s opinions. What’s amazing now is that everybody has a voice, and people really don’t hesitate to use it.

                   One good thing to do is just go on Amazon and read reviews, because that’s where people feel the strongest is in reviews. Also, if something is just sort of happening trend-wise, you can almost guarantee that you can find something about it on Reddit. I mean it’s called the front page of the Internet for a reason. It’s funny there is a cycle that sort of happens that if you find something on Reddit it might have not yet happened on Facebook, or Twitter, or BuzzFeed.

                   But it’s sort of like a cycle and it starts on Reddit and then you’ll see some stuff happen. On Twitter usually is more quick with the uptake, and then you’ll see it on Facebook trends on the side of your wall. And then there’s a BuzzFeed article about it, and then the people that are the most late to the event or whatever it is will be sharing the BuzzFeed article more likely.

Mark:         So if your business involves being sensitive to, or being able to spot, emerging trends, Reddit’s a good place to be?

Dylan:        Definitely. I mean obviously you’re not just going to be searching for whatever your company is, but themes and trends surrounding that. Say you owned a mountain bike shop, you would look at what people are talking about within the mountain biking forums and other outdoor forums and chats.

Mark:         So what about the old-style types of traditional research, like doing focus groups or doing man-on-the-street interviews, or those intercept-type of interviews; is that way of research dead in your mind?

Dylan:        Not at all. I think it’s very, very important. I like to use the Internet to formulate an idea at first, and then when I get a concept and I’m able to talk intelligently with people that - so let’s go back to the mountain biking example. Say I’d never had a mountain bike before.

Mark:         Which you have.

Dylan:        I mean I have, but imagine that I hadn’t, and so I would go to Reddit first. Go on the Internet first try to figure out what’s the lingo, what’s the sort of language that people use, what are the trends, and what do people like about it, what do people love about it. That way, when I do talk to people who are involved in that activity, I can speak intelligently enough to spark conversation.

Mark:         If you were in product development, would you be also looking for pain points or where people are having problems, or where they are expressing frustration as potential problems that your company could solve or offer solutions to?

Dylan:        Yeah, I don’t think that’s just a place for somebody working in product development either. I think that looking for pain points is a great way to figure out how any company can fit in or brand can fit into someone’s life. So if I was working at an ad agency doing communications for a mountain biking brand, we might be able to figure out, that, wow mountain bikers really hate getting hit in the shins with their pedals, it hurts.

                   So say that’s a common problem and maybe that shows up in an ad, then that way it’s a little piece of truth that when mountain bikers see it, they’re like, “They get what I care about, because that happens to me all the time and it sucks.”

Mark:         So the truth resonates.

Dylan:        Yeah, for sure. I think if you can show people that you’re not faking it, that is important.

Mark:         So it allows you to be genuine?

Dylan:        Right.

Mark:         Things like Reddit allow you to survey the landscape and see trends that are emerging, to identify opportunities.

Dylan:        You can also find people on Reddit to talk to.

Mark:         Tell us about that.

Dylan:        Not only does it paint a picture with conversations that are already happening, but you can get involved as well. So you could say, “Hey, can we talk about this?” You can pose a question that people will respond to, and then if the answers are something that you’re interested in, or particular answers are interesting to you, you can reach out to that person and send them a message.

                   It’s interesting that the community on Reddit seems more willing to help each other than a lot of other communities online. And so if you’re just straightforward with them and say, “Hey, I’m working on a project and I would really like to talk to you about A, B or C” then more than likely, and I’ve had this happen a bunch of times, people will say, “Okay, yeah, definitely.”

                   And whether it’s just a series of emails or whether they want to Skype with you, you get to talk with somebody who is actually entrenched in what you’re trying to learn about, which is you know way more valuable than just reading.

Mark:         Right, historically we’ve been told to define demographic personas or avatars of our perfect customer, stakeholder, or public that we’re trying to engage, does Reddit allow us to go beyond that … and actually go to real people and allow us to dive deeper and go specifically. They’re not extractions any more. They’re real, living breathing people we can go to and ask, “What do you think about this? If this was a product would you be interested? If you had shin-guards for your mountain bike would you wear them or would you think it was dorky?”

Dylan:        Right, I think that it definitely allows for that. But I don’t think enough places are taking advantage of that. It’s really easy to turn to a statistic and say, “Well, this kind of says this, so we’ll just do this.”

                   It is much more compelling to say, “Well, this guy’s name is Tom and this is what sucks about his life.” Or, “This is what he doesn’t like about this product,” or “This is how this product makes his life better.” Those are some of the best ads: When you see real people and how they’re affected. As human beings, we’re story driven. As much as numbers can tell a story, that doesn’t resonate with us the same way that telling about how an actual individual interacts with something does.

                   It’s actually like reading the numbers of people that have died in a war. At some point it just becomes a number and statistic, and it’s like I can’t even imagine that. But if you hear one story about one person and you get details about them dying, it’s a much more impactful way.

Mark:         It sort of becomes relatable when it’s one person’s story.

Dylan:        Yeah, for sure, or even a groups of people, maybe more than one, but it’s a human story, rather than just numbers.

Mark:         So what’s a take-way lesson from this for companies that offer products or services. How might they be able to use this deep-dive approach to better understand how their customers, or how their stakeholders, or how their publics think about things, and how they might better anticipate their needs.

Dylan:        What it really boils down to is conversation. I think a lot of times things get lost within organizations, whether you know people just sort of playing email tag or you know just passing off documents, rather than actually having a conversation about what they want to do. And also that’s within an organization, but I think it’s really important to get to know who your stakeholders are, who your audience is. And treat them like people rather than just numbers on a page because, at the end of the day they feel a certain way about your organization and that’s linked to an emotional connection. And so if you can figure out how to strengthen that in a non-salesy sort of way and an organic sort of way, it can be invaluable for you.

Mark:         Fantastic. Let’s go back to the Brandcenter for a moment and look at how it works. It has multiple tracks in addition to strategy; what are the other tracks?

Dylan:        Art direction, copywriting, creative brand management, and experience design.

Mark:         So why did you pick strategy?

Dylan:        Strategy seemed like a good mix of problem solving and creativity, which I really enjoy and it allows you to really get into culture and think about that sort of stuff. I’m really into all of that, so it just seemed like a good fit.

Mark:         At the Brandcenter, you work in teams, you function as an ad agency where you work on actual problems, real world problems, sometimes for real world clients. Tell us about some of the projects that you worked on while you were there.

Dylan:        Oh, we worked on such a wide variety of things. Some of them are more hypothetical, whether it’s the first semester we worked on a project for Marvel coming out with a new superhero and marketing that. But then, we also have real-world clients.

                   We worked on one project that was this cheesecake company. It was interesting, because most of us went and tried it and didn’t know what to think about it really. But it was trying to be sold as a high-end luxury sort of dessert, but they are in, essentially, baby food jars.

Mark:         Is this a startup?

Dylan:        I guess it was a startup. It wasn’t brand new though; it’s been around for a while. And it was interesting. Working with a live client was a little bit more difficult, because he was very, very strict on what we could change and what we couldn’t change.

                   And in the class, the teacher expected us to change everything and do whatever we wanted, so we did. But at the end of the day, he had the final say in what happened. And what ended up happening was he stuck with his old stuff.

Mark:         Which is the client’s privilege right? Well, it’s their prerogative.

Dylan:        Yeah, but a lot of the stuff that got made ...

Mark:         That were working on this same project?

Dylan:        Yeah, and you know a lot of the stuff that got made was really good. And you know some people recommended repositioning it, trying to change who we were talking to. Some people just changed the logo and the visual language of the brand. But he decided to stick with the same stuff that he came up with himself, which I guess is all right, but there was a lot of good stuff that he just turned away. Overall, though, people had an interesting time working on it.

Mark:         So, with experiences like that, do you think those prepare Brandcenter students for life in real agencies and life in the real world?

Dylan:        I think so. Even if we’re not working with a live client, the professor acts as a client and they are usually, in my experience, much tougher than any live client that I’ve ever interacted with. Obviously, they give their feedback in class in front of all your peers. But then you also get to sit down with them and hear about where you went wrong, or where they think that you could have pushed it further. A lot of times, for a strategist that criticism that you get is that you didn’t push it far enough or you didn’t think it through all the way. You know, they critique all of it, so the art directors might say, “Well, this isn’t very well-designed” or “This doesn’t make sense for who you are trying to talk to.” So if the strategist and the creative team aren’t meshing well, then that sometimes comes through. The live clients that I’ve interacted with in Brandcenter settings or at an agency this summer have always been really nice, at least compared to my experience at school.

Mark:         Right, did you come out with thicker skin than you went in?

Dylan:        I think so, especially about presentations. That’s something that you just get a lot of reps in. First semester, you’re presenting almost every week and it tapers off a little bit towards the end. But by then, you’ve given so many presentations and talked in front of so many people that something that a lot of people get nervous about seems normal. And by the end of Brandcenter, that is definitely something that almost everyone gets over and gets better at. So, yeah, I think so; definitely tougher skin.

Mark:         Any tears shed, either you or your classmates, over the course of the two years?

Dylan:        Oh, I never cry! But yeah, there’s definitely some crying that happens there every once and a while. It gets stressful.

Mark:         But overall?

Dylan:        Overall a great experience.

Mark:         So for students who finished their bachelor’s, are considering grad school, and are definitely in a marketing track, would you recommend the Brandcenter?

Dylan:        Yeah, 100%. My advice to them would be to have a good idea of what you want to do before you apply. I see a lot of people realizing about half way through that they wanted to be in a different track and it’s very difficult to switch. Some people do it, but you know, if you really really love writing and you want to be a copywriter, then you should apply as such. The acceptance rate isn’t super high and it’s kind of difficult to get in, but it’s totally worth it. The application is long and the program is a lot of work, but the experience is definitely worth the effort if you put it in.

Mark:         Great, so let’s go back to some of the projects that you worked on, what are some of the most memorable ones?

Dylan:        Well, we worked on one where we had a side project working with a live client, working under a grant from the Department of Energy. We branded nuclear energy.

Mark:         What was the task?

Dillion:     The nuclear Department in VCU approached Brandcenter and said, “We have this grant money and we want to have Brandcenter teams compete to rebrand nuclear energy.” Basically, what they had found out is that nuclear energy in general has a negative perception, they really weren’t sure why, and they were looking for creative solutions on how to talk about it, how to even brand nuclear energy, and how could that improve the perception.

                   About 20% of the US electricity comes from nuclear power currently and there is a ton of lobbying that goes on from gas companies. That basically keeps nuclear from advancing and becoming more of a predominant form of energy for our country.

Mark:         So your team won.

Dillion:     My team won, yeah.

Mark:         And what did you come up with?

Dillion:     Well, it started off with what I talked about before with my process in strategy. I did a lot of reading and a lot of talking to people. I found out a few key things, one was that, in general, people didn’t really like nuclear energy that much, but most people were very uninformed. They couldn’t give me a good reason why they didn’t like it; it was just a sort of a gut reaction.

                   Another thing I realized was that people don’t really care where their power comes from as long as when they flick the switch, it turns on. Another thing I realized was that there was just one small key difference between people that were for nuclear energy and people that were against it; that difference was the way they view risks.

                   So the people that were for nuclear energy were more likely to do their own research or do their homework. Whereas the people that tended to be against nuclear energy were more “gut reaction” sort of people. Very similar to the sort of people you would see a story on Ebola on the news, see that it was in the US, and freak out like, “Oh, we are are all going to die of Ebola.” When in reality, that is not actually something that’s going to affect your life here in the States.

                   So then I dug more into the idea of risk and started thinking about actual risk that affects American lives everyday. Things like texting while driving is really dangerous or eating fast food regularly is really not good for you, and over time is really dangerous as well. But people don’t really think of those as a risk, whereas people think about Ebola, or nuclear energy, or ISIS and they freak out and get scared. I wanted to know what’s the difference between these two different types of risk.

                   I realized that people don’t care about the fast food, texting while driving sort of risk, because it’s domestic and mundane and sort of ordinary. Whereas these other things are more foreign, we don’t understand them, and they’re complicated, so they’re scary. So we realized the most exciting thing we could do for nuclear energy was to make it boring, just like those other risks.

                  And we realized it would be a monumental task to try to shift people from hating nuclear energy and not knowing why, to being huge fans of nuclear energy and knowing everything about it. So we realized that it would be much more realistic to shift people to from ‘I don’t like it’ to ‘meh.’ So that’s what we did. We came up with a campaign called “Nuclear Is.” Basically, it’s just a way for people to see how nuclear fits into their lives. So it could be like nuclear is doing your laundry, or nuclear is watching your favorite show on HBO, or nuclear is driving your Tesla.

                   Any time you’re using electricity in your life that could potentially be a moment where nuclear energy is interacting with you, and so that’s what we came up with. We ended up winning and went to South by Southwest as the prize.

Mark:         That’s excellent, so looking back on the whole process at Brandcenter, are there things that you know now, that you wish you knew when you started? Is there advice that you wish you could have given to your younger self before you started?

Dillion:     Yeah, I think the most important thing that I probably learned, and it would have been helpful at the beginning, was how I view the idea of ownership. When I first started, I thought I was the strategist and I’m going to come up with this idea and everybody is going to like it and the creative team is going to follow that idea and then execute based on that and it’s going to be great.

                   But in reality, a lot of people have ideas and directions that they want to go in. I realized that a strategist’s role is not about coming up with the one and only idea and then forcing people to stick to that; what it’s really about is coming up with a lot of ideas, facilitating other people’s thinking, and providing context for that. So what I would tell myself, if I could go back now, I’d say, “Listen more.”

Mark:         Last summer, you had the opportunity to intern at Goodby Silverstein in San Francisco. You worked on a number of different projects and accounts there, tell us about that experience.

Dillion:     Yeah, it was awesome. I got to work on so many different things as an intern. I got to work on Häagen-Dazs, Sonic, Milk, and Comcast. I also got to work on two separate pitches, which was some of the most exciting work, because it’s all new ideas and thinking and trying to figure out what the agency can do for a brand. Which reminded me a lot of how Brandcenter operates, because you kind of look at everything as a pitch there.

Mark:         What were you most surprised about?

Dillion:     How casual everything is.

Mark:         In an agency environment?

Dillion:     Yeah. I had never worked in an agency before and it’s okay to go and talk to whoever you want to go talk to. I mean people are busy, but you know no one is closed off in an office so that you can’t go and talk to them. Everyone kind of wears what they want to wear and does what they want to do. Work still gets done and, obviously, the work there’s great, the people are great, and it’s a very comfortable environment.

Mark:         People working very hard?

Dillion:     Yeah, but not to the point where they seemed stressed or uncomfortable. It was like people were working hard because they like what they do and are passionate about it.

Mark:         Right, a very creative environment.

Dillion:     Yeah, definitely. There’s open office space that kind of promotes collaboration, creativity, and all that.

Mark:         What were some of the most important lessons you learned?

Dillion:     I think being in brainstorming sessions where they kind of solidified that lesson I was talking about before about the idea of ownership. I also learned more about how decisions are made; you think about, for example, this CEO just got hired for this brand, what do you know about this guy, what is he like? Because if you’re working for him now, he’s your client, you’re providing work to him that ultimately he will have to sign off on. That is something that I never really thought about before: Learning individual people’s preferences.

Mark:         So what’s next for you? You just finished grad school, been working really hard, now you’re job hunting; where do you see yourself in a year or five years?

Dillion:     Working hard at an agency, most likely in California. I think I’ll probably be trying to move up as a strategist, trying to create awesome campaigns and work with really creative, talented people.

Mark:         Great, one last question: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

Dillion:     One that’s been the most memorable for me was when I was talking to a creative director and I was trying to figure out where I wanted to work. He said that where you want to work doesn’t really matter. I asked, “Do you mean in the agency, or city, or what are you talking about?” He said either one; it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is who you work for. Say you want to work for an amazing guy who lives in Washington, but you hate the rain. Well, it rains a lot there, so put on a jacket!

                   That got the point across to me: Who you work with and for is more important than the name on the door or the city you live in.

Mark:         Very cool, good advice. You’ve got a really cool website; what’s the address and how can people get in touch with you?


Mark:         Awesome, terrific interview, Dylan. Thank you very much. I really appreciate the time. Why don’t you play us out.

Dylan:        Sure.

Mark:         There you have it; a view from someone just starting his career. You know, I’d like to check back in with Dylan down on the road about his professional experiences and whether his perspectives have changed.

                   Thanks for spending a little time with us today. I hope you found it entertaining, but more than that, I hope you found something you can use in your career.

                   I’d love to know what you think about the podcast. Who would you like to hear on the show? What questions would you like answered? What challenges are you facing?

Drop me a line at and check out Better PR Now, where you’ll find links to all the resources mentioned in today’s episode and so much more. Well, that’s it for today. I hope you’ll join me on the next session of Better PR Now. To benefit from every episode, please subscribe.

See you soon!

Mar 12, 2016

Dr. Gwen Schiada interviews Mark Phillips to explain why he created the Better PR Now podcast. They examine the need for this podcast and how communication professionals will benefit from it. Better PR Now is a podcast created for communicators in public relations, public affairs, media relations, government relations, strategic communication, marketing, and corporate communications. Every episode delivers great insights, tips, and professional advice from some of the smartest, most experienced communication leaders in the field. Mark Phillips talks with top professionals and cutting edge researchers to find best practices as we explore new ways to hone our communication, leadership, and management skills. Learn the secrets to success, the tools they use, and lessons learned. If you want to be a more effective, more influential, and more successful professional communicator, join Better PR Now as we improve Public Relations, one conversation at a time.