Traditional public relations (PR) is still one of the most powerful and cost-effective tactics that brands use to get attention and build a business. It may not be the latest and greatest shiny object to chase after, but it is a proven and time-tested option.
Today’s guest is Megan Bennett, CEO of Light Years Ahead. She focuses on managing clients and exceeding their expectations. Megan has helped all kinds of clients get press coverage and measure effectiveness connected to sales and revenue.
“Once you get one good media hit, it helps to build brand awareness, so that consumers know about you.”
“You have to find a way to make your brand stand out from the rest when you're telling a story to the media.”
“Keep shopping around until you find people that you feel are really going to be passionate about your brand and want to help grow with you, not just take your money.”
“Find ways to spread the word because that’s what’s going to give your brand the credibility to move forward is the public relations and the media reviews.”
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Using the Power of Media Relations to Drive Massive Brand Growth With Megan Bennett From Light Years Ahead
Ben: Well, it doesn't necessarily get a ton of hype. Traditional PR remains one of the most powerful and cost-effective tactics that brands can use to earn attention and build a business. It isn't the latest and greatest shiny object that you can chase after by any means, but it is a proven and time-tested avenue for authentically telling your story to a large audience in a way that helps build both exposure and trust for your company. However, media relations is also a complex discipline, and it can be really confusing initially to know how and when to even start.
Should you try doing PR yourself or should you hire an agency? How do you know that you have a good story to tell? How do you even find writers and editors who might care about what your company is doing or what your company has to say?
On this week's show, we're covering all that and more with Megan Bennett, the CEO of the PR firm Light Years Ahead. She has helped all kinds of clients get tons of press coverage in some of the biggest publications and TV shows out there and has helped them connect that coverage back to sales and revenue. So if you've ever had questions about how to get more press coverage and how to measure its actual effectiveness, this is the ultimate start to finish guide that you need condensed down to about 30 minutes. Now, here's Megan.
Hey, Megan. How's it going this morning?
Megan: Going great, so excited to be on.
Ben: Absolutely. It sounds like you're dealing with a thunderstorm down there in Kansas City today.
Megan: Big time. It is crazy here. I feel like my whole backyard has flooded into a giant swimming pool. It's the Midwest for you.
Ben: Oh no, totally. We're up in North Dakota where it's completely flat and so standing water becomes water in your basement.
Megan: Yup, same here.
Ben: We'll try to get this conversation wrapped up expediently in case there's anything you've got to deal with all of that.
What we're going to be talking about is media relations and how you can actually tie that aspect of traditional PR to driving actual brand growth, which I think is something that'll be interesting for our audience because it is just notoriously difficult to actually connect PR to results, or at least in some cases, it has a perception of being difficult.
Before we get too far along, at a high level, with all the channels that we have available to us now and all the different things that are dangled in marketers’ faces as being the latest shiny object, why does PR and why do media relations still matter? Why is this something that companies should really consider investing in?
Megan: I would say that media relations are the best bang for your marketing buck because there's nothing better than getting an earned media coverage, which means that as a publicist, that's where we pitch your brand to the top editors, reporters, and producers in the media. Let's say an example, the Today Show, Good Morning America, and we pitch them for lifestyle segments or different types of topics, and then they feature your brand in an authentic way that's not paid because they really like the brand.
That's what the publicists do. That's what PR does is we get your products, your brand, or your message into the hands of the top media movers and shakers and get them to cover it in an authentic way that's not paid. Whereas in an advertisement, when you see an ad for a brand, you know that that's something that the brand paid for.
We're like the middleman, and the results of earned media placements rather than where we pay them—as a media person or even as a consumer—you're more likely to buy something if you know that it's really because the expert loves the product. That's where it comes in. And then once you get one good media hit, it helps to build brand awareness so that consumers know about you. I hope that made sense.
Ben: That totally makes sense. I think it was a pretty concise summary. I think that really lays out why this is a smart investment, potentially. Even relative to a lot of what we see with influencer marketing, I think people are starting to come around to the knowledge that those product placements you see on Instagram might not always be as organic as what they're made to appear. We've all seen sponsored tweets where there's #ad, and there's copy that doesn't sound anything like XYZ celebrity’s normal voice.
PR really does cut through a lot of that, those things that instinctively instill distrust in an audience because it is like a trusted media mouthpiece that's hyping you up. But where this becomes difficult is it's really not easy to get the attention of those folks because they have so much stuff that they get pitched and that they can be potentially devoting their attention to because really, their only obligation is to their audience.
What are some of the top challenges that you see when companies attempt to promote themselves through the media?
Megan: I’ve been doing this for 19 years and I’ve worked with probably hundreds of brands. I will say that the one challenge that I’ve seen with brands is that you need to have a product or a service that really stands apart from other things. It's great if you have—I’m going to give an example—a body cream or something, but guess how many other body creams are out there on the market—hundreds. You have to find a way to make your brand stand out from the rest when you're telling a story to the media.
Some of the brands that we've worked with, maybe there's no story behind why it was developed. It was just developed by a person that has no background in skincare or whatever, but our job as a publicist is to spin the story so that it is interesting and to find a way to make it so that the media wants to use your product over somebody else's. I would say that the biggest challenge is just cutting through the clutter of the competition of other brands, and also getting to the media. They’re swamped. They get thousands of emails every week. How do you make your email to the top? How do you get to the top?
Another challenge I’ve seen with mainstream media is in print, it's difficult to get into magazines unless you're an advertiser these days. Some of the websites are doing the same thing where you need to be an affiliate or have an affiliate program in order to get your brand featured. These are some of the challenges that we're seeing.
As far as solutions, I would say that I’ve encouraged all the brands that I work with that sell something. Not like an expert because we work with experts too, they're selling themselves. But people that are selling services and brands, I recommend that they do an affiliate program because that incentivizes the media to cover your brand because they're going to make a commission on the sales. Those are some of the challenges that I’ve seen in the last few years especially.
Another thing that I’ve noticed is that a lot of the media, they're changing their positions and becoming freelancers because the magazines are downsizing and cutting, same with that. You just have to find a way to stay in touch and stay current with who's covering what.
Ben: There are so many high-profile journalists that are just pivoting to newsletters right now. That is very, very interesting. Tell me about a time that you were able to drive absolutely mind-blowing results for a client just by giving you the media to talk about them.
Megan: I will say that I can't guarantee any of my clients’ ROI, return on investment, from PR, but what I can guarantee is that you will have brand awareness from what we're doing. We started to work with this brand a couple of years ago called KC Cattle Company. It's veteran-founded, based in Missouri, and they feature wagyu beef. That's Japanese beef, it's better for you. It has good fats and everything.
We started to promote the brand, got some pretty good placements on the Today Show and New York Times reviewing their food. And then it comes around to 2019 in the summer and they launched these wagyu beef hot dogs. We started promoting them to the media. We got a good bite from foodandwine.com.
We sent them samples of hot dogs, they got lost or actually, they didn't get lost. When they received it it was too late and they had to throw out the shipment because they didn't get down to pick them up in time. The client was like, should we send another one? This is hundreds of dollars worth of product. I said, it's Food & Wine, we have to.
A couple of weeks later, I got a call from the client saying, did something happen because we're getting thousands of orders of sales? I looked online and the Food & Wine story came out, and they were voted the best beef hot dog. I’m not kidding you, within a couple of days, they made a quarter of a million dollars in sales. This is coming from a company that had no marketing—nothing, to making money from one ad exposure.
To this day, the client, he still says out of everything he's done in marketing—he's tried advertising, he's done commercials, he's hired different companies—he says that working with us and having PR has been the most successful way for him to see a return on investment. I would say that's a really good case study. They just did a story last week and mentioned it again, Food & Wine. It's stuff like that that really can make the meter move, and that's probably our best case study with a brand.
Ben: Wow. I mean, that's pretty incredible results. You can really tie that revenue pretty clearly back. I imagine too that once you land a story like that, there's always the potential for other publications to see it and then they want their version of that story as well.
Megan: Yes, and you can use that to leverage. After that, we would pitch to national TV media saying, would you like to try the hot dog that Food & Wine voted as the number one. Now, we're not going to go to Cooking Light and pitch that because that's a competitor. But if you go to different types of media, there are always ways to take advantage of your success and spin it so you can get more coverage. You just have to know how to do it.
Ben: Sure. If a company wants to start dabbling in media relations on their own or a marketing team within a company, wants to try doing this as a means of building brand awareness, getting themselves out there, maybe doing something that potentially maybe their competition isn't doing, or something that some of these other things that they might be doing if they're not working as well. Whatever the case may be, they've identified this as a potential opportunity. How would you recommend they begin even if they don't have the budget to hire an external agency right away?
Megan: I would say the first thing to do is obviously know who your audience is, and then once you know who your audience is that you're trying to target, you should subscribe to a good PR service.
There's Muck Rack, Meltwater, Cision, these are all databases that you can subscribe to. It's not super cheap, but if you don't have the budget to hire a PR firm—the PR firm already subscribes to those—then it's something that you should do as a brand because what it's going to do is it's going to give you access to everybody in the media that you're trying to target.
From the Today Show to People Magazine to pretty much any trade that you want will be on these databases, and they'll give you even the contact of the media person and their email so you can directly reach out to them. That's the first thing you have got to have because otherwise, how else are you going to reach out to the media and get access?
The next thing you need to do is write a really good email pitch. I don't even care if you have a press release, a pitch is what people read. They're going to open up your email and the first thing they're going to see is the subject line. You want to make sure that you write a really good email and then you pitch it, and you keep sending it to the media that counts. Even if they say no, find other ways to get it back in there, to keep pitching, and to keep following up. Eventually, they will remember you and they will reach out to you when they have stories in your category.
Those are the steps that I would say to start is to write a really good email pitch, subscribe to a good service, and then just start going to town reaching out to the media, and not taking no for an answer.
Ben: I’ve got two follow-up questions to that. What you say about being able to find the right people, I think that is so important. It can be really time-consuming if you do not have some type of a service or a database that you can access to find the right people. But there's a difference, obviously, between having access to a very powerful platform like the Cisions and the Meltwaters of the world are pretty robust and are pretty high powered in terms of how granular you can get when you're trying to target reporters or editors by beat, by geography, or whatever the case may be.
As a marker, keeping in mind that this hypothetical individual is new to this, how would they be able to sort through just the vast number of contacts they can suddenly get in touch with, to find the people who are really the most likely to want to cover your brand or to cover your product?
Megan: When we use databases like this, we'll create a pretty big list because if you start small, forget it. You got to then export it, weed through it, and look through everybody and say, wait, I don't think this is the right beat. This person, oh yes, I definitely want to target this person. We call it scrubbing our lists.
Another thing you can do is go look up the editor, google them, and see what they've written in the past. That's something I do as well. When I’m first working on a new brand or a new client, I look up the category, see who's already covered the category recently, and then I reach out to them right away.
For example, if I’m doing something on a natural deodorant, I’ll google natural deodorant and then search news on Google and see all the articles that have been written in Cosmopolitan or any of those magazines. And then I’ll look in my database and find that editor's email address and reach out.
Now, if you don't have the money to do this, another way you could go about doing it is like I just said, search the editors that have already written stories on the articles. You could go to Instagram, try to find their handle, and reach out to them via Instagram messages too. It just takes a lot longer and it just depends on how much time you have. You can weed through it because each service will tell you what topic and what beat they cover, and it'll just tone it further and further to get you what you need.
Ben: There’s something to be said here for Megan’s advice about persistence. Now, that doesn’t mean that you should be annoying or repeatedly pester people who aren’t a good target for your pitch. No, that’s certainly not what she’s saying. But it does mean that you should keep pushing for more coverage from as many relevant targets as you can find and keep sending them your news and your pitches even if they don’t bite on your story right away.
Journalists, writers, editors, morning news TV producers, these are all very busy people, and they don’t always have the time and the space to cover every interesting story that comes their way all the time. But if you can stay on their radar and hook their attention, then they’re going to be more likely to cover you when you do bring them something that happens to really fall in line really well with their beat or their coverage area, and they do have a need for a story from a company like yours. Now, back to Megan.
The second follow-up that I had, and I think that it is really undersold how difficult this can be, writing a pitch. Anybody with journalism experience knows how to write a pitch. Anybody with PR experience knows how to write a pitch because you have to know how to identify the story, identify the angle, tailor that story and that angle to your recipient. Those are not skills that everybody just naturally has. That's a craft that you perfect over time. Even if the execution is just this really short email that's like three or four lines.
If I’ve never written a pitch before and I’m not even sure what I would put into that, what should this individual be mindful to include? How do you write a good pitch?
Megan: Well, I would say the first thing is like you had said, you want to keep it short and concise. They're probably going to read the first three sentences, and they're not going to care because they have thousands of other emails to go through. I would say that that's really important.
You also want to have a really compelling screenshot, thumbnail, or whatever of whatever you're trying to show. I always put in a fun photo of the brands that I’m representing so that they can just visually—if they don't want to read it, they just look down and they say, oh my gosh, I need that product, or what is that? And then they'll look up and they'll read the pitch. I think that that's important.
But I would say the most important thing besides having a very compelling subject line because if you have a subject line that sounds salesy, marketing, or that it looks like it's spam, they're just going to delete it.
You want to have a subject line that's going to get them to open up the pitch. Also, when you write the pitch, you don't want to make it sound like you're sending this to millions of people. You want to make it sound almost like you're talking, at least from my perspective and this is why I’ve been so successful. I feel like the media are my friends and I talk to them that way.
I’m not talking, yo, what's up, dude? But you want to talk to them and find out how they're doing and say, this is something I think you would really like because I’ve read X, Y, and Z stories. You want to make it personal, and that's the main thing. Formal, the media doesn't have time to read. It's different if you're working for the White House or something. But when it comes to basic PR, you want to have a short email pitch.
Quick question – deodorants. Hi X. This is Megan from Light Years Ahead. I’m writing to see if you have any stories about summer sweat because as you know, we all get sweaty during the summer and people are afraid to use products that don't have natural ingredients on them. Are you working on anything? If so, check out this great brand that I represent. It has X, Y, and Z. Let me know if you're interested. That's it. You don't want to go into a press release talking about a quote from one of the founders.
Now, if it's a trade and you're trying to pitch a trade story about an acquisition, absolutely. I’ll write a very small pitch saying, are you the right person for this? I do write contact as my subject line, and that's something that's a really good takeaway that usually gets the media to open—the right media contact. And then you send a query and say, are you the right person to cover the automobile industry with electronic vehicles? I’m just giving an example. Then they'll either say, yes, I am, or no, let me put you in touch with the right person.
That's another way to get them to open is just to send a query. Are you covering deodorants? Let me know. Things like that can work as well.
But I will say, with most of the pitches that I send out I’ll do it two or three times and tweak things after I send it. I maybe won't get the right feedback, or if I do get great feedback then I’ll leave it. But if I don't, I’ll change the subject line, I’ll change the intro, or I’ll cut something to make it shorter. I think that it's a process. You don't have to get stuck with one pitch and be like, this is it, it's not working. Tweak it, just fix it, and keep trying different things. All it needs is one person to open up and then you realize I’m on to something.
Ben: Got you. I think that's great advice. I just really can't stress enough, just because it's a short email doesn't mean you aren't going to have to be thoughtful and take your time because that's the foundation really for what that entire story is going to end up becoming. That's very, very important. That's awesome.
They've gotten the basics down, they know how to find the right people who are going to care, they know how to write a really sharp pitch or at least a pitch that's good enough to give an editor, a reporter, or somebody the rudiments of the story and let them know why they should care. What should they do next? What's next in terms of maturing a media relations practice? What's a next-level tactic or tip that they should start applying to really amplify that success once they've got the basics down?
Megan: I mean, once you've got the basics—you've got a great pitch, it's working—then you need to just keep pitching and don't take no for an answer. Once you've got the basis and the shell, that's when you start to develop new pitches from that and send out every two weeks, every week, or whatever and just keep trying. I would just go crazy. Once I have the elements, that's when I start to go crazy with the pitching. I try to reach out to as many people as I can, then if they say no, I’ll try again a couple of weeks later or a couple of months later.
I would say the main high-level thing from PR that I don't think anybody else would say is to be a publicist you cannot take no for an answer. That is the number one takeaway from being a publicist that I’ve learned all these years, and I’ve had people tell me no so many times. But then once they do have a story that works, they remember who I am and they come back.
Another thing is high level—you're doing everything you can, you've got great contacts, but you still haven't reached everybody. Like I said, go find their social media. Try to find another way to have a relationship with them. Once you're establishing a relationship online via email, go to your Instagram page and follow them. Start commenting on their stuff, liking their posts. The more you do that the more they're going to remember you, they're going to like you, and they're going to want to feature your brand over and over again. So you want to basically grow your relationship with the media and reach out to them and have a nice relationship.
I would say another thing from a high level is to make sure that your brand has a good social media campaign to go with the public relations campaign because all these placements that we get for our brands, we use those with whoever's covering the brand's social media. They use it, they leverage it, and say, check out this great write-up. We got fab, fit, fun, and then they'll post it and they'll tag the brand. That's really important is to make sure that you share and leverage all of your media placements on your social media.
Ben: Got you. I think that's all great advice. I love the advice to really think about it in terms of building relationships with the media and then also to integrate it into a broader strategy so that this isn't something that just exists in a silo.
Megan: Yeah, it's not like a one-off. When I get new clients now that want to get coverage in Los Angeles, I have all the contacts now because I keep in contact with them. I’m constantly pitching them. Same with the doctors. Once you get one good contact there, you make sure that you keep that relationship and foster it until it becomes a good relationship and then you can reach out to them.
Sometimes I even ask my media friends just for advice. Is this something that you think that the magazine would ever cover? You want to build those relationships with the top movers and shakers because also their advice is priceless. I mean, nobody gives better advice than somebody that's going to write about your product if they like it or not. Those are all tactics that I would definitely do.
One other thing I want to tell you is to set Google searches as well. Whatever category you're in, whether you're a choreographer, you're creating a new dance, or whatever, put a Google alert on the topic that you're pitching, and then you'll see all the other stories that come in from different media that write about it and then you can reach out to that media too. It'll just keep you in the know of what's going on in whatever category you're in.
Ben: I think that's a great tip as well just for staying on top of your industry, your niche, your vertical—the conversation. The more you do that, then obviously the more (I imagine) you can find where you fit in that story.
If a company decides that they are interested in hiring a PR agency, what should they look for to ensure that they find an agency that's actually going to be the right fit for their goals and what they want to achieve?
Megan: Well, I would say that the first thing is don't just go with an agency because they're huge. People are like, oh, I’m with XYZ, they're in New York. That doesn't mean that they're going to do a better job for you, honestly. The big agencies are great, but if you want TLC, you want to be babysat, you want your handheld, or you just want that extra care, I feel like it's more to your advantage to go with a boutique PR firm that's with a small team. More people have their hands on the project than just one account executive.
Another thing I would do is make sure that you have a couple of phone calls. Speak with the PR firm first and find out if you have chemistry the firm because if you don't feel the chemistry, if the publicist gives you anxiety—some publicists are known for that—makes you feel anxious, or you just don't feel like it's a good fit, don't feel pressured to go with them because of their name. Keep shopping around until you find people that you feel are really going to be passionate about your brand and want to help grow with you, not just take your money. I would say that that's really important.
Another thing is if you really want to do your research, ask for references. Talk to other brands that the PR firm has worked with and find out their experiences. When we're talking to firms that always sell us, most of our clients have been with us for years. It's not like we take on accounts that only last two months. I mean, I have one client that I’ve worked with since 2005. It shows that you have the staying power to work with the brand.
It's all those things that you want to look for, but the main thing is the chemistry and you want to make sure that they're not selling you a bill of goods. If you ask for something guaranteed and they say they can do it, most of the time they're lying because you can't guarantee anything. We've had segments that are supposed to be on and then all of a sudden something happens in the news and it doesn't happen because a breaking news story takes over. You want to make sure that you're with somebody that's honest, passionate about your brand, and that's going to give you the attention that you need to make you feel comfortable.
Ben: I think that's so important, and I think maybe just throw in there too as a client, there mutually has to be some agreed upon expectations that are reasonable just for the reasons that you've outlined. No one controls the media. Oh my goodness, if anybody claimed that they could guarantee anything in that area.
Megan: We have people ask us all the time, what can you guarantee in the first month? I said, honestly, nothing. I can guarantee that I can pitch your brand and get people to hear about it, but I’m not going to guarantee you're going to make sales out of that because I just can't guarantee that. Some brands get such great exposure, they might be on the Today Show, and they still might not make sales. It depends on who's watching, what day it is, and how good your product is.
Ben: Absolutely. Maybe the last question I’ll throw your way, the reason why I imagine people would ask what you can guarantee is because when they're putting money into something, they have a boss that wants to know what the return on that money spent is going to be. People want that peace of mind so that they can go to sleep at night, not being afraid that they might have just lit that money and their career on fire potentially. If they were really sticking their neck out to make the call to hire an agency and to do it right, so to speak.
If a client is feeling that way, a potential client, or just a company, they're feeling like this really seems like something that we should do, but there's that fear holding them back, how should they maybe recalibrate their expectations and frame that conversation internally so that their boss who is really the source of that fear for them is appropriately bought in and doesn't think that you're going to be able to do something that's literally pulling a rabbit out of the hat?
Megan: I think it's just making your expectations realistic and letting the brand, or a lot of time it's the owners that want to know because maybe it's a small company. Just telling them listen, if you are doing PR to make sales, then this is not the right outlet for you because public relations will never guarantee sales, but it will guarantee that more people will learn about your brand. That's the reason to do this is specifically for brand awareness so that more people know who you are. I saw that in XYZ.
I think that just setting the expectations right away and saying, we don't know if this is going to drive sales, but it is going to drive awareness, and that's the main point of difference. But sometimes you're pleasantly surprised and it does drive sales. But I’ve never once guaranteed anybody that to make them feel better.
Honestly, talking to business owners and if they're still uncomfortable, then I say you know what, I don't think it's the right fit for you right now. I think you should wait until you're ready. If you want something guaranteed, buy an ad, but that's still not guaranteed you're going to make sales either, but at least that is pay for play and you know it's going to happen.
It's just the education that PR can drive sales but it doesn't guarantee to drive sales and the main point is brand awareness, that's what you would need to sell to your boss or whatever. Say, we want people to know about our company, and this is the only way that it's going to happen in an authentic way.
Ben: I think that's great advice. It’s got to work both ways, I imagine both for client and agency. Well, this has been fantastic. But before I let you go, is there anything else that you think our audience should know? Just anything that you want to leave our listeners with just to wrap things up.
Megan: The main thing is if you have a really good idea and you feel like it's different from anything else that anybody's ever seen or heard, go for it. If you have the passion for your brand, then find a way to promote it with the media. Whether it's doing your own public relations campaign, hiring an agency, getting a freelancer, whatever—find ways to spread the word because that's what's going to give your brand the credibility to move forward is the public relations and the media reviews. That's it.
Ben: Yeah, 100%. Megan, this is great. I think this is a pretty thorough conversation from the basics up to some more advanced tactics that actually make media relations work. I’m sure our audience is going to get a lot of value out of this. Thank you for your time.
Megan: Thank you. It was really fun.
Ben: Thanks again to Megan for coming on the show and to all of you for listening. That's all for this week, but until next time. Best of luck with your marketing.
Love this episode of the podcast? You’ll really love this PR course! If you want to learn more about the PR topics covered in this podcast episode, check out the Public Relations Strategy Certification course from Actionable Marketing Institute. This course is designed to help marketers and business owners create a PR strategy to get real results. Take the initiative. Learn more.
Ben Sailer is the Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.