To create a successful press campaign that meaningfully shapes the conversation in the media around a particular organization or topic, many factors have to work together. You have to have excellent timing, sources with something unique and powerful to say, a vision of how your story fits into different types of media and, of course, you have nothing without buy-in from journalists.
To get all of these factors to align and make an impact, we need at least several months (and often a year or more) of in-depth work. When in talks with potential new clients about how my PR firm can help them, we often encounter a desire for an a-la-carte menu rather than our all-in offering. I was talking to my wife—who is a very talented baker—about this recently, and she drew a comparison to baking a cake that I think works really well.
Imagine a baker submitting a proposal for a cake based on the fact that it will take her 90 minutes to complete it. The customer replies that they only have enough budget for 10 minutes of baking. The baker is likely to point out that they could have some batter by that point, but just batter doesn’t really do any good.
The customer then suggests that maybe they could start with just one piece of cake. However, since the cake is being baked just for them, it’s not possible to bake a single piece. The conversation then might turn to specific aspects of the cake. “Could you use fewer eggs? What if we skip the raisins?” the customer might say, hoping it will bring the price down. These suggestions range from cake-ruining to irrelevant because the issue isn’t what’s in the cake; it’s the process of baking it.
During the proposal process, new clients will often ask us if we could start with a very short-term engagement and see how it goes. Press coverage can deliver profound value to an organization largely because the public understands that your organization doesn’t control the process. A media outlet believes that what you’re doing is important enough to cover it, and that means a lot. The flipside is that we don’t control the timeline. In any campaign we take on, we absolutely will deliver results, but it takes careful planning and a lot of follow through to get there. We give ourselves enough time to do that, and it can’t be condensed past a certain point, just like you can’t bake a cake for five minutes, pull it out and see how it’s going.
Another idea that’s often floated is that we could start with a single story or angle (or, as it were, a single piece of cake). The notion is that the more limited scope of the campaign will be less work for us. In fact, the inverse is true. In each campaign, we focus on a goal that is vital to the client. Individual stories or angles are how we approach that goal. We can adjust our strategy based on what interests members of the press, related topics in the news currently, and other factors. Not every idea we pursue will come to fruition (and some we never saw coming probably will!). To focus on just one story leaves no room for the inherent unpredictability of this business. Another analogy I like to use is that a PR campaign pursuing a single outlet or story is like going fishing for an individual fish with just one kind of bait.
The same is true for eliminating certain angles or story ideas we may have discussed along the way (or attempting to edit the cake recipe). Again, the hope is that if we eliminate 25 percent of the angles we discussed pursuing, it will bring the cost down by 25 percent. Instead, we’re expected to produce the same level of results with one hand tied behind our back. Angles and story ideas aren’t burdens which we add up to arrive at our retainer—they’re tools we use for the underlying goal of why the organization is looking for PR in the first place.
I fully understand that it’s a big risk signing on a new vendor for an expansive project. We’re very open with case studies and references to try to ease some of that anxiety. We also try to show in our proposals how the campaign is already taking shape in our discussion. Nonetheless, it would be very helpful if we could find a way to offer a cupcake—so to speak—and allow new clients to get a taste of our work. If any other PR firm has figured out how to do this, I’d love to know about it. But we’re not interested in press coverage for its own sake—we’re interested in return on investment for our clients, and for that reason, press coverage must be in service to a larger goal, such as expanding and deepening how an organization is known.