A blog about standing up, standing out, and standing for something in tech PR and communications.


Carli Aiona | Sterling Communications

Consider the Company Podcast

One truly under-utilized professional communications medium is the podcast. While this digital audio content delivery format has been around for about 20 years, it’s still largely neglected for brand audience development and messaging amplification.

Sure, many companies advertise on or sponsor third-party podcasts. And many thought leaders already engage with popular podcast shows as guests or contributors. That’s all great! But such avenues largely mimic the customs of traditional audio formats like radio. 

The power of podcasts

Modern companies should consider podcasts along the same lines as video. Just as with creating a company YouTube or Vimeo channel — or featuring video webinars, sizzle reels, and product or service explainers on your organization’s website — a company podcast can deliver powerful encapsulated content directly to interested individuals at scale.

The format is portable, intimate, and incredibly engaging — and podcast consumption is on the rise.

podcast headphones

According to The Infinite Dial 2020 report from Edison Research: 

  • 212 million Americans are familiar with podcasting 
  • 104 million Americans are monthly listeners 
  • 68 million Americans are weekly listeners
  • 48% of listeners are ages 12–34, 32% are 35–54, and 20% are 55+
  • 55% of listener audiences are men, 45% are women 

Podcasts and PR

Such a large and growing audience deserves attention in public relations strategies. Companies can pursue podcast development to augment marketing and communications goals, to a showcase expertise, to provide self-directed learning content, or broaden recruitment outreach. As Business.com notes:

  • Podcasts capture audience attention
  • Podcasts create a personalized experience
  • Podcasts help build and maintain important network connections

In short, podcasting presents a great opportunity for organizations to demonstrate knowledge and value through a convenient, popular, and effective medium.

Sterling Communications recently worked with a client to develop, launch, and produce a monthly podcast focused on highlighting key mission objectives and exploring pertinent issues within a specific sector. Discussions about the concept began in July 2020, development and production officially kicked off in September, and the first episode went live in November. That’s a pretty speedy process for mastering a new medium and establishing a new brand communications vehicle!

While there was definitely a learning curve, moving from podcast idea to actualization was neither inordinately complex nor cost prohibitive. The barriers to podcasting are pretty low — anyone can make one, and some amateur efforts are great.

Podcast prep

That being said, as with all professional communications, developing a brand podcast requires clear strategy and forethought. Not every company’s communication needs are the same, so not every podcast will be the same. Here are three research and preparation tips if you’re considering a podcast for your organization:

  1. Podcast exploration: Browse and listen to a variety of freely available podcasts for inspiration. Make sure your research includes podcasts with single speakers, one-on-one interviews or conversations, and group panels. Sample podcasts devoted to diverse topics, not just those covering your organization’s area of focus. Gauge your preferences (and those of your intended audience) for different episode lengths (5 minute, 20 minute, or about an hour).
  2. Podcast software and hardware: Learn a bit about the tools you’ll need to make it all happen. While pretty much every device these days comes with microphone and recording capabilities, there is a vast assortment of equipment, apps, and services that can impact quality and either ease or complicate your podcasting efforts. We’ll discuss a few recording/editing/hosting/distribution options in our next post.
  3. Podcast branding: Spend some time thinking about your podcast’s “personality.” You’ll need to consider what you’ll call it, who will host it, how it will be described, what kinds of images and collateral will accompany it for listing and sharing.

Other deliberations will include cadence (episode posting yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily); whether there’ll be guests, mapping out a content calendar to plan episodes by theme and/or topic, and budgeting investment (in both dollars and time).

Keep in mind that very few podcasts achieve the popularity of The Tim Ferris Show or TED Talks Daily, and that’s OK. A company podcast shouldn’t aim to be the next Serial

Building any podcast audience is gradual and takes time. And the ultimate aim of a company podcast should be to supply engaging content for a pretty specific audience (say, your desired customers, potential partners, industry influencers, and future recruits).

Envisioning a company podcast that’s tailored to add communications value specific to your organization is the best place to start. We’ll devote our next post to detailing “Podcasting 101: Tips and Best Practices.” In the meantime, you can email us at go@sterlingpr.com or call (408) 395-5500 to learn more or further discuss podcasting and PR.

Communicating effectively on sustainability

The diesel cheating affair of 2015 nearly destroyed Volkswagen. The company sat at the center of one of the largest scandals in auto history after employees wrote software to make Volkswagen diesel car emissions appear cleaner than they were. Volkswagen’s long-standing reputation for engineering excellence and sustainability innovation was destroyed overnight. $30 billion in compensation, years in court appearances, and reams of repair costs followed. 

This crisis forced Volkswagen to take a hard look at its strategy, operations, and culture. It had to fight for its existence. Only then could it formulate a recovery strategy. 

The company is lucky to have survived.

BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010 was the environmental mega-crisis of the decade, which proved a cautionary tale. On a business and communications footing, there was a path for Volkswagen to follow after BP’s travails. News trends also gave Volkswagen some air cover in the U.S., as Donald Trump’s presidential run and a visit from Pope Francis were making headlines at the time. But there are savvy methods for rebounding from a crisis no matter the scenario.

In Political Risk, a book on how organizations anticipate risk and insecurity, Condoleeza Rice and Amy Zegart outlined the method for how companies can tackle crises effectively. They take them seriously, approach with humility, and they lead from the top. Fast application of these principles can help companies find a path forward. Clear communications play an important role in such endeavors.


Time and Tide and Sustainability

Now, industry analysts say Volkswagen is reborn. It is the leading global seller of cars, and has lofty electric car goals for market share and driving emissions down. It has pledged to spend $25 billion to develop battery-powered or hybrid versions of every one of its models by 2030. It wants to flood the electric vehicle market with affordable cars — “mainstream” it away from the Tesla market perception of EVs as the preserve of the few, not the many. Electric vehicles are expected to account for as much as 25 percent of global sales by 2025. Volkswagen is hungry for a large slice of the pie. Damaged reputation still hinders that effort to a degree.


While companies such as Volkswagen were guilty of misleading behavior, others have pragmatically tried to plot the journey from being the very emblem of the environmental degradation, to standing at the forefront of sustainable changes driving the low-carbon economy. 

sustainability communications
Image by Gerd Altmann

A decade ago, I advised a client called Drax on effectively communicating its necessary shift toward sustainability. Drax is a biomass and coal-fired power station in England that, at the time, was aiming to diversify to low carbon fuels. It had a visionary chief executive who wasn’t afraid of what the move from coal to biomass would send to the market. To her, the business case was compelling and the environmental benefits profound — and she was able to win over institutional investors. Drax also chose to work with Imperial College London, a world-class research university, and with leading NGO, WWF. Working with third-party stakeholders meant concepts were challenged and road tested, and gave Drax’s transformation greater credibility in the market. 

The sustainable case was made to transition from coal to biomass, and the company was able to change with the times. Now, Drax is planning to become the world’s first carbon-negative business within 10 years, furthering their sustainability credentials. 

Brave Green World 

With 2021’s new administration in the US, we are likely to see renewed private sector investment in the clean-tech and clean energy sectors. Ambitious climate targets, a reversal of the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and more investment in solar, wind, and sustainable energy projects are on the table. The attention and commitment to sustainability will ratchet up again across sectors. 

The competing stories of Volkswagen and Drax demonstrate how leadership and communicating effectively with all stakeholders can allow you to rebuild after a crisis, but also that pivoting boldly to face the realities of a new landscape and setting the right communications strategy up-front can have real impact on success.

One created a crisis and handled it badly initially, before finding a path to restore its image and embrace technology that would allow millions of people to drive electric cars. The other didn’t waver when it saw that renewable energy, and driving down emissions, was compatible with business performance. 

There is long-term opportunity in risk, crisis, and transition stemming from the convergence of profit, people, and planet. And there are ample techniques for communicating those issues to the world professionally.

But they all start with a simple step. In short, doing the right thing.

The Glory of Good Grammar

Grammar gets a bad rap. 

Maybe the tedium of rote lessons in grade school induced grammar aversion. Or maybe it has something to do with the way grammar correction is so often employed to scold or ridicule. Who hasn’t been on both the giving and receiving end of such grammatical slights from time to time?

Nevertheless, grammar is important. It definitely colors perception in professional settings. According to the National Law Review, grammar actually played a role in a federal court case this year. The defendant’s motion was not only denied, but the counsel was chided for submitting a brief “riddled with spelling mistakes and ungrammatical sentences.” A sample of text from the offending brief reads: “PURSUANT TO FEDERAL RULES OF CIVILE PROCEDURES RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDUE 12(b) (2), (3), and (6) FIRST STANADFINANCIAL COMPANY MUST BE DISMISSED.” Is it any wonder the District Court was not impressed?

Grammar neglect

There’s rarely cause to make a federal case out of grammar. Most folks probably prefer to avoid the subject altogether. Consider the emergence of automated writing aids in all the apps you use these days. There has been an awful lot of effort employed to free people from worrying whether the “i” comes before the “e.” 

And it’s not just spellcheckers: Grammarly, the company responsible for an AI-powered tool that also scrutinizes sentence structure and word choice in real time, closed a $90 million funding round last year. That’s a mighty big investment in the ability to offload grammatical dexterity.

When we do pause to consciously consider grammar, it’s generally with vexation at someone’s poor usage or anxiety about our own.

But grammar isn’t meant to be avoided or weaponized or feared. It’s meant to reinforce logic, clarify meaning, and help us to communicate with each other. We should think about grammar. It doesn’t confine us. Instead, grammar guides us through the abundant and ever-evolving capabilities of language. That’s a noble journey.

And besides, grammar can be a lot of fun. 

Pleasures of grammar

We’re big fans of Mignon Fogarty’s popular Grammar Girl podcast — a decade-deep treasure trove of interesting instruction on all things grammatical. What’s a comma splice? Why is “Worcester” pronounced “Wooster”? Where did daylight saving time come from? How do you punctuate an indirect question? Did you know “gravy” is a ghost word*? 

Possessing the answers to these questions can make you a better communicator. (And it can make you a more engaging companion at a dinner party!)


Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Even schoolchildren can enjoy the way a misplaced comma results in hilarity.

Most importantly, the pursuit of good grammar demonstrates discernment — care for how our thoughts are understood by others. It’s a glue that helps us relate to one another.

Communication is central to our services at Sterling Communications, so we’re naturally drawn to explorations of grammar. And while we’re happy to employ digital tools to assist in our work, we also believe professional communication requires human attention. For example, the automated writing aids embedded in the application used to write this article didn’t find any errors in the offending legal brief mentioned above. (Capitalization settings are probably the culprit, but human eyes care not for such excuses.)

Like it or not, grammar is inextricably tied to conveying purpose and intent. As the prolific linguist David Crystal has explained:

“Grammar is the structural foundation of our ability to express ourselves. The more we are aware of how it works, the more we can monitor the meaning and effectiveness of the way we and others use language. It can help foster precision, detect ambiguity, and exploit the richness of expression available in English. And it can help everyone — not only teachers of English but teachers of anything, for all teaching is ultimately a matter of getting to grips with meaning.”


*Ghost words are words that made it into the dictionary because of an error or misunderstanding.

Presenting and Pitching Remotely as a Team

Like many others in the Silicon Valley, we’ve been conducting business remotely most of the year.

By committing to more phone calls, email, messaging, and web-conferencing, we’ve been managing pretty well. But we’ve definitely noticed that 100% remote work can complicate many facets of business.

For example, we recently conducted a completely remote new business pitch and presentation.

We’ve presented to remote prospects before. And we’ve had a team member dial-in to participate in pitches in the past. But this time everything — from initial contact to opportunity assessment, team assembly, research, scheduling, creative development, pitch coordination, group presentation, and follow-up — was done at a distance.

remote presentation during COVID epidemic

Together apart

While many duties within a presentation development cycle are performed individually, the process as a whole requires group effort and layers of synchronization. In short, our entire methodology for preparation and delivery leans heavily on collaboration.

We’ve got the practice down to a fine art when we can walk across the office to ask a quick question or huddle in a conference room together to share knowledge, brainstorm, and strategize at any stage.

But take away our proximity to each other — and our conference room — and it becomes a very different experience.

Here are some things we learned about virtualizing the process.

It takes more time

You’ll need more time than usual for development when everyone is remote:

  • No tool or technology is as efficient as in-person communication. All the senses are engaged face to face. Things like body language and facial expression or changes in tone quickly impart volumes of information that just doesn’t translate well digitally. 
  • It’s harder to have quick confabs on-the-fly when everyone’s remote. You can’t just glance across the room to capture opportune moments.
  • Group banter and consensus building is more difficult via phone or web conference, where interruption causes audio glitches and background noise often makes muted microphones necessary. Remote group conversation tends to be more linear, and thus more time consuming.
  • Managing complexity via messaging and/or email is laborious. But those are often the best available tools. So a lot of communication is going to be asynchronous. And writing and reading simply eat more time than talking and listening. 
  • Unexpected delays or cancellations are harder to recover from remotely. Anyone who’s been on standby in a Zoom waiting room for 3 minutes can attest to the seemingly interminable drag of time when scheduled web meetings don’t start promptly. 
  • People are more likely to wander away mentally or leap ahead to some other phase of planning when key players are absent. That means more follow up will be required to keep everyone on the same page. 
  • Schedule padded blocks of time for team planning. Expect a few inevitable calendar conflicts. And assume there’s going to be a lot of review to stay synchronized.

Planning and preparation

Coordinating as a group involves more forethought than simply scheduling a web meeting and distributing an agenda:

  • Decide in advance how you are going to manage your shared documentation. We started with email and switched to Box Notes so the whole team could add information in a single living document. 
  • Shared notes evolve quickly. Use subheads, links, and bullets to make information easy to scan. 
  • Deleted items will have to be hunted down and retrieved from revision history if/when they become relevant again. Keep a repository of abandoned information at the end of your documentation so it’s easier to revisit.
  • Version management is essential. Designate one individual to build/manage the presentation deck. Store the most recent version on a shared database accessible to the whole team in case of emergency.
  • How and where you share material is important. If you’re using messaging apps like Slack to share news/images/research with other members of your team, create a Channel. Don’t default to direct messages — this will preserve team access and awareness. It’s also a good idea to save relevant images and resources to a shared folder online.
  • Rehearse. Just as when preparing to present as a team in person, everyone needs to know when they will have the floor and be able to anticipate cues and transitions to keep things flowing smoothly.

Presenting remotely together

Presenting as a team remotely requires attention to choreography and technical issues that might not ordinarily cross your mind. Here are a few considerations and tips:

  • Make sure your computer position, microphone, and camera adhere to web meeting best practices.
  • Remember that everything is being viewed on a screen (often a small one). Participants will spend most of their time visually focused on a slide deck. Don’t bore your viewers by just reading the text aloud (unless you’re presenting to kindergarteners). Instead, interpret what is written, supply context, guide participants through the information that’s being put before them.
  • Within the confines of a web meeting, participants will usually appear as tiny heads on a grid (à la The Brady Bunch) or as highlighted faces in the margin depending on the speaker. At such small scale, you cannot easily make eye contact or signal with a gesture. Verbalize transitions to pass attention to another participant and address each other by name (“My colleague is the expert on this. Pal, can you jump in?”)
  • Similarly, scan faces for signs someone wants to interject/ask a question. Pause often, look for raised hands, circle back when you’re finished speaking (“Joe, it looked like you wanted to comment on the timeline, did you have a question?”).
  • Tools don’t always play well with other tools. Test your conferencing environment and presentation materials for compatibility and display issues ahead of time (missing fonts, unsupported image or animation formats, etc.). For example, we found that Keynote slide decks just don’t work properly in Microsoft Teams environments, so PowerPoint is the better option for such venues.
  • Try not to move around a lot or walk away from your webcam even if you’re not the speaker — it’s distracting. Turn off your webcam if you have to step out of view for any reason.
  • Don’t start real-time side-conversations in other channels (such as Slack, chat apps, or DMs). Give the meeting your full attention.
  • Fill awkward delays or technical glitches with congenial conversation. Ask a question. Engage. Sometimes a participant gets bumped offline, or a software application needs to be restarted. These things happen, but you don’t have to leave everyone silently staring at a screen until the issue is fixed.
  • Be considerate of everyone’s time. If you promised a pitch that would take half an hour, make sure it’s completed in 30 minutes. You may have to truncate parts of your presentation to adjust for conversation that organically develops around particular points. If post-presentation discussion naturally extends beyond the appointed time, that’s perfectly OK (in fact, it’s probably a great sign that you made an impact).

It can be done — and done well

Our all-remote team pitch ultimately came off remarkably well. Even with a few technical issues, we managed to learn a lot in the process and pull together a unified, cogent, and visually appealing presentation highlighting a host of relevant expertise from each member of the team.

More importantly, the remote presentation experience was energizing and fun. It delivered lively conversation with engaged and appreciative participants — and prospective future clients.

Should you be mind mapping?

“Brain fog” is a common complaint these days. But there are techniques that can help organize thoughts and tasks to cut through the haze. Have you ever tried mind mapping?

The Sterling team recently experimented with collective mind mapping to exercise our mental muscles and recharge our creative batteries.

Basically, a mind map is a way to work with information that is more experiential and less linear than simply jotting down notes.

The term “mind map” was coined by the late BBC personality and author Tony Buzan in the 1970s. Buzan’s mind maps were based on the “abstracting” principles of general semantics developed by Alfred Korzybski.

The principal involves crafting diagrams representing ideas, tasks, actions, and relationships around a central concept by using lines and shapes and images and colors — instead of relying on text alone.

The process forms a more communicative, memorable, and impactful exploration of information. 

Mind Maps are fun

Mind Mapping Sterling Communications
Sterling interactive mind map exercise.

To create a mind map, start with a single idea or topic. Then “grow” relational branches radiating from it to create a graphical data visualization.

Mind maps can be created with online tools. (We used Miro for our remote interactive exercise, but there are a variety of others available.) They can also be drawn by hand on paper or a whiteboard.  

They’re engaging

Simple Mind Map Diagram
Image credit: Safety Professionals Chennai / CC BY-SA

Depending on the depth of exploration desired, a mind map can be a sophisticated and highly detailed study or a quick and rudimentary sketch.

They’re practical

Simple mind map doodle.

Regardless of scale, mind maps are more intuitive than outlines and more informative than lists.

They are great for brainstorming and tend to spark creativity, so they form an excellent framework for collaborative documentation.

They’re also handy for personal use in simplifying complex processes, uncovering buried insight, or establishing clear structure for ideas that seem unwieldy. 

And that makes them a great tool for clearing brain fog!

The next time you have to take notes or outline a project, try structuring your thoughts as a mind map.

Here are some tips:

On a large blank piece of paper or online whiteboard, write a central topic or question in the middle of the page (or select a representative image) and circle it.

  • Begin by writing down ideas or descriptions branching out from the center circle as spokes or branches that are related to the central topic. Use symbols, shorthand, acronyms, and/or drawings to capture concepts. Don’t worry if they’re obvious or silly, that’s part of the process.
  • Try to find related sub-ideas or descriptions for each spoke/branch. Some may generate a whole new cluster with its own branches and sub-ideas. Draw a shape around these satellite hubs to emphasize them. If possible, use color and line thickness for linking ideas or emphasis.
  • Keep going until you fill the page, completely run out of ideas, or your allotted time runs out.
  • When you’re finished, take a moment to assess the map. If you spot connections/similarities on separate branches, draw a dotted line or arrows connecting them.

Review what you’ve done: Did any directions surprise you? Could you explain how your thoughts moved in retrospect? Do you have greater clarity on the topic or question?

We’re betting the answers will all be yes!

Media visibility = market share

Connecting the dots to grasp the business value of public relations

Wired UK recently published an interesting meetings-app analysis, titled “How Skype lost its crown to Zoom,” discussing how Zoom has become the consumer and corporate poster child for video conferencing in 2020. Yes, the pandemic drove its ascent. And yes, portability and feature development played their parts. It’s a good product, but so is Skype. So what gives?

The article illustrates something that is often difficult to convey when measuring the impact of marketing and public relations efforts on business success. Here’s the relevant snippet: 

“’If you look at the strength of Skype and Teams combined, they should be the ones having the Zoom moment but they’re not. It’s marketing, and a lot of people think of Skype as yesterday’s video calling.’ That’s echoed in the news coverage of video conferencing: according to data compiled by Muck Rack, a website collating journalism produced around the world, between May 2019 and February 2020, Skype consistently led media discussion around video conferencing. But when journalists started having to recommend software to use, they began mentioning Zoom more and more at the expense of Skype and other competitors. In March, Skype was mentioned in 51,000 articles, while Zoom gained mentions in 60,000 stories. By April, Skype remained the same, written about in 50,000 articles, while Zoom was included in 195,000 stories.”

media visibility

It’s worth noting that on April 1, MarketWatch reported that Zoom’s daily active user count was up 378% from a year earlier and monthly active users were up 186%. During the next 30 days, according to SensorTower, Zoom became the most downloaded non-game application worldwide with about 131 million installs.

There are a host of contributing factors to the Zoom Boom, and it probably won’t last forever. Security issues and market competition from upstarts like BlueJeans and heavy-hitters like Facebook and Google may impact long-term adoption.

But well-executed marketing outreach and public relations targeting media put Zoom on journalist radars. After a splashy IPO last year, keeping the company top-of-mind with writers and reporters translated into widespread media visibility at a strategic moment — and definitely brought the company to the attention of millions of potential new users as the pandemic unfolded and video conferencing became a de facto necessity. There is a direct correlation between Zoom’s remarkable growth spurt and its increased media visibility.

If people don’t know about your company, they don’t seek your services. 

Professional public relations attracts relevant media attention so that the people you want to reach will know who you are and what you do. 

In terms of business impact, Zoom’s current success shows that such media visibility can certainly drive market share. 

Media relations: 3 tips on perfecting the PR pitch

It seems like a good time to go over what makes a good PR pitch.

Why?

Oh, no reason. Well, maybe it does have something to do with the constant stream of reporters complaining about the terrible pitches they’re receiving from seemingly clueless PR professionals right now.

Folks, I know we’re all just trying to do our jobs. Public relations professionals play a variety of roles for a variety of different people. And when it comes to our relationships with journalists, sometimes that role is “punching bag.” That’s okay! We still love journalists.

And if you remember these three key steps when pitching, journalists might just come to love you, too.

1: Do your research

This is especially important right now: Even if you’re familiar with a journalist’s work, it’s a good idea to check up on what they’ve been covering lately—and how frequently, since coronavirus began dominating the news cycle. Many journalists have pivoted their beat to cover the virus or have slowed coverage of other topics. You’ll need to keep this in mind when pitching.

As always, you should only pitch reporters who truly would be interested in covering your story, so you’re not wasting anyone’s time—yours or theirs. Now is the perfect time to review journalists’ Twitter activity, too, and see if they’re already roasting your unfortunate brethren and their poorly worded or ill-timed pitches.

Basically, apply a bit of extra preparation and some restraint. If the journalist isn’t in the right place to receive your pitch for whatever reason, then don’t pitch them. It could end up hurting your future relationship with this person if you do.

And this is not the time to be garnering a bad reputation: Take it from someone with a name no one ever forgets.

2. Keep it brief

No one wants to be reading emails right now. Do you want to be reading emails right now? (That’s what I thought.)

So why would you send long-winded emails? Even if your pitch is a story match made in heaven for a particular reporter, they won’t have a lot of time to dedicate to reading it. So, keep it brief.

There’s no need to work every single detail into your initial pitch. If the journalist is interested in learning more, they’ll follow up. And they’ll appreciate you not wasting their time. Write out a list of all the information you would like to share with the journalist and pare down what must make it into the pitch and what you’ll save for any follow-up.

Your original pitch can be as short as four or five sentences (note that bullet points are particularly easy on the eyes). Briefly include:

  • Some kind of hook. Maybe this is where you mention that you saw they covered a pertinent topic or you provide an interesting statistic.
  • A brief introduction to your client as related to the subject. Don’t write the story for the journalist. Just offer an interesting direction for them to explore and a source of expertise (your client).
  • The call to action. Tell them what you want them to do or what you can do for them in simple terms: “Click here to read more/watch a video/see for yourself,” or “Let me know if you want to set up an interview/attend the event/learn more.”

Get those essentials into the shortest email you can before hitting send!

3. Read the room

Pretty much all anyone can talk or think about right now is coronavirus. Nothing like this has ever happened before in our lifetimes, and it’s affecting every aspect of our lives in unprecedented ways. This means we need to tread lightly these days, and not ignore the elephant in the room.

One basic tip on pitching in times of crisis is don’t, unless you have something relevant to offer — or you have no choice (and if that’s the case, I really am sorry).

We can all learn from the blistering response to Hot Pocket pitching itself as comfort food in the days after Sept. 11, and now we can also cringe along through The New York Times article roasting a PR professional for pitching her lingerie client at the height of the coronavirus. Those in the industry know that nothing in PR is executed alone. The reality is that the individuals publicly mocked for these major missteps probably had a team that faltered, too. Don’t fall into that same trap. Discuss pitching plans with your teams, plan together to chart the best way forward, and open those lines of communication with your clients on calibrating how best to tell their stories right now.

If the product or service isn’t helpful to the situation our world is in right now—and remember that journalists see right through those stretched “Hot Pocket” angles—then it might be best to give pitching a rest for a while. Keep monitoring your key journalists and the stories they’re telling.

Follow their lead.


This article was originally published as a contributed byline on PR Daily.

Sterling Advice on PR Pitching
PR Daily publishes expert advice from Sterling Communications.

We’re Suddenly All About Web Meetings

Since much of the world is working remotely at the moment and COVID-19 has put the kibosh on meeting in person, there’s been a surge in web conferencing to fill the communications void. All the tech events have gone virtual, the nightly talk show hosts now webcast from home, and Saturday Night Live even parodied the pitfalls of businesses adapting to Zoom togetherness. One startup cofounder is already publicly lamenting the uptick in meeting from home (MFH).

But like it or not, web meetings are here to stay for the duration.

We’ve always provided guidance for our clients on speaking with the media and appearing on camera, but MFH is a bit different. Taking the stress out of a now-common practice seems to be something everyone could use a few tips on these days. Here’s a brief overview on what you do and don’t need to web conference like a boss.

Equipment

Most modern PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones come with decent microphone and camera technology integrated into the device. 

Unless you’ll be broadcasting and recording for regular professional appearances on television or hosting your own podcast, you really don’t need to invest in purchasing a new webcam or XLR microphone. If you have the equipment, by all means use it, but it’s not essential for MFH. Microphone-equipped headphones or earbuds paired to your device are a nice accessory, especially if you’ll be participating from outdoors or anywhere with the potential for distracting background noise.

Setup

Make sure to test your web-conferencing app before the appointed time, and follow standard security/privacy guidelines.

Download any updates. If you’ll be screen-sharing documents, do a dry run to make sure you can launch and navigate through them in-app. Some web-meeting applications issue frequent background updates that may reset your preferences and permissions. That means you might be unable to pull up your PowerPoint slides at this week’s staff meeting without restarting, even though they worked fine last week.

Check microphone and video permissions and settings (make sure they’re enabled), and test sound and volume.

Position your computer or device so that the web camera is at eye level or slightly higher (stack your laptop on a couple of books if you have to) and make sure you aren’t backlit. Close the shades if you’re sitting in front of a window and dim any significant light sources coming from behind if you can — or position a lamp in front of you to illuminate your face.

web meeting tips
A backlit face (left) versus an illuminated face (right).

Virtual Meeting Tips

Try to look directly into the camera as much as possible. It’s the equivalent of maintaining eye-contact in person. 

If you’re in a large web conference or meeting, mute your microphone when you aren’t speaking. 

Try not to interrupt — wait until a speaker has finished before asking questions.

Unless you’re giving a presentation, don’t monopolize the conversation — give others a chance to participate.

If you are giving a presentation, make sure to pause frequently and ask if there are any questions before moving on.

Save the funny virtual backgrounds and filters for informal virtual gatherings. If you’re pitching a new client, MFH as the Cosmic Cat Head is not appropriate.

web meetings
Cosmic Cat web filter.

If your physical location is not something you want to broadcast on a web conference, a virtual standard office background is fine to use. 

web meetings
Generic office virtual background.

Be advised that virtual background function in Zoom and similar web meeting applications depends on specific bandwidth, processor, and/or green-screen requirements. But there are some free apps (like Snap Camera) that can help you workaround those limitations on many devices and operating systems.

And it may sound cliché but remember to be yourself and try to enjoy the opportunity to virtually leave your house. 

Gathering online for web meetings and conferences doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be a great way to stay engaged, connect with each other, and collectively keep our spirits up during these isolating times. 

Public Relations 101: Advice on hosting media interviews

Lately I’ve been explaining my career to confused relatives and Lyft drivers like this: You know in movies when a person is being interviewed by a journalist and someone will jump in exclaiming, “My client doesn’t have to answer that” or “We have no further comment” or “This interview is over”? That’s me!

Okay, look. That technically is true, but any PR professional knows that hosting interviews rarely goes that way. Thank heavens!

Even so, hosting interviews is an essential function in public relations, and it can be nerve-racking. Doing it with grace is a significant hurdle for PR professionals looking to take the next step in their careers.

Although no one can anticipate everything that might happen in a media interview with a client, the following tips should serve as a helpful guide on the PR pro’s role as interview host, including how best to prepare. 

DogOnPhone
Image credit: Whimsyscript,, CC2.0.

Understand competing priorities

Everyone will enter the conversation wanting something different—and it’s your job to help deliver it all.

As a host, understanding everyone’s priorities sets the stage for a satisfying interaction. It may be something as simple as a spokesperson having a hard stop time due to another commitment. That means it will be up to you to watch the clock and jump in at the end to make sure the interview wraps on time—while graciously offering to follow up with the journalist on anything that might have been missed. More on that later!

There might be a relevant whitepaper or case study your client really wants to get in front of the journalist, and it’ll be your job to make that happen. But don’t neglect the reporter’s priorities, either. Ultimately, if they don’t get what they’re looking for from the interview, they likely aren’t going to cover your client.

Take the time to research their previous coverage and ask if there are specifics they want to discuss during the meeting. Empathize.

For example, a reporter from a science journal is likely going to be seeking technical particulars and figures, so you should try to connect them with a spokesperson who can speak to that level of detail — and send them that whitepaper your client loves, too. 

By anticipating what each individual wants from the interview, you can better prepare yourself to be helpful and guide a conversation that fairly addresses everyone’s priorities. 

Do your homework (and bring it with you)

This should be obvious, but I can’t emphasize it enough: Have everything prepared and right in front of you for the interview.

“Everything” might include the original pitch to the journalist, the speaking points you prepared for your client, the reporter’s Twitter or Muck Rack page listing their latest work, their relevant articles, your spokesperson’s title and name (and it’s pronunciation!), the dial-in information if it’s a phone/video call or everyone’s contact information if you’re meeting in person, a backup dial-in option if there are connectivity issues, a recording device, a notepad and pen…look, if I’m extra nervous before hosting an interview, I’ll even write down my own name and title just so I don’t forget it.

The point to all this preparation is that you won’t have to waste any time scrambling during those precious few minutes with a journalist’s full attention. The only thing you should be focused on during that time is listening and taking notes. 

Respect the reporter

It’s easy to get so caught up in taking care of your client that you forget an interview is a two-way conversation. Like I said, the journalist ultimately controls whether you get that sweet, sweet coverage you’re hoping for, so show them a little respect! Your clients and spokespeople may not know the basics of working with media, but PR professionals have no excuse.

Take heed of these sacred rules: 

  1. Don’t ask for the reporter’s questions in advance
    No respectable journalist ever shares their questions ahead of an interview, and it’s insulting to ask. Inquire about general topics they want to discuss, ask if there’s any advance material you can provide (whitepapers, product specifications, biographical information, etc.), and leave it at that.
  2. Don’t ask to see an article before it’s published
    Once the interview is over, it is out of your hands — you have no control over what the journalist will write. If there are factual errors in the resulting published piece, you can reach out and request corrections.
  3. Don’t interrupt unless you absolutely have to
    Frankly, no one is in that interview to hear from you. Try your best to be a silent witness, and only jump in when it’s really necessary (like a non-disclosure agreement is about to be broken or the client has another interview scheduled in five minutes). Extra details can be supplied via email with the journalist after the meeting if necessary, you don’t need to interject them during the conversation. Preserve the precious one-on-one time between the reporter and your client. 

The follow up

Arguably the most vital part of your role in hosting an interview happens after the conversation has ended. This is your opportunity to tie everything together and make sure everyone goes home happy by bringing the priorities back into focus.

First lay the groundwork by mentioning at the end of the interview that you will follow up with the journalist via email to share any materials that might have come up during the conversation. For example, if a spokesperson mentions a recent announcement during the interview, you should make sure you send that press release along to the reporter afterwards. In that email, you should also take the opportunity to share anything that might not have come up during the interview, like the big announcement your spokesperson should have mentioned or that whitepaper your client really wants to share. 

This email will also be your chance to clarify or elaborate on anything your client said on the call. A good spokesperson knows to answer the trickiest questions with something along the lines of, “let me get back to you on that.” The follow up is where that happens. 

Without diminishing the drama of those movie scenes where the PR pro calls the shots, these tips should demystify the real-world duties in hosting interviews. The job may not often play out like it does on the big screen but nurturing a connection between client and journalist is an art in its own right.

As with all things, practice makes perfect in becoming a hosting pro — over the course of your career you will get plenty of it and it won’t always be glamorous.

In the meantime, we won’t tell if you exaggerate a little to your next Lyft driver.

A version of this article was recently published on Muck Rack.


Like what you’ve read? Ready to learn more? Email us at go@sterlingpr.com or call us at (408) 395-5500.