Seth Linden, President of Dukas Linden Public Relations, describes how to effectively work with clients when they want to secure earned media coverage. Seth explains key skills he’s learned including understanding the news cycle and building strong relationships with journalists. Seth also discusses the importance of local news in the public relations industry.
DOUG: Obviously, a key focus for you is earning media for your clients. And like most in PR, you’re aware that there’s been a media consolidation. How was that affected what you do and what are some ways to sort of navigate around that?
SETH: Well, when Richard Dukas founded our firm, he had a tagline, It’s the media that matters. And what it really meant is that it had a double meaning. One was it’s the media that counts and it’s the media and the relationship that matter as well. And being able to break through a consolidated media industry requires skill. So, what does that mean? It means having the right messaging, staying on top of the news cycle, making sure that your spokespeople are effective, and that you know how to meet reporter’s needs. There are fewer outlets. There are more than enough guests who are willing to be on Zoom and be on at any time. So, you’ve got to have a really strong, effective pitch and a client that is willing to be a solid spokesperson and is willing to be accessible to journalists. It sounds easy, but it requires a lot of skill. And I do think where we’ve had a chance to shine is really getting to know the producers and reporters who cover the beats that we care about and to really understand what their needs are. So, I do think that pounding the pavement still matters, sitting down with journalists talking about what they need for coverage and being respectful of their deadlines and what they need for their overall reporting structure, that’s critical. And so, the relationships really matter.
DOUG: And so what are some of the ways that you approach? It can be difficult to get the client on board with trying to come up with a message that both they’re comfortable and it’s the win win and it benefits them and benefits the journalists.
SETH: I think it’s about really making sure that you have a very strategic partnership with the client. And I don’t mean that just as sort of a lip service phrase. You’ve got to be able to tell a client this is newsworthy, this is not newsworthy. Your spokespeople need more work before they can go on a broadcast network like a CNBC or a Bloomberg. And by having that level of candor and making sure that the story is right and that the spokespeople are well messaged, well coached, but also responsive to reporter’s needs, that’s really critical to being successful. So, you have to be able to have that interaction with the client. If you can have that level of honesty and partnership, that’s not a recipe for success.
DOUG: And they’re also tech companies you work with. And with this sort of uncertain economic environment, even though those had predicted a recession already that we’d be deeply in, that hasn’t happened yet. But there is that uncertainty and that can generate negative news. How do you work with clients when there might be negative news out there? Is there something that makes you say, this is something we need to engage? Here’s how. This is something that we can just step back from. How do you try and divide which choice to make?
SETH: It’s really a two-part answer to your question. The first is you have to, again, be aware of the news cycle and really know reporters and what they’re looking for. So, for example, when the federal government is taking over community and regional banks, that is clearly not an appropriate time to bring a story that’s irrelevant to the reporters covering what is a major story. PR People make that mistake. They’re not always targeted in their pitching. And I know you know that from your experience. So, you have to make sure that you’re timely and again, can respond to news. But on the other hand, you also have to give good counsel to the client. And if you as we do, we represent regional banks. We have to say, is this a time to be out there talking about how well we’re doing as an organization? The answer may be yes, but it may also be no. You have to figure out that cadence. And that really does come from journalist experience. And also, I think being what we call a player manager, where you’ve done this a long time and you understand the news cycle and also really what sort of the emotive tones are. If a CEO gets out and says, we’re doing great, but isn’t empathetic to the broader trend where the industry isn’t doing great, that’s a misalignment. But if it’s about showing conviction and making sure that you’re showing that your organization is strong and stable, that’s an effective tool and that we recommend.
DOUG: Yeah. And you sort of mentioned what turned out to be the number two complaint of journalists in our 2023 TV producers survey, and that was that the people pitching them sometimes aren’t aware of what their show’s about. They just lack research and awareness, so they don’t pitch them the right way. You had a chance to look over the report. Did anything jump out at you either in a positive or negative way given your experience as a journalist yourself?
SETH: Several things struck me from your survey, which I think are intuitive to us as a professionals. So, the fact that 82% of local broadcast network producers feel annoyed, not surprising. Years ago, we made the decision as an organization, my partner, Richard Dukes, did, to bifurcate and make broadcast our own separate specialization because we found that people were double pitching broadcast networks. And a CNBC producer called Richard and said, why am I getting multiple pitches from your firm? And we took that as an opportunity to say, let’s have a concentrated broadcast team that is being targeted, knows the shows and the producers, and also is being mindful and respectful of producers time. And I have to say it worked very well and became a key ingredient for our organization. So that struck me.
DOUG: And one more thing before we get to the next one, because being an optimist by nature, I sort of took it as a positive that there were 18% of the journalists that said they weren’t annoyed because previously every one of them gives you an answer when you ask if PR people annoy them. So that was surprising to me. I don’t know if you were surprised a little bit about that, but you can let me know and then jump to the next point you were making.
SETH: It is good that roughly 20% of producers do not feel annoyed, but clearly that means the industry can do better. Now, I’d like to think that hopefully, if I may be a modest, good firms like ours are preventing that annoyance because we’re being targeted. We’re making sure we’re reading what reporters are writing and what they’re producing and what’s going on air. And I do think that makes a difference. But I’ve seen it myself as a former broadcast journalist, where you’re just bombarded with calls or you’re being targeted in the wrong way, and that’s not respectful to reporter’s time And it just leads to, frankly, a waste of time on all ends, whether it’s the journalist, the media outlet or the PR person and the client. So, I guess it gives a hint at 20% figure of what’s possible.
DOUG: Yeah. And being bombarded, that was the number one complaint. And that one, like I said, maybe I’m a little more forgiving because sometimes as a PR person, your client saying we need to get an answer when you know it’s not the right thing to do, but you’re being forced to sort of do a follow up, you know, did you get it? Can we get an answer on that? But the others, where you’re not doing research, not preparing, not pitching something that’s a match for the program. Those are easily avoidable mistakes if you put the time into that. What are some of the other challenges that communicators are facing that they can maybe think to overcome to get better results from their media outreach and I should probably tag to the end, do you feel effective media outreach is becoming more important for your clients?
SETH: Effective media outreach is becoming more important for clients because they need to be transparent, they need to show conviction, and they need to break through the noise. As we know, there’s so much content out there today. And if you go on LinkedIn, everyone and I think in many ways it’s a good thing. But many people are writing blog posts, they’re posting all the time. So, to have earned media where you have the credibility of an actual real news organization talking about what you’re doing, I think that counts for more than it did ten years ago in many respects. But here’s the challenge. You have to be able to have a good story. You have to be able to know the reporters and break through. And I’ll use broadcast as an example. It is more difficult today to get on a national broadcast network because there are more regular contributors and producers are more scrutinizing about which guests they put on the air.
DOUG: And you’ve touched on something we found, you know, every client, we want to be on CNBC, they want the huge hits to get going. We found that obviously the broadcasters can say, oh, what other TV interviews have they done? We want to see them. We found that with our satellite tours, the local media, which is more trusted by the viewers than either social media or national, is often a great steppingstone to help someone prepare, refine their pitches. It’s just like a baseball player doesn’t start in the major leagues. Have you seen that local TV pitching can be effective and is that an important part of what people should be thinking about?
SETH: Local matters. And I do think that people do trust still their local news station for being an important news source. And it actually struck me that 90% of the people at the affiliates that you surveyed now are open to using Zoom or do use Zoom. There are more possibilities for key, key spokespeople from different parts of the country to be on a local network in a very seamless way. I remember when I was a broadcast reporter, the big question is, can we get a photographer out today? Can we get to the can we get to the source? So, the fact that now we have Zoom as a key tool plus doing satellite media tours through organizations like yours, that’s great. So local can be very effective. And many organizations, they want to be known in their hometown, even if they’re nationals. So local can play a good role.
DOUG: You know, for journalists, it’s just so much harder to get them out to events given their added workload. Have you been thinking at all about, like virtual press conferences and how you bring the media to your people and to your events?
SETH: Well, the virtual component is noticeable, so we’re doing more interviews via Zoom. We are getting to know reporters more on a digital basis. It used to be when I started in this business, pick up the phone, pick up the phone and call the reporter. Now it’s about sending a very strategic, very short, very compelling email, also using social media channels. But as we’ve been coming out of the pandemic, it is clear that more reporters want to meet again. And I think, frankly, being headquartered in New York matters. If you’re in the financial services, PR business and reporters will sit down if you’ve got good sources, that that is becoming more apparent again.
DOUG: We know that an effective PR person really has to have a deep level of knowledge about the specific subject they’re talking about. But do you have any other guidance for people or maybe early in their career and they’re going to be involved in pitching the media effectively?
SETH: It may sound cliche, but read, read, read everything you can. Nora Ephron, make sure S&P, she had a great phrase that essentially was everything is copy. And that is true to being a PR person. If you go to a museum exhibit, a sporting event, a concert, if you’re reading a novel that may come into your world in talking to a client or a reporter, it allows you to build relationships to understand people. And I have found sometimes that client relationships or reporter relationships have been built based on something that we mutually read or a movie that we saw. So, you do want to be obviously precise and knowledgeable in the field that you represent but try to be a renaissance person as much as you can when it comes to knowing about the world. You never know where it will come into play. And not only an effective way, but a fun and engaging way. And it just, I think, makes not only work more interesting, but life more interesting.
DOUG: Yeah. And of course, this information is frequently, if not at your fingertips at the end of a mouse click.
SETH: Exactly. But it’s also, you know, I think the experience, some of the best conversations that I’ve had with clients are about holding that book or visiting that museum or going to a certain location. So, it’s really trying to take life and I would say intellectual experiences and making that part of your professional world.
DOUG: This has been great to have. Any final thought you want to add?
SETH: Just that if you’re listening to this and you’re thinking about how can I touch media in the right way? It really is about making sure that you’re precise with the way that you’re reaching journalists. You have to read their work. You have to know the nuances of what they’re doing. And it doesn’t mean just reading one story. It means reading many stories and understanding how people are quoted and how they’re positioned. That’s really critical.
DOUG: Thanks so much for your time. It has been really informative.
SETH: It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.