Ever see a company/band/brand’s name pop up in your newsfeed and go, “WTF, why is everybody talking about these guys right now??” Well, that didn’t happen by accident (usually). It was almost certainly the product of a carefully planned and well-executed PR campaign. And while most of us kind of intuitively know this, we often have no idea how to actually put it into action for our own projects.
I’ve been on both ends of the PR coin over the years— as a writer for a bunch of music sites and magazines, and as someone trying to get press coverage of things I’ve worked on— and it’s actually pretty simple once you understand how the game is played.
Proof that I am not talking out of my ass here: I’ve gotten 100+ media placements for CreativeLive in national outlets like Alternative Press, Guitar Player, Revolver, and tons more. I also got coverage of my old company’s product design concepts in places like Engadget, Core77, and Gizmodo. And I worked on store openings for Abercrombie that got coverage on CNN, Business Insider, and more. I’m telling you this not to brag, but so that you know this is specific, actionable shit that I do every day.
That’s almost 10 years of success in driving high-level PR placements, and here’s my formula for making it happen.
A tiny fraction of the press we’ve gotten for CreativeLive by following the formula in this article
DO NEWSWORTHY THINGS
All the money in the world will not get people to cover your work if it isn’t newsworthy. Obviously the definition of “newsworthy” is subjective, but think of the headlines on your target sites/magazines and ask yourself if what you’re doing could be in one of them.
You have to be honest with yourself here. If what you’re doing is not newsworthy, don’t waste your time and money on PR because the results will be shitty. Sending out a press release won’t make people write about you unless there is something to write about!
The good news is that you can make almost anything newsworthy if you just push yourself to add some kind of clever/interesting twist to it. Start from what you would imagine as the headline and work backward from there.
For example, let’s say you’re a graphic designer. “Some guy nobody knows about made a new portfolio website” is not newsworthy. But if you got a Donald Trump impersonator to read all the text on your portfolio… now we’ve got something! “This guy’s portfolio is narrated by Donald Trump” could definitely be a headline on some design news sites. But don’t let the gimmick overshadow the work itself– you need to make sure that your work is good enough to stand on its own once the novelty of the gimmick wears off.
So in summary, if your work is newsworthy on its own (“I built a rocketship in my backyard”) then you are good to go. If it’s not, you need to find a way to add a twist to your work so that it IS newsworthy.
Think of your PR firm as the key that will unlock the media for you
FIND THE RIGHT PR AGENCY
This is by far the hardest part in my experience. There are many, many bad/mediocre PR firms and very few good ones. Here’s what makes a good one good:
- They have existing relationships with the outlets that you want to appear in
- They understand your project and what’s cool/special about it (so they can pitch it effectively)
- They give a shit about your project, so they will actually push to get you coverage rather than just send out a press release and call it a day
You’ll probably have to try out a few people/firms before you find the right one, so don’t expect this to happen overnight. A good place to start is by asking friends for recommendations. Another option is to find press releases for similar projects to yours that have gotten good press coverage, and hit up whoever is listed as the PR contact.
For my day job at CreativeLive I tried out 3-4 firms before landing on the right firm, who I worked with for the next few years and did an incredible job (not bashing any of the other firms we worked with— they were all really cool, it just didn’t work out). It took me several months to find them but it was TOTALLY worth the effort: they’ve gotten us coverage in tons of A-level music outlets like Premiere Guitar, Revolver, Decibel, The Hollywood Reporter, Modern Drummer, and tons more. You want to keep looking until you find an agency that kicks ass for you like these guys do for us.
The cost can vary a lot, but expect to pay as little as a few hundred dollars for a press release up to a few grand for a full-scale campaign with a big agency.
It is NOT a “you get what you pay for situation.” In my experience many of the larger firms don’t give a shit about their smaller clients (see point #3 above), so unless you’re one of their big clients you get underwhelming results. I personally think you get the most bang for your buck from small, hungry boutique firms like Fresno Media or Earshot but your mileage may vary.
PAY FOR PLAY, IF NEEDED
If there is any “secret hack/cheat code” for generating PR, this is it: if you advertise with someone, they are far more likely to cover you. Shocking, right?!
For some reason none of the “how to get PR” articles I researched mention this, probably because it seems tacky or whatever… but it’s how the world works.
Some people will do straight up pay-for-play, like “if you buy $X worth of ads, we’ll do an article about you.” For example, have you ever noticed when the band on the cover of the magazine also has a (very expensive) ad for their new album on the back cover?? Gee, what a strange coincidence!!
Others won’t be quite so blatantly transactional about it, but dropping some cash on ads will ALWAYS increase your chances of getting coverage— if for no other reason than they’re familiar with your product after seeing your ads on their own site.
This works best when you coordinate with your PR firm: if you know that they’ll be hitting up Site X next month to get coverage for your project, do an ad buy with Site X this month so they’re primed to say yes when the PR guys/girls hit them up next month (hopefully they will feel kind of obligated because you spent money with them). I’ve successfully used this tactic to get coverage on several sites who were notoriously tough nuts to crack.
A good way to test this is to spend a small amount on some banner ads with a site you’d like to get coverage on and see what happens— think of this like your first date. $250-500 is usually enough for medium-sized sites (for example MetalSucks), but it will depend on the size of the site, obviously that amount is not gonna get Wired or the NYT’s attention.
If it seems like they’re interested in getting more serious, then keep doing ad buys. If they just take your money and don’t seem interested in a relationship, then bail and move on to your next target. You want a ring, not a one night stand!
The “pay for play” part is completely optional, but if you have a reasonable budget to work with it’s definitely worth considering.
“BUT I CAN’T AFFORD THAT!!”
I understand that dropping $250-1000 is a lot of money for many people, especially when the returns aren’t guaranteed. That said, if you are doing something that is genuinely cool and newsworthy, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by cheaping out on PR. The real question is, can you afford NOT to invest in PR??
You spent a ton of time and money creating/doing something awesome, why would you sell yourself short by skimping on PR and (most likely) condemning it to obscurity?? Just one good writeup in the right place can be life/career-changing, and what price can you put on that?
But are you REALLY that broke??? Or are you just being cheap?
If you are saying “I can’t afford to pay a PR firm” then you turn around and spend $1000 on a new guitar, drop $100 at the bar every weekend, or spend $60 on a video game, then I don’t know what to tell you. Sounds like you are investing in the wrong things and setting yourself up for failure. Smile now, cry later!
IF YOU MUST DO IT YOURSELF, HERE’S HOW
But let’s say you are really, truly broke and you have no choice but to do your own PR. Let’s also assume that you don’t have any relationships with sites/writers. You can still pull it off, it will just take some hustle on your part.
Do NOT just send out a press release to every blogger’s email address that you can find. This is extremely annoying and they will all get deleted immediately.
Instead, you will need to take a surgical approach.
What you should do is send personalized emails to people who have covered similar projects to yours. This email should make it clear that you are familiar with them and their work, and that you are hitting them up because you have a legitimate reason to think they might be interested in what you’re doing.
Something along these lines:
“Hey [name], I’m a big fan what you are doing at [site name]. Love that you are documenting [whatever], I especially liked your article about [details here]. (Here you are establishing that you actually give a shit about their work, which will make them much more likely to give a shit about YOUR work. See how that works??) I wanted to send you a note about my new project because it seemed like it might be up your alley: [blurb about your project here]. Thanks for your time!” (Here you are showing them that you are respectful of their time/recognizing that they get hit up a lot by other broke motherfuckers like yourself— this makes you seem like a cool person that people might want to help)
Note that YOU SHOULD NOT JUST COPY/PASTE THIS AND FILL IN THE BLANKS. You need to write an actual, personalized email to each person! Do NOT spam people with crap they won’t care about. Like when I get press releases (or worse, Facebook messages) about black metal bands despite never, ever having a positive word to say about black metal in my entire life. This is a very good way to make people dislike you! Only contact people who you genuinely think will be interested in what you’re doing.
This will take a lot of grinding on your part, but if you have a really cool project, it can get you some press on smaller sites (not likely to work on the bigger ones, but always worth a shot).
I highly recommend investing in pros to do it right, but if this is truly your only option then it’s better than nothing and it can work.
- You can only get coverage of things that are actually newsworthy
- Finding a good PR firm is hard but SUPER valuable
- You can grease the wheels by doing small ad buys
- If you must DIY it, send highly personalized emails to select targets
- Look at PR as an investment in yourself— it’s money well spent!