Classic PR Effort Leverages One Phone Call To Draw Millions of Eyes and Millions of Dollars—Without Even Writing a Press Release
Earlier this morning I walked over to Bulldog Reporter‘s “press release” mailbox and picked up the first seven or ten releases in there – just to see what kind of press materials PR firms are sending us by hard copy. Bulldog Reporter‘s press mailbox is a thin, black piece of plastic literally bursting at the seams with papers that no one will ever read. Of course, email is our preferred method of contact, but even so, the fate of these papers is that they will inevitably wind up the trash. Here’s why:
Of those first seven or ten releases I looked at, not a single one is relevant to what we write about here. But even putting that aside for a minute, all of these releases tout everyday occurrences that warrant no news coverage whatsoever – a partnership agreement between two tiny banks; a worker’s safety training session; an awards dinner; a book signing by an unknown author; a discount on a set of directories.
The grim reality is that reporters are swamped with this kind of ho-hum PR material every day: A new allergy nasal spray, a new paper towel dispenser, executive promotions, new hires, awards banquets. They never get the email that says “Time Machine Invented,” or “Bill Gates Cloned by Local Scientists.” And if they do, it’s usually a scam.
But the ho-hum, everyday pitch is a reality for PR firms, too. Most of our clients are promoting everyday products and services that make the world go around – paper towels, allergy sprays, new hires and promotions – but these things are just not that newsworthy in the eyes of the media. So how do you get your client out there in an industry full of editors waiting for the time machine to be invented or Bill Gates to be cloned?
That was the challenge faced by Anne Steinberg, managing director for New York-based Kitchen Public Relations, LLC, when Kitchen signed on with Trufresh, a seafood processor hoping to make a big splash at a seafood trade show in Boston last year. The patent on Trufresh’s “Unique Fresh Freezing Method” was set to expire in 2006, and the company was desperate to sign new licensing agreements with seafood producers before losing the patent. Trufresh looked to Kitchen to garner media attention about their freezing method in hopes of attracting new clients.
Steinberg knew the media would not exactly salivate over a story about a seafood freezing process. But an interesting detail came to light while Kitchen was in talks with Trufresh. It was so interesting, in fact, that Steinberg knew she could turn it into a “Time Machine Invented” kind of story: Trufresh told Steinberg that when it used its patented technology to freeze lobsters at 40 degrees below zero to keep them fresh, some of the lobsters actually came back to life after they were thawed out. Lobster doesn’t get much fresher than actually being alive, so this was an incredible selling point for Trufresh, and a testament to their brand and freezing process that would most certainly be attractive to potential clients who want nothing but the freshest seafood. But even more than that, the idea of lobsters coming back to life after being frozen is an incredible selling point for the media.
“It really proved once and for all how truly fresh the process is,” Steinberg says. “But it’s also a science fiction story – the lobsters come back to life! We said, ‘We have to have a video of this.’
“We knew the press isn’t very interested in products – they’re more interested in ideas and trends,” she continues.”And we knew that if we went to a reporter, even a trade reporter, with a breakdown of the freezing process, they would respond with a yawn. But the lobsters coming back to life gave us a great hook, and it inevitably allowed us to talk about the freshness of the freezing process that was at the heart of the story.”
“So we went out to Trufresh’s research and development outfit in northern Maine where they do a lot of their testing on fish. Now, we didn’t go out and hire some great production company to shoot us HDTV or Panavision or whatever. We just took a hand-held camera, played some music on a boom box, used the clock on a cell phone to show the time lapse, and videoed the lobsters being frozen. It was about as low tech as you can get – but that’s what made it so charming. And we got footage of some of the lobsters coming back to life.”
This was all Kitchen needed to invade the press. But they opted out of an all-out media blitz in favor of a controlled rifle-shot approach. “Like most PR people who know what to do, we took a look at the pre-registered press list for the trade show – but we weren’t impressed. So we made some phone calls – we called around to the Boston Globe and Herald, and then we located the AP’s Boston Bureau reporter. We finally found the right guy; he happened to be the northeast hunting and wild fisheries reporter – not a food reporter. We called him up and told him about the lobsters. He was interested and interviewed our client and that was it. We didn’t even write a press release – we got to the right reporter with the kind of story that that reporter could do. An AP reporter will never, ever write a story about the Trufresh freezing process. But a story about lobsters coming back to life? This is something he will write about.”
“The next day, which was the day before the trade show, the story went out on the national AP wire. We just figured it would go on the local wire – we like to keep our clients’ expectations low – but it actually went international. It was so big that everybody stampeded the Trufresh booth at the show. We got press from all over the world – and not just coming off of the AP story. We secured interviews with ‘CBS Morning News’ and radio stations – and the story showed up on blogs. It was even in the Pakistan Times. We were getting phone calls from everyone. It was insanity. It was fantastic – truly unbelievable.”
Print highlights included USA Today, Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. CNN, Fox News and numerous other TV outlets across the country jumped on the story. But more importantly, Trufresh signed several multi-million dollar deals and its revenue shot up to record heights.
Steinberg offers these tips and explains why this campaign won the Bronze in Food & Beverage and the Gold in General Business at the 2005 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations & Publicity:
1. Do your research and find the right reporter
“People talk about thinking outside of the box in terms of developing strategy and everything else,” Steinberg explains. “But in order to get coverage in the press, you actually have to be inside the box – you have to understand an outlet’s beat system to find the right reporter to do your story. In this case, the logical choice, the food reporter, was not the right person at the AP to do this story. But we were inside of their beat system – we know how it works – and so we found the right person.”
In fact, when Bulldog Reporter contacted the AP food editor, she told us that her coverage has nothing to do with businesses or professionals in the food industry – she only writes recipe-based stories geared toward the home cook and wants nothing to do with a company’s freezing process. In this case, pitching the food editor would have killed the story right there.
“It’s not a bad thing to pick up the phone and find out who the right person is,” Steinberg confirms. “You must know what these reporters cover, especially when you have a really good story. And never write a press release before you target the right person. Many PR people just write what the client wants, and this is a great mistake. It’s a very delicate thing.”
2. Make your message work for the reporter AND your client
“When you’re trying to pitch a story or you have an idea for a pitch, you have to do a balancing act. You have to hear what your client is saying – they need to say something important to sell the product – but the press is unable to write stories like brochures,” he says. “This is one of the real problems that a lot of PR people have – they don’t understand how to take a message and make it work for a reporter. We serve two masters – the client and the press. If you can’t do both, you can’t win.”
3. Educate your client about the media
“A lot of PR people fail to educate their clients about how the press works – they teach them about sound bites and give them media training, but they never discuss the back end, which is, why does the press publish what they publish? Why does American Banker write the same story as The Wall Street Journal but in slightly a different way, for example? Your client must understand these nuances. It’s just like marketing – there are different messages for different audiences. PR people don’t apply that enough. The key is to support your clients’ goals and objectives in a way that the press can effectively write a story about them. People spend a lot of money on PR for limited results. In this campaign, we showed how you can take a small brand and elevate it into the national limelight on a tight budget.”
Laura Czaja, vice president, was a major player in this campaign and should be acknowledged.
Kitchen Public Relations, LLC, www.kitchenpr.com, is a strategic public relations firm based in New York City that specializes in business-to-business and business-to-consumer media relations. For more information contact Anne Steinberg, managing director, 212-687-8999.
Frank Zeccola is an associate editor with Bulldog Reporter newsletters, covering media news and intelligence for PR pros. Please visit our new, redesigned website: http://www.bulldogreporter.com.