The Reason PR Fails Often Goes Back To Before the Storytelling

PR storytelling interview tips

The reason PR fails at storytelling often has nothing to do with understanding the makings of a good story or writing expertise.

Instead, the root cause can lie in the interviewing process for sourcing the content. If you don’t get this upfront step right — pull out the type of content that the outside world will care about — you’re forced to make cabbagade out of cabbage. Even if you pull it off, it’s still not very good.

I think it’s fair to say that interviewing tends to be an undervalued expertise in the communications industry. I say “undervalued” because PR trainings abound on topics like pitching journalists or how to use social media for brand storytelling. Good luck finding a webinar for PR that addresses the art of the interview.

As a starting point to learn more about interviewing, I reached out to a cross section of journalists who were gracious enough to share their wisdom on the topic. Each responded  to the question “What is one of your go-to techniques when it comes to interviewing?

Mark LaPedus (executive editor at Semiconductor Engineering)

I’ll answer the question with the caveat that I’m always learning, but here are a few thoughts. The interview starts before the interview itself. I try and prepare before the interview. I do enough research to make sure I know the subject and/or person. This way, I can keep the interview alive and flowing. The person that I interview knows I’m interested. Does that always work? No. But it works more often than not.

I make a list of questions beforehand. The list is very, very, very long. Then, I ask myself: “What do readers want to know or care about?” That narrows the list down.

To be honest, there are no hard or fast rules during the interview itself. It depends on the person, title, subject, etc. But you want to get a conversation going early and ask an opened-ended question first: What are the major challenges in your industry? How do you see things going in the industry? What’s your outlook, and so on. After you get a conversation going, you can move to the tougher questions later.

From there, I have questions in mind. But things never go as planned. One has to be nimble. One has to LISTEN. LISTENING IS THE KEY. That dictates the direction of the process.

Craig Matsumoto (Managing Editor at SDxCentral)

The trick that’s served me best is the ability to ask “What the heck does that mean?” in smart ways that get sympathetic responses. Sometimes you *can* just outright ask “What is that?” (about an acronym, a previous acquisition, an old technology), but they don’t always know how to answer. So you have to coach them: “I know about A, B and C, and this feels like it ought to be D, but I get the feeling that’s not quite it …”  The same thing was true in college, actually — I learned (too late) that the only good questions were the ones where I explained where my thinking was getting stuck.

Bien Perez (Senior Reporter at South China Morning Post)

Research is key when it comes to interviewing a source. Reading through old news reports, interviews and feature articles, as well as watching relevant videos about the subject, his company or industry usually unearths a tidbit or two, or more, which could be used to start the conversation or move forward a discussion. This nugget doesn’t have to be a controversial one to get the interviewee to talk more. But in my experience, controversy helps.

Pete Lewis (previously wrote for Fortune and The New York Times; now a novelist and freelance writer)

The key to a good interview, and, I’ve found, to most things in general, is to listen.

Keep Calm - PR storytelling journalists interview tips

There are a couple of points to make here.

One, it’s hard to focus on what someone is saying — not just the words, but the meaning too — when one is trying to scribble notes and simultaneously trying to think of the next clever question. All too often a reporter/interviewer is distracted by the mechanicals of the interview, or by the mental gymnastics of jumping back to what has already been said, or forward to the next question. The trick is to stay in the present, paying fierce attention to what the source is saying. To that end I prefer to record interviews, assuming the source agrees. Transcribing the recordings afterward is a bit more work, but yields more accurate notes. I use a notebook and pen, if at all, merely to jot simple reminders or snippets of quotes that might be useful in a story.

Two, often the biggest mistake an interviewer makes is trying to fill awkward silences by asking another question. Let the interviewee break the silence. Those awkward pauses often yield the most valuable interview insights; the subject might try to relieve the awkwardness by expanding on an answer that previously stopped short of full honesty. After all, the point of the interview is to capture the subject’s meaningful thoughts, if any. Sometimes it’s necessary to interrupt if it’s clear the subject is just cycling through prepared talking points, but in general the interviewer should interrupt as little as possible. Use your ears and eyes, not your mouth. Make eye contact. Look for physical clues — twitches, scowls, nervous habits like lip-biting or hair chewing — that might indicate tender areas of inquiry worthy of further probing.

Oh, and another thing: Be prepared. Do your homework before the interview. Know what you want to ask, but always be ready to let the subject take the conversation into unexpected interesting directions.

Junko Yoshida (chief international correspondent for UBM Electronics)

I do a lot of homework in advance. Without that hard work (when I am not well-prepared), I know my interview will be mediocre. But once in a blue moon, your source could be extremely informed and he could really surprise you. I love it when that happens!

There is really no silver bullet. But ideally you “connect” with the person early on during the interview so he or she is more inclined to tell you more.

Sam Whitmore (journalist in a variety roles in the Ziff Davis empire before launching SWMS)

I always get mileage out of deliberately building silence between questions — anywhere between three and five seconds. Interview subjects often can’t resist the urge to fill the void by saying more than they intended to, and I have gotten many an insight this way. The flip side of this is, when being interviewed, I often wait three to five seconds to answer. I want to be sure I understand the question exactly as it was asked, not as I may have perceived it … and I also want to formulate my thoughts as best I can before I answer. I learned that one from a famous software executive.

Doing your homework and having the ability to listen come across as common themes.

Obviously, the dynamic in an interview conducted by PR is going to be different than a journalist’s interview. Whether you’re talking with the CEO, a product manager or a scientist from R&D, you essentially share the same agenda as the source.

This can work to your advantage. Probing — borrowing Pete’s verb — and cajoling the interviewee to open up is easier when the person knows there’s a safety net.

With that said, there are times when you’ve got to push the individual.

Just not off a cliff.



New England Patriots Forget to Run SEO Play for Deflategate Microsite

Grid Play - SEO microsite

Showing knowledge that transcends zone blitzes and optimizing the price point of a 12-ounce domestic beer, the New England Patriots jumped into the content marketing game last week.

New England created a microsite to defend Tom Brady’s honor and the integrity of the franchise after the Wells Report reignited Deflategate. For the 27 Americans out there who aren’t football fans, Deflategate refers to the accusation that the New England Patriots secretly let some of the air out of the footballs to make it easier for Brady to pass the ball in a playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.

Keeping with the Watergate metaphor, if you believe the Wells Report, then you can think of Tom Brady as the “Gordon Liddy of Deflategate.” Naturally, Tom and the Patriots prefer associations with Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas and the like; hence, the microsite to deliver their point of view.

Evaluating the microsite from a content marketing perspective, I applaud the concept. It’s yet another sign of organizations of all types investing in owned media to take their story directly to the target audience.

It appears that the Pats’ law firm of Morgan Lewis developed the content for the microsite. Based on a best guess that around 200 man hours went into the microsite at an average billable rate of $400 per hour, this puts the cost of content development at roughly $80,000.

Why the Pats forgot the SEO part of content marketing is baffling. It’s a little like constructing a street, but not paving it. Without the blacktop, you limit the traffic. For another $10K and change, the site could have been a masterpiece, tuned to siphon off organic traffic and insert their point of view into the conversation.

Because our society revolves around the NFL, the media has been quick to write about the microsite with the requisite backlink as a traffic source. Even the NFL’s own site — right, the same NFL that funded the Wells Report — ran a story about the microsite. Another source of traffic comes from New England’s own site, which allocated space on its home page turf to bring attention to the microsite.

Patriots Website -SEO

Yet, all those fans plugging logical terms like “deflategate,” “NFL punishes Pats” and “Tom Brady cheats” into Google won’t stumble across the Pats’ microsite on the search engine results page. Yes, a certain percent will read articles that point them to the microsite, but why end up one generation removed from inserting your voice in the conversation?

Thinking that the problem might lie in New England’s running out of budget to optimize the online property, our SEO team felt compelled to lend a helping hand. As a pro-bono project — no need to thank us Mr. Kraft; we appreciate it’s been a tough go for your Pats — we offer some SEO suggestions to tune the site:

-  Home page title tag doesn’t reflect how people will search on the topic.

Wells Report Source Code - title tag- SEO

Most people aren’t going to search on the “Wells Report,” and certainly no one is going to be searching for “context” on this topic, wasting this valuable real estate. Keywords like “deflategate” and “Tom Brady” should have been part of the home page title tag.

- Massive Wall of Scary Text

The home page delivers 19,682 words with visuals breaking up one section. Even without access to the Google Analytics, we know this will generate a high bounce rate, a negative signal to Google that will hurt SERP performance. As a sidenote, it would be amusing to implement a heat map tracking system to observe what people try to focus on upon arriving at the site.

- Virtually no internal linking

This is an important factor in ranking content.

- Where are the H2 and H3 Tags?

The pages on the site feature super long text that is not broken up by subheaders (H2s/H3s). This would have allowed for placement of relevant high search volume keywords.

- The handling of PDFs

All the PDFs are not listed on the sitemap.xml. And the scanned letter is in a JPEG format. This results in none of the PDFs being indexed by Google.

- Amateur hour with the description meta tags

The description meta tag on the page consists of only “(by New England Patriots)” instead of providing some detail on the non-machine-readable scanned letter in JPEG image format. This results in the menu texts being used by Google as a page description:

Letter - D. Gardi - SEO

And while a meta description was penned for the home page, it exceeds the allowed pixel count, so it gets cut off in midstream.

- Too Much BOLD type

Could have used color which better resonates with the Google Algorithm.

And the list goes on.

As for the storytelling in the microsite, I will give it this. It’s thorough.

I also have to express admiration that the Pats could keep a straight face in rationalizing why one of the culprits was called the “Deflator.”

Mr. McNally is a big fellow and had the opposite goal: to lose weight. “Deflate” was a term they used to refer to losing weight. One can specifically see this use of the term in a Nov. 30, 2014 text from Mr. McNally to Mr. Jastremski: “deflate and give somebody that jacket.” (p. 87). This banter, and Mr. McNally’s goal of losing weight, meant Mr. McNally was the “deflator.” There was nothing complicated or sinister about it.

I defy anyone to find a “big fellow” — now there’s the conversational language I was looking for; much better than “large man” — who refers to himself as the “deflator.”

All in all, the Pats treat the narrative like an academic paper for a professor with Tolstoy posters in his cube.

This is not a court of law. It’s the emotional touch points that will sway public opinion.

In short, the copy reads like it came from attorneys on the clock.

Oh, that’s right. It did.

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Dusting Off the Interview with My Mom on the PR Industry

I interviewed my Mom last year in honor of Mother’s Day.

Doing my best imitation of Geraldo Rivera  — we both attended the University of Arizona and we both wear glasses — I peppered her with questions thinking that she didn’t understand the PR business. Heck, after 30+ years in PR, there are times when I feel like I don’t understand the communications business.

It turned out that I was wrong.

Actually, my Mom has a pretty good grasp of the PR world, which you can see for yourself in the video below.

While it was disappointing that she didn’t immediately know my blog’s name, she quickly bounced back as it became clear she’s an avid reader of the blog. How else could she have known that it offers “very interesting articles”?

Last week, both my Mom and my Dad immersed themselves in the PR industry, attending The Holmes Report SABRE Awards dinner in New York with my wife Heather, our U.S. general manager Steve Burkhart and me.

While we didn’t take home the gold and we needed a periscope to see the stage — table #82 was literally behind a partial wall at the back of the room — we still managed to enjoy ourselves.  Heather took the photo below of me and my parents, with the Mom once again directing traffic.

Holmes Report SABRE Awards- Lou Hoffman and parents

I have to admit. It’s more fun attending events with my parents now than it was as a child being dragged to Ricky’s bar mitzvah.




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10 Free (or Cheap) Tools that Deliver Extraordinary Results for Content Development

Free or cheap tools for content creation

Contrary to popular belief, content is not king.

Compelling content is king; i.e., content that offers fresh insights or educates or informs in a way for easy consumption.

As discussed in previous posts, most B2B content falls into the dreadful content bucket. Too much “me, me and here’s a little more about me” as opposed to an outward perspective.

One person who has labored over B2B content, what works and what doesn’t work, is my good friend and colleague Steve Farnsworth. In short, Steve knows content marketing and the nitty gritty of lead generation.

With this as the backdrop, here are his top 10 tools and resources that he applies to content marketing campaigns. Beyond developing the content, many of the tools address how to distribute and magnify the reach:

99designs: A marketplace for graphic design including logos and websites.

Buffer: Great tool for quickly scheduling and sharing updates for social posts. BTW, the Buffer blog serves as a poster child for thought leadership.

HootSuite: A social media dashboard for keeping an eye on people talking about your brand, responding to mentions and tracking keywords. It helps you understand how your content is being shared and by whom.

MailChimp: Online email marketing solution to manage contacts, send emails and track results. I plan to implement this tool for subscriptions to my blog when the new design goes live.

OBS: Open Broadcaster Software is free, open source software for video recording and live streaming.

Facebook Advertising: Accelerate findability — yes, it’s a word — of blog posts and digital assets using Facebook ads to drive traffic back to your site. I never considered this for B2B marketing, but the price point allows for experimentation. The Content Marketing Institute published a chart that shows Facebook advertising is definitely a value play:

 Av. Cost Reaching 1000 People 04-15

ShareX: Software for screen capture and screen recording (screen casting). I plan to experiment with this one. Based on the introduction screen, it looks like the Windows Snipping Tool on steroids.

SlideShare: Offers the ability to upload and share PowerPoint presentations, Word docs and PDFs. I often refer to SlideShare as “the poor man’s video” because in the right hands, you can bring an emotional bent to the content at a fraction of the cost associated with video. It’s an ideal platform for visual storytelling

Triberr: Called a blog amplication platform, Triberr allows you to connect with other like-minded bloggers and share each other’s work with your social neworks. You can think of this as on-demand creative services for deliverables ranging from videos to infographics. While we’ve built a creative services group within our company, here’s a tool for outsourcing design work. One way or another, all content marketers need to embrace visual storytelling.

With new tools coming on the scene every day (literally), there’s something to be said for those that have been battle-tested.

We’ve been kicking the tires of what’s called the MozBar, which automatically captures SEO metrics as you search the Web. I plan to publish a post on this tool soon.

In the meantime, feel free to add your favorites to the list. I’ll make sure they get passed to Steve.


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The Gift of Desperation

Woody Toy Story- The Hoffman Agency Tech PR storytelling

It’s amazing how survival has a way of tuning one’s senses.

That was the situation for our U.S. operation back in the 2011/2012 timeframe. It calls to mind the famous line from Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

It was time for our U.S. operation do things differently.

The underpinning of this massive overhaul involved the hiring of Steve Burkhart to take the U.S. reins as general manager. I concluded after serving in the dual roles of U.S. GM and global CEO since the Agency’s founding that we needed a fresh voice to lead the U.S. charge. Plus, I didn’t want Albert Einstein calling me insane.

I was just as passionate and optimistic about the Agency. I was even more determined to put the Agency on a positive trajectory. But I needed to channel my energies in a different way.

The gift of desperation.

At the core, we still have the same mission that puts the No. 1 emphasis on the client and service delivery. And we still have the same egalitarian culture that emphasizes teamwork. What the U.S. management team — Steve B., Kymra Knuth, and Steve Jursa — has done is establish a deep sense of accountability that underpins our core values.

There’s still “care” in the Agency — care for clients, care for the work we do and care for each other. But there’s also the expectation of high-level performance and the discipline to make changes when an individual doesn’t fit.

Recognition from the Holmes Report as a finalist for the Tech PR Agency of the Year offers another proof point that it worked. Out of literally hundreds of PR agencies focused on the technology sector, the Holmes Report judged us as the one of the top five in the country.

Certainly, the ability to win new accounts and drive revenue growth is part of the picture. We’ve enjoyed 30+ percent growth the past couple years with another double digit growth projected for this year.

The Hoffman Agency Tech PR - Agency Revenue Growth

Reflecting on the recognition from the Holmes Report, three pillars set the stage for this success.

The first pillar comes in the form of the leadership changes and creating a culture of accountability that I’ve already discussed.

The second pillar involves differentiating our offering. Every PR company with a pulse touts storytelling expertise, but it tends to be a squishy concept. We’ve been able to walk the talk, building out a storytelling methodology that serves as the foundation for how we develop content in client campaigns, our storytelling workshops and internal training.

As another means of differentiating our offering, our campaigns emphasize the building of online presence and search engine optimization (SEO). It turns out that high-quality content — that informs, educates and even amuses, ideally with a unique bent — is synergistic with SEO. High-quality content gets shared, and these signals (from shared content) go a long way in determining what Google serves up for a given search. Along this line, we’ve established an in-house SEO team to address the technical side of the discipline. Even with content driving our approach to SEO, there’s still a certain amount of technical rigor required on the execution side.

The third pillar focuses on our own brand and reputation. In competing against much larger shops, it’s important that we punch above our weight and show we’re good stewards of our own brand. With this in mind, we retooled our corporate identity baking the classic story arc into our logo:

The Hoffman Agency Logo Tech PR storytelling

And we bulldozed, creating a new public face to the outside world that showcases the our approach to storytelling — conversational language, anecdotes, visual storytelling, etc. — as well as a distinctive point of view.

Beyond the website, we apply the same tenets of thought leadership to our own brand building as we do in client campaigns. One of the more visible efforts comes out in SlideShare and decks like “Return of Storytelling vs. Corporate Speak” and “The Blurring Line Between Digital Marketing and PR.”

Of course, these three pillars might as well be made of cotton candy if we don’t execute our campaigns and generate the type of results that clients care about. It was gratifying that the Holmes Report highlighted our ability to execute: “… the work that Hoffman does is among the most sophisticated and creative in the tech sector.

I’m equally proud of our care for clients. I saw this play out over the past weekend when our Fremont account team went the extra mile on a Saturday to ensure the success of an interview with the Wall Street Journal scheduled for early Monday. It paid off with an 810-word feature published yesterday.

This same “care” underpins our work across the world. It’s tough to quantify. It’s impossible to leverage in new-biz reviews (every PR agency claims to be client-centric). But it absolutely differentiates our offering.

Kudos to the entire team, not just in the U.S., but in Asia and Europe — our cross-directional support is another unique characteristic — for making it happen.

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