Morgan Shepard

Senior Account Executive

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some hire public relations officers."
- Daniel J. Boorstin

The brutal truth about sending product samples

When you work in PR for consumer products, it’s a common practice to send samples of that product to targeted media contacts with the hopes of receiving editorial coverage. After all, how can you expect a writer to review and endorse your product without first testing it out themselves?

This practice is especially prevalent in the competitive fashion and beauty industry, where brands invest thousands of dollars in sending out free product samples and creating over-the-top brand experiences.

However, the extent of the free products and experiences that media outlets receive has always remained a bit of a mystery until now.

A new and comprehensive report from Racked called “The Swag Project” is shedding light on just how widespread this practice is, how it has created a culture of swag resale and donation that’s an open secret in the industry, and how it’s inspired Racked’s staff to revisit and evaluate its own editorial code of ethics. Over the course of six months, Racked’s editors and reporters meticulously tracked and accounted for all of the gifts and experiences its staff received. The results?

Racked’s team estimates that it received more than $95,000 in free products and experiences over the course of one six-month period. Moreover, of the 2,662 beauty and fashion items that the staff received, less than 7% made it into editorial coverage.

You can read the full report with numbers and charts, here.

If your mobile website isn’t user-friendly and fast, you’re irrelevant.

Remember when a company named Blockbuster went out of business simply because it couldn’t keep up with the changing marketplace? Don’t let that be you.

Making your website mobile-friendly and fast in 2017 is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Facebook, which is the #1 mobile app in the United States for both audience size and time share spent on the app, announced yesterday that it’s updating its mobile news feed’s algorithm to prioritize content from websites with faster load times on mobile devices.

The move is designed to improve user experience and is long overdue. According to Facebook’s 2016 report, more than 1 billion users access the social media platform using their mobile devices every day.

Not to mention that Google, which is the #1 most visited website in the world, has been factoring website load time into its algorithm since 2010.

So, what exactly was it that you’re waiting for? If you needed a sign, here it is.

[SOURCE: Facebook Newsroom]

Your “News Story” Sounds A Lot Like Advertising

One of the nation’s largest television broadcasting companies is openly questioning some of the content its affiliated stations have been airing as “news,” according to a recent email obtained by FTVLive.

Raycom Media, which owns or provides services to more than 60 television stations in the United States, allegedly sent out an internal memo to its leadership team asking them to, “help manage the ‘free publicity‘ we give businesses.”

FTVLive reported that the email was distributed by Raycom’s own VP of News Steve Ackerman. You can read the memo in its entirety, here, but I pulled out the core message below:

In just the last week, Krispy Kreme promoted half-price donuts and IHop promoted 59-cent pancakes. The campaigns were paid for somewhere, but ended up in many of our social media feeds and on some of our (and other) broadcasts.   When we use our social media platforms and broadcasts to push these things without any editorial context, we’re violating our editorial guidelines AND undercutting our advertising business.  We should (and WILL) always defend the right of our newsrooms to cover stories, but we should NOT blatantly promote businesses without any editorial context calling it news.

[SOURCE: FTVLive]

Take a moment to digest all of that information. What stood out to you? As both a former journalist and a current public relations professional, there were several elements of this email that resonated with me. However,  I’ve whittled down my thoughts to three key takeaways:
  1. Journalism is a public good…but your business is NOT the public. While journalism at its core is an act of public service, that act of service is supposed to always be done in the favor of a news outlet’s readers or viewers, not you. If your “news story” only benefits your business—which is private!—by promoting your goods and services, it’s probably not a story at all. Sorry, GEICO. I did save 15 percent or more by switching to you for car insurance, but you will not make it into a news rundown with that information alone.
  2. It’s called “the news business” for a reason. If you take away one thing from this post, I hope this is it: News is a business. As such, a news organization cannot exist without funding. While subscriptions make up a portion of a news outlet’s profits, advertising has long been the bread and butter for the industry. Especially with today’s rapidly changing and increasingly crowded media landscape, those advertising dollars are more important than ever. As the adage goes, “There is no such thing as free lunch.” If you want promotional content for your business, buy an advertisement. This gives you a guaranteed placement in front of your target audience and full control of what the message the audience receives will be. If you don’t want to pay for an advertisement, you have to be a lot less picky and a lot more strategic. Why? Because, you see….
  3. Even trained journalists can have a hard time distinguishing editorial content from advertising. Sure, you could say the reason why promotional content is getting unqualified editorial coverage is because journalists are lazy or because they’re under pressure to continue pushing out content 24/7 or because they are simply amateurs. All of those assumptions could be true, but to me, this problem is more indicative of the blurred lines that exist in our world today than it is a reflection on one industry’s shortcomings. If there are news websites for every topic and type of person under the sun, then what is news? The answer can get a little complicated, because something that is newsworthy to one media outlet might be strictly promotional to another one. A community newspaper cares when one of its own gets a special award or opens their own business. That paper might even run the story on its front page…but the local TV station that reaches nearly 2 million homes? You’d be lucky to get a 20-second VO (that’s television speak for “voiceover”). A true PR professional has to have the knowledge and judgment to discern whether the “news story” you want has any news value at all, or whether it sounds a lot more like an ad.

How to Tell if They’re Fake

I’m talking about influencers, here people. They’re a growing part of today’s ever-evolving media landscape, and yet many people struggle to grasp what an influencer even is and how to measure their influence. The definitions get even more blurry when you introduce the concept of micro-influencers and macro-influencers.

The core concept is simple enough. An influencer is someone who wields influence over a select group or groups of publics, which is fancy PR jargon for different audiences listen to and are actively engaged with what an influencer says and does. For example, Kayla Itsines, is an international, fitness personality with a growing following that’s comprised primarily of millennial women. These women, who run the gamut from young college students to working professionals and mothers in their thirties, follow Itsines on Instagram and use her online and mobile app-based exercise and nutrition programs to reach their health goals. Therefore, if you’re rolling out an influencer campaign for the latest new OREO flavor, Itsines is probably not the right influencer for you.

To develop a successful influencer-based campaign, you have to identify who your brand’s core audiences are and which influencers have a real hold and influence on those target audiences. The second part of the equation is often the hardest question to answer. How do you truly measure influence? Often, you’ll see an influencer point to their website statistics and social media following, but those numbers can be deceiving, particularly because of the phenomenon of “buying followers.”  The idea is what it sounds like, brands and bloggers can now pay to inflate the number of page likes or followers they have on social media. In doing so, they hope to increase their own perceived level of influence which will lead to added visibility and discovery by publicists, brands and regular social media users.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to make sure that the contacts you’re evaluating for a client are as influential as they say they are and a wealth of free tools you can harness to help you along the way.

Check their site’s UMV’s

Some bloggers will inflate the viewership rates on their sites in their media kits or “About Me” sections. If you don’t already subscribe to Cision’s media database, use tools like SimilarWeb and SEMRush to see how a blogger’s website traffic stacks up. These websites can paint a pretty clear picture of the kind of traffic a blog may receive. SEMRush in particular is one of my favorite tools on the internet, because of the amount of information it provides on every site. If you’re still unsure based on the information you find on these websites, don’t feel afraid to reach out to the blogger. Make sure you explain that you’re looking for influencers to pay to promote your client’s goods/services and then ask if they could screenshot and share their recent viewer statistics and any demographic information they have with you.

Evaluate their engagement rates

Take a look at a blogger or influencers social media channels. In particular, take a look at the total number of followers they have and then see what sort of “likes” and “comments” they get in reply to each post. It’s important to keep two things in mind when calculating and then evaluating the engagement rate for a user. First, the larger social media following a user has, generally the lower the average engagement rate will be. Secondly, each social media platform has a different baseline for an average level of engagement.

Quintly, a social media analytics tool used by major brands like T-Mobile and Warner Brothers, evaluated more than 150,000 Facebook, Instagram and Twitter profiles back in June 2015. Below is a chart that outlines some of the key findings from their social media benchmarking study. You can use this information to establish a baseline for whether or not an influencer has a standard or high level of engagement with their followers.

Utilize free tools to assess if their followers could be “spam” accounts

There are quite a few free tools you can also utilize to assess an account’s fake follower count, including:

If you go to Social Blade, you can enter in an influencer’s YouTube, Twitter or Instagram handle and then you’ll be given a report with a grade on their engagement as well as a line chart tracking the growth and/or decline of their following.

The general rule is that if the line graph gradually trends upwards, with no large spikes, you’re looking at someone who has organically grown their following. See example below.

However, if you get a line graph that looks more like the one below, you seriously need to consider whether or not it’s worth paying or providing free services/product to the influencer you’ve identified. Just as huge peaks can be a tell-tale sign that a person purchased their followers, a huge downward trend can also signify that the social media platform just did a cleanse of its spam and fake accounts.

Keep in mind that similar to your client’s own website, an influencer’s following may see spikes in traffic when they get a national media hit or become a trending story. If there is a particular uptick that seems out of character or especially severe, do your research and see if maybe this increase occurred following a heightened media buzz about that influencer.

The Love Affair Between Publicists & “Fake” Holidays

Did you know that today is National Cuban Sandwich Day? Maybe that’s because it isn’t an actual holiday, or rather it wasn’t a holiday until this year when it suddenly popped up on national calendar celebration websites like Foodimentary.com

“National Cuban Sandwich Day” was created primarily out of Tampa Bay Times writer Christopher Spata’s own curiosity. Spata writes online features for the newspaper and admitted in his feature story today to completely making up the holiday from his own bedroom last week. Not only was Spata able to get the holiday listed online, but he was also able to get it some media coverage. To say he was incredulous about the whole experience is an understatement. Everything was just too easy.

However, what surprised Spata even more is that even when he came clean to his fellow online writers and told them they’d been effectively had by one of their own, none of them seemed to care.

The truth is, the practice which Spata engaged in of creating his own holiday is not uncommon.The only difference is that it’s usually brands and publicists creating these holidays, not journalists.

Yes, that’s right. Those obscure holidays, like “National Margarita Day” and “National Walking Day,” that always pop up in your social media news feeds were probably invented by a brand. If you want to learn how one even goes about this process of creating a holiday for the sake of publicity, just Google it. There are plenty of online articles that outline a step-by-step process for masterminding your own fake holiday, including tips for making it stick.  See, for example, this one that was published on Entrepreneur.com back in 2014, which is appropriately titled, “Want to Generate Buzz? Create Your Own Holiday.

Publicists are tasked with getting around-the-clock coverage for their clients, and that sometimes means relying on an obscure holiday or inventing one of your own to keep the publicity coming. The power of public relations, is when you’re able to create a holiday that resonates so deeply with the public that it takes on a life of its own.

Take, for instance, Take Your Dog to Work Day (TYDTWD). This holiday was created back in 1996 by Pet Sitters International in the United Kingdom as a way “to celebrate the great companions dogs make and promote their adoptions.” At least, so the website says…but this holiday was clearly created to also generate awareness about Pet Sitters International itself. TWDTWD’s popularity took and the holiday spread to the United States by 1999. In its inaugural year in the US, the holiday was celebrated by an estimated 300 businesses, and that number has continued to grow year-over-year.

TYDTWD has been covered by national media outlets like Good Morning America, The Huffington Post and People and is now regularly capitalized on by other brands and publicists looking for a media hit, including Purina–one of the largest pet food brands in the world. Just this year, Purina broke the world record for “Most Pets in the Workplace in One Day,” and the day that Purina chose to break the record?

Purina Unites with Other Top Pet-Friendly Companies to Celebrate Their Shared Passion on "National Take Your Dog to Work Day"
Purina Unites with Other Top Pet-Friendly Companies to Celebrate Their Shared Passion on “National Take Your Dog to Work Day”

Not bad for a “fake” holiday…

A Lesson from Apple’s Former PR Manager

We reserved press releases and events for only the most important products or company milestones. Many significant products, software updates, and personnel changes went by with barely a PR push. Sometimes this would frustrate our internal clients who wanted more market noise about their pet projects or people. But by adopting this approach, reporters knew that when we contacted them we had something important to say.

-Cameron Craig, former PR Manager at Apple. Excerpted from his story, “What I Learned From 10 Years of Doing PR at Apple,” that published on Harvard Business Review.

Why the BLEEP do I care?

Do you ever read a think piece about your industry that is so spot-on that you catch yourself saying “amen” while you’re reading it? Recently, I came upon a wonderful blog post that was aptly named, “Why Most Startups Suck at PR and How to Fix it to Get More Press Right Now,” and knew I had to share it with my colleagues.

Having worked almost primarily with startups during my career, I’ve found they all have two things in common: they want national exposure at the biggest outlets you can imagine, and they believe their product or business is truly ground-breaking. However, the truth is, very few of these startups have news or a product that will appeal to a national audience. More than that, many of them are entering spaces that are already crowded.

If you’re an international or national brand like Apple, Target, The Walt Disney Company or Anheuser-Busch then there’s a great chance that almost any “news” you send out will be picked up by the press. Why? Because simply put, millions of people are interested in their stories, whether it’s investors or just the general public. When I worked in television and attended our daily planning meetings, there was one question that my executive producers would always ask. It was simple: “Why the BLEEP do I care?” The root of the question was always centered around why a story mattered to our viewers. How would the story affect them, if at all, whether it was emotionally, personally or financially?

When I was writing scripts for the shows, these were the questions I was forced to ask myself. I had 25 seconds to tell a story, and even less time to get and keep our viewers’ attention. This is the crux of working in news–whether it’s for a local television station, trade publication or national newspaper. Writers are constantly asked to determine whether or not a pitch they’ve been sent by a publicist will matter to their audience.

Instead of thinking about what news a startup or business has to share, a good publicist needs to think about the following:

  1. Why does this news matter?
  2. Who does this news matter to?

Sometimes, the answers to these questions are not ones that will please a client. However, managing client expectations is one of the most important parts of working in our industry. One of my favorite quotes about the PR industry is from Kelly Cutrone, founder of People’s Revolution, and one of the most prestigious fashion publicists in the world. Cutrone has worked with brands such as Valentino, Vivienne Westwood, Christie’s and Bulgari.

I think my biggest thing with my brands is giving them realistic expectations. Because the whole system has changed, you know? If a client’s gonna say, “Well, why don’t I have more reviews?” I would say, “Well, how many reviewers are left?” I think the New York Times has three or four people and there’s 400 shows. Style.com—that’s not guaranteed. Women’s Wear Daily used to be guaranteed, now it’s not. Half of the regional fashion departments have been knocked out due to budgets. I think that’s the most important thing that I do with my clients. I like to be real. If they want to be in Vogue, I say, “Show me your Vogue product. Vogue is a very specific brand. Oh, you don’t have Vogue product? Okay, so why should you be in Vogue?”

More often than not, the “news” that a client wants to share–whether it’s about a new product, partnership, employee hire or round of funding–will not be “newsworthy” to all of the outlets on said client’s PR wish-list, if you will. The key to good public relations is figuring out what is “newsworthy” about the announcements, and then sharing the news with a carefully curated list of media contacts who will care.

About Morgan

Morgan is a former journalist who channeled her passion for news into public relations. She's led campaigns for clients in a variety of industries--from a B2B shell construction contractor to a website that matches people with rescue pets based on compatibility. She has a knack for finding the newsworthy hook for a brand and for tying her clients into national trends. Morgan was one of the first graduates from Florida State University's innovative Editing, Writing & Media program and also minored in communications.