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Don’t Get Rolled by Bad Publicity

Image: Procter & Gamble, Business Wire, the 2017 Times Square holiday restrooms, a promotion for Charmin. The line too small to read in this image is: “The best seats on Broadway.”

This “media opportunity alert” arrived in my inbox:

Hi, Porter, Thought you might have interest in checking out this event spotlighting Mark Ballas and girlfriend BC Jean.
The singer-songwriter duo has teamed up with Charmin for the December celebration of restrooms in Times Square–an entire storefront of unique, unforgettable, state-of-the-art bathrooms free to the public (timely for the holiday season in NYC).
On December 19th, Jean and Ballas will perform singing and dance routines on-site.
Happy to have you there for a front row seat/interview with BC and Mark.
Please let me know if you’re interested?

I wrote back:

Hi, Nadia, I cover the international book publishing industry. Despite what many may think of books these days, our publishers do not believe we’re talking about toilet paper. Yet. Thanks, though.

With the help of AdWeek [1], I’ve learned that from 2006 to 2010, Charmin rented space in which to create bathrooms for seasonal shoppers in Times Square. It has revived this holiday tradition this year at 1601 Broadway between 48th and 49th Streets with 14 “themed bathrooms” open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. for shoppers, through December 24.

The first thing we learn here is that if you work for a toilet paper company, you’d better love bathroom jokes. This is Procter & Gamble at work, squeezing the Charmin for every last available pun. All’s fair in love and advertising.

But the second thing we learn here–and the reason I’m subjecting you to this plumber’s view of American marketing–is how a publicity person/PR agent should not be operating. If you’ve got a publicist for your books or are thinking of hiring one, you need to know what this dynamic looks like from the journalist’s side of the stall door.

My provocation for you today comes in the form of three questions with which to quiz your publicity person.

PR Person Question #1 of 3

May I see the precise list of press contacts you’re going to send my book information to? I want to see what they cover and the media at which they work.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

If the answer from your potential or existing publicist/PR person/press agent is no (“office secret,” “tricks of the trade,” “private information”), run away. They can withhold those journalist’s contact info from you. In fact, I’d prefer they did, for the sake of my inbox. But they need to tell you who’s getting the paper goods and why.

And this is because a bad “pressie” will tell you that the release about your book just went out to “4,000 high-quality, leading members of the press who are keen to carry your news” when, in fact, that release has just been flushed by all 4,000 of us, some of whom are now blocking your press agent’s emails for good. I cannot tell you how many wrongly directed press contacts I get per day. Remember, I’m editor-in-chief of PublishingPerspectives.com. What part of that title means fashion, climate change, vegan health, tennis shoe advances, or toilet paper? To a bad PR agent who wants to impress a client with her or his mighty “list,” I’m fair game on those and many more topics. You’d be amazed.

Don’t cry for me, I’m the fastest “mark as spam” athlete in the league.

What I want is to warn you about is that you can easily be scammed by this. I’d rather see a pressie hand you only 20 actual publishing/book-industry/literature-focused journalists’ names–and what each of them does and at which medium–than that list of 4,000 wrong contacts who now are wondering if there’s really such a thing as “the December celebration of restrooms in Times Square.”

Image: Procter & Gamble, Business Wire, the 2017 Times Square holiday restrooms, a promotion for Charmin. This is from one of the 14 interiors of the Charmin restrooms in Times Square. (Barry Knister, this is your stall.)
PR Person Question #2 of 3

What do you do when a journalist says “not for me” to your request for coverage?

The correct answer is: “I say, ‘Thank you, I’ll update my list, have a great day.”

The incorrect answer is, “I fight for you darlin’, I go right back to that journalist and I point out 15 places in the last 35 years in which his or her so-called news medium has covered precisely the kind of Earth-shaking news your deathless prose represents to a world crying, crying for your book.”

I had one last week. First, he pitched me a piece about “how important millennials are to the US economy today” (as opposed to when, yesterday?). When I sent back my usual line–I do try to actually answer and thank them, in hopes they’ll update their lists–saying that “I cover business trends in the international book publishing industry”–he came back with three mentions of millennials we’ve made in recent years. He’s now blocked.

This isn’t a “fight for it” thing and Lena Horne’s advice to belieeeeeeeeve in yourself is far from this part of the game. This is business and wasting journalists’ time with arguments about what they should be covering gets your book absolutely nowhere–on your dime.

PR Person Question #3 of 3

Tell me about the best relationship you have with a member of the press. You don’t have to tell me who this is or what medium she’s at. Just tell me how it works.

The very best person to represent you to various media (still a plural word) operates on relationships. I have relationships with some press people I know to be so good that when their emails arrive, I open them first. They never bother me unless the story is right for me or at least well worth my consideration.

One in London is leaving the agency he’s been with for  years and I’m actually pretty sorry about that, antsy to find out where he’s going to land, because this guy is one of the ones who knows what I need, and how and when to get it to me. When I have a problem, need a photo, am flat on deadline (and five hours off his time zone), he’s right there on the other end, doing what in the distant mists of Times Gone By was called “servicing the media.” That’s not a noble phrase because we’re people who deserve to be coddled but because it means providing the press the resources we need to cover you well.

I was told by a Broadway press agent years ago when I worked that beat at the Village Voice, “Porter, the shows will open and the shows will close. But we press agents and you journalists will always be together.” And he was right.

My holiday gift to you is this advice: Your work deserves to be offered to the right media people the right way so it has the right chance to reach the right readers. The proliferation of “author services” means the rise of a lot of kitchen-sink operations that will tell you they’re doing the deed but (a) have no clue and/or (b) have no traction. Don’t pay for supposed media support you haven’t checked out correctly. When it comes time to find a PR/publicity/media agency for your work, buy the relationship, not the cartoon bear family who tell you they “enjoy the go” with Charmin.

What’s your experience? Have you been lucky enough to find a media person who knows her or his journos and can really “work the press,” with strong relationships and a track record? Or is your person sending out press releases by the roll?


About Porter Anderson [2]

@Porter_Anderson [3] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [4], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [5] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [6]