[A note from Arthur: Every so often the tables are turned. Jeff Vance has contributed feature articles and editorials to such publications as Forbes.com, Network World, CIO,Datamation, Wi-Fi Planet, Cloudbook and many others. Jeff blogs at Sandstorm Media. Recently Jeff interviewed me about our agency and our Brandtelling approach. I asked Jeff’s permission to share the interview with my readers here on Brandtelling.]

Q & A with Arthur Germain – Part II

If you missed Part I of our discussion, read it here.

JV: It sounds like a lot of your PR job today revolves around tasks that would have been handled previously by internal sales and marketing teams. You dig up good customer stories. You write content targeted to prospects and customers. At the same time, you’ve abandoned some traditional activities, such as going on media tours. Does that mean you’re deemphasizing press relations in favor of customer engagement?

AG: No. It’s true that we’ll get tapped just as often to write case studies as news releases, but I don’t think that means we’re necessarily deemphasizing the press. Part of it is the approach of our agency. We’re a brand marketing agency that does PR.

“Even with contributed content, you still have to be a trusted source for that editor. The personal relationships never go out the window.”

Very often, even for a news release, we ask “where are we linking; where do we want to send people; what’s the call to action?” In traditional PR, we never thought of that. Call to action? There was no call to action. We were giving people news.

Now, you always have to think about how your content will drive engagement, whether that’s end-user or media engagement.

So we have created releases that have headlines like “The Top 6 Help Desk Concerns” or “5 Reasons You Should Move to the Cloud.”

JV: Those sound like titles for stories I’d pitch my editors.

AG: Exactly. The editors love them. With one outlet, they have their graphics team turn them into slideshows – and their readership loves these slideshows. The editors will often contact us asking if we have any of these stories in the pipeline.

JV: That’s almost unheard of these days, editors actively seeking content from PR, rather than constantly fending off PR requests. Instead of being viewed as a pest bombarding them with pitches, you’ve turned the tables and become a trusted content provider.

AG: That’s the goal, and it’s worked out well for us and for them.

JV: We’ve talked about how more and more members of the press are freelancers these days. Do you do anything differently to target freelancer writers?

AG: The freelance trend is a challenge for PR. In the old days, you could pull out Bacon’s, flip to InfoWorld and find out who covers the security software beat.

Today, you can still learn about writers from services like Vocus. They all swear that their information is up to date, but people change jobs so often, and, of course, media consolidation means that it’s tough to know who is where and doing what. It’s very fluid at pretty much every publication out there.

And you as a reporter will no longer cover just the security software beat. You’ll be on the security software, storage, and cloud beats, and you’ll also fill in coverage gaps as needed. If I’ve talked to you about security, and two months later I come back to you with a new security angle, you may not be covering security anymore. There’s no really good way for me to know that.

JV: What about editorial calendars? PR used to be able to tailor their pitches to them, but they seem to be stale pretty much the minute they’re posted now.

AG: Typically, editorial calendars are created in November. They are great for sales teams to sell against, but end up being more or less meaningless by February or March. Let’s say you have CRM on your editorial calendar. Salesforce.com’s big conference, Dreamforce, isn’t until September. If you’re targeting a CRM publication, you can ignore everything on the calendar that comes after the show. The landscape will have changed too much for anything dreamed up nearly a year earlier to still be current.

Of course, where there are challenges there are opportunities. The fluid nature of journalism today has created opportunities for services like HARO (Help A Reporter Out), Reporter Connection and ProfNet. They’re more popular now because they’re timely. HARO has replaced print bibles of who has what beat.

JV: Does HARO change the relationship between you and reporters?

AG: Sure. You’ll say, “I have a story on X. Here’s what I’m looking for. Don’t bother me with this. Don’t call me if you’re a vendor; I only want to talk to end users.” As a reporter, you’ll be more honest and focused when posting queries on HARO than you would have been earlier in your career, back when your sourcing needs were more fluid.

JV: That doesn’t necessarily stop the flood of bad pitches.

AG: But HARO has features that allow you to report someone who constantly sends you off-target pitches.

JV: True, but I find that even using HARO, I still wade through tons of pitches that aren’t really violating HARO’s terms of agreement. They’re not off-target or spam. Rather, they’re just not good, which is part of why I’m doing what I’m doing with my Story Source Newsletter.

Hopefully, I can give people advice about what a good pitch really looks like, along with how to specifically tailor it to me. When I have time, I can offer some individual feedback, and I can also track who sends me what. People who consistently send me good pitches go to the top of the queue when I’m sourcing something.

The other problem I have with HARO is that it’s now taking steps to put some walls up between PR and the press. That’s probably a welcome thing for in-house writers, but for me, where 60-70 percent of my business is content marketing, I need those PR relationships. PR reps are the ones who refer me to companies needing a white paper writer or someone to head up a social media content strategy. It makes more sense for me to manage those relationships through my service rather than through HARO or ProfNet.

But when I do use HARO, which I still do, a PR pro who simply follows best practices – who pitches me a story, not a vendor; who stays on target, who backs up their assertions with data, etc. – will stand out, and if I see enough good pitches from you, slowly but surely I’ll form a relationship with you.

AG: Right. Relationships are just as important now as they were ten years ago. We just form them and manage them differently today. It can be more of a challenge today, even with all of the social media tools out there. Part of how we form relationships at CSG is that our goal is to help the press out. We’re not bombarding them with irrelevant pitches. We’re doing our best to help.

JV: Let’s shift gears and talk about contributed content. Often, I get pitches that don’t work for me, but I email back saying “this should be a thought-leadership story under your executive’s byline.” However, that means you have to keep up with which publications takes contributed content, and that will shift as budgets get cut, new editors come in, reporters get laid off, etc. That’s a lot to keep track of.

AG: Yes, but the main challenge is still forming a relationship. Even with contributed content, you still have to be a trusted source for that editor. The personal relationships never go out the window. If you establish relationships with editors, when they don’t accept one of your stories, you can ask why. What could you have done differently? If the relationship isn’t in place, they won’t read your email or take your call. Often, they won’t even say “no.” You just won’t hear from them.

JV: With everyone needing content out there, I’m surprised that more publications aren’t experimenting with unique ways to monetize content for themselves and for writers. Some pubs could afford more and better writers if, say, they accepted something like a pay-for-play sidebar. Yes, there are conflict of interest issues, but no more so than selling ads that run right next to the story.

So long as it’s not intrusive and doesn’t water down the main story, why shouldn’t there be product placement in print? What’s more valuable to readers, an ad or a sidebar with 7 relevant tips or something like that?

AG: I’m not aware of publications doing anything like that, but look at Processor. For new products, you can pay them to write about your new product as part of a content package. It’s how they stay on top of introducing new products, and of course, these aren’t reviews. They just tell you the basics. And it’s nothing they hide or are embarrassed about. This content fills a need and makes them money at the same time.

Similarly, you’ve certainly seen branded journalism. Major brands will say “I don’t really like what’s out there publication wise, so why don’t I put out my own publication?”

JV: When I wrote for Forbes, I was doing so on Microsoft’s dime. They sponsored cloud coverage, and the only way it changed how I wrote the story was that I wouldn’t say anything too negative about Microsoft. I could still disagree with them, but obviously I wasn’t going to write a hatchet piece on them. My articles had a deck that said that the story was sponsored by Microsoft and that was it.

AG: I think you’ll see more and more of that sort of thing as time goes on.

JV: I have one last subject I want to discuss with you before I let you go. When I talk to PR reps, this is the number-one biggest challenge for them: How do you find good end users and get them to go on the record?

AG: It’s important to make it programmatic. If it’s not a priority for your client, they won’t do it. Often, things get bogged down because the client will want to review the story before it runs in the press, and what journalist will let them do that? Those requests, strangely, usually come not from the end user, but from their PR, and what PR agency thinks a journalist will allow them to review a story?

I mentioned earlier that we do media training. Often, the most successful training we do is when we get a chance not just to train and coach our client, but when we also get to work with our client’s client. Part of it is managing expectations, but working with them gives them confidence. They’re not so worried about saying the wrong thing. It’s also important to demonstrate value. Why is it important for them to agree to a case study and press interviews? If they don’t see what’s in it for them, they’ll be more resistant.

You can follow Arthur Germain on Twitter (@ArthurGermain) or read more about his brand storytelling approach at his blog (Brandtelling.com).