Chris Carleton has been in the IT public relations business for some 35 years, including stints as a VP of communications for a DC-based tech trade association, a top PR exec for a large networking company (Bay Networks), and an executive with Lois Paul & Partners (now part of FleishmanHillard). But he is best known as one of the founders of CHEN PR, a boutique agency providing earned media and related strategic marketing communications services to tech companies. CHEN was founded in 1996, its name an acronym for Carleton and the other three founders: Barbara Heffner; Barbara Ewen and Brenda Nashawaty. Today, the agency is led by Carleton and partner Kevin Kosh, who joined shortly after CHEN hung its shingle.
Over the years, CHEN’s clients have included multiple IBM divisions, RSA Security, Sun Microsystems, Palo Alto Networks, Acme Packet, Electronic Arts, Sycamore Networks and, more recently, Duo Security (acquired by Cisco), Flashpoint, Claroty and, on the clean-tech side, Cadenza Innovation.
I got to know Chris many years ago during my days as a reporter and editor at Network World, a publication that covered many of his clients. Given his years of experience, I thought his perspective on the PR function would be valuable for IT marketers. (And he’s such a genuinely nice guy I was pretty sure he’d agree to participate.) He didn’t disappoint, as he details the importance of establishing meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships with reporters and editors in the trade press – something I can verify Chris does very well. Read on to learn what it takes to establish these relationships, the benefits it can bring, tips for dealing with reporters and editors, why the shrinking trade press can be a good thing for tech companies and much more.
Paul Desmond: CHEN PR focuses on “earned media.” Can you explain what that is and its role in an effective PR and marketing plan?
Chris Carleton: Since our inception, CHEN PR has focused predominantly on B2B tech companies that want to define and raise the visibility of their brands, differentiate from competitors via the superiority of their thought leadership and products or services and, by doing so, drive sales and increase valuations. So, my response reflects that focus.
To CHEN PR, earned media is the process of identifying the media outlets that reach the communities with which a client company wants to communicate. We prioritize those outlets based on their importance, reach and level of credibility among the communities they target. Then the idea is to establish an ongoing relationship between the organization’s spokespersons and the editorial staffs and freelancers who write for those outlets. Those relationships should have at their foundation the exchange of useful, timely news, perspectives and data about topics of greatest interest to the organization as well as the media outlets and the communities they reach.
Once this rapport with the media outlets is established, the client company’s news and insights are typically welcomed and even sought after by the outlets and the client’s spokespersons are positioned as credible, expert sources on key issues.
It’s important to note that the client shouldn’t expect all discussions with any given media outlet will directly or immediately benefit the client organization in the form of media coverage. Over time, though, the relationship should prove itself mutually beneficial. It’s not unlike an ongoing strategic sales engagement with a customer.
What value do clients get from earned media? Any examples?
When implemented effectively, successful earned media efforts raise visibility and credibility for an organization’s brand – often facilitating sales, business development, fundraising, hiring, channel and partnership recruitment and the like.
One example is mergers and acquisitions. Companies regularly look to raise their media profiles as they contemplate exit strategies. Companies making acquisitions seek organizations with strong corporate and product profiles and reputations that will benefit the acquirer after the deal. This dynamic is reflected in Cisco System’s $2.35B acquisition of our client, Duo Security, in 2018.
Another example is when startups are emerging from stealth mode. They benefit from earned media because it enables them to reach a large audience via credible intermediaries – media outlets. The startups can deliver insights about the market sectors they’re targeting, competitive differentiators and the like. Our client, cloud data control-focused Sonrai Systems, used this approach with its January announcement. Led by the same team that founded and grew Q1 Labs to global market share leadership in its space, resulting in its acquisition by IBM, they needed to get the word out about their latest endeavor prior to the RSA Conference. The announcement process secured widespread coverage and provided a solid backdrop for sales and partnership discussions at the conference.
Earned media is also a way to highlight innovation and momentum. For example, our client Cadenza Innovation is a young company that developed a patented lithium-ion battery platform that it licenses to manufacturers focusing on the electric vehicle and utility markets. Its competitors include multi-billion dollar Asian firms and significantly more well-funded early stage startups. Following months of interviews between an Inc. magazine reporter and Cadenza’s founder, the magazine published a multipage feature about the future of the global battery industry in its March/April 2019 issue that used Cadenza and its founder as the backdrop to the article.
What does it take to create an effective earned media strategy? What are the key elements?
It’s critical to get crisp on the messages you want to deliver, whom you want to share them with, and what actions you want people to take once they’ve been exposed to them. That requires defining narratives that speak to these key constituencies specifically – this is not a one-size-fits-all activity. Companies then need to map these narratives to the most credible editors, reporters, freelancers and outlets reaching those target audiences.
Before performing outreach, it’s vital to have at the ready everything reporters may ask for if they choose to pursue the story. For example, if outreach pertains to a case study, make sure the customer is available to talk to the reporter and has been approved to do so by corporate. If it’s a trend pitch, have third-party data available from credible sources to complement and reinforce the story line your client seeks to articulate. If it’s about a new product or service, make available prebriefed market research analysts who can discuss the customer need and what the new offering brings to the table. Screen shots, video, and pricing and availability information are advisable as well.
We consider the media to be our clients, too. If we don’t continually prove that we understand what they cover – as well as what, when and how they need info from us – then we won’t cut through the clutter that is their daily reality. Losing that access would have a direct and negative impact on generating client coverage.
Test-driving pitches is another element. We do that all the time with clients – shifting gears from serving as PR counsel to playing the part of reporter. We ask the hard questions, pushing back when needed to ensure the client is ready to emphasize the positives and prepared to address any perceived weaknesses – most pitches can prompt both. Good reporters ask tough questions; the time for a spokesperson to start considering those is well before an interview, not during it.
It’s also crucial to view the earned media effort in the context of the marketing plan and business plan more generally. That way, the various activities can complement each other and amplify the end results. If you’re a publicly traded company with material news coming up, make sure you know when quarterly results will be released and when quiet period commences. Is your founder or CEO keynoting at an important industry conference? Roll out that new product or service far enough in advance of the speech so you can use the run-up to the conference and her time there to maximize visibility and help fuel leads. And coordinate all this with other sales and marketing groups to push the earned media results in a planned fashion through their programs.
Some clients have marketing dashboards that they feed results from the earned media program into. For others, we measure share of voice and coverage sentiment against a defined set of competitors and terms. And some prefer we focus program resources more substantially on pursing coverage versus measuring – they tell us they know it’s working or not based on what gets generated. For them, because some yardstick is important, we’ll track less formally or less frequently against a tighter set of inputs.
The IT trade press has been in decline for some time now. Many publications are a shell of their former selves, with just a few reporters still on the job. How does that change the earned media equation?
It’s just so important that companies understand who they’re pitching, what they cover and what it takes to secure their interest. Our ability to engage them based on years of proving we understand the market, have a nose for news and can add value to the process is a benefit.
On the other hand, as mastheads have downsized, the opportunity for vendors and other influencers to provide bylined articles and other vendor-generated content has expanded. The best of those read like thoughtful content treated in a legitimate editorial manner and drive readership. Outlets are receptive to content from individuals who can deliver that.
Along similar lines, many editors and reporters who previously were employed by specific titles are now freelancing, leveraging their domain expertise by writing for multiple outlets. Maintaining good relationships can be productive for vendors and those freelancers alike. In addition to working with a freelancer whose coverage reaches multiple audiences across multiple titles, the freelancers often reach out to the agency asking if we have sources or content for a variety of articles they’re writing or planning to pitch to outlets. That process makes it more time-efficient for the freelancers, for whom time is money, while benefiting companies that consistently prove their value. For spokespeople, that means sharing perspectives and tips that don’t only deal with your company, product or service, but underscore your insights and credibility as a source on the bigger picture.
Many companies have been using content marketing strategies and become publishers of content themselves. How does that affect an earned media strategy?
We view content marketing and earned media as “yes” to both versus one or the other. Content marketing enables a company to target its audiences and communicate exactly what it wishes to share, how often, and in whatever form it likes. There’s no gatekeeper. So long as the content is useful, recipients usually welcome it.
Because it comes from a specific organization, though, the audience can feel like it’s being “sold” on a particular message or point of view. The dispassionate, third-party industry expert or observer role served by credible outlets is absent. So, The Wall Street Journal quoting your top executive about an industry trend tends to carry more weight with most audiences than does a company-authored blog post. The WSJ piece is also likely to reach a much wider audience, beyond those who already know you – some of whom upon reading it will visit your company’s site and download that content marketing piece. Additionally, you can include that WSJ exec quote in future content marketing efforts – fueling a virtuous, symbiotic relationship.
What are some of the big changes you’ve seen in your many years as a PR professional? Are there tactics that used to work that don’t anymore, new ones that do, or changes that people don’t generally recognize?
How people communicate with one another continues to change at warp speed. It wasn’t too long ago that Slack, Signal, and Zoom didn’t even exist. We’re all reachable by one or multiple channels 7x24x365. That can be a boon when trying to connect with someone, but it’s also a risk if you pursue the wrong method or incorrect protocol when doing so. So, it’s paramount that we determine how each editor, reporter and freelancer prefers to be contacted.
But when the newsworthiness of a situation dictates, the ability to connect with a key security reporter at a news wire service via Telegram as soon as word starts to circulate that a Fortune 50 company has been hacked, is indispensable. Doing so can enable a client to showcase its insights – not to name-and-shame the victimized company, but rather to offer an expert source who can provide information about the type of hack that unfolded, how it unfolded if we have those details, what’s likely to come next and steps organizations can take to defend themselves.
Multimedia support for pitches is becoming de facto, including text, images and video. With some reporters being evaluated by how many clicks their stories generate, supporting the words with a turnkey package of graphics and video can prove an added draw by prompting multiple clicks and longer time on the story. It also enhances the storytelling aspect.
And one tactic that never worked – and is unfortunately easier to do with available tools and tech – is the “spray and pray” approach to pitching news. Regretfully, some still adhere to the idea, “If I pitch 500 reporters it’s better than pitching 20,” which surely isn’t the case if the 20 you pitch have been researched and are the right ones for your news and the other 480 aren’t even close. This just adds to spam, wastes time and angers the media.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions you see among clients about the PR function?
Sometimes companies think that if they hire an agency with a great rep and solid press network, it will automatically lead to immediate, more and uniformly positive coverage. If the prospective client has the right combination of insights, news and spokespeople, and perhaps just hasn’t committed to earned media previously, that can certainly prove the case. But, the story line and content have to be there. No agency can give a client its message, position or story. Good reporters aren’t going to cover an agency’s clients just because they’re pals with the staff. And good agencies aren’t even going to ask reporters to do that – because it would undercut the very reason they have a strong, mutually respectful relationship in the first place.
In some cases, it might be too early for companies to maintain ongoing earned media campaigns. They might not have the proof points, executive time, budget or whatever. In such cases, they’re better served by content marketing or other communications efforts – perhaps taking advantage of earned media on a project basis as opposed to an ongoing campaign, to complement other activities.
How have you seen the IT buying process change during your career? What’s different now vs. when you started, and what does that mean from a PR perspective?
Prospects, customers and channel partners today have tremendous access to information about vendors and their products and services. The vendor is just one source for that. This raises the bar for companies in terms of actively engaging multiple audiences via multiple channels. That helps ensure that the information is accurate, the dialog interactive and the company itself is engaged and adding value in those interactions.
Who’s involved in tech purchasing decisions has changed, too, as silos between IT and end users continue to go away. In some cases, depending on the product or service involved, IT is still signing the PO, but users are increasingly influencing the purchase. In other cases, prompted by BYOD and such, line-of-business users are spearheading purchases directly.
From a PR perspective, those dynamics make it that much more important for vendors to take these various parties into consideration in their marketing and communications. So, depending on which audience you’re communicating with, for example, that means emphasizing the technology advantages of the product or service, or not talking about that at all and hammering home the business or profit/revenue-generating benefits.
What are some of the go-to tools you use to make your job easier?
What’s your take on the role of social media in an effective PR strategy?
Social should play an integral role in almost any PR program. Not doing so is leaving marketing ROI benefit on the table. It’s critical to be thoughtful about which social media channels most effectively reach the audiences with whom you want to interact. If I’m marketing a B2B product, for example, I might spend time identifying the interest groups on LinkedIn. Or if I’m in HR for that same company, we’re growing rapidly and I’m scrambling to attract potential employees, I might want to use Instagram to showcase my company culture, in hopes it’s attractive to prospective hires.
What are some of the most common mistakes you see PR and marketing professionals make with respect to social media?
See prior response, for starters. But, it’s no mean feat to stay on top of the constantly changing landscape in social and far be it from me to throw stones. We all likely have our own successes and shortfalls. You don’t learn if you don’t experiment – but pick your spots and do it off to the side where the risks are low. And always be open to learning – by observation, hands-on, people you work with, reading, podcasts – I’ll give a plug to the Marketing Over Coffee podcast here – webcasts, events and other sources.
If you had to give just one piece of advice to IT marketers, what would it be?
Answering with my B2B hat on, tell prospects in straightforward language: What business problem you solve for them, why they need to be tackling that now, what you do that’s better, cheaper, faster, smarter than what any other vendor does to address it, and why they’ll grow market share and make more money faster and easier by using your stuff. Simple, right?