What Are You Waiting For? Communicate Directly to Your Target Audience

About 20 years ago, I decided it would be fun to write a story on waiting in line—the psychology of it, the various ways people experience it, and whatever else flowed from looking into the common phenomenon.

To conduct my reporting, I ventured to some of the “usual suspect” waiting spots: a bank, a grocery store and a post office, among others. But by far the most memorable locale was the Secretary of State’s driver’s license facility in Elgin.

Sometimes, you have to wait in line–but don’t settle for that in marketing and communications.

Because George Ryan, the future governor and convicted felon, was Illinois Secretary of State at the time, there was no shortage of political hacks who managed to over-manage what should have been a simple process.

I had to indulge one of Ryan’s cronies drone on for what seemed like an hour before I could proceed with a few simple interviews of everyday folks. Of course, in a perfectly fitting behind-the-scenes aspect of the saga, Ryan’s foot soldiers made me wait a day to do it.

But with government bureaucrats, let’s face it: we pretty much expect this sort of nonsense. In the private sector, though, make people wait and you are making a mess of your enterprise’s future.

Barry Moltz, author and business consultant, once hammered home that truth in this way:

“Mobile payments are accepted by every employee. For retailers, long lines in front of the cash register are gone. The mobile payment model that Apple uses in its stores—where each employee greets the customer, assists with product selection, processes the transaction on an iPhone and e-mails a receipt—is the future. The opportunity: The salesperson on the retail floor can greet customers and stay with them through the entire sale, increasing prospect to customer conversion rates.”

The implications for public relations and marketing are considerable. The more you can communicate your message directly to your target audience, without anyone or anything in between who might muddle or dilute or otherwise fail to pass it along, the better off you will be.

That principle has been central to the economic model of countless network marketing companies that have actually struck around and thrived over the years. In the same way, find what the media need and fill it with newsworthy ideas and, better yet, fully formed content. You know–stories that have a beginning, middle and end.

For publicists, the media as we once knew it is no longer anywhere close to being the ideal intermediary, anyhow.

In light of the ongoing and mounting struggles of longstanding traditional media such as newspapers, more of my former media and current PR colleagues are noting that the time is coming—and is already here in some instances—where a crowd of journalistic expatriates will vie for the attention and news hole of a solitary journalism survivor at a given outlet.

That provides all the more reason, as noted above, to get better at identifying your audience and carving out a direct, customized connection that appeals even as it delivers value to them.

The time to do it, by the way, is yesterday or preferably much earlier—what are you waiting for?

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A Gentle Man’s Life: Remembering Sergio Quiano

They were born outside the United States, made their way to this country many years ago and found a home in Oak Park before dying recently at the age of 77.

One is internationally renowned and beloved actor John Mahoney. He died while in hospice care on Sunday, February 4th. The other is Sergio Quiano, found stabbed to death in his apartment on Friday, February 2nd.

Unlike many Oak Parkers, I never met John Mahoney, about whom many have already written tributes lauding his talent, kindness, and all-around goodness. Embodying a humble Everyman quality that was an integral part of his charm these past four decades, he made an outsized impact through his work in theater, film and television, through his philanthropic efforts, and through the many friendships he formed.

It is altogether fitting, this posthumous praise for Mr. Mahoney.

Meanwhile, as the mysterious circumstances of Sergio’s death form the bulk of what most people know about him, his life likewise deserves to be honored.

A little over a year ago, after years of seeing him mostly around Downtown Oak Park, I first met Sergio. We were standing in line at Prairie Bread Kitchen one cold December morning when he struck up a conversation with me. Within a few minutes, apparently sensing I was safe, he asked if I could drive him to an Elmwood Park drug store to pick up a prescription and some sundries.

Although the request would have been overly forward coming from most any other stranger-turned-fresh acquaintance, I agreed. He swayed me with his child-like innocence, soft-spoken demeanor, and artful close-the-deal declaration that he didn’t want to stand in the cold waiting for buses to take him there and back.

Throughout our excursion, we enjoyed a cordial conversation. My memory is foggy on the particulars, but I believe Sergio said he was from the Philippines. I do not recall him making any mention of relatives living nearby.

At the end of our impromptu errand, we exchanged phone numbers. Turns out we were virtually neighbors, as he headed into his apartment and I went to my office, a few doors down. The overall impression he left was that of a gentle, friendly man leading a simple life who enjoyed meeting people in his daily path.

Later that day, Sergio sent me a text again thanking me, wishing me a Merry Christmas and conveying well wishes for my family. Periods punctuating almost every word, the text matched the decidedly unhurried pace I had long observed in him.

The next time I saw Sergio inside Prairie Bread Kitchen, a week or two later, he was seated as I entered. He sprang up, approaching the counter as briskly as I ever witnessed him move. I was about to place my order when he insisted that he pay for my coffee. It was a sweet gesture, clearly communicating that he was a giver in this community.

Thereafter, our mutual regard sealed, we would greet one another along the sidewalk. I would be moving hurriedly for some appointment while Sergio would be inching along ever-so-slowly, often carrying a shopping bag and wearing a smile that lit up his face.

In life, Sergio Quiano was not a household name. In death, newspaper headlines have referred to him as “elderly” or as a “77-year-old.” After learning it was Sergio who was the man behind those generic headline terms, whose life had come to such a cruel end, my heart sank. Who would perpetrate this evil, and why?

It is my fervent hope that someday soon we will get the answers to those questions, and that justice is meted out to the individual or individuals responsible for his murder. Regardless of the outcome of the police investigation into his death, I regret not slowing down long enough to connect more with Sergio in these last months of his life.

(This piece was also published in the Feb. 14, 2018 edition of the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park & River Forest.)

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‘The Post’: A Timeless, and Most Timely, Message About the Importance of a Free Press

A package in hand, the young woman makes her way into The Washington Post newsroom. She wanders a bit, looks around uncertainly, then fixes her attention on a man who is among the many staffers who are banging away at their typewriters.

“Are you someone important?” she asks, interrupting him in the midst of his writing.

“I’m a general assignment reporter,” he responds, a blend of befuddlement and apology.

The woman (portrayed, hippie-like, by Sasha Spielberg, director Steven Spielberg’s daughter) processes the unfamiliar words. In an instant, she seems to conclude good enough, as she lays the package on his typewriter.

Inside is a Thom McAn shoebox stuffed with a portion of the Pentagon Papers. The moment, about a half-hour into “The Post,” marks a turning point in the Post’s scrambling catch-up to The New York Times, which had just broken the untold (and scandalous) story of the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

There were many terrific moments in the film that contributed to a production that I wholeheartedly recommend. My 20-year career as a journalist probably explains why I got misty-eyed at more than a few moments—yes, even the sight of a printing press cranking out the Post’s next edition. But this is a movie for any American who cares about our nation’s past, present and future.

Its core tension is timeless: a free press versus government claims to national security interests. And those opposing forces are especially timely in this age of Trump, when our own President is out-Nixon-ing Richard Nixon for his derision of and attacks on the media.

Making the experience this morning all the more enjoyable was that it came as a special screening at the Lake Theatre with about 40 students from Oak Park and River Forest High School. A grateful shout-out to Liz Fox, an OPRF English teacher and adviser to the school newspaper, The Trapeze, who organized the event and extended the invitation to me.

Jackie Spinner speaks to Oak Park and River Forest High School students after a screening of “The Post.”

Capping the moment was the presence of Jackie Spinner, a reporter for The Washington Post from 1995 to 2009 and currently a journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago. After the movie, Jackie shared her observations of the movie, reflected on her experiences at the Post, and fielded thoughtful questions from students.

Among her accomplishments, Jackie spent a significant amount of time as a foreign correspondent, including serving as a war reporter. She is the author of “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss and Survival in Iraq.”

As Trump relentlessly wages war on the media (most recently illustrated by his ‘Fake News Awards’), there is a clear answer that anyone in the media should feel empowered to give, without apology or hesitation, when that question comes: “Are you someone important?”

Yes! And, very likely, more than you’ll ever know.

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The PR Power of Going Beyond `Testimonial Providers Anonymous’

Whether you’re a widget salesmen or a world-class motivational speaker, testimonials are central to your persuasive story-telling endeavors.

Alas, some otherwise-credible individuals and organizations haven’t taken the time to gather such testimonials, which can go by other names–for Inside Edge PR, I call them Success Stories.

Only slightly better are those instances when an organization handles the testimonials as an extension of the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Who is this shady character? He’s the testimonial equivalent of “M.B., Oak Park, Ill.”

If you’re plotting a clandestine drug deal or attending a 12-Step Testimonial Providers Anonymous (TPA) meeting, referring to somebody only by their initials or as “Matt B.”, if you are feeling a bit bolder, may make some sense.

(By the way, don’t bother Googling that “TPA” organizatione. I just made it up–to make this point: in business, these cloak-and-dagger, veiled references come across as sketchy and needlessly secretive.)

And settling for TPA-style sources means barely skimming the surface of the potential good these third-party edifications could do for the person or organization you’re seeking to promote.

What follows, then, is a three-point checklist for collecting a testimonial:

1. Receive a signed media release form in which the individual agrees to have his/her story shared through various modes of communication at no compensation.

This first step should be no problem if people are genuinely fired up about the great service they’ve received. In my experience working on scores of testimonials across a variety of industries, collecting willing and eager testimonials has never posed a problem.

2. Do everything in your power to obtain or create testimonials in a variety of forms:

-A video of the individual sharing his or her story about the good that you and/or your product or service provided.

-At least one photograph of the testimonial provider.

For client Five Seasons Family Sports Club in Burr Ridge, I captured the before-and-after weight-loss success of club member Nader Najjar.

-Additional photographs that would help tell the story (such as before-and-after images of someone who has lost weight or photos of a house that has received significant upgrades).

-A written narrative that tells the individual’s story in a compelling, newsworthy manner.

And don’t settle for a meager two-line quote–go for a rich, nuanced story that conveys a powerful story. Out of that story, you can excerpt a quote or two on an as-needed basis.

3. Armed with these key elements, re-purpose the content across many platforms and toward a variety of audiences that are in your target market.

For examples of testimonials, you can check out some videos on the Inside Edge PR video channel.

Nearly a decade ago, when Inside Edge PR took testimonials well beyond the Witness Protection Program level, it spurred on positive coverage in The Daily Southtown for Chicago Women’s Health, an obstretrics/gynecology practice.

You can see that particular written testimonial on the Chicago Women’s Health website, along with a few others.

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When Pitching the Media, Keep it Brief

Unless you’ve been on the receiving end of a story pitch, you likely don’t appreciate the urgency of being succinct in those interactions.

Having been on the receiving end of such pitches for about 20 years, I can assure you that the goal ought NEVER be selling the reporter, editor or producer on a story–that’s asking too much, too soon.

When I reach their voicemails (the usual scenario, as most don’t pick up the phone), I leave a brief message with the gist of my call and a heads-up that I’m about to e-mail more detailed information.

Those e-mails all lead with the phrase “Following up from the voice mail I just left for you…”

When reaching an individual directly, my first goal is to pledge brevity. How I typically start: “Are you on deadline, or is this a good time to talk for 30 seconds?”

Such a courtesy signals that I know their world—and I am not about to waste their time. Saying “30 seconds” is intentional—when people trot out “Do you have a minute?” they usually don’t mean 60 seconds, but upwards of 10 minutes.

Now, if someone starts to engage you and you stay on the phone longer, that’s great. But it has to be their call.

Your objective in calling is not to “close a sale” as they cheerily promise to crank out a story. Rather than closing anything, you want them to open up.

Warm ‘em up to the idea that the e-mail you’re about to send is worth serious consideration, instead of the reflexive tap of the DELETE key.

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