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Making the News: 7 tips on engaging the media for business

Some businesses have discovered how to tap into media coverage. Here is how you can follow their lead

Jan 20, 2014

by Otiena Ellwand


John Schneider, the owner of Gold Forest Grains – a company that mills flour from heritage and ancient grains at a farm in Morinville – has been able to get his story told by bringing the media to him. When the Edmonton Journal’s food writer, Liane Faulder, approached him about a story, Schneider knew that the more engaging and interesting he was able to make his story, the better her article would be – and the better the result would be for him. So he took Faulder for a ride on his tractor. Then he got her to plant seeds at his farm. And it all worked. The story Faulder wrote is full of beautiful details, including a mention of Schneider’s homemade spelt bread (made from his own grains, of course). That single story spiralled, as they so often do, into more media coverage, like an interview on CBC’s Alberta at Noon and then stories in industry publications like Alberta Farmer Express and Western Producer.

As Schneider could tell you, getting your small- or medium-sized business in the news is the absolute cheapest form of advertising that exists. But despite the potential windfall of what in the industry is called “earned media,” when it comes to knowing how to engage the media – from television, radio, newspapers and the social media universe, including blogs and video – many businesses could use some pointers. Many companies don’t have the finances to hire a digital strategist or communications firm to help them figure out how to do this, though – so Alberta Venture has done it for you. And what we found might surprise you.

What’s the big secret when it comes to business and media? Let’s just say it’s a long story – or, actually, that it’s Story with a capital S. But count that as just one of seven lessons on how to engage with media for business.

Lesson One: The Power of the Story

017_news_story_001Stories allow businesses to tap into emotions of their potential customers, establish common ground with them and, ultimately, form a connection. But what are stories? “Story allows us to find each other through all of the clutter that we face every day, all of the facts and information that is out there,” says Lisa Grotkowski, a communications strategist with the Alberta government.

Every organization has a story. Deciding which to tell, however, is another matter. Perhaps it’s how the company was founded, what purpose it’s serving now and what’s happening or where it’s going next. Companies can lead customers on a journey and that will help them relate to the brand, product or service they’re selling.

Stories also personalize businesses. In 2009, Edmonton real estate agent Jerry Aulenbach posted a photo of the bacon he was eating for breakfast to his Twitter account. The response was immediate: Aulenbach quickly became a magnet for bacon fanatics around the world. But he leveraged his newfound Twitter popularity for his business as a Realtor.

He named his Facebook page “Bacon Man Edmonton Real Estate.” He commissioned a bacon costume to be made, which he now wears to events and in his social media photographs. He ordered business cards in the shape of strips of bacon, and even had them smoked so they smell like the stuff. Making bacon his brand was a risk, Aulenbach says, but the quirk worked. “The fact is that it has nothing to do with real estate [but] it’s somehow to my benefit. It shows people that I’m human, that I’m not just a pushy salesman and it makes it easier for them to approach me,” he says.

In a business like real estate, where Realtors are homogenous – like stalks of wheat in a massive field – story set Aulenbach apart. It earned him clout online and inspired customers and journalists to cold-call him.

“Your story is the one thing that nobody else can rip off,” says Ernest Barbaric, a digital marketing strategist based in Calgary.

Lesson Two: How to get Your Story Into the News

017_news_story_003As Schneider’s story illustrates, news has an appetite for stories. So how do you make yours appealing to news? Consider this story. When Calgary’s Fiasco Gelato launched a partnership with the Calgary Zoo, designing animal-inspired gelato flavours to raise money for the flood-ravaged operation, it grabbed news media attention.

Fiasco’s story had all the right ingredients: it was relevant to what was happening in the city, it was timely, it had a good-news twist and, as an added bonus, it involved animals and food. Adam Rozenhart, a digital strategist at Calder Bateman, a communications and marketing firm in Edmonton, says those are all key points to hit on. “I know a lot of journalists don’t want to receive an envelope filled with glitter, but you have to find a way to captivate them and get them interested,” he says.

One story of warning, however, is Schneider’s. While the Edmonton Journal reaches his customer base, he learned that some media interested in his story doesn’t. By talking to industry publications, for example, he realized that he was reaching his competitors, not his customers. Now, he only agrees to talk to industry publications if the journalist has a specific story topic in mind, one that’s not going to threaten his business by letting his competitors read about his business methods.

Lesson Three: Social Media isn’t Mandatory

017_news_story_002Schneider blogs and tweets about his life as a farmer. Social media is part of his tool kit to engage media and, every so often, get some earned media. But how should business approach social media itself? That’s the question most small businesses are grappling with today.

Even those who specialize in social media marketing don’t think every company should jump on the social media bandwagon. Instead, they say, companies should consider why they’re joining up and what they hope to achieve through social media before they create an account. “You can post a picture of cats every day and increase engagement by getting more likes and comments, but is that really contributing to your business or your marketing?” Barbaric says. “Have some sense of strategically why we’re using these social media sites. Being there flailing around is not a good strategy. That’s basically just a loss of time and money.”

Lesson Four: The Media Listens

According to Grotkowski, one of the most important lessons a business can learn about social media is there’s a “listening element” at work. She says companies first need to find out which online tool their prospective clients are using most, what they’re doing there, what they’re missing and what their needs are. “When you start to understand those needs, then you start to understand what information they need and how they need to receive it and there are a lot of times when it’s not social media,” Grotkowski says. Some companies opt out of using social media because they’re controversial or their audience doesn’t use it as a primary way of connecting. (Some Alberta-based companies or companies that operate in Alberta that don’t use social media include: The Medicine Shoppe pharmacy chain, Parkland Farm Equipment, a dealer in Stony Plain and Reid Stationers, in Calgary.)

One of the ways Aulenbach interacts with his Twitter audience is by posting random photos of Edmonton and asking them to guess where he is in the city – Where’s Waldo? for the digital age. He also posts funny or surprising photos of things he sees at work, like an ensuite bathroom with no wall or door separating it from the bedroom. He’s doing exactly what he should be on social media: being personable and genuine. Still, while there’s little downside to this for Aulenbach, some companies may face one if they portray themselves or their brands as overly cute or quirky.

Lesson Five: Have a Social Media Plan

Maria deBruijn, founder of Emerge Solutions, a digital engagement and strategic communications firm in Edmonton, suggests mapping out your content for social media around business cycles, such as peak seasons, new product releases or events. That’s exactly what Fiasco Gelato does. The owner of the artisan gelato company, James Boettcher, has one full-time employee managing the company’s social media accounts. Every week, the two meet to go over content for the upcoming week. “We don’t really schedule tweets [because] it doesn’t leave a lot of room for real-time engagement,” he says. “But we will discuss notable things – things that are current, things that we want to focus on.” Those might include partnerships with other companies, seasonal flavours and new products.

And Rozenhart says that it matters who tweets or updates Facebook. “Make sure it’s not just the intern or some admin person who appears to have some free time,” Rozenhart says. The right candidate should be technologically literate, but most importantly, he says, should believe in and be knowledgeable about your brand.

While having a content plan is important, so too is having a crisis management plan for when things go awry. “Hope for the best, but plan for the very worst,” Rozenhart says. The best way to do that is to think about the worst-case scenarios and figure out how you would respond. “A reasonable, non-overreactive response is always something you should try to plan for,” he says.

No matter how hard you try to manage your social media presence, your business is probably already being talked about somewhere on the Internet, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Rozenhart suggests creating a Google Alert with specific keywords so you can monitor what’s being said. Just keep in mind, if someone says something negative, don’t vent about it on Twitter.

Remember: “All the social norms that apply in having a real relationship, apply online,” Grotkowski says. That means you still need to act responsible and be accountable.

Lesson Six: Measuring Your Success

The number of people that like your Facebook page means little if they never actually visit or engage with the content that’s there. Most experts suggest focusing on two or three themes from the data and improving on those. For example, if you’re using Facebook to assess customer loyalty, monitor how many people are moving from your Facebook page to your website. Another good indicator is how many people on average engage with content on your Facebook page compared to how many simply like the page. Ryan Blais, a managing partner at nine10, a marketing and ad agency in Grande Prairie has found that, for most of his clients, generating revenue is not their number one objective in using social media. Instead, they want to use it to generate awareness, which is much more difficult to measure. His company recently launched a multi-platform ad campaign to promote Grande Prairie Regional College’s trades programs. He hopes to measure the campaign’s success using the number of inquiries about the trades the college gets from new students. Though the relationship isn’t a direct one, the number of inquiries will hint at how effective the multi-platform tools really are.

Lesson Seven: Putting the Lessons Together

James Boettcher, Fiasco Gelato’s owner, doesn’t talk about overcoming the challenges of childhood poverty often. “There were times we didn’t have food or we didn’t have power in the house,” Boettcher says. “We just always found a way to stay alive, to make it happen.”

The experience taught him the value of hard work. But as for his story, he thinks there will come a time and place to tell it – but he’d rather not use it as a business tactic. “It’s not James’s Gelato. It’s Fiasco. There are a lot more people behind this company than just myself.”

As Boettcher’s story shows, you need to do some soul-searching to figure out when and where you want to tell your story. Then, after you take this story to social media and build a community, you need to remember how to keep telling your story by adding to the conversation. While you do this, don’t forget to create a strategy in case things go sour. Eventually, if you create enough buzz, you might just make the news. “If you want to understand a culture, listen to the stories,” Grotkowski says. “If you want to change a culture, change the stories.”

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