On this week’s episode of Performance Delivered, we speak with Jan Risher, principal at Shift Key Content Marketing and Public Relations Agency. Jan has been a newspaper columnist since 2002, has been awarded an International Fellowship for journalism, and has taught English in six countries.

“You have to have the balance even on your own social media of giving people news that they can use, versus the occasional self-promotional item. But traditional media is just not going to, well, traditional media worth their salt is not going to pick up completely self-promotional items, period,” says Jan when asked what she means by “ditch your pitch”.

We speak with Jan about how she got her start in content marketing and PR, as well as…

  • What traits make a story great and how a PR agency can help businesses identify which stories are worth telling
  • Ways for businesses to improve on news judgment
  • Tips for getting a story picked up or featured
  • Methods for getting results with a smaller budget
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in this episode:



Steffen Horst: Welcome to Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success Podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. The topic for today’s episode is ditch your pitch. Here to speak with me is Jan Risher, who is the principal at Shift Key, a content marketing and public relations agency.

Jan and the Shift Key team work as storytellers for businesses and organizations across the globe. She has been a Sunday newspaper columnist since 2002 and as a journalist, was awarded the International Fellowship for journalism. Jan has taught English in its most lyrical and most basic forms in six countries and six states and loves to travel. So far, she visited 48 countries. Jan, welcome to the show.

Jan Risher: Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity to be here with you.

Steffen: Someone who has visited 48 countries must have the travel bug. What is it about traveling around the globe to different countries, different cities, you know, with different languages?

Jan: Well, I grew up in a very small town in Mississippi and never had the opportunity to travel very much or very far when I was a child growing up and did a lot of reading and a lot of looking and learning about places that were basically foreign to me and I was just always really curious. And finally, I got the opportunity to go teach English in Slovakia. I got there when the country was 12 days old in 1993.

That was my first time to Europe. I had been to Mexico only before that. And I lived in Europe for, in Slovakia for a year and just traveled all over. And it just lit a fire within me just to, I think it made me a better person is the ultimate answer, just learning about all of the ways that we share so much with so many people in so many places. And I just began to want to go to more places and do more things. It’s just been a gift.

And I am, I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to have been as many places as I’ve been. But I will say that under the current situation, I am a little more hesitant to think about air travel right now. And so it’ll be interesting to see how the COVID-19 crisis affects traveling for not just me, but for everybody. Don’t you agree?

Steffen:  Yeah. Well, I hear you. The listeners haven’t noticed so far but, you know, I’m German and far away from my family and I’d love to see them actually. I plan to go there in August for my brother’s wedding, which was just canceled today. And I don’t think I will see my family and my family won’t see their 13-month-old grandson probably for another year till we are able to travel again. So it’s hard. It really is hard. Are there any countries, any cities that are really dear to your heart where you’re like, gosh, that was the greatest experience. I love this place. I want to go back whenever I can.

Jan:  I have lots of places like that. The first one that comes to mind is Budapest. I love that city. And when I was there, communism had just ended. They had tarps over the statues and it was just this incredibly beautiful, full of music, unbelievable food. And it was just so wide open and it was that feeling of something new. And so that was completely magical. And I also have just had great experiences in Asia, in Thailand in China.

We adopted our daughter from China. And actually, she and I went back to her hometown in China last summer. She’s 18 now and we actually got to visit her foster family in their home in Nanchang. So that, talk about an incredible experience, to meet these people who basically played such a role in giving this child you’ve loved since you got her when she was 11 months old, such a healthy and loving foundation. You know, what a gift that was. And we couldn’t speak their language, but it was so incredibly powerful.

We walked into this tiny little apartment and they had my daughter, her name is Piper, she loves to eat and she loves fruit. And on their table, they had all the fruit that she loved when she was a baby which she still loves now. And they had waited until we got there to cut the watermelon and to cut the pears and to cut the grapes. Actually, they peeled the grapes. And her foster mother who’s older now, like had Piper sitting right beside her on the sofa and was like feeding her just like she had fed her when she was an infant. And oh my goodness, Steffe, it was there were some waterworks that day for sure. All the way around. Super powerful.

Steffen: Yeah. Well, that’s really great. How did you get started in content marketing and PR? When did that kind of come into your life?

How Jan Got Her Start In Content Marketing and PR

Jan: Well, I actually started off majoring in public relations when I was in college. And my freshman year I thought, hmm, anything I can do with a PR degree I could probably do with an English education degree but I also teach with an English education degree. I changed my major my freshman year so there’s always been that seed of being interested in that side of the business. But I did go ahead and get my English ED degree. And I taught for a number of years. And that’s what led to the travel. I’ve loved writing since I was a kid and ended up working in public relations for a number of years.

And then I made the unusual transition from public relations into journalism and worked as a journalist. And still, I’m a newspaper columnist. And so that has given me a really interesting perspective on recognizing stories, which is what ditch your pitch is really about. And it’s about recognizing real stories as opposed to what I thought when I had not worked in journalism. And that was, you know, I’ve got this business who’s opening a new branch, the newspaper or the television station should just cover it. But now I understand what it means to recognize a real story versus just promoting your company or your event.

Steffen: Interesting. So what are the elements then of a real story? Something that is not just promotion of a company?

Seven Traits of Newsworthy Stories

Jan: Well, I believe that, and a lot of journalism textbooks, so I’ve actually not taken many of those classes. But I understand that journalism textbooks agree with this. And that is that there are about seven traits that all stories have the potential of having, and the best stories have at least four of those traits, sometimes even more.

And you can look, and sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes because people get so bogged down in their own businesses, that they don’t even recognize fantastic stories that are right in front of them, or they get confused and think that something is a story that isn’t. But the first one is impact. And, you know, does it matter to an audience? And if so, what is that audience? That’s another piece of it. But you know, how will it affect their lives?

How will it affect their pocketbooks? Just the bigger the consequences, the bigger the story basically is with the first qualification. And then the second one is immediacy. You know, is this something just happened? And that is a mistake a lot of companies make, and that is they wait too long to tell something that would have been news and would have gotten coverage back when it happened. But even sometimes, one week down the road, it’s too late. You know, it’s best to get ahead of a story, especially when you’re dealing with public relations and marketing.

And then its proximity. You know, that matters. You can’t just pitch a story that happened in Pittsburgh, in Milwaukee. It’s got to be, if it’s a local story, it’s got to be truly local. And the fourth one is prominence. Does it involve a celebrity? And, you know, you, we see that with a whole influencer industry. are well-known public figures involved? And then novelty, is that something really weird or quirky or strange? Once when I was a journalist, there was a little police report came in and it said that someone had been robbed. And the guy who did the robbery was wearing no pants.

That’s weird. That got a lot of readership just because it was a super quirky story in the way that it had been written in the police report, as just no-nonsense, you know? so novelty goes a long way. And then six, unfortunately, is conflict. You know, is there a clash of power, a political battle, a sports rivalry? I’m not saying conflict is always bad, but it does definitely generate interest in stories. And then finally, emotions. You know, does the story make you feel something happy, sad, angry something? But we all respond to human interest stories that trigger emotions that are poignant.

Steffen: As a PR specialist, how can a PR specialist or PR agency help businesses to identify stories that are worth talking about or that are worth telling other people about? Because you mentioned when you talk about number two, that it’s hard for people sometimes to see an opportunity with a story because there’s so much in the day to day. How do you help as a business owner to those businesses?

Jan: Well, there’s something called news judgment. Have you ever heard, I don’t know, it’s a term that is used often in newsrooms by editors and the basic, those seven elements create the basics of news judgment. And it comes very easily to some people. For other people, it’s a struggle. And I would say, marking down those seven things and looking at your business is one way to do it. But still, it’s so difficult for people who are so deeply involved with a particular effort to be objective to know if it’s really a story or not.

And so sometimes you really do just need to bring in someone from the outside. You know, maybe someone who has had professional media experience and can help you recognize your own stories. A public relations agency should be able to do that. But if you aren’t ready to hire a PR agency, talk to someone who knows something about news to come in and just give them a tour of your organization.

Show them what’s going on. And it can be a virtual tour, to be honest. But it’s for people who have good news judgment. And if you start paying, you know, the best way to develop your own news judgment is to read the news and to pay attention to the news to figure out what those quirky stories are that get a lot of mileage out there.

Steffen: Is there a way to teach use judgment. Is there a way to help business owners to improve with that, other than just reading news?

Jan: Well, I mean, making a checklist of the seven elements of good stories could help. You know, asking when there’s a new initiative or you think it’s time to generate some media attention for your business. You know, going through impact, immediacy, proximity, prominence, novelty, conflict, emotions, going through those and figuring out which ones, which boxes does this tick. And again, different audiences respond to different things.

We work with our clients with three different ways. The first one is regional, local and regional news, which could also be national. And then we do industry news. And then we also look for personal connections to news stories. For example, college alumni publications, things like that. Things that you as a business person have personal connections to. So I think that making a checklist of the news story elements could be very helpful for some people.

Steffen: Yeah. You obviously have been on the journalism and the public relations side of traditional media. How do you use both sides of your experience to help clients find stories? Obviously, you just said, you know, create a checklist. But in what other ways do you help clients?

Ways Shift Key Helps Their Clients

Jan: Because media and their capabilities have changed because of the internet, frankly, and newsrooms, in most cases are much smaller now and fewer people are doing a lot more work than they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Triple the work or more than 30 years ago for sure. So if we go in and we recognize a story, one of the things that we’ve had a lot of success with is I approach that story then as a journalist, and basically write the story. And then we’re able to take that story and send it to different journalism organizations, media organizations, traditional media.

And because they have so many deadlines and there’s so much you know, they have to feed the beast. If they get a well written real story that’s not self-promotional, and that’s the key there. They will, nine times out of 10 take that story and run with it. Now they do some of their own work as well. But they certainly rely on the good work that’s been done and present it to them. We also send them photographs, often videos, we try to give them everything they need to quickly package something and put it out there for their audiences.

Steffen: So Jan, obviously there are several ways to distribute the press release once it’s finalized, you can use services to send them out to a mass group, you can build out relationships with individuals, but is there something that you hear from those sources that it works good or bad when it comes to getting featured or getting picked up, other than, you know, having certain elements that need to hit the key?

Jan:  Well, relationships always matter, don’t they? And if a journalist, if we, as a PR company, have developed a good relationship with a journalist because we have fed them good stories through the years, trust me, they take our emails a little more seriously than they may take a random person’s email for sure. So that makes a big difference. The other thing that I think addresses part of your question is we do incredible follow up, like real phone calls to the journalist who we send press releases to.

And that is rare in this point. And you’d be amazed how people actually answer the phone. That makes a big difference, having those one on one conversations. I think that there is oftentimes a place could a press release on the wire, but it’s not always appropriate. And so we don’t always recommend that for our clients. We do on certain occasions, but it’s rather judicious. So I think that it’s really just trying to develop a relationship with the reporter who covers your beat or your industry.

That’s, not to do that is really missing an opportunity for every business. You know, they will listen to you. They want to have contacts within the community. Don’t think that you’re bothering them, even though they might be super busy and on a deadline and might not be able to talk with you at a certain point, still reach out to them. Just keep on. Persistence pays off.

Steffen: Because they live off you too, right? I mean, they’re looking for newsworthy stories every day, every hour so they can, as you said, feed the beast. It helps both sides at the end of the day if someone maintains and builds a strong relationship in order to place news or to get news.

Jan: And they are, if they don’t listen to you about your story the first time, good journalists are going to come back to you later. So don’t get discouraged, don’t burn a bridge just because they didn’t listen to you one time. Be patient with them.

Steffen:  So today’s topic is ditch your pitch. And you mentioned obviously earlier, talked a bit of time about PR because that’s what it relates to. But what do you mean particularly about ditch your pitch? Are you talking about a specific approach that PR agencies, PR individuals apply that you think is not as successful or doesn’t yield as much results than an alternative approach?

Finding the Right Balance Between Newsworthiness and Self-Promotion

Jan: Absolutely. I think that it’s critical that businesses recognize that they can’t write something completely self-promotional and expect traditional media to cover it. Or beyond that, even to expect it to resonate on social media, that you’re on social media. You have to have the balance even on your own social media of giving people news that they can use, versus the occasional self-promotional item. But traditional media is just not going to well, traditional media worth their salt is not going to pick up completely self-promotional items. Period.

Steffen: Yeah. Digital has such a huge coverage or has increased over the years so much. Do you have to have a to channel strategy for traditional media approach and more digital-focused media approach in order to get coverage?

Jan: Well, you don’t, the simple answer is for traditional media, you don’t have to have a strategy because you can’t always predict what is going to happen in terms of what will be a story. But having a system in place to recognize those stories, when they happen certainly will pay off enormous dividends. A system in place to on a regular basis, maybe once every six weeks, once every eight weeks, to kind of do a scan of the organization to look for potential news stories is a great way to approach that. And that is a system to help recognize stories.

Steffen: So you just said every six to eight weeks. Is it right to assume that you shouldn’t probably push press release after press release on a weekly bi-weekly basis, just to kind of stay in the news?

Jan: Yes. For the love of everything that is good and holy, please do not do that. That will annoy journalists right there.

Steffen: Jan, what is the better approach? We just said, you know, obviously, sending press release after press release is the wrong thing. How should companies actually approach getting their stories once they have identified and published or distributed?

Jan: Well, if they have a PR firm, or if they just want to have a one-time relationship with a PR person, that person would get the particulars and write it up. Sometimes in a more formal press release, sometimes in a less formal simple email. Or occasionally it’s just a phone call. It just depends and you have to have experience with news to know which approach works best. Let’s say that mom and pop organization without a PR budget is out there.

I would recommend that they just send a simple email it does not have to be fancy. If it’s a real story and a journalist is able to see the email and have time to read it, chances are they’ll run with it. And don’t be discouraged if they don’t. If you send one and nothing happens that doesn’t mean not send two. Go ahead and send number two, send number three down the road. Persistence really does pay off.

Steffen: Do you have any final advice for companies with no PR about you have little and with some PR budget on how they should get started with obviously thinking about stories, we talked about that earlier, but how to get them distributed? Are there freelancers, agencies out there that help even with smaller budgets? What is the budget that probably makes sense someone should have in order to see results?

Getting Results With a Smaller Budget

Jan: Well, if they don’t have a budget at all, and they, I really just want people to understand how it works because there’s a lot of confusion out there. You know, a lot of news coverage about businesses didn’t just magically appear and the reporter didn’t just randomly, you know, run across the story. A lot of it does come from someone working in a media relations capacity. So you can have that same opportunity by reaching out directly to journalists. Now, once you do that, you will see that there is work involved.

One more tip, Steffen. If a journalist calls you and wants to do an interview or have a few questions, take the call immediately because chances are that journalist is on an enormous deadline. And, you know, if you miss a certain window, oftentimes less than a couple of hours, then you’re out and they’ll go on to the next person. So that’s one piece of advice. But for the small mom and pops out there with no budget, reach out, figure out a story within your organization and reach out to the right journalists. That’s a piece of advice.

Steffen: So one platform that we quite often use is I think it’s Haro, Help a Reporter Out. I think that’s, is that something you would recommend to companies to use? Because obviously, when you go under, you see topics that journalists are writing about and looking for experts to provide some bytes or even more.

Jan: Definitely. I’m glad you mentioned that. I’m sorry I didn’t think of it earlier to think, to speak of it but HARO, Help a Reporter Out, Haro, is a great way for small businesses to do some research and figure out journalists who are interested in stories that you might have connections to. Now the story topics that they write about are wide and you have to read through them constantly. They send out a lot of emails, but I would encourage you to sign up for that email.

And then, if it’s a company that has a small budget, you know, there are public relations firms out there who will work with you on even one-off, help you figure out one story, write one press release and do the follow-up. And, you know, give it a try, because there’s a higher sense of credibility. And even still, even with all the fake news accusations, there’s a higher sense of credibility among a story that someone reads in a news publication versus an advertisement. So just try it. You know, it’s, you know, it’s worth a minimum investment because your ROI on the PR investment could be enormous.

Steffen: Yeah. Well, Jan, I think that was a great last point. Thank you so much for joining me on Performance Delivered Podcast and talking about why people should ditch their pitch. If people want to find out more about you, Shift Key and how they can get in touch to either get a consultation or help with their PR requirements or content requirements, how can they get in touch?

Jan: Well, they can go to our website, which is goshiftkey.com. GO and then Shift Key. And we’re called Shift Key because the shift key on the keyboard makes the letters capital and we help make communication capital. So just can remember that way, Go Shift Key. And then they could also give me a call. I’ll go ahead and give you my number here. It’s 337-230-8214. And my email is on, of course, the website. We’d be happy to talk with you.

Steffen: Wonderful. Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered Podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.