How Being French Made Me a Better PR Person

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Alicia is a Senior Account Executive at Oxygen USA. As a native French-speaker with a long history of living abroad, she faced some challenges furthering her PR career in the United States. In a series of blog posts she will share with an open heart how she was able to transform her cultural difference into a strength, starting with the sometimes harsh world of PR.

When I came to San Francisco two years ago, I had the confidence of five years of PR work in France to reassure me. I had partnered with global companies such as recruiting giant, Monster and the internationally recognized European Copper Institute.

Sure, I was changing locations. But, there couldn’t be that much of a difference in the PR role, right?

I’ve never been so wrong - and right - at the same time!

Welcome to the Mecca of PR

In France, you learn to compete with other French companies and maybe a few from other French-speaking countries like Belgium or Switzerland. In the US, competition is a lot tougher because every English-speaking country (and even those who speak English unofficially) would gladly be featured in the likes of US Vogue, Techcrunch, or Forbes.

While most French journalists generally receive 50 emails a day, in the US their inbox easily reaches 500. A journalist once told me that in the weeks leading up to CES, he received an email every MINUTE.

Being featured in the US press isn’t only about prestige. In this environment, where top international companies fight to conquer in one of the most highly competitive markets, tiny mistakes that would be overlooked in other countries can immediately disqualify you.

Rethink Your Media List Policy

Among other things, this heightened atmosphere of competition has refined my method of managing media lists.

When preparing a PR campaign, your media list identifies who you’re planning to reach out to in hope of a feature.

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There’s nothing more detrimental to your PR efforts than... 

...treating journalists as no more than an item on your to-do list.

There’s nothing more detrimental to your PR efforts than treating journalists as no more than an item on your to-do list. Yet It’s also a numbers game that requires your personal investment of time, skill, and strategy.

If you target only your top four favorite journalists, the chances of success are low. You have to actively balance quality (only selecting relevant journalists) with quantity (having enough “targets” to effectively spread your message).

In France, I could afford to target a more generous group. Journalists with loosely-related beats would be left on the list for the sake of efficiency. Once I began work in the US, I quickly realized that if I wanted any chance of getting my clients the high-quality coverage they deserved, I would need another strategy.

Consequently, I focused my attention on finding and closely monitoring a hand-picked “top twenty journalists” list from the best industry-relevant publications. I was also determined to allocate more energy toward thinking about the best ways to generate media interest.

Contrary to popular belief, targeting only well-known media names isn’t necessarily the best choice. The wise PR professional knows he or she must focus on publications and media outlets followed by a product’s niche audience.

Yes, getting their attention may be challenging because of the level of demand. But if you want to reach true opinion leaders, able to drive traffic, it’s worth the extra work.

When Talking About The US Press Release, Less is More

I used to write press releases that tended to be on the lengthy side. I felt I was providing more insight, illustrating interest in the product, and providing more material for journalists. And, in France, it worked! One of my prior PR campaigns about France’s green cities reached 300 articles within a week.

But here in America, whether it’s the language (English reveres concise, to-the-point sentences) or the hyper-solicitation of journalists, shorter press releases are definitely preferred.

Here journalists don’t require any design embellishments or extra photos we sometimes use in Paris. No unnecessary digression - just the core facts presented well and put in context so it’s clear from the start why they need to write about your client NOW.

If You Don’t Know How to Approach a Journalist Personally, Don’t Bother

Think of it this way: you don’t want to become the telemarketer of PR. People hang up on telemarketers because no one appreciates a robotic, scripted pitch. You have to find ways to make your target journalists see the personal value in or feel connected to your client’s industry or organization.

In my experience, the most efficient pitches I’ve designed were all uniquely one-of-a-kind. To achieve that level of personality, you need to make the effort to learn more about the person you’re contacting.

Let’s say I’m writing to a male journalist at TechCrunch. He’s a new contact that I haven’t yet met at a networking event fair. So, cold email it is.

I start with Stalking 101: what does he write about these days? Who does he follow on Twitter? What parallel can I draw from what he engages with on social media and my product that won’t sound completely out of context? (Good journalists always have a strong BS filter - that’s why they’re good!)

Once I’ve written something, I try to put myself in his shoes. Why would he click on my title instead of the countless others in his inbox? What would entice him to read beyond my first line? Is adding a GIF more or less likely to serve my cause?

It’s a long process that requires imagination and a very detail-oriented approach. But the increased chance of landing an articles is worth it.

The Importance of Staying Local

Although I learned a great deal in the US, I also managed to apply some lessons from my years as a PR operative and manager in Europe.

An important takeaway I brought along from my home country was the importance of local press and how to best engage with it.

Most companies doing PR have a hard time making a distinction between press outlets they wish to be featured in for the image (i.e. prestigious titles they can show off to their friends and have featured on their websites) and other outlets that will help them increase sales and revenue.

They often see national press as the only clear choice, but sometimes what will most efficiently drive business is that quaint newspaper, trusted by the local community.

Although the target is smaller and may have fewer PR requests in the inbox, it’s still important to custom-make your approach. In what way does this news impact the community of Rapid City, South Dakota? Does my product make this local journalist feel that his or her community is contributing something worth being recognized?

Only this extra effort, replicated for each of the cities you want to target, will generate results on the local scale.

Meeting in Person is Good Too, You Know

Back home, I worked with a phone glued to my ear. But here in San Francisco, everything seems email-based. Pitch, pitch, pitch. But only if it’s written. People are busy, don’t bother them with phone calls.

And yet, some of the most valuable relationships I’ve forged have been through in-person meetings at fairs or during informal networking events. At a time where you can simply buy media lists and quickly create emailing campaigns, the true value lies in going beyond those, and giving people a chance to put a face with the inbox.

Et Alors?

Beginning with a unique cultural filter made me more acutely aware of the PR strategies used here. Just as Montesquieu pointed out centuries ago in his Persian Letters, it’s often easier to notice differences when you have an external position.

These are only some of the tips and tricks this American “voyage” has taught me regarding PR, and I have no doubt the learning will continue!

In the coming weeks, I’ll share more insights regarding other parts of my work as a brand identity creator (especially in the field of startups), social media advisor, and more. Stay tuned.

See you très soon

Alicia