Trash-Shaming, Package Pirates, and Pay-to-Play: My Adventures in PR
I once hired a publicist who got some nibbles from target publications but was never able to close the deal. Eventually, he reluctantly shared with me his back-and-forth emails with those publications, and to my dismay, I saw that his pitches were weak and definitely not worth the $5,000 a month I was paying him.
By Liz Reisch Picarazzi
I listened to the recent 21 Hats Podcast episode about public relations with great interest. At various points running my business, my experiences have been similar to those of the panelists—from Paul not letting go of control of the writing, to Jay cautioning that it’s easy to pay a lot for very little, to William saying that the big checks he writes PR agencies are painful but can be worth it. For me, the episode was especially timely because I recently pitched The New York Times a story about package delivery lockers, which my company designs and manufactures.
While the experience is still fresh, I thought I’d share my approach. I’ll also share some experiences and observations about do-it-yourself PR and hiring publicists — I’ve done both — what’s worked, and what hasn’t. When I sat down to write The Times pitch, it had been germinating for more than two years, which is a nice way to say that I procrastinated (“I won’t do it until I do it right”). During that time, I voraciously consumed various articles by design and real estate writers whom I thought might be interested in a story about package-delivery lockers. So when I finally sat down to write the pitch, I was somewhat over-prepared.
As Loren mentioned in the podcast episode, journalists get sprayed with hundreds of pitches a day — many from professional publicists who haven’t taken the time to consider whether the topic will be relevant to the journalist. Reading articles by the writers you’ll be contacting is time well spent because it helps foster a relationship rather than just a transaction. It helps orient you to what their readers want and what their editors expect them to bring to pitch meetings. I knew that the Times writer I wanted to pitch covers home design and product innovations because I’ve been reading his articles for five years.
In my email, I noted recent news articles in The Times about the spike in porch piracy, and said that perhaps their readers would be interested in a story about a solution to the problem: package lockers. Linking my story idea to their recent coverage, I hoped, would differentiate me from all the other product plugs.
Another part of the strategy was to make it easy for them to say yes. Stories looking at a problem — in this case, package theft — always include products from multiple brands. So I made it easy for the writer by providing names and website addresses for my competitors. I also knew they’d want client testimonials, so I lined up three clients who would be willing to be interviewed and photographed for the article. I also put our best high-resolution photos on a shared drive so they could see what I was talking about and think about what they might want to photograph.
The strategy I used in appealing to The Times came only after years of making PR mistakes. For example, I’m surely not the only business owner who has wasted time and money competing for an award with a publication, submitting an application and the requisite fee—only to be promptly and repeatedly invited to advertise. Like, if I don’t advertise, I can’t win the award? I’ve done this a bunch of times and don’t like the feeling of paying to play.
I once hired a publicist who got some nibbles from target publications but was never able to close the deal. Eventually, he reluctantly shared with me his back-and-forth emails with those publications, and to my dismay, I saw that his pitches were weak and definitely not worth the $5,000 a month I was paying him. So I wrote directly to the journalists who had shown interest, sharing story ideas that I thought might resonate with their audience. The personal outreach was effective and led to a network television appearance.
If you do hire a publicist or PR firm (which I will likely do again, despite my concerns), make sure that person’s media connections are current, not from years ago. And be sure to ask about recent client successes and to get references from a few clients.
My biggest PR success came in 2018 when Andy Cohen, the talk-show host, trash-shamed some neighbors in his West Village neighborhood, showing video of their overflowing garbage on his Instagram feed. I called the landlord of the building and said that we could help him with his trash problem. The landlord bought enclosures, and we installed them, with the hope that Andy would notice them on his morning walk and give Citibin a shoutout.
And he did! He posted the trash transformation on his IG Stories and said “Citibin for the win,” a sound bite that most businesses would kill for. We made a fun video about beautifying NYC with Andy Cohen, which even included clips from Andy on the Late Show talking to Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper about NYC trash. It made for a great story — small business teams up with Andy Cohen to tackle West Village trash, and even had its own hashtag, #21BANK. But I didn’t pitch the story, so it wasn’t covered. The best time to get publicity about your publicity is while it’s happening. I regret not making the most of this celebrity shout-out.
As for The Times, the article ran in April, just a month after I pitched the story. They interviewed me and three of my customers, including well-known home-renovation bloggers the Brownstone Boys, which amplified the exposure. The piece led to a 50-percent increase in package locker sales, wide visibility, and top shelf SEO given The Times’ domain authority with Google. In fact, the web traffic from the Times article on package lockers also acquainted visitors with our other products. Someone who contacted us about stolen packages could also get help with their trash and recycling. That “upsell” into a bundled configuration of bins for packages and trash can easily quadruple the sales amount. (If you’d like to see my winning NYT pitch, DM me. I’d be happy to share!)
Here are a few PR resources that I’ve found useful, if you want to try to DIY it:
Free PR: How to Get Chased by the Press without Hiring a PR Firm, by Cameron Herold and Adrian Salamunovic. I have the Audible version read by the authors and find it quite motivating.
Online communities like Press For Success, which provide tips, templates, and courses to get your own publicity. I’ve benefited from PFS founder Sabina Hitchen’s “pitch whisperer” service, where she helps rework your pitch and cheers you on in outreach.
Amazon’s “Work Backwards” approach to PR. Amazon requires managers to write the press release before product design and development, to make sure the project is rooted in solving real customer needs, which are press-worthy.
Liz Reisch Picarazzi, CEO of Citibin, writes regularly about her entrepreneurial journey.