Collaborate with and credit other outlets. There’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition between outlets. However, it’s important at this moment for all outlets to recognize they face an existential threat in the current climate of media distrust and to band together in solidarity. There are a couple of easy and effective ways to do this. First, don’t forget to credit the reporting of others. Stories get picked up by multiple outlets so quickly these days, that I often see journalists fail to recognize the original source in their coverage. If you got the idea for a story from another outlet, it’s now more important than ever to credit them so that the public can easily track stories back to the original source and so that if a story is later found to include any misinformation, it can more easily be corrected and prevented from spreading. Second, journalists make great sources. If you’re building on someone else’s reporting or covering a topic that isn’t usually your beat, don’t be afraid to include journalists from other outlets as sources in your coverage. This helps your audience hear from a wider range of journalists and prompts them to think about the importance of good journalism. The opportunity to build trust is greatest if the outlet you’re considering collaborating with is very different from yours. In my newspaper days, a local talk radio personality made a disparaging remark about the bicycle community. So I invited him to go on a bike ride with me. He accepted, and we formed a bridge between our worldviews, our outlets, and our very different audiences.
As a part of our series about “the 5 steps we can take to win back trust in journalism” I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jason Simms. Jason approaches public relations as a partnership between journalists and organizations on behalf of great stories. His Connecticut-based PR firm, Simms PR, enables B2Bs in a variety of industries to have a voice in the conversations relevant to their mission in regional, national, and international media. More than merely “getting the word out,” Jason and his team help organizations build relationships at scale. By sharing why their organizations matter and what makes them successful with expansive, new audiences, Simms PR connects those organizations to others that can advance their most vital initiatives, while increasing return on marketing, communications and events. Prior to founding Simms PR in 2013, Jason was a journalist reporting for print, digital, and broadcast media.
Thank you so much for joining us Jason. Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you share with us the “backstory” about how you got started in your career?
It’s a classic punk to PR guy story. I grew up in Albuquerque where I was very active in the music scene during high school. Part of how I chose Lewis & Clark College was its location in Portland, Oregon, which had (and continues to have) so much great music going on. At the time, there was an amazing circuit of basements in town hosting local and touring bands. I co-hosted a college radio show with a live, in-studio performance each week by one of these obscure, exciting basement bands.
When I got introduced to Mark Baumgarten, the music editor at the local alt weekly, Willamette Week, he hadn’t heard any of my favorite local bands. He asked me to write about them as a freelancer and he generously mentored me during my senior year of college and as I transitioned into a full-time freelance journalist. I went on to cover music and neighborhood news for the daily paper in town, The Oregonian, and to freelance for outlets such as Spin, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and The Stranger.
Drawing on this new knowledge of how newsrooms worked, I was able to do PR for my own band, landing us in The LA Times and many other outlets. With these wins under my belt, I convinced a local tech startup to let me teach myself how to do PR while working for them in a marketing and content role. I was green and inefficient, but I got dozens of placements for that company, including Reuters and The New York Times.
My wife and I got engaged in 2012 and decided to move across the country to her home state of Connecticut. Shortly after we arrived, I made building a PR firm my sole professional focus. When I first launched Simms PR, we worked with bands and record labels, because that was the world I knew. Within a few years, I had switched entirely to representing businesses. Connecticut has such a vibrant business community and it’s extremely rewarding to bring forward compelling stories from the business world that otherwise would go untold.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Shakespeare, particularly Macbeth, shaped a fun chapter of my life that I continue to draw on today. Inspired by shared qualities between the works of the Bard and ’80s metal, such as humor, bombast, gender-bending, and sword fights, I co-founded the Metal Shakespeare Company in college. We wore Shakespearean garb and sang passages from Shakespeare set to original heavy metal music in the style of Iron Maiden or Twisted Sister. It started as a joke, but it caught on, and we toured Shakespeare festivals, bars and colleges from 2006–2010.
We did three scenes from the Scottish Play, more than any other. My favorite was opening the show with the “double double toil and trouble” witches scene. We’d wear huge cloaks so no one could see our faces and instruments. As the music picked up, we’d throw them off revealing our costumes and guitars.
Having such a close relationship with the texts of Shakespeare and performing regularly over those years has given me an eye for how theatrics can be used effectively. It also shaped the way I think about who people are versus how they are perceived. There are a lot of misunderstood characters in Shakespeare, both in the context of their plays and by modern readers. My PR firm works to help great clients be better understood by showcasing who they are in powerful ways.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
My first job in media was a freelance music critic for Willamette Week, in Portland, Oregon. My editor, Mark Baumgarten, taught me a great deal about the writing and the practice of journalism. He also inadvertently sharpened my ability to work around obstacles.
Mark knew everyone in the music community in town, so every time I was supposed to write about a show, he would promise to reach out to someone and get me the guest list. He remembered to do this about a quarter of the time. Yet, I made it into all of those shows. I had to — I got paid by the article.
At small venues, where the door person is empowered to wave people through at will, it was easy. Sometimes mentioning Mark’s name or picking up the current issue of the paper and pointing to an article I’d written in it was enough. Larger venues with strict policies and expensive, sold-out shows, were more difficult. Sometimes I had to get Mark on my cell phone and hand it to the manager. Other times I wore them down by being sincere and patient. Occasionally, I’d sneak in a back door or simply slip by when the staff got distracted.
This happened so often that a catch phrase emerged around the newsroom: “Simms always gets in.” It became, and continues to be, my motto. A dogged and creative approach to PR — implementing plans A-Z to get results for the client when most firms would stop at C — is something that sets my firm apart.
Can you share the most humorous mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson or take away you learned from it?
In 2008, I developed and hosted a series of video English lessons in which celebrities explained a slang phrase for English, baby! a website that helps people abroad learn real spoken English. I reached out to the Portland Trailblazers (which also happens to be my favorite basketball team) to see if we could interview Nicolas Batum, a rookie at the time, about his experience coming into the NBA from France and learning English. He would also explain the meaning of the term “slam dunk.” The team agreed for us to come to a practice and shoot the video.
Now, bear in mind I’m coming from a music journalism background, and the first celebrities in this English lesson series had been musicians. In that community, wackiness and creativity was rewarded and encouraged. So we figured we’d play it by ear with Batum. We’d do the interview straight, and then, if he seemed game, we’d ask him to dunk over me while I wore a 1970s-style basketball uniform I had previously worn in a series of videos for the website that we shot at the Beijing Olympics.
Well, Batum seemed friendly enough, so we asked if he was OK with doing this silly shot. He agreed. I removed the dress clothes I was wearing on top of the basketball uniform, and we were about to shoot the dunk when the team’s media director ran in and shut it down. We were booted from the practice facility, and despite several heartfelt apologies from me over the days and months to follow, the media director went so far as to attempt to block us from interviewing players from other NBA teams. (He wasn’t successful — I interviewed about 20 players from different NBA teams over the next few years including greats such as Steve Nash and Grant Hill.)
It was clear to me, even immediately after this happened, that I was totally out of line. I should have cleared our entire plan up front. That was one thing I learned from this experience. The other was that sometimes there are mistakes you just can’t fix. Even after I had interviewed players from other NBA teams and they were happy with the result, I could never get the Blazers’ media director to trust me again (although he did eventually agree not to block me from attend practices of visiting teams in the Blazers’ arena as long as I went through those teams). In typical “Simms-always-gets-in” fashion, I didn’t let this early snafu get in the way of the long-term goal recruiting well-known athletes to appear in the video series.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
One of our clients, Kelser Corporation, works in the always exciting cybersecurity space, and we’ve had the chance to work with dozens of outlets, including some very large ones, to help the public gain a deeper understanding of this important topic. Our creative and long-term partnership with Kelser enables them to do more than offer best practices and break down specific cyber attacks in the media, although they do that often. Our work together is reshaping the dialog about cybercrime in general so that it can be better understood and more easily stopped. This deep level of leadership within the public conversation is just one example of how we operate with all of our professional services clients.
On October 14, 2020, I’ll be leading a SIP Session about the power of incorporating theatrics into your daily life. SIP is an event series I’ve been involved with since it started in 2016. It’s designed to be the un-TED Talk. The motto is “no experts, no tips, no help,” and each session is an interactive workshop that requires the participation of every attendee. This will be my second time hosting.
What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?
To journalists, I would say that what you do is so deeply important. You are truly unsung heroes of our society. When you feel discouraged and unappreciated know that there are so many readers and viewers you never hear from whose lives you touch and enrich.
To PR professionals, I would say that you report to your clients, yes, but it is equally vital that your work serve the press. In today’s media climate, journalists need talented and trustworthy PR professionals to help them find stories they would otherwise miss and connect with sources and information they don’t have time to track down on their own. You may not always feel appreciated by the press, but that’s OK. Their jobs are hard. Your reward comes when you bring about a story that matters and otherwise would never have been covered. Take pride in the increasingly important role you play in the reporting the news.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main parts of our interview. According to this Gallup poll 45% of Americans trust the mass media. As an insider, are there 5 things that editors and newsrooms can do to increase the levels of trust? Can you give some examples?
While I work with both local and national media outlets, my answers to this question are primarily focused on local media. Local media, I believe, is suffering most — and most undeservedly — in the age of media polarization, and the loss of local media outlets is hitting our society hardest. National media will be OK. I’m not worried about them. However, if things don’t change, our local newspapers and broadcast newsrooms may not survive this era, and if they die, our communities will never be the same.
1 . Reveal more of how the sausage is made
Editors often seem afraid to reveal just how small and strapped their newsrooms are. They seem to think they’ll lose some of the prestige of their outlet if the public knows how things work behind the scenes. However, that prestige is already cracking. Outlets need to reinforce it with understanding and appreciation for what they are able to accomplish with small, passionate, overworked and underpaid newsrooms.
Some of the most successful podcasts get this right when they underscore the difficulty of their reporting in their appeals for support from their listeners. I seem to recall Reply All (prior to Gimlet being acquired by Spotify) saying something to the effect of, “We flew to India to meet a scammer. Who does that? That was expensive. Support us if you want more of that.” The same strategy could be used by a local newspaper to show how dedicated they are to the community they serve by saying something like, “We sent a reporter to 200 town meetings this year. This led to stories such as X, Y and Z. Since you can’t make it to all those meetings yourself, support our paper.”
Along the same lines, I think it helps build trust for outlets to point out to their audience what they are doing and why. For instance, newsrooms often have internal names for the different spaces in their outlets and specific ideas about the purpose those spaces serve. Sharing those names, or turning them into designated series, helps an increasingly bombarded public make sense of your coverage and see what you’re contributing to the media landscape. A good example of this is Connecticut ABC affiliate WTNH’s “What’s Right With the Schools” which tells a positive story from the local schools once a week. Without being designated as something special, these stories might be lost in the shuffle of the day’s news. Since they are clearly labeled, however, the viewer immediately says, “Ah, I know what this is,” and the effect of these stories in offering a more well-rounded portrait of the school system, becomes cumulative.
2 . Meet your viewers or readers
Local TV and radio personalities are really good at this. They’re often out collecting turkeys or toys, emceeing events, or running in road races. There are plenty of opportunities for viewers and listeners to meet them and give their feedback. Writers and editors at print and online outlets, however, could build trust through more facetime with the audiences they serve.
Of course, this comes more naturally for extroverted on-air folks. However, an increasingly loud complaint the public seems to have about the media is a perception that the press is walled off in an ivory tower. As a PR man, I can tell you, journalists, this one is easy to fix. Inviting the public to meet and talk with you (as exhausting or intimidating as it may be), cuts this critique off at the knees. It also helps humanize members of the press, who are so often demonized these days. Plus, you’re likely to hear voices and learn about stories you otherwise wouldn’t.
Hearst’s Connecticut Media Group has cleverly merged a revenue initiative with the need to provide an open forum by inviting CT Insider subscribers to monthly “coffee with an editor” sessions. I went to one of these recently where there were just four other subscribers and each had the chance to ask questions and share what’s going on in their neighborhoods with a very open and receptive New Haven Register editor. Meeting with 5 subscribers at a time may seem inefficient, but the result is creating a deeper connection that transforms those individuals from mere subscribers into evangelists who build trust for you with everyone they know. (PR legend Peter Shankman describes this effect in his book, Zombie Loyalists.)
3 . Interact on social media, don’t just post links
Ten years ago, it may have been enough for media outlets simply to have social media accounts and post links to their stories. To be successful and expand their audience, media outlets must conceive of social media as an extension of the content. Many younger folks (and some older folks too) get the majority of their news through social media. Your tweets are as important as your headlines. But good social media content won’t heal the breakdown in trust in the media. For that, you have to participate in a two-way conversation online.
I’m not sure if journalists are simply too overworked, afraid of “feeding the trolls,” or both, but I so often see questions on social media directed at media outlets or journalists go unanswered. This deepens the divide between the public and the press and squanders an opportunity to close it. Granted, many of these questions aren’t terribly insightful, but answering them still builds trust. The most common question I see is, “Why didn’t you talk to so and so for this story?” My advice is to be humble and provide an earnest answer which provides some insight into how the decision was made.
Ideally, media outlets would all have a social media strategist on staff. In the age of skeleton crew newsrooms, it seems like such a luxury, but if social media engagement builds audience share, trust, and revenue (which companies in all sorts of industries can tell you, it does), wouldn’t it be worth the investment? At the very least, some small amount of time from a staff member who can speak for the outlet ought to be reserved for engaging with the audience on social media. Michael Lewis’ Against the Rules podcast explores the idea that social media is the new ombudsman. Like Lewis, I’m not sure that argument holds up, but it definitely doesn’t if the press isn’t actively participating in social media.
4 . Collaborate with and credit other outlets
There’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition between outlets. However, it’s important at this moment for all outlets to recognize they face an existential threat in the current climate of media distrust and to band together in solidarity. There are a couple of easy and effective ways to do this.
First, don’t forget to credit the reporting of others. Stories get picked up by multiple outlets so quickly these days, that I often see journalists fail to recognize the original source in their coverage. If you got the idea for a story from another outlet, it’s now more important than ever to credit them so that the public can easily track stories back to the original source and so that if a story is later found to include any misinformation, it can more easily be corrected and prevented from spreading.
Second, journalists make great sources. If you’re building on someone else’s reporting or covering a topic that isn’t usually your beat, don’t be afraid to include journalists from other outlets as sources in your coverage. This helps your audience hear from a wider range of journalists and prompts them to think about the importance of good journalism. The opportunity to build trust is greatest if the outlet you’re considering collaborating with is very different from yours. In my newspaper days, a local talk radio personality made a disparaging remark about the bicycle community. So I invited him to go on a bike ride with me. He accepted, and we formed a bridge between our worldviews, our outlets, and our very different audiences.
5 . Market your outlet better so you aren’t so strapped for cash
There’s a reason that the rhetoric used to attack media outlets often includes words like “failing.” America loves a business success story, and there’s somehow an implication that if an outlet is struggling financially, it’s not trustworthy. Using up-to-date marketing techniques to generate sustainable revenue not only boosts the bottom line, it also increases trust. While marketing is ideally part of the business structure of an outlet, at smaller outlets, the editorial staff may be involved in shaping and implementing marketing strategy as well. Here are a few things I think outlets could be doing better.
Promote holiday gift subscriptions. We have seen that people will pay for others (such as students) to have access to news. Why not make it easy for subscribers (or non-subscribers) to give people the gift of subscription or membership? I can’t believe I don’t see more outlets doing this. A few years ago, my wife gave me memberships to all my favorite podcasts and wrapped the swag that came with them to put under the Christmas tree. It was awesome.
Target ads to your strength. Identify what makes your coverage unique and target advertising to people who would care. Are you the only outlet in town with a dedicated real estate reporter? Buy Facebook and LinkedIn ads touting that fact and targeting that industry in your area.
Create emotional resonance. I have two papers delivered to my house because I have a 2 year old and I want her to grow up seeing me read local newspapers instead of my phone. Often, we end up reading the paper together over breakfast as she points to each photo and says, “What’s that?” I can imagine a powerful online video targeted to young parents comparing the experience for a toddler of seeing a parent reading their phone versus reading a print product. We all grew up seeing our parents read the paper — use that nostalgia to drive sales and promote trust. Make us think about our families. Make us think about who we are, who we were, and who we want to be. Make us cry.
As you know, since 2016, the term ‘fake news” has entered common usage. Do you think this new awareness has made a change in the day-to-day process of how journalists craft stories? Can you give some examples?
In the last few years, I’ve noticed some outlets, particularly podcasts, that didn’t previously cite sources now doing so.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- The relationship between PR and press can be positive and serve the public. The first newsroom I worked in had a very negative perception of PR professionals and viewed them as trying to undermine journalism. They weren’t wrong — it’s easy to find unethical PR agencies, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Talented PR people who understand what it’s like to be a journalist can be a force for good in media. It took me a long time to realize that, and I might have embraced working in PR sooner if I had.
- Say no to clients you don’t completely believe in. It took me longer than I would have liked to realize the power and value of saying no to work that will drain you, and the cost of saying yes to it. When I started my PR firm, some of my first clients were wonderful relationships that became a template to build on. Others were complete fiascos, particularly an app in the poker space that I got involved in promoting. I don’t care about poker and there were a lot of red flags, but I ignored them because I thought it would lead to a big payday. All it led to was a big headache.
- Broaden your perspective about what it means to do good in the world. It’s easy to see that what nonprofits do is of great benefit. When I first met Brent Robertson and Fathom in 2015, I became awakened consciously to a notion that I had been unconsciously aware of for a long time. Businesses of all types that are guided by a vision of something more than profit are positive forces. You don’t have to be feeding the hungry to be doing good. You can practice law or architecture or accounting in a way that makes your community a better, more prosperous, happier place. And if you also support charities while doing that, all the better, but that’s not the only way to measure “good.”
- You will have to educate most clients about how the media works. When I started in PR, it was surprising to me how much I took for granted about the media world and how often I had to get clients up to speed. In fact, the biggest hurdle to landing the clients I wanted was their confusion about what PR is, how editorial media coverage is different than advertising or other types of exposure, and how a return on their investment would be realized. Once we articulated clear answers to those questions, it was a gamechanger.
- PR is a strategic tool, not a tactical one. Editorial media coverage is an incredibly powerful way to shape how an organization is perceived and for an organization to have a voice in conversations that are critical to its success. It is a long-term investment in the future. It is not an effective means of driving short-term revenue goals or turning a struggling business around. PR is not a substitute for an integrated marketing and sales strategy — it is a component of that strategy.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In line with my comments earlier in this interview about how media outlets can and must market themselves better, I hope to be in a position soon to start a movement to help save local media outlets through better marketing.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
There is so much changing in media right now, and no one seems to have a clearer understanding of the past, present and future of the practice of journalism than Columbia Journalism Review Editor in Chief and Publisher Kyle Pope. I feel like I hang out with him regularly already because he hosts CJR’s “The Kicker” podcast, which I never let linger in my podcast feed for long. It’s by far the podcast I learn the most from professionally. I’d love to sit down with Kyle Pope to get his take on the role of PR in the current journalism landscape and to brainstorm about how media outlets can market themselves.
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Thank you so much for your time you spent on this. We greatly appreciate it, and wish you continued success!