Find out what the specific reporters have written about in the past and reference it when you pitch your own stories.
As a part of my series about the things you need to know to excel in the modern PR industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sandy Silverstein.
Sandy is a communications professional with approximately 25 years of experience with expertise in public relations, marketing, crisis management, event planning, social media, and strategic planning. He is a lifelong Brooklyn, NY resident, and a graduate of Brooklyn College. He completed a competitive internship in the news department at WNYW-TV in NYC in 1992. From there, he got his first taste of public relations and marketing while working for an independent NYC record label where he wore many hats. He then switched to the agency side where he took a job as an Assistant Account Executive at PR powerhouse, Rubenstein Associates. After two years at this agency, he worked for a couple of smaller PR firms before spending the next 14 years in government, working as a spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, one of the largest and busiest city government agencies in the country. In this role, he helped make the Office one of the most reputable law enforcement agencies in the country. In fact, CBS Television created a documentary television series about the DA’s Office.
After leaving the District Attorney’s Office, Sandy went back to the private sector, serving as Media Relations Manager for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA), a national nonprofit organization, where he has helped lead PR efforts for the past four years
Throughout Sandy’s career, he would take on various freelance clients from time to time from small businesses to restaurants, bars, medical offices, and law firms. He has helped significantly increase exposure for his clients/companies at every level of his career, consulted on unique PR/Marketing campaigns, and performed damage control to keep negative stories out of the press.
In his most recent role at AFA, Sandy has more than doubled media placements and impressions in each of his previous four years. He has garnered stories in some of the top media outlets in the country, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, People, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, New York Times, Fox News, CBS News, WABC-TV, Today in New York (WNBC), Chicago Tribune, Health, and Seattle Times, just to name a few.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After I graduated from college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career. I studied communications in school and knew that I wanted a job/career in this area, but obviously that is a broad field. I was always a news junkie, I liked the idea of getting myself or others in the press, and I enjoyed writing. Even at a young age, I would help people with speeches, whether someone was giving a toast at a special occasion or giving a business presentation.
I got my first taste of the news industry as an intern with the local Fox News station here in NYC. I remember going out on assignments with reporters including Mike Sheehan and Linda Schmidt. It was exciting watching them interview people and get to the bottom of a story. That is when I realized I wanted to work in news in some capacity. But in what capacity? That was still something I was trying to figure out.
It was a struggle to get my first full-time job. I had to stray away from the industry for a few months to make a living. I spent a week working for a stock brokerage firm and spent a few months working for a technical recruiter, which was definitely the strangest job I ever had. Just like with the brokerage firm, I was encouraged to say anything to get people on the phone. My bosses taught me to say, “Hi. I am one of America’s Most Wanted. I am calling to turn myself…..Just kidding. I am a technical recruiter. Are you looking for a new job?” They thought I would get a laugh out of people and get them to engage. In reality, it just kind of freaked most of these people out.
I ended up getting my first real full-time job working for a record label, which was exciting. I got involved in every aspect of the business from PR to marketing, promotions, and A&R. Although it was cool getting all the perks of free concert tickets and CDs (I even got to meet and hang out with Paula Abdul, met Nsync right when they were first starting out), I wasn’t making much money there. After a while, I started looking for a new job. I eventually landed a position, through a recruiter, with Rubenstein Associates. It was a terrific experience. I loved what I was doing there. It was a great place to really get my start, learn the business, and polish my skills. I learned a lot from the supervisors with whom I worked. And the rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I remember when I first started at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, on my very first day, I was in a meeting with our two top executives and I was spit-balling some ideas to try to make a good impression. Admittedly, some of them were not so great, especially since I didn’t know what their budget was.
I told them that I had recently developed a relationship with the head of communications at Henri Bendel a popular fashion accessories company, with stores all across the country, including their flagship store in NYC. I had brought up the idea of doing a fundraising event with them. A couple of months down the road, I started communicating and developing a relationship with singer/songwriter Ashley Campbell, the daughter of the late country music legend, Glen Campbell, and her team. We started hosting “Sip & Shop” fundraisers with Henri Bendel, raising a lot of money and awareness. Before long, we put two and two together and got Ashley involved. I believe she came to our first Henri Bendel event. My wife, her mother, and her friend came to the event. They all started hanging out and taking pictures with Ashley. To this day, my wife will occasionally show people her picture with Ashley on Facebook and tell people, “I hung out with Glen Campbell’s daughter!” The Henri Bendel fundraising events became a hit and were a staple on our calendar every year, generating a lot of publicity, until the company recently went out of business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In my first full-time job, working for that independent record label, one of the tasks I was put in charge of was finding ways to market our records. I reached out to a number of companies, in various industries, and had quite a bit of success. I think it got to my head because I then started reaching out to every company I could think of.
My mistake was pitching one of our records to a major adult film network. After all, there was a point on one of the songs where you could hear an adult film star moaning. I thought it would be a good tie-in. The network liked the idea. In fact, they wanted to purchase the exclusive rights to the record. I told them it was a possibility and I would get back to them. Our President wasn’t pleased. Not only did he not want to give away exclusive rights to anyone, but he didn’t like the idea of connecting ourselves with an adult film company. I learned my lesson. I was too overzealous. And I realized that quality is usually more important than quantity. Although it could have made our company a lot of money, it also ould have hurt our reputation. It did make for a funny story though.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
At the time of this writing, we are quarantined due to the Coronavirus pandemic. We are all working remotely. This means that we have taken a lot of our programs online, including our community therapeutic programming. I have been promoting these community classes, which offer tremendous health benefits, especially for seniors and those living with dementia-related illnesses. At a time when everyone is isolated, these programs are a great way to combat isolation, keep people engaged, and to keep us physically and mentally stimulated.
Prior to the Coronavirus, these programs were offered in-person, in our NYC office. Due to the circumstances, we were able to take these classes online. I have been able to help attract a tremendous amount of interest in this initiative. And by taking it online, we were clearly able to reach a much larger audience. Not only have I gotten press coverage for the classes themselves, but we got a lot of coverage on the benefits of therapeutic programming in general. This has resulted in tremendous positive feedback from individuals who are participating in these classes. We have also gotten Seniorly.com to run some of our programs on their social media sites.
I think this is an interesting project because these classes are so unique. Even if you are not a senior, you want to participate. Some of the recent classes have included Irish Step Dance, Rhythm Drum Circle, Chinese Brush Painting, Disco Funk Chair Fitness, Broadway Concert, Mindful Meditation, Dramatic Improv, and Chair Yoga & Meditation. How can you not love publicizing activities that are fun, interesting, and offer a positive benefit to the community?
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
1. The importance of developing relationships — This should be an obvious one. But when I was young and first starting out in my career, I was constantly pitching and trying to secure placements. There was no “method to my madness.” When I secured a placement, I didn’t always go back to that source for future stories or just to maintain that relationship. I remember one of my very first media placements. I was on the account team for Topps, the trading card company. I did a pitch for a popular Honus Wagner baseball card, which was one of the most valuable baseball cards that Topps has ever made. It was being highlighted at the MLB All-Star game that year. I remember, among the outlets that wrote on a story on this, was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a major print publication at the time. Now they are an online news outlet. A couple of years later, I had a very good Seattle-based story to pitch but I was unsuccessful in getting that newspaper to write about it. I am confident if I had maintained that relationship, I would have secured an article. That was just one example of several media outlets that I missed out on because I didn’t maintain relationships. Now, every time I secure a placement, I stay in touch with the reporter who did the story.
2. The demands of the job. Not that it would have deterred me from pursuing this career path, but I had no idea how much went into being the PR representative for a company/client. In an industry that is constantly changing and expanding, the demands of the job are also increasing. I would often tell people that I was a PR traditionalist. Over the years, we have seen the rise of digital and social media. A lot of organizations also want the PR executive to run, and in some cases, develop the company website. I am also taking on advertising and marketing responsibilities. The workload has increased but I enjoy learning new things and taking on additional responsibilities.
3. The job doesn’t end at 5:00 or whenever you leave the office. This could be 2b. It is another demand of the job. You are constantly on call. If a reporter is interested in doing a story or needs a response to something they are working, fairly often, you can’t put it off until tomorrow.
This is especially evident in a government job where your role is largely reactive. If there is a
negative story coming out about your company, for instance, you want to make sure you have an opportunity to comment or not comment. Sometimes you may not want to respond to a story. But you want to at least have the option. You can’t put it off because reporters are on deadlines and won’t wait too long for you to decide if you want to comment on a piece they are writing about your company. Through my experience as a spokesman for the Brooklyn DA’s Office, I learned the art of the “no comment” comment.
4. Research is key. The most important thing you will learn in PR is to do your homework and learn as much as possible about the company and the subject matter. This should seem obvious. But a lot of reporters will know if you have not researched the product or service you are pitching. I don’t only research the subject matter. One of my strategies is researching the reporter I am pitching, I don’t know how many other publicists do this. You want to get on a reporter’s good side. If I can reference a story that they recently wrote about, compliment them on it, and then try to relate it to the story I am trying to pitch, I have found that it definitely increased my odds of getting a placement. I will even research what media outlet they used to work at before their current position. In some cases, I will look them up on LinkedIn or other social media sites to see if we have any mutual connections and try to leverage those relationships. I have been able to get reporters to write stories on my clients, even when my angle wasn’t that great, just because I talked to them about a mutual colleague first and developed a relationship that way.
5. Don’t necessarily select an industry sector because it happens to be your hobby or passion. This may not apply to everyone. Personally, one of my biggest passions is sports. I am an avid sports fanatic. My whole life, I played in leagues and would never miss watching the games of my favorite teams. It is one thing to be a fan, but it is quite another thing to work in that industry. It might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Rather, focus on an industry where you think you will be most successful and where you think there are greater opportunities to get positive publicity for your clients and develop a niche.
Early on in my career, I went to work for a small sports PR and marketing company. Some of the clients were exciting. Others, not so much. The company was poorly managed. I would attend basketball games in the evening so I could pitch a campaign to reporters in the press box. This may seem exciting at first. But then you realize, you are not there to watch the game. You are there to work. You get home at all hours of the night (if the game ended at 11:00 pm, I often wouldn’t get home until after midnight.) To make matters worse, as skilled as I was at my job, it is a difficult task trying to pitch beat writers while at a game that they are covering.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
· Go to PR/Media networking events. There is one called Hacks and Flacks, although it more geared towards people working in the public sector.
· Connect with media on LinkedIn and other social media sites. Ask mutual connections for an introduction.
· Groups like PR, Marketing, and Media Czars on Facebook are an incredible resource.
· Find out what the specific reporters have written about in the past and reference it when you pitch your own stories.
· If the reporters are local, ask them to meet for a cup of coffee so that you can learn more about them and what type of stories they would prefer to coffee, instead of pitching them a story right away. Once you have that face-to-face meeting first, it is easier to develop a good, positive relationship going forward.
· If the reports are not local, send them an email and ask you if you can set up an introductory phone call to tell them about yourself and learn more about the types of stories they are working on. Many reporters will be happy to do this since it is not an unsolicited pitch and it is geared towards making sure you are not sending them irrelevant pitches.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Same as the above questions — Research stories and reporters, develop relationships, see who has covered your topic in the recent past, Follow reporters who cover your industry on Twitter, set up in-person networking meetings, or introductory phone calls. Reporters will appreciate you taking the time to learn about them and their beat without having a hidden agenda.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I remember reading a popular book a while back called “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” by Dale Carnegie. It is a self-help book, which I believe is popular among PR professionals. The book teaches you how to engage people, catch their interest, be influential. It goes into the traits or characteristics that people like or don’t like when communicating with someone. The book provides a lot of tips for developing relationships, some of which are as simple as smiling and being a good listener.
And of course, any PR professional will tell you to get the AP Stylebook to improve your writing skills.
Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
Although I know that there are a lot of anti-bullying campaigns out there, I would start a move effective anti-bullying movement that inspires dramatic change. This is a cause that is personal to me as I was sometimes bullied as a kid because I was on the introverted side. It was never anything so brutal that I would consider suicide as other kids have. But it was something that would often make me sad or depressed and bothered me for a long time. When I got older, and I looked back on my younger years, I realized that I had a mostly happy childhood, but the one thing I regretted was not standing up to these bullies who would pick on me and try to goad me into fights. But there didn’t seem to be any support or campaigns that helped prevent these actions from taking place.
I remember when I was about 14 years old, I was in summer camp, which should have been the best time of my life. A lot of my friends were in the camp with me and we would go on trips almost every day. But the summer was dampened by these three kids who tried to intimidate everyone.
Unfortunately, bullies don’t realize the consequences of their actions. They do it to make themselves feel good or to try to impress people by showing how tough they think they are.
We need to get influential people, such as celebrities and industry leaders, to speak out about this issue. We need to take videos into classrooms all over the country to educate kids and show them the consequences of bullying. I would like those bullies to try to put themselves in the shoes of their victims and see how it feels. We have to get schools involved and punish others who are the culprits even if their actions take place off of school grounds. We need people to step up and be a leading voice in order to see dramatic change.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.