Hey goal achievers, Kristin here. Establishing a brand and reaching your target audience as a small business owner can be challenging. Thankfully, I recently interviewed a public relations expert on the Elite Achievement podcast who excels at getting the media’s attention. Megan Bennett is the CEO and President of Light Years Ahead, a full-service boutique PR firm. Megan has nearly 20 years of experience with the firm and understands what the media wants and tactics to obtain the most high-profile placements.
I studied communication in college, and I took a lot of PR courses. So, I’m excited to have this conversation and review a topic I was highly interested in in college and now find myself back in as a business owner. I ask Megan to start by giving us an idea of what ‘public relations’ means.
“Public relations is a way to gain exposure for your brand in an earned way,” says Megan. “It’s not a paid-for ad. So, for example, I would pitch your brand or service to top media outlets and get them to try your product. Then, they review it in an authentic way that makes the brand credible and helps build awareness. For example, I’m pitching brands to the Today Show and getting them exposure where it doesn’t cost the brand anything to be on the show. It’s the public relations firm’s job to get them on the show and get those placements. And so, you know, it’s never guaranteed. It’s a hard-earned thing. But you might pay an advertising agency $3,000 for one ad, and you might pay a PR firm $3,000 a month to get you into 15 different media outlets where the media reviews your products and talks about them in an authentic, personalized way.”
It sounds like you need a lot of relationships to be successful in the PR profession, I note.
“Yes,” confirms Megan. “And if you don’t have them, you have to build them, and that’s where subscribing to good services like Muck Rack and Cision can help. Those are the types of databases that we use as publicists. They give us the direct digital yellow pages to all the movers and shakers in the top media, with email addresses and phone numbers. It even tells us who works at what magazine and who’s covering what. That’s how we stay on top of everything. But then, once we build the initial relationship with somebody, we keep building it! I’ve known many editors and producers for 20 years because I’ve been working with them for that long. And they’ve moved from magazine to magazine to website to different TV shows. So, it’s building those relationships and continuing to grow them.”
I serve many client-based business owners, so a lot of my coaching clients are constantly working on building relationships and evolving those relationships. I ask Megan what tips she has for building strong relationships.
“Well, most of the contact that I do is via email,” says Megan. “I would say that the most important thing is to continue to reach out to those people over and over again. So, they don’t think you’re randomly reaching out. I make everything personalized, every email that I send out. And it’s more conversational than formal because if you send something formal, they think you’re sending it to thousands of other people. Sometimes I even text an editor or producer if I’ve worked with them before. I’m trying to pitch a new, let’s say, Wagyu beef burger for a client. So, I might text the producer and say, hey, do you have any stories coming out on tailgating? Because if you’ve tried emailing, and they haven’t responded, do the next thing and text. Just continue, and then if they say no, the big thing is to reach out to them in a few months and try again. Worst thing they can say again is no. So, I think that continuous conversation and reaching out to people is really important. And to not take that no for an answer. Just keep trying.”
That is such a powerful message. Because we can get all up in our head when we are reaching out to other people. I do this myself when I’m reaching out and marketing a program like the Honor Your Ambition Mastermind. I think, oh, should I send another email? Has it been too soon? This person never replied to my first email. So I love what I hear from Megan – to keep sending personalized messages, try again, and reach out via other methods.
“If they don’t like it, they’ll block you,” says Megan. “But if they do, then they’ll eventually respond. Sometimes I do get emails like ‘Unsubscribe’ or ‘Never contact me again.’ And I don’t get upset. I just start laughing. I usually send it to my coworkers to have a laugh because we all need to be humbled once in a while. But if that happens, I’ll just reach out to somebody else from their outlet. If I’m trying to get in there, I’ll try somebody else, or I’ll try back again in a few months. Sometimes even the ones that are nasty end up being nice, or the ones that say no end up coming back to me eventually because they switch jobs or finally have a story where they can feature one of these products that before they thought was preposterous. So, you want to stay in their mind. And eventually, they will reach out to you. Make sure that you leave an impression on them so that when they do have an opening, whether they do or don’t like you, they’ll remember you.”
I can absolutely relate to Megan’s story around unsubscribing, because it’s happened to me. I remember thinking, this is my personal email, not my email list where there’s an unsubscribe button, but okay, yes! Move on, on to the next! I ask Megan if she has always had such thick skin when reaching out and promoting something.
“When I first started this job, after college, I moved to Los Angeles and I worked for my boss who is the founder of our company,” Megan begins. “I think I was 22, and I worked out of her house in the Hollywood Hills. She would print out these lists for me because we’d have to smile and dial at the time, which is where you’d pick up the phone and call. At first, people would hang up on me. I called magazines, and our big account was Rembrandt Whitening. It was the first big account that I ever worked on. And we were pitching it as a beauty product. So, I was calling all these beauty product contacts, and five of them in a row would be like, ‘No, I’m not interested, I’m on deadline,’ click. Or, ‘Why are you calling me? I have no time for this.’ I’m sitting outside at the pool pitching in this glamorous lifestyle, and I’m getting rejected. Then, suddenly, maybe number seven would be like ‘Yeah, we are doing a story! Send us a sample and we’ll try to get you into the October issue.’ And once you get a yes from somebody, then you realize it’s just in the numbers. It’s like dating. You’ve got to go out with as many people as you can or try as many things as you can. And some of those no’s are going to turn into a yes. So that’s how I started to build a backbone. My boss and mentor Bette told me, who cares? You don’t know these people. You can’t take this personally. Try somebody else. You can’t let it get to you. Because for every no, you’re going to get a yes if you keep trying. So that’s kind of the mentality that I’ve had. And from there, I have grown a thick skin. I don’t let the media get to me, but I do take critique. So, if they give me some advice that might be a little negative, I take that into consideration and I try to change based on that, but I don’t let it get to me or affect my day. So that’s the mentality that I have. And I feel like it is a good mentality because otherwise, you’re just going to let stuff get you down all the time. And then you won’t succeed.”
I remember ‘smile and dial’ was a phrase that was used a ton in my former corporate role. And Megan is so right; it’s about the numbers. We get so hung up on a ‘no’ and go into the negative mental narratives. And it blocks us from succeeding. I want to talk more about success and ask Megan, as a PR professional, what she believes makes a successful client relationship.
“I would say that a successful client would be somebody who has all their ducks in a row in terms of having a developed website,” says Megan. “It doesn’t have to be fancy, it doesn’t have to have a bunch of bells and whistles, but it has to function, and it has to be able to sell your product or service. You’ve got to have products together, whatever you’re trying to sell, before we work with you. And the product has to be available because the media wants to try it. Thirdly, you have to be the type of client that is not going to micromanage us – we’re the experts. So, you have to be able to give us the reins, and for us to say, all right, we’re going to reach back out when you have questions, but just let us do the work. You sit back, and we will send you the placements. Once in a while, we’ll get a client that needs updates every day, or week. And we’re like, listen, it takes time, you can’t send out a product and expect a write up the next day unless they’re on a deadline. So, people who have the patience, who aren’t completely desperate to see results right away, are ready to partner with a PR firm. If you’re desperate for anything, then you’re not ready. Because that means there’s something that you’re lacking or that you have to get, or your business won’t succeed. And that’s not a good place to be. You want to be in a place where you’re like, ‘I’m ready to try some different tactics. Let’s start with x, y, and z.’ It can’t be ‘Either this or it fails.’ Because if that’s the case, then you’re not ready to be an entrepreneur. You have to be ready to try different things and see what works and what doesn’t, but you can’t put it all into one thing because it could fail, and then you’re screwed. Those are the qualities that we look for. And obviously somebody who is willing to share their story, and not just launch a brand and be close-lipped about why they launched the brand or say that they don’t have a story behind why they started it. If you don’t have a story behind it, then that’s not going to sell the product, and so that’s where we come in and help you spin the story and find a way to move the media with something more than just a brand.”
I appreciate Megan talking about this process because so often, I find myself falling victim to this. I will see personalities on social media or see brands, and it looks like they exploded overnight. I’ll get down on myself and my own business and brand, where I’m going, and what I’m building. I ask Megan to dive a little deeper into this concept of taking time, especially as we see or perceive so many people to have success happen overnight.
“Yes, it takes time,” says Megan. “I would say the only time something is going to happen overnight is if you have a connection with Oprah or something. You know what I mean? We do have a client who is Oprah’s pedicurist, and she has a line of footcare and got overnight success. It was before we even worked with her. But in most cases, you have to be patient. Because let’s say that you’ve got this great brand and you get on the Today Show immediately, and you sell out. Well, you’ve run out of products – what are you going to do? You have to be prepared to have slow growth in any capacity. Also for PR, we always tell our clients you can’t expect it to happen overnight because we have to build the story. Then we have to reach out to the media, and then we have to get products in their hands. Then it’s a waiting game. Sometimes they might not have a story for three months, or maybe their story got bumped, or maybe they’re just trying it out to see if they can find a way to pitch it into a story. So, it’s all those possibilities. Even freelance writers that we send products to are just trying them out, and then usually within six months, they find a way to get them into a story if it’s a product that they really like. So yes, you have to be patient. And if you’re not patient, then I would say that this is not the right product or service because everything takes time. That’s how you grow a business. Success does not happen overnight.”
I ask Megan what she thinks are the components of a successful PR campaign.
“Obviously, you need to have an agency that is devoted to your brand, understands your story, and doesn’t think of you as just another number,” says Megan. “So, whether you go with a boutique, grassroots type agency like mine, or a big firm that has a ton of account executives, make sure that whoever’s managing your brand feels the passion you do and really understands your brand. You know, the one thing that we do differently in our agency is we all handle all the clients. We don’t assign ourselves each to an account because it gets really stale, pitching the same thing every week. So, we take turns, and each come up with different ideas because we’re all working on the product, so it doesn’t leave anybody stuck. The next thing I would say is watch out for all the bells and whistles that agencies are promising you. Like, oh, we’re going to get you into this event, you’re going to do these gift bags. Often, that stuff can be frivolous. It can be a waste of money, even if you’re excited about having the list or celebrities take a picture with your product. That’s not necessarily going to build the brand awareness that you need. The sign of a good agency isn’t necessarily one that’s going to get you into an event. It’s an agency that will have the right media connections to get new, high-profile placements on different websites and TV because that’s where you get the clout, exposure, and click-through of new customers. You want to have an agency that has your back, understands your brand, and has the right connections. If you meet an agency that’s making you a bunch of promises, I will say to be wary. We don’t ever guarantee anything, except that we will help you build brand awareness. We don’t guarantee sales. We don’t guarantee specific placements because you have to pay for it like an ad if you want guarantees. So that’s the difference between PR and advertising. Advertising is guaranteed like a paid-for ad, and public relations builds brand awareness so that more people see that you were featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, and InStyle. You can put those things on your website as “seen in,” and put clips to media press, which are not ads. Those are really credible media placements that show that the media is out there trying your products, and they truly like them.”
I’m curious when a small business or a company should consider hiring a PR firm and ask Megan her opinion.
“I would say that a small business or company should consider hiring a PR firm when they are ready to take their brand to the next level and get some money,” Megan shares. “Exposure with the media gets that third-party credibility. If you’re a brand, it’s always good to have an affiliate connection or be on Amazon because most of the media now is looking for some sort of an affiliate link so that they can make a commission. It’s important to have your ducks in a row and look at those different opportunities. Also, make sure you have samples and a way, like a distribution method, to get those samples out to the media to fulfill. So those are the things that we want to have ready before we take on a client.”
Talking about affiliate links makes me think about the digital age and how PR has shifted and evolved as technology has come about. I ask Megan if print and broadcast media still play a role in PR, in her opinion.
“Yes,” Megan says. “It’s very hard to get into magazines now because a lot of the magazines have minimal room for non-advertisers. You’ll look at a magazine, and you’ll see a brand, and three pages later is a big ad for that same brand because that’s how the magazines survive is from paid ads. So once in a while, we’ll get into a magazine without paying, and it’s a huge deal. Does it drive sales? Not usually because nobody’s clicking through to it. Does it help with brands trying to get distribution into stores like Target, Walmart, and Walgreens? Yes. Those buyers, those salespeople, like to see print brag books, just because it’s more traditional. But if you’re on the Today Show, that’s huge. To get any brand onto a show like the Today Show, Good Morning America, Fox and Friends, or CBS This Morning is still very valuable, and it can really drive sales. It’s not easy, but we’ve done it multiple times. I would say digital is where it’s at. That is what most of my clients want. It is a great way to track traffic and interest, because you can see where the traffic comes from if there’s a specific article. We got one of our clients on a food and wine website for the best Wagyu hot dog, and within two weeks they made like a quarter of a million dollars in sales from this one article. It was insane. And they could track it all because they could see where the traffic came from. And it was all for these hot dogs. So that was one time when we really did have an ROI for that brand. It was the best case study we’ve ever had. Also, for this nonprofit foundation, My Family Foundation, we got them on the Today Show in 2017. And they made $150,000 in donations. So sometimes you can see those direct sales. It’s just the right place, right time, right messaging.”
I shift our topic to talk more about digital and ask Megan what role social media plays in a PR campaign or promoting a brand.
“Social media is obviously important for every brand to have,” Megan confirms. “I didn’t touch on that, but it is important to have an established Instagram page and Facebook page for your brand. Because when we get write-ups, I would say 70% of the time the media that does the placements also want to tag the brands on their personal Instagram pages and do Insta stories and share that way. So yeah, we reach out to micro-influencers all the time where we’ll send them samples and get them to do posts and Insta stories. I think it is important because most media outlets have an Instagram account, Twitter account, and Facebook account. Tagging your brand and sharing it with people helps spread brand awareness that much more. So yeah, it is important. We don’t specialize in social media, but we do collaborate with the social media team of every brand that we work with to make sure that they get all the PR placements to share and tag the media outlet.”
I find that to be very important as I’m building my own brand as a goal achievement coach. I have an Instagram page and sometimes wonder, is it worth it to pour myself into a social media account and create captions and postings? I love hearing that there’s a bigger vision associated with social media. Megan confirms my thought and how it gives that extra place to share your message and have people tag and share it for you.
I decide to go back to the beginning and ask Megan to share how she got into PR and if she always knew that would be her path.
“I went to school at Skidmore College in upstate New York,” Megan begins. “I thought I wanted to be in the entertainment industry, like be an actor or something. I tried it out, and it wasn’t really my thing. Then my junior year, I went out to Los Angeles and did a couple of internships, one with a talent agency, and I was like, you know, I kind of like this whole entertainment thing. So, the next summer I moved out, and I also interned for a public relations firm for celebrities. I liked the PR side of it, but I didn’t like the celebrity side of it. So, I knew that I liked the idea of spreading messages and helping build awareness, but I just didn’t like the LA celeb angle of it. It was really the internships that led me to figure out what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. I also interned at this media company when I was in college, my senior year, and it was interesting. It was like a media clipping company. So, I started to get interested in that whole area of marketing. So when I moved to Los Angeles after graduation, I started to look for jobs in public relations, and I had one job at this online clothing company. I was supposed to be doing PR but ended up doing shipping and stuff that I just wasn’t interested in. So, I quit. And I started to look for jobs. Within a couple of months, Bette hired me to work out of her house. When she hired me, she said, ‘You should pay me for all you’re going to learn from me when you work for me,’ and she was right. What I learned from her was like going to grad school and getting my degree because I was thrown in with the wolves immediately. I was her assistant and started doing stuff I’d never done before from the ground up. I loved it. I mean, I immediately loved it. And that’s why I’ve stayed doing the same thing for almost 20 years now.”
Megan’s is a fantastic story around the power of internships, testing different opportunities, and mentorship! I ask her to share more about her company, Light Years Ahead.
“We are a boutique firm, and we’re across the country,” says Megan. “We all work virtually from our offices, and we did before COVID started. So, when COVID hit, it didn’t affect our work situation at all because I’ve always worked virtually from a home office. My business partner, Chloe, she’s in Manhattan. And when we were doing meetings with the media, she would go to all the press meetings, which was great because they were all in New York. The founder is in Los Angeles, and she helps consult and give us advice about things – she’s awesome. Then we have another publicist here in Kansas City that helps us with influencer outreach, and a creative director in Dallas. She writes all of our press materials, and then the rest of us pitch it. We’re boutique. So, we don’t do what the big firms do, which I was talking about, like throwing in all these events and swag bags and celebrity outreach. We are grassroots which means that we reach out to the non-traditional PR, which is the online magazines, the big websites, the blogs, podcasts like yourself, national TV and morning shows, and magazines whenever possible. We focus on lifestyle brands, anybody with a story that we feel has a really great message we can pitch. We’ve worked with everyone from a cyber security expert to a meditation expert, a composer, and a brand for men’s below-the-belt region. I mean, we do it all if it has a story.”
I ask Megan if I heard correctly that Light Years Ahead was founded by a woman, is woman lead, and has an all-female team.
“Yes, we are all women,” Megan confirms. “And we’re all feisty,” she says with a chuckle.
I ask her if she has any advice for someone leading a team of women and what she believes it takes to develop women professionally.
“The main thing is always to pump somebody up when they’re doing something good,” says Megan. “And don’t focus on the negatives too much. It’s almost like parenting – I have two kids. I try to accentuate the positives instead of the negatives because that just boosts somebody’s morale and makes them do an even better job. And obviously, communication is key. My associates and I talk all day, mostly via messaging because we’re too busy to pick up the phone, but we’re constantly in contact. That’s just the way that we work and I think that’s really important. Teach your team to be strong, and not to let things get you down, not to take things personally. Because, as I said, if I took everything personally, I wouldn’t be in this business. I’ve been rejected so many times. So, it’s just letting my teammates know that if you get something negative, or if somebody says something to you, brush it off and move on. Keep going forward.”
I love the topics Megan explored around public relations, growing a brand, gaining the media’s attention, and her wisdom when it comes to building a business and achieving your goals. She talked about how it’s just in the numbers. For every no, you’ll get a yes! And to accentuate the positives over the negatives as you’re working with your team. Also, to recognize it takes time. Success takes time, so don’t give up. Keep going and keep persevering. The messages within her story apply to anyone who’s in sales, growing a business, or striving to achieve their goals.
I thank Megan for sharing her insights and ask where people can go to learn more about her and what she does. She suggests her website or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With that goal achievers, keep focusing on your wins, learning from your lessons and identifying those key priorities so you can consistently progress in the direction of your goals.