Social media is making many journalists into household names

Steve Cody, managing partner of Peppercomm, started out in school for journalism where he held internships at news publications like the New York Times and CBS. While he loves reading the news, he did not particularly like the politics of the newsroom, so he took his adviser’s advice and went into public relations. After about 15 years of doing big agency work, he met his partner and they founded Peppercomm.

Muck Rack: Do you think it’s important for all PR professionals to be socially savvy?

Steve Cody: Yeah, I think it is critically important because if you are on the corporate or agency side, the senior business executives are going to need counsel, and the more hands on your counseling can be in terms of best practices, worst practices, lessons learned, or mine-fields to avoid, the more useful you are. I have also been fortunate enough to be on CNBC and MSNBC, so when I media train a client, I can tell him/her exactly what it is like. That is why it is so important to blog, tweet, stay active on Linkedin, follow and post comments on other people’s blogs, retweet others and so on, because the more confident you are, the more active you are, the better counselor you are for clients.

MR: How did you start using social media?

Cody: I felt that it was important to my consumer clients and I thought it will be important down the road for my business to business clients. If clients are going to ask me, I better understand how it works. For the same reason, I tried Pinterest, and it just didn’t resonate for me. Now I am seeing a fairly significant decline of interest from clients about it. I want to try out anything that is new and different, see if it resonates for me as a brand and what I can learn from it. I like Twitter because it really forces you to edit, condense and encapsulate what you are trying to get across, which is a great discipline for any PR pro or journalist. I go with my gut on a lot of these things.

MR: As an avid blogger yourself, do you think the journalistic ecosystem is dramatically changing?

Cody: There’s no question, what we are seeing is individual reporters becoming brands themselves. All of the top journalists, though they may not have the same numbers as the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, have individual followings. Social media has expanded the breadth and depth of the journalists, and in many instances made them household names. Back then, unless you were a Woodward or a Bernstein, the average business person or consumer would not know your name. Today there are so many reporters who are known as a direct result of social media.

MR: Do you find it harder or easier to build genuine relationships with journalists or clients through social media?

Cody: It is a double-edged sword. Since the best journalists and reporters today have such large followings on social media, it makes it more difficult to try to establish a one-to-one relationship. Whereas in the pre-social media days, you could always try to set up a lunch or breakfast with a journalist in hopes of a quick response. The more relevant your content is, the more you can provide ideas. Right now Peppercomm is having clients follow influential journalists, and not necessarily suggest story ideas, but share trends and issues from their perspective. It has always been about what you are saying and how relevant it is to journalists, but now there is more competition in terms trying to get that attention.

MR: How do you see the relationship between PR people and journalists progressing in the future?

Cody: The smartest PR people are the ones who really recognize that it has to be a one-to-one relationship. You really have to study and understand the journalist’s point of view, what his/her hot buttons are, and more importantly what content you have that would be relevant to the audience the reporter is writing for. It is more important than ever to understand the one-to-one relationship between public relations people and journalists. A blast email to 100 journalists is just asking for trouble. The opportunities are really good if you are smart about the way you nurture the relationship with the journalists, but you have to pay attention to what his/her areas of interests are, and really anticipate content that might be usable for that journalist.

MR: What are the best tactics you find for reaching out to a journalist?

Cody: I start with email. First I’ll read two or three of their columns, then if it is for me, I’ll send a link about something I wrote on a similar vain that I think he/she might be interested in reading, and perhaps considering for a future article. Same thing with my clients; I’ll start with email, then I’ll usually start following them on social media, and when I have connected with them, they will give me their direct dial. I would rather they take a look at why I think it is relevant, start sending some things to them via social media, and then when I build credibility with them, pick up the phone.

MR: How has Twitter changed the way you conduct business?

Cody: It has made the 24/7 news cycle that much more important. You have to do a personal refresh almost every hour to make sure that you are current on what is going on, whether it is for General Electric, Whirlpool, or even for Steve Cody, or Peppercomm. What it has done for the best public relations people is made us even more finely tuned and sharpened to breaking news and trends. It has also forced us to think about what is important and what is not. It forces you to prioritize in real-time, which journalists need to know. What Twitter and social media have done for PR people in particular is forced the best of us to figure out what is important, what do we or our clients need to respond to and how, and what do we just ignore.

MR: How do you respond to criticism of differentiating your own opinion on social media from that of Peppercomm or its clients?

Cody: We try to make it very clear that my views are my own and not the firms’. That said, when I have written a few things that people have gotten offended by, I always respond and I’ll certainly be sympathetic or empathetic to their point of views, or try to reiterate that what I said, from my perspective, was the the right way to go. On the client side, it is really critical that if someone does say something inappropriate, the company immediately has to address it, apologize and take action based on how severe it was. You have to be very careful. Social media is all about transparency and authenticity in this world, so the quickest way to repair anything that has been done wrong is to a) admit that it happened b) apologize for what happened and c) try to do your best to make sure it does not happen again.

I really think it is a combination of information overload, multitasking, and people hitting the send button a nano-second too soon. Every single time before I upload a blog post, update a Linkedin, or even just a tweet, I will re-read it two, three, four times before I hit the send button. Not just for grammar purposes, but if there is anything in there that I am not thinking of, that may set someone off in a negative way about me, anyone at Peppercomm, or my clients. It is easier said than done, but the single piece of advice is to reread or delay a second before hitting send.

MR: Any networking tips for the next generation interested in PR or journalism?

Cody: The big thing is to really step back and think about how you want to differentiate your presence on social media. Just because you are on social media, big deal, everyone is. Having a distinct point of view, whether it is conservative, visionary, back-to-basics, or what have you, you need to set yourself apart and think of yourself as a brand. What is unique to your voice, what do you want to be known for, or known as. The nice thing that has come out of Repman blog are the inquiries from people at Fortune, Inc Magazine and others who want a take on image and reputation. For instance, picked up my piece on Beyonce recently, I believe because I am not afraid to say if someone has done a really good job, or a really bad one. Getting stuck in the middle, where you do not have a strong opinion, will get you lost in the crowd.

MR: What are some cool digital projects Peppercomm is working on now?

Cody: Lauren Begley created the Innovation Mill; we pretty much search the world for the five or six coolest breakthrough programs of the previous month and give our analysis of why they broke through. Now clients are actually paying us to do that for them as well, and the project will become a separate blog offering for Peppercomm. It is not just about what is new, but about what that means for me and you. It is all a matter of a point of view; if you can put a little perspective, people will see the value in it. The project has shown how one person has identified an opportunity in social media to carve out the innovation space, created a product that now has a second sister product, and opened opportunities for how others can differentiate themselves within the workplace.