How would you like to be featured on CNN, CBS News, the BBC and VH1? If you’re San Francisco area artist Steven Backman, that’s just a few months’ coverage; over the years, he’s been profiled by scores of top-tier international outlets. But unlike many top professionals, he doesn’t use a high-end PR firm to shill for him. Instead, he’s become his own publicity machine — and his lessons on winning great press can benefit any executive or entrepreneur who seeks a higher profile.
1. Build a good media list. Backman — who makes elaborate and meticulous sculptures out of toothpicks — began by developing a target list of publications he’d like to be featured in. Next, he identified (through the masthead or looking online) the email addresses for key staffers. “I wouldn’t just email one person,” says Backman. “I’d email the whole staff, the art director, the managing editors.” Journalists might get angry if he did that all the time, but he ensured his messages were timely and interesting. His media list is now up to over 2000, and he says that he each press release he distributes results in at least 2-3 stories.
2. Find a hook. “If I didn’t have a compelling story, people wouldn’t give the time of day,” says Backman. He’s sculpted Prince William and Kate Middleton (in time for their wedding), President Obama and others. Anniversaries have also been popular media hooks; his toothpick sculpture of the Empire State Building (commemorating its 75th anniversary) was a particular publicity boon. Your pitch, advises Backman, “has to be intriguing to the viewer.” If you’re a hot dog vendor, he says, boasting about “the most delicious hot dog” is a standard claim — but a offering gold-plated hot dog or a hot dog full of caviar will get people’s attention.
3. Your email subject line is critical. When it comes to media outreach, your email subject line makes all the difference, Backman says — otherwise, reporters won’t even read it. The subject line should be intriguing and make them want to open it, and the best email messages are only a few lines long. He includes links to photos of his art (the media love good visuals), but avoids sending .jpg files, which may be trapped by spam filters.
4. Follow up thoroughly. “If I send an email,” says Backman, “a day or two later I’ll do a follow up call: ‘Did you receive my email?'” He’s brief and never pushy, but gives a quick pitch and reminds the journalist to check out his website. Backman credits his success to his “tenacity and being aggressive in a nice way.”
5. Have your soundbites ready. When Backman prepares for an appearance, he always mentions his next show or where people can see his work in person. And he’s sure to cite his website URL repeatedly, and even asks the network to display it at the bottom of the screen. After one Today Show appearance in which he cited his website twice, Backman says he received a million hits in just a few hours.
6. Keep reaching out. “You always have to engage new people,” says Backman. “You can’t keep contacting the same editors over and over again, or they’ll get tired of your story. I always fill my funnel with new people.” But because journalists network with each other — and some have actually profiled him repeatedly — he is sure to stay in regular touch: “I used to send out a blurb once a month, but people would get annoyed. I now do 3-4 a year maximum, and I get a better response.”
Backman credits his grandfather — an insurance salesman during the Great Depression — with teaching him the sales and marketing techniques he uses today. But for executives and entrepreneurs who would like to win media coverage without hiring an expensive PR firm, Backman himself is teaching the lessons.