It’s a horrid stereotype that those in media relations will say anything to get coverage for their clients, even if it’s a big stretch. Then there are guys like Brad Chase, who aren’t afraid to truthfully confront the reality that PR is at a precarious crossroads of sorts.
That doesn’t mean that our latest Qwoted 100 PR superstar focuses on the negative. In fact, he’s got plenty of heart for helping those less fortunate — in this case, the wrongfully convicted. And his mantra — Authenticity Wins” — comes with a well-reasoned argument to back it up. Here Chase shares his candid views on the PR industry and what it takes to rise above a noise floor that’s noisier than ever.
Qwoted: What do you see as the future of PR—technologically, strategically, or in any category you’re passionate about?
Brad Chase: The future of comms and PR, to be very honest, looks a bit bleak to me right now. AI is all the rage but it’s not going to come for our jobs anytime soon. What is a problem is that AI and content creation efforts blast so much garbage that facts become indiscernible from lies. The Age of Misinformation started in politics but we’re already seeing it coming for every aspect of news. Comms professionals — even those dealing with seemingly lighter fare such as fashion or consumer discretionary products — need to spend time getting up to date on what’s happening with AI so they can get ahead of the wave and use it to their advantage. Like social media 15 years ago, it’s going to create a chasm between those who can adapt and those who get left behind.
Qwoted: What do you think you do that other PRs could learn from?
Chase: Others in the field could afford to spend more time learning about how reporters work. There are so many webinars, Twitter feeds and essays by so many reporters sharing incredibly valuable content on what works and what frustrates them. I’d like to think I know a good deal after 20 years in the business, but I’m always finding a new tidbit every week. Everything you need to identify and befriend the right reporters is in plain sight. It just takes dedication and effort to seek it out and take it to heart.
Qwoted: What’s your toughest challenge with reporters?
Chase: The toughest challenge is climbing out of the hole dug by the majority of PR people who spam, demand, and shotgun info to reporters’ inboxes, DMs and voicemails. Reporters are tired and stretched thin. They don’t need long emails, reminders, check-ins and messages on multiple platforms. They see you. It’s a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma; we all want attention and there’s enough to go around, but the shotgun approach makes it harder for all. I write extremely tight, relevant pitches — not all of them work — but just getting a professional journalist to recognize a professional communicator is tough when trying to stand out from the masses.
Qwoted: How do you approach breaking through the noise floor to get effective coverage?
Chase: The way to cut through noise and land solid media results is to actually not aim for coverage, at least immediately. Too many people ask for stories instead of offering sources. When a reporter responds to a pitch, they are making an investment in you. They want you to help them write a good story now and also help with other stories in the future. But you can’t just go back to the well and get another story the next month, or sometimes even for another 12 months. Offering to be a source, on and off the record, really helps. Offering colleagues, friends and allies who can help with other stories is even better. Show a reporter you know what they need and they’ll flag your emails for fast response.
Qwoted: How does PR in 2023 square with the future of journalism?
Chase: Professional journalism was never going to die but it was going to bottom out. I’m a bit pleased to see how things are bouncing back at the community level. It’s a sad commentary on America that we’ve seen so many honest and well-intentioned reporters leave the industry and we’re still seeing job cuts at established outlets. But the pushback has slowed the pace of reporters leaving entirely. I see awesome outlets such as the Texas Tribune pop up and I’m encouraged that true local news coverage isn’t going to completely get erased as the dust settles on the digital era’s arrival.
Our jobs in comms and PR aren’t going away anywhere near as fast but even the big firms are cutting headcount. At the same time, I’m seeing everyone leaving the big agencies and even the safe in-house jobs in favor of the greater personal satisfaction and freedom that comes with doing your own thing. I haven’t been to an office in 13 years and was lucky to be an OG digital nomad across 40-plus countries while also becoming a successful entrepreneur. Seeing so many others follow this path post-pandemic is a bit of validation. But also seems to be better for clients who get better attention and quality of work. I think the industry, for those who rise and adapt to AI, is going to thrive and provide better output, just as those upstart journalists are doing with hyper-local news outlets.
Qwoted: What advice would you give to those seeking to find an effective PR person?
Chase: The biggest aspect of my work is focusing on crisis management so I look at things a bit differently than most. But to me, crisis comms is really just regular comms minus time. I don’t expect everyone to have this very specific skill set, but those who lack it completely stand out very clearly because it permeates their positive PR work. If you have just a little bit of crisis training, you can do regular PR a hundred times better than most. I tell anyone seeking comms and PR help one thing: Don’t ask about the best story they landed, ask about the best story they killed.
This industry isn’t about being a people person or sharing positive stories. It’s about brand and reputation, two entwined elements that aren’t well understood by corporate executives. Sometimes it’s killing a story from a reporter by definitively putting concerns to bed, but it’s more often a story or pitch that your clients and bosses think is awesome but isn’t. Having the ability to stand tall and say “no” is a really underrated element of this industry. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told a press release — a tactic, not a strategy — has been approved on a subject without any question about whether it’s the right media for the story. Asking a comms/PR person about the ideas they’ve put down are far more telling than the ones they landed, which often are wins that happen anyway because of the inherently newsworthy aspects of the story they’re given by the client or source.
Qwoted: What is your golden rule of PR?
Chase: Authenticity Wins. Most Americans read at a sixth-grade level, so simplicity and brevity always land better with audiences than impressive vocabulary. But you can’t take your audience for granted: The public can smell your BS 3,000 miles away. I actually push my clients to embrace their first instincts and give me the first draft of their thoughts and content. There’s always a bit of polish needed to make it truly shine for news outlets or in-person audiences but the artifice isn’t necessary. This holds especially true while dealing with issues related to reputation or crisis. The truth is that the subject matter experts and executives usually get things pretty close with their first attempt at a message. It just requires a bit of cleanup by the pros. Trust your instincts, earn trust, and win: Authenticity Wins. Period.
The same goes for interpersonal communications. There’s this easy inclination to aspire to be something more than you are, to speak or write differently than you do and exude an attitude that feels right for the client, boss or situation. Of course, it’s essential to act like a professional. But I don’t think being an automaton who never offers personal opinions does anything to endear you to your clients or bosses. Sharing your quirks humanizes you and makes you feel more like a part of the team.
Qwoted: Anything else to add?
Chase: Thanks for the opportunity. I love reading TBN and appreciate the combo of including the comms/PR people in with the news about reporters.
The huge wall between the two fields started to break down when I started in the field 20 years ago and now it’s come down like the Berlin Wall. There are still some old-school journalists who hold contempt for all of us on “the dark side” of the story but I’ve always seen the two as equal partners in informing the public. Of course, we have agendas but everyone in every aspect of the business — including reporters — has a personal agenda and inherent biases, even if it’s just to make money and advance in a career. I do a lot of pro bono comms work for individuals who have become embroiled with big news stories and can get railroaded by aggressive reporters and producers.
There’s this amazing organization called the Forensic Justice Project that I’ve worked with for many years now. Its mission is to help people who have been wrongfully convicted or face wrongful convictions due to junk science. My work on this issue dates back more than 10 years ago, to when the founder’s brother was held as a political prisoner in Nicaragua for two years. I was just a part of a global team but this regular guy from Seattle was going to die in a hellhole prison and the media wasn’t paying attention. We eventually won his freedom and I’ve helped others like him since then. Just like “everyone deserves a lawyer” comes my belief that “everyone deserves a comms person.” I’ve seen too many lives get upended because regular people don’t have access to qualified professionals who can educate them on basic protocols for media response. We try to put 10% of our workload to pro bono work and I encourage everyone in the field to make a similar commitment.
February 14, 2023