The latest in our Qwoted 100 series of PR superstars brings you the incomparable Sarah Johnson of National Business Capital. She’s unique in our series in that she works in-house for a New York-based financial services company. As the name implies, National Business specializes in business financing, including loans and lines of credit. She also served as the Fit Small Business, where she earned high marks for creating and driving strategies for their online business publications.
Johnson, who has been with NBC since June, also maintains a robust media relations consultancy about to complete 20 years in business. In this installment, she takes some contrarian stances on putting reporters over clients, avoiding the temptation to sell “boring” — and side-stepping a knee-jerk “yes” when the story simply isn’t right.
Qwoted: What do you think you do that other PRs could learn from?
Sarah Johnson: I’ve never been a “yes” person either with clients or employers. Too often, I see public relations people parroting back what they’ve been told. I’m not shy about telling a client that a story angle won’t work. I’m getting paid for my expertise, not to be a sycophant. I put reporters first, even before a client; that’s non-negotiable. When a reporter reaches out, I respond as soon as possible. And if my expert isn’t available, I’ll suggest an alternative. You have to build strong relationships with the media. It’s not just about pushing our clients’ “news”; it’s about regularly checking in with journalists and offering assistance.
Qwoted: What’s your toughest challenge with reporters?
Johnson: When I put together what I think is a killer pitch, and it lands with a thud. It can be frustrating, like trying to solve a puzzle with missing pieces. Sometimes, you just can’t predict what will grab their attention.
Qwoted: How do you approach breaking through the noise floor to get effective coverage?
Johnson: First: Some things are simply beyond your control as a publicist. Sometimes when a big story is breaking, there’s nothing you can pitch that will capture the media’s attention. Other than a major news event breaking, PR professionals shouldn’t be averse to trying new methods to get the press’s attention. Not every idea that pops into the CEO’s head is newsworthy and it’s my job to tell them that. So, if you’re sending a hundred press releases on topics that the media doesn’t care about, that 101st press release isn’t going to be the magical game-changer. Try generating news differently. Maybe that’s releasing a data report, a survey, or a white paper. If you can offer an interesting pattern or a counterintuitive news hook, the media will be interested. Remember, what’s big news to the client isn’t necessarily news for the press — unless your client is Apple, which can get away with sneezing, and it still makes news.
Qwoted: What advice would you give to those seeking to find an effective PR person?
Johnson: Listen to your PR professional. You’re seeking their advice. If you could generate your own publicity, you wouldn’t need them. They are the experts.
Qwoted: What is your golden rule of PR?
Johnson: Don’t try to “sell” boring. Ask yourself: “If you were a reporter, would you be interested in that pitch?” Your intuition will tell you most of the time. Sometimes I break my own rule and pitch a story angle I don’t have faith in, and I do it simply because the client thinks it’s soooo important. Then I spend a lot of time and effort, and the concept doesn’t generate the results the client wants. Don’t make that mistake. Always listen to your intuition, and don’t be afraid to push back.
February 14, 2023