Having learned the ropes of journalism and writing in the Windy City — at Northwestern University after graduating from Loyola University Chicago — explains why Bob Spoerl has a non-nonsense, plainspoken approach to his PR work.
As the co-owner of the irresistibly named Bear Icebox Communications (located just a few short blocks from my Chicago home, I might add) Spoerl has helped clients from startups to multi-billion dollar corporations land coverage with some prestigious outlets: the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, CNBC, CNN Money and Fox Business, for starters. And as part of our Qwoted 100 series, he’s got plenty to share about how he approaches journalists, gets results and employs empathy in his work. Read on, for Spoerl’s approach to media relations truly sets him apart.
Qwoted: What do you see as the future of PR?
Bob Spoerl: PR is one of those fields that will continue to evolve alongside technologies. What’s at the heart of any strong public relations campaign is cohesive messaging and a strategy around how to get that message to the right audience through the right channels. When it comes to media relations, technology plays a key role. Databases that help us PR pros target the right media contacts–and connect us in real-time–allow us to touch base when the time is right on behalf of our clients. Those tools are super impactful, but PR pros need to still have the critical soft skills: knowing how and when to reach out.
Qwoted: What do you think you do that other PRs could learn from?
Spoerl: One of the reasons I’m most passionate about PR is that it’s a fusion of sales, communications and writing. Part of what makes someone good at any of those areas is understanding your audience and what they’re looking for. What has really helped me advance in my career is empathy. As a former journalist — and as someone who knows plenty of people from my school still in the field — I know the intensity of meeting deadlines. I understand what it’s like to get an irrelevant media pitch — and how it feels to have a PR person breathing down your throat every step of the way for an article.
So, I try to think about what to do — and what not to do — through the eyes of members of the media. Having that empathy for an audience is something I carry into other channels — from LinkedIn management to crafting blogs or email newsletters. Meet your audience where they are and share your story with them then. It’s going to pay off in the long run.
Qwoted: What’s your toughest challenge with reporters?
Spoerl: I’ve talked about being empathetic. One place where I’ve sometimes had frustrations is knowing when a piece will run. It’s not uncommon for something to run in a media outlet that includes one of our clients and the reporter didn’t give me or one of my team members the heads up. But I need to also realize that they have many stories they’re chasing down and tight deadlines to meet. So, I tend to set a number of reminders to check for pieces on my calendar and comb Google Alerts and Muckrack’s media monitoring.
Qwoted: How do you break through the noise floor to get effective coverage?
Spoerl: I love that term, “noise floor.” There is so much noise in PR. Every time a reporter puts out a query, PR people are like piranhas. I know it can be off-putting for journalists. (I’ve been there!) So one thing I strive to do is keep my pitches brief and pointed. No need to give them any more than what they need for their story. If I have a great source, I have a great source and here’s why. They’re available whenever you need them. And we’ll meet your deadline. In media relations, journalists are our customers. We need to treat them that way for effective coverage.
Qwoted: How does PR in 2023 square with the future of journalism?
Spoerl: Looking back 10 years ago compared to now, I think PR is perhaps even more aligned with the future of journalism. There are sevev PR people for every journalist and the number keeps increasing. Many brands are acknowledging — and rightfully so — that they can and should be content hubs and their executive thought leaders. PR people can support brands in honing in on what makes them unique and amplify that message both in front of journalists and broader audiences. The most effective PR people are in many ways brand journalists. Taking that mindset will position brands as better storytellers and more engaged sources for media. Customers want deeper connections with their brands. They want brands that have compelling, authentic stories. PR people are positioned to be advocates in this space.
Qwoted: What advice would you give to those seeking to find an effective PR person?
Spoerl: Dear prospects: Please stop asking PR people who their contacts are or if they have contacts at an outlet. It’s just not as irrelevant as it was 30 years ago because everyone who has a computer and search engine can have a Rolodex. What’s much more important is to know if that PR person can tell engaging stories and connect brands and thoughts with their audiences through compelling angles and news hooks. Ask your PR person how they identify stories, what makes a strong news story, and if they’re going to be honest and candid with you about what media are looking for. You want someone who will tell it like it is — not someone who will simply try to push whatever news release or story you want. It doesn’t work that way. The best PR people understand they’re part of the media ecosystem and need to understand how it works and evolves. so you have the best chance of media exposure and awareness growth.
Qwoted: What is your golden rule of PR?
Spoerl: Treat journalists as you would like to be treated. [Editor’s note: The actual Golden Rule!]
Qwoted: Anything else to add?
Spoerl: The future is bright for PR indeed. The key is for us to grow as connectors, strategists and brand journalists who constantly hone in on our storytelling and news hook skills. And by news hook, I don’t just mean pitching TV stations, newspapers or magazines. I mean identifying news hooks that work for LinkedIn, podcasts, social media channels and more: hooks that capture an audience no matter where they consume content. That’s what will keep us in business for a very long time. The future is bright for PR indeed.
February 14, 2023