On this month’s PR profile, we are talking with none other than Beki Winchel of PCMA. She’s a Learning Content & Research Developer at PCMA, as well as a freelance writer and PR, social media, and content consultant.
Previously, Beki was Manager of Strategic Programming at Ragan Communications, and before that, was the Editor of Ragan’s PR Daily, one of the largest publications for PR and communications pros. Beki is the co-host of the Becoming Allies and Midnight Showing podcasts, a social media, audience trends and pop culture nerd, and the spokesperson for her basset hound, Sir Tibbles Waddlesworth. She’s an expat living in Sweden with a Wisconsin accent and love for the Green Bay Packers, Disney, Harry Potter, and Parks and Recreation.
Within this interview, we discuss all aspects of purpose-led communications as a PRo while also drawing on her experience as a journalist. From the lessons she’s learned from being a journalist to the focus on values and mission, Beki is sharing her best tried and true tactics for leading with value, purpose, and mission as a PRo.
Read below for the entire interview with Beki:
1.) From being a PR consultant to then becoming a writer and Editor at Ragan’s PR Daily, you have quite the background in the communications space. What made you initially get into the PR industry?
When I was in high school, I actually wanted to go to theater school and be on the stage. When that didn’t pan out, I started a degree in English and creative writing, and then got into the illustrious career of pet grooming before returning to university as a non-traditional student. As I was trying to settle on my major, I was looking at business degrees and majors in the Fine Arts departments to spark my creativity. I came across PR and knew it was for me. It combines what I love about theater—getting on the stage and making the audience feel something—with the business innovation and insights I craved. PR is the common connection point, marrying strategy with creativity. I fell in love immediately.
2.) Being that you have experience on the PR and journalism side, what did your time as a journalist teach you about Public Relations and your efforts there?
I learned how close public relations and journalism can be with storytelling as the parallel and audiences at the center focal point. I also learned why journalists would complain about PR pros.
It’s been eye-opening to be on the receiving end of sloppy, un-targeted, and even lazy pitches. On the other hand, it’s been rewarding to work with other smart and savvy communicators on how to think and write like a journalist to power PR, media relations, corporate communications, and other efforts.
I learned that way too many of us are doing the “quantity over quality” approach and that there is a serious lack of excellent writers and editors, even though we’re communicators. That might sound negative. It can be, but it can also be an opportunity to pave the way forward into the future. Over-burdened journalists and shrinking newsrooms need the power of good PR and storytelling now more than ever.
3.) On the other hand, what have your many years as a PR pro taught you about journalists and the way they work?
A lot of my lessons learned can be summed up in the ways PR pros and journalists respond to email requests. PR pros will “circle back” and make sure their messages “ladder up” to their proposition or brand. They couch their writing with niceties.
Journalists will simply reply: “no thanks” or “no.”
It’s a clean cut that both stings and refreshes. I jest, but there’s truth behind the stereotypes. PR pros are the great connectors. Journalists are searching for the story. They’re not there to be your friend (though building respectful and friendly relationships with them are crucial and very rewarding). Journalists care about their readers and the truth. They want a lede that grabs attention and doesn’t let go. They don’t have time for nonsense.
4.) We saw that you’re passionate about “Purpose-Led Communications.” Can you explain what that is?
Purpose-led communications relies and focuses on an organization’s values and mission, not its products and services.
Purpose drives change in a brand’s customers, community, and the world at large. It doesn’t stay silent in the face of adversity and injustice. Rather, purpose drives meaningful and authentic strategies and messages that take the power and platform of your brand to do good as well as boost the bottom line.
Some of the best purpose-led communications are from well-loved brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, Nike, Patagonia, and P&G (think of Dove, especially). Why are they so loved? More and more consumers are moving their purchases and their loyalty with brands that align with their values and beliefs. Purpose-led communications isn’t just the smart thing to do anymore. It’s a necessity to survive.
5.) What are the three most important aspects of purpose-led communications?
1. Define your purpose.
Understand your values and how your purpose-led communications support them. This includes your diversity, equity and inclusion efforts (DE&I) or justice, equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives (JEDI), but is more than that. Any aim that serves to make your community and the world a better place—sustainability, belonging, fixing systemic issues of inequality—is only as good as values that serve as their foundation.
2. Be authentic.
This has become a buzzword, but it’s crucial that you’re real with your purpose-led communications. Today’s consumers can smell manure from yards (or screens) away. Don’t bother crafting nice statements if you’re not going to keep your commitments—or if you’re not going to commit to anything that actually makes a difference.
3. Become and remain accountable.
If you haven’t yet watched Janet Stovall’s TED Talk, “How to get serious about diversity and inclusion in the workplace,” start there (and then follow her on LinkedIn, because she regularly drops wisdom). It’s not enough anymore to say you value diversity and inclusion, sustainability, your employees’ wellbeing, etc. and then not follow through with decisive, measurable actions that you later transparently report.
It’s painful to evaluate your shortcomings and hold yourself accountable for these efforts, but it’s a necessity. A bonus to go along with this is a piece of wisdom from Kevin Clayton, VP of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He said, if you want to know if an organization is serious about diversity and inclusion, they have a separate function for it. If you want to know if that organization is putting money behind it, it’s an executive function. Kevin’s insight is food for thought as you consider how to put your money where your mouth is.
6.) How can PRos be more purposeful when pitching journalists?
Come prepared with an outstanding story idea, and let the journalist know immediately why it’s valuable to their readers. You can spice it up with statistics, an infographic or other eye-catching visual, or a human interest story/angle. You can get bonus points if you respond to a current trends or breaking news (but don’t wait until after they’ve written their featured article to reach out with your take on it, unless it’s a rolling trend or news that will be making headlines over multiple days).
The biggest thing you can do is remember that it’s not about you. Repeat to yourself: It’s not about me, my organization, or my client. Repeat as often as necessary. Oh, and don’t say “your readers will love it.” Focus on your pitch and let the journalist decide.
7.) Following suit with this communication approach, you also have a fantastic podcast called “Becoming Allies.” How did this begin and what is it about for those who don’t know?
“Becoming Allies” is a podcast that’s “all about inequality—and what the f*$# we can do about it.” We (my co-host Maria Ljungbeck and I) came up with the idea last summer, after the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless more Black people sparked long-overdue racial inequality protests on national and global levels.
We, like many others, were reeling from this social unrest, and especially at a time when we were confined to our homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, we wanted to do something. Anything. We decided to embark on our allyship and activism learning journey in a way that opened up others’ wisdom and experiences to others. We have several episodes that are waiting to be released and a new co-host, Ayana King, joining us as we continue to shape that journey.
Even from the short time we’ve been hosting the podcast, I’ve learned so many incredible things from our guests’ stories and experiences. There have been moments of sadness, anger, and joy along with epiphanies about racism, prejudice, acceptance and allyship that are helping me become an ally. I hope it helps others to do the same.
8.) What are the top ways PRos can focus on DEI inclusivity within their PR efforts?
The biggest thing that PR pros can do is ask themselves and others what they’re missing, challenging themselves to view their efforts through others’ eyes, backgrounds and abilities. Many of us aren’t purposely excluding people based on race, sexual orientation, physical or mental abilities, gender, age, ethnicity, etc.—but often, we don’t know that something isn’t inclusive until we ask the right questions.
Take a look through therealalexa.com, for example, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be astonished at how exclusionary the symbols, fonts, hashtags and other elements of social media are for differently abled individuals. Ask others about their experiences and what they’d like to see. Don’t ask them to educate you on history or things that you can Google, though. Being a good ally involves action, but it also doesn’t place the burden of your learning journey on those that are marginalized.
9.) We know you love technology and connecting with others. How do you think technology has shaped the PR space?
When I took my first PR course (an introduction and requirement to apply to the PR major at the university I attended), my professor told us that we shouldn’t focus on social media, because it was a tactic and channel that wouldn’t be around in several years. This professor’s point was that the strategic foundations of communications were the important structure of PR, of which I agree, but I adamantly disagreed that social media wouldn’t last—and then set off on my own to figure out the online world.
I grew up playing Oregon Trail in elementary school, talking with friends across state lines and in different countries through mIRC in high school, and immersing myself in the burgeoning social media space in college. I met my husband on Tinder. I remember the times when it was a faux pas to say you had met someone online, as if it were a dirty secret, or the countless conversations with people who couldn’t (and still don’t) understand Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn or other social media platforms. Yet, those who did had boundless opportunities to create content, strategies and even entirely new careers for themselves.
Now, technology has fragmented us even further—and for younger generations who have known nothing but connectivity, there’s no going back. Our attention span is shorter. We consume information in bite (byte?) size pieces. We are constantly seeking validation, recommendations, and connections across pixels. We are information and entertainment voyers, no longer just watching studio-produced sitcoms and films, but also a plethora of people just like us who are navigating their way through life with humor on YouTube and TikTok, playing video games on Twitch, arguing with one another on Twitter and Facebook, seeking advice on Reddit. We’re glued to our phones. Social media and technology has become a must-have—even for older generations, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The challenge in all of this connection—which sounds great for the PR industry on the surface (your audiences are easier to reach than ever before!)—also carries many challenges. As Bo Burnham mentions in his brilliant song, “Welcome to the Internet,” because we’re enticed with “everything and anything, all of the time” in a technological age where “apathy is a tragedy and boredom is a crime,” we have to work harder than ever before to break through, grab attention, and hold it long enough to make an emotional connection. AND we have to do it without overwhelming our audiences and while venturing into new spaces.
Technology is a double-edged sword that PR pros must carefully wield.
10.) What tips do you have for PRos who are trying to build relationships with journalists digitally?
Follow them on Twitter, for starters.
Journalists are the largest group of verified users on Twitter, and are often tweeting breaking news, looking for information, and sharing their stories on it. Check out any publication’s or company’s Twitter lists, and there’s a good chance they have their staff and/or reporters on a list. You can follow these lists and even create your own. They’re a goldmine of contacts and information.
Don’t forget to check out journalist’s websites and whatever social media accounts they have (without being creepy—a Google search and 10 minutes of light sleuthing will usually give you what you need).
Start to reach out to them by engaging with their content through Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. Share their articles and tag them. Ask them their opinions. Build a rapport before you start offering quotations, facts, and sources for articles. The same can apply for business executives and owners, too. Take note of their preferred platform(s) and focus your energy there.
11.) What’s the best piece of PR advice you’ve received that you want to share with others?
“If you’re targeting everyone, you’re targeting no one.”
This was said by the same professor who said social media was a passing fad, showing that even wise individuals can get things wrong. (That’s another thing to remember, including within your own strategies!) The advice to figure out who your target audiences are and how to motivate them (what their behaviors, motivations, needs, and drives are) has always stuck with me.
Today, the best PR and marketing campaigns—and also, the best business offerings—are focused on and created for the people which they serve. Don’t retro-fit your offerings to your people. Start with them first, and build from there.
BONUS: we saw you have a basset hound named Sir Tibbles Waddlesworth, which might just be the best dog name we’ve ever heard. How did this name come to be?
When it comes to PR, intention, purpose, and relationships are key in order to be successful. Michelle Garrett recently broke down how to purposefully build relationships with journalists. From following them on Twitter to being authentic on and off of social, she is sharing all her best tips, tricks, and best practices.
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