This is the first post in the “A Conversation With” series, where I interview talented people about their areas of expertise focused on nonprofits.
This month, I interviewed Kristen Elworthy of Seven Hills Communications. We discussed why PR is important, some common misconceptions, proven tactics for smaller budgets, the key to a great pitch and actions you can take today. I hope you enjoy her insights!
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your current role as a freelance marketing & PR Consultant.
I own a marketing consultancy called Seven Hills Communications, which I started 10 years ago (in fact, July was my 10-year anniversary!). I work with small businesses, startups, nonprofits and personal brands like authors, helping them with story-driven PR. My sweet spot is with mission-based clients. I have a background in journalism and particularly love working with clients to hone in on their unique story and message. I do a lot of work getting them meaningful press, like op eds, contributed pieces, profiles and getting their voices into news and trend stories that are relevant to the work they do.
What are some common nonprofit and small business marketing misconceptions?
First of all, many people shy away from hiring a consultant because they feel like it is super expensive. While working with a marketing or PR consultant is an investment, it is typically much less expensive than working with an agency, and affordable for many businesses. The point, of course, is for it to pay for itself over time as you build your brand recognition.
Secondly, people often think of PR as a one-way road to leads. Getting good PR for your business elevates your brand and may well directly lead to sales (sometimes, you can track that link if it’s an online media source). But the road goes two ways. PR provides social proof as people are on your social channels and website. They can see where you’ve been mentioned in the media, what those outlets have had to say about you, and how you are positioned. That can be an important differentiator when they are making purchasing decisions or deciding whether to trust you or donate to you.
This is where story-driven PR comes in: telling your story allows you to connect with your audience in a really authentic way. Think about the last time you bought from a company because you loved the story behind its owner, or you felt like they were relatable to you in some way, and you wanted to support them over their competitors. That is the power of social proof.
What do you suggest to your clients as the first step in their marketing & PR journey?
I always try to help people get started on their own as much as possible when they are brand new. For example, getting your social media populated, signing up for a social scheduling tool like Buffer and making social media a habit. Getting your website looking good and working smoothly. Ensuring your product, if you have one, is ready for prime time. Thinking about your messaging on your website and making sure it reflects your values.
From there, I think PR can be a great initial investment for companies and nonprofits. Often, we can get really targeted and focused on specific messaging to make the PR outreach effective and start gaining that social proof that can add so much to a brand’s presence online, help with SEO, and get new eyeballs on the brand.
For organizations with smaller budgets, what tactics have you found most successful?
Since PR is earned media, you’re primarily paying for your consultant’s time. In other words, there’s no ad cost or pay per click, etc. So on a smaller budget, I always tell people to get targeted and specific with their PR goals and what they want to be saying–and to whom. That gives the PR pro a really good direction to go in and helps them to spend their time pitching the right reporters.
Community building is also key. We’ve had clients on smaller budgets for whom we’ve managed social media and engaging on Instagram can be a really effective way to gain traction. It takes time, but if you are able to do that as a business owner, it doesn’t require a budget. It’s just about being disciplined, authentic and putting in the work.
What are some specific roadblocks you watch out for with your clients?
Being prepared to do PR or spend money on marketing is huge. Are people open to being interviewed? Is the product ready to ship? How’s the website? Etc. If you are not prepared, you’re wasting your time, efforts and money.
There also needs to be some flexibility when it comes to PR. My favorite clients, and the ones who get the best coverage, are those who are willing to try new things, to do interviews that might be a little out of their comfort zone on occasion, and to provide me with consistently fresh ideas to pitch.
What makes a great PR pitch?
A great PR pitch is both short and targeted–and when it can, it ties into current news. The week I’m answering these questions, we’ve had two major pieces of news. One is the nomination of Kamala Harris. I happen to work with a woman-owned South Asian independent children’s publisher who just came out with a book about influential Indian women. The moment Harris was announced, we pivoted our pitch to talk about the publisher’s message around amplifying South Asian voices and stories, and how this is a significant moment for that mission.
The second piece of news has been on the payroll tax holiday announced by the federal government. One of my nonprofit clients works in the employer space around financial security, so we’ve been working to elevate their voice in the national conversation, leading to interviews with major national news outlets and trades. Being able to pivot into the news quickly is key to a great pitch.
But in general, pitches should be short – the goal is just to get the reporter to say, “Yes, I want to hear more,” not to give them the whole story up front. And they should be targeted. Part of my skill set is doing deep research on reporters to dig into opportunities for my clients that are really a great fit for both the journalist and the client – this makes for great coverage and for more successful pitches.
What are some specific action steps everyone can take today to set themselves up for success in their marketing & PR efforts?
Think about what makes you unique. When you get that interview with the New York Times, you won’t get quoted if you are saying the same thing as three other people who are interviewed. But if you take a step back and think about what you or your organization brings to the table in the conversation and focus on that, you’ll manage to get that quote in when the Wall Street Journal calls. (Example based on a true story!)
Understanding your messaging and your position is so key not just for PR but also for social media, email marketing, showing up at events–really, anything you’re doing to communicate about yourself.
And, build what you can yourself. Start engaging on social media, proofread your website, don’t be afraid to reach out to journalists about what you’re doing if you think they’d be interested in your story. Ask your community for feedback and help!
What are some of your favorite books, podcasts, or blogs in small business marketing?
Where can people connect with you online?
You can visit my website and blog for lots of small biz marketing advice and I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn. I’m also available via email at Kristen (at) sevenhillscommunications.com. I am always happy to hop on the phone with people for half an hour and give them any advice I can, even if they are not ready for a consultant yet.
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