Pitching the Press

How does a company pitch the media and get free coverage? Lane Martin, 34, is figuring it out fast. And that’s why Modern PURAIR®, a Kelowna air-duct-cleaning company, is regularly making local headlines.

That media attention is translating into revenue. Modern PURAIR® will be opening its sixth franchise in Chilliwack this month. Not bad for a company who started franchising only this year.

In October the 18-employee company made $116,000 in system sales. “We’ve never had a $100,000 month, but in October we smashed that target,” says Martin, who co-owns the business with his father.

Martin attributes much of the franchise-expansion success to the ingenious stories concocted by Tyler Wright, owner of Vancouver company Megawatt PR. Wright has worked with Modern PURAIR® since July and in this short time has already generated 20 media hits.

“Tyler landed a story in every market that we’re into. There’s no doubt that media attention creates revenue,” says Martin, whose company now has franchises in Kamloops, Salmon Arm, Vernon, south Okanagan, Kelowna, and Chilliwack.

Wright created a buzz by parking three older Modern PURAIR® trucks in downtown Kelowna and inviting graffiti artists and anyone artistically inclined to “tag” the trucks legally. The result was a fun afternoon for the public, and eight media hits for the company. Now Modern PURAIR® in Kelowna regularly receives calls from people who refer to the news stories.

“PR gets into areas that you can never get into with all the money in the world. I call it priceless advertising,” says Martin.

Admittedly, Martin was somewhat hesitant when Wright first suggested the graffiti-the-trucks idea. “I thought it was a bit weird, but I trusted him and he came highly recommended,” Martin says.

Wright was one of the creative minds behind the PR machine that propelled 1-800-GOT-JUNK? into hyper-growth, helping the company expand from 20 to 95 franchises in the two years he worked with them by generating hundreds of media hits including placing stories on Oprah, in USA Today and in The New York Times.

In Vancouver, Wright had 1-800-GOT-JUNK? park a truck at GM place and hand out hundreds of blue wigs (matching the blue in the Canucks’ uniforms at the time) to fans at a Canucks-Detroit playoff game in 2002. Unusual idea? Yes. Effective idea? Absolutely. 1-800-GOT-JUNK? was inundated with media calls—50 media hits in 10 days in Vancouver alone, and the blue wigs and the company made a lasting impression on the public and the Canucks (who now sell blue wigs).

“It was about creating a story that had nothing to do with junk removal, but it was about creating a cool factor and revealing a culture within a company that made it significant,” Wright says.

How does Wright do it? He’s constantly on the lookout for story potential and something he calls “the story behind the story.”

“The story behind the story has to be something your company is doing that doesn’t necessarily directly relate to your service,” says Wright, a 33-year-old Maple Ridge native who now lives in downtown Vancouver. “It’s mostly to show a side of the company, or something the company is involved in, in a way that hasn’t been revealed.”

He says a lot of companies mistakenly think that they’ll get coverage by approaching a reporter and stating what their company does. “That’s not a story,” he says flatly. “There’s always got to be something timely, something significant, or something that is relatable to the masses that makes a story behind the story.”

That often means creating a story related to current events or some event happening in the city or something that makes a social impact. “So many companies have a story – they just don’t know it,” he says. “A lot of CEOs could be PR minded but they don’t know how it works.”

For companies who can’t afford a PR person like Wright (who charges $2,500 to $4,500 a month), he suggests studying business articles in the newspapers, magazines, and online. “Look for what the media is talking about with the company, and ask yourself, ‘How does my company relate to this type of story?'” he says. “Try to visualize what your company could do to generate publicity.”

Most of all, it’s about understanding what reporters are looking for. “You need to speak their language instantly. The reporter is thinking like a person who is reading the paper sitting at the kitchen table,” says Wright. “You need to ask ‘What is the end result for the reader?'”

Generating good ideas also means getting into a creative head space. Wright avoids a 9 to 5 work routine and television, which may be surprising given he’s a PR guy. “I don’t want television to suck the energy out of my life.” Instead he goes for long walks, often late at night around the seawall, and that’s when the ideas will come.

“For a CEO looking to get creative with their company, they may need to change something about their routine. A lot of CEOs are disciplined and may have a routine that may not be inspiring,” says Wright. “If you want to be creative, you need to get into a creative space.”

How did he help Modern PURAIR®? When he first heard about Modern PURAIR®, he knew the company needed a creative approach since air duct cleaning is… not exactly a sexy media topic. “If I were to call a reporter at any paper and say ‘Hey there’s a new air duct cleaning company in town,’ there’s just no life in that. No story.” That’s when Wright came up with the graffiti-the-trucks idea.

Now he coaches the new Modern PURAIR® franchise owners how to think about stories, deal with press and phone the media for the pitch.

Not all of Wright’s PR ideas are unrelated to what the company does. This winter Modern PURAIR® is capitalizing on the fact that mice and rats tend to seek air ducts to nest in for the winter. A story in two Okanagan papers generated numerous calls from the public who were suddenly concerned about who might be sleeping in the walls.

When working with clients, Wright prefers to deal directly with the CEO, since it’s the CEO who sets the direction of that company. The greatest success has come from CEOs who are willing to be flexible.

“They need to be willing to do something crazy, wild, or fun, or change something at the risk of getting more exposure, knowing that it won’t hurt the fundamentals of the company,” Wright says. “The hardest part is working with inflexible CEOs that won’t budge on a cool idea.”

Companies also need to be relatively open with the media, “You’ve got to be willing to submit your ego. So many CEOs want PR but they don’t want to disclose revenues, problems, or the company culture – that’s when the story dries up.”

“Sometimes companies don’t want to talk about their mistakes because they think it’s poor business. But then you see Howard Schultz on the cover of magazines saying, ‘We screwed up, this is where we screwed up, and this is what we’re going to do to fix it’ and everyone appreciates it because everyone knows Starbucks is run by human beings. Making mistakes is part of the story.”

What other advice does he have for companies hoping to create headlines? “Don’t build your product or service or brand and then try and get media. Build whatever concept you’re working on around what is going to get you PR,” he says.

“If you can enter a new market or  launch a new product knowing you’re going to get PR and build it around what the reporters are going to write about before you execute, it just has way more potential.”

Does a company need to have tight relationships with the media? “No,” Wright says. “It’s about the story. Not about the contacts. I got 700 hits in 18 months at 1-800-GOT-JUNK? in every major city in North America, and I didn’t know anybody.”

And, lastly, if the media calls, “drop everything you’re doing,” he says. “Don’t put them off. Always put PR first.”

“I think the ultimate marketing strategy for any company is advertising and PR. Advertising alone is gas. PR is a little bit of fire. If you put them together it’s explosive growth, and that’s been proven by big and small companies,” Wright says.

Martin, at Modern PURAIR®, is sold on PR. With goals to attract new franchise partners and establish 37 franchises coast to coast within the next three years, he plans to have an in-house PR department up and running in the next 18 months. He also recommends a marketing budget with 50 percent going to traditional advertising (direct mail, display ads, yellow pages, etc) and 50 percent dedicated to PR.

“Anyone can take a $3,000 ad and place it in a newspaper, but do people really read that ad?” says Martin, who began in sales as a kid on the schoolyard selling old hockey cards. “You can take that same amount and put it into PR and hopefully generate two or three media articles that people read. It gets into their heads about your business and that is priceless.”

These days Martin and Wright are developing a campaign called “Canada’s dirtiest ducts,” which will feature some of the dirtiest and oddest items blown out of air ducts in Canadian homes. It’s a little crazy, a lot of fun, and more than likely will catch the attention of… the media.

“Tyler continues to come up with out of the box, creative ideas that gets the media’s attention. He thinks completely off the wall, which is really cool. I guess that that’s why he’s a PR guy,” says Martin.