Mar 17, 2022
Annie Scranton, Founder and President, Pace PR (New York, NY)
Annie Scranton is Founder and President at Pace PR, a media relations shop that partners with its clients to discern and achieve goals through getting its clients “featured in the media.” Annie believes that traditional media (television) is still strong and its real-time immediacy “brings credibility to a person or a brand” in a way that “holds a lot of meaning and is different from a newspaper article or a digital article or a podcast.”
Pace PR works with a wide variety of clientele, but its three “pillars” are business (B2B, tech startups, corporate clients, climate sustainability initiatives), lifestyle (nutritionists, authors, fitness instructors, products, and brands), and thought leadership (political pundits, financial analysts, attorneys).
Annie says her firm selects clients they find interesting and exciting . . . ones that will interest the media and have something “meaningful to say.” Clients need to “have a presence and be compelling,” to be able to explain their thoughts in a way that audiences can understand, and to provide “takeaways” for viewers. The agency “preps” clients by providing media training.
In pitching, timing is important . . . media is more interested in working with clients who can speak to current relevant issues. Credentials are also important. “Did the client work in the industry under discussion? What was their exact area of expertise? How did they touch the current topic that (the agency is) pitching them on?” Get to the point as quickly as possible and clearly state the payoff so producers can easily formulate the case for doing the story. Annie says producers get hundreds of pitches in their inbox and delete 99% of them.
In this podcast, Annie provides some basic interview tips. “First,” she says, “Do no harm.” Answer the questions the interviewer asks in a way that is “as concise and clear as possible.” Annie says it takes a certain level of skill to be able to bring in your own message in a way that is “natural and organic” and not too “transactional.” If it’s not going to “flow,” Annie advises holding back and waiting for the next time, giving a great interview, and “playing the longer game,” knowing that, if they like you, they’ll invite you back.
in 2021, after 11 years in business, Pace PR brought in a consultant to finally put some structure in place: “an operating plan, an organizational chart, and a lot of other tools.” Result? More growth and a better workflow.
Annie can be reached on her agency’s website, pacepublicrelations.com or on Twitter @anniescranton.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Annie Scranton, Founder and President at Pace PR, based in New York, New York. Welcome to the podcast, Annie.
ANNIE: Thanks for having me.
ROB: Excellent to have you here. Please start us off with a rundown of Pace PR. What is the firm’s superpower?
ANNIE: Our superpower is getting our clients on TV and featured in the media. There’s a lot more that we do, obviously, and that goes into it, but at our core, Pace Public Relations is a media relations shop. We partner with our clients to figure out what their goals are, and then we help them achieve those goals by securing really meaningful, great placements in the media.
ROB: I’m sure a lot of people really want that. What does a typical client look like for you? Is there a particular stage of firm, size of firm, industry? You name it.
ANNIE: We’re pretty wide-ranging and generalist and agnostic when it comes to the industry that our clients are in, but we do have three main divisions. We have B2B division, where we have everything from tech startups to corporate clients to climate sustainability initiatives and projects; we have a robust lifestyle division, so we have nutritionists, authors, fitness instructors, and products and brands; and then our third division is thought leadership. That’s a lot of our political pundits and financial analysts, attorneys, folks that really have a vested interest in opining on cable news about whatever the topic du jour may be.
ROB: Some of these are some pretty big placements, I would imagine. In client selection, how much of it is people who are interesting innately, how much of it is preparing them, and how much of it is just finding the area where they’re more interesting?
ANNIE: I think there’s got to be an innate interest at least somewhat. It doesn’t have to be a passion project or something that I personally necessarily follow, but I have to feel interested and excited when I’m talking to a prospective client because without feeling excited and having that interest, it’s not going to come off as genuine when we’re pitching to the media. So definitely vested interest is important.
But also, we have to make sure that we feel like the media is going to be interested as well. It could be the most interesting thing ever, but if it doesn’t fit into the news cycle or, as you were saying, maybe they haven’t secured funding and they’re super, super small . . . timing is important. We want to make sure that when we’re talking about that sort of preparation, our clients are coming to us with an already established presence and a lot going on themselves where we can feel comfortable and confident that we’re pitching a product or an organization or a CEO or a company that has something meaningful to say.
And then we do a lot of work with our clients to get them prepped and media-ready by doing media training as well.
ROB: That’s a whole topic we could go down right there on the media training side. I’m recalling some conversations I’ve had on the topic. But let’s pull in for a moment on what makes people interesting. How do you think about understanding and figuring out – obviously, there can be some subjectiveness to “This person is interesting,” but how do you think of scaling up the idea of “Is this person interesting and who are they interesting to in the media world?”
ANNIE: I think interesting is a little bit individualistic, but for me, doing a lot of TV bookings for our clients, they have to certainly have a presence and be compelling just in the tonality of their voice, and be able to explain what they’re saying in a way that’s going to be digestible and make sense and have some takeaways for the viewer at home.
Something that’s really important is to make sure they have the goods to back it up. Did they work specifically in the industry that they are discussing? What was their exact area of expertise? How did they touch the current topic that we’re pitching them on? Then we put our pitches together where we are highlighting our client’s expertise so that way, when a producer is looking at it, they say, “Oh okay, this guest would be really great to have on air because of this specific background that they have.”
ROB: Media training is such a deep and interesting topic. I’ve had a couple of times where, for whatever reason, I ended up on CNBC and I had to phone a friend and figure out what the heck I was going to do with this and how to do it well.
There’s an interesting balance. Depending on who you listen to, some people are going to talk about knowing what you want to say, and then sometimes you can very clearly tell when someone is on television and they’re trying a little bit too hard to touch on their three talking points or something like that. How do you think about striking the right balance of being prepared and knowing your message, but then delivering it in a way that isn’t forced, inauthentic, or just tone-deaf?
ANNIE: In my opinion, I think first do no harm. What I mean by that is if you are fortunate enough to get booked on CNBC or a major TV network, answer the questions that are asked of you. I think weaving in your own specific messaging point is a skillset. It’s something that may take time for some to be able to do where it feels really natural and organic.
But if it doesn’t flow off your tongue in a really germane and relevant way, my advice would be to wait for the next time you’re on air, because first and foremost you want to develop a relationship with that producer, with that anchor, with that network. If you are too transactional on the first interview, they’re going to see right through that and you’re never going to get invited back on. So in my opinion, it’s better to really give them a great interview and realize that there’s a long game here. It’s not just for a one-off interview.
ROB: That’s so important to remember. I think it can feel like you’re playing in the Super Bowl or something when you get that TV placement, and you feel like you have to win it all at once. You make a great point; so much of business is the long game, and I think it’s illuminating to people that media is not different in that regard, and you really can do this a lot if you serve the audience well and make the host’s job easy.
ANNIE: You totally can. I think it’s also on the publicist or on your comms team to strike that balance for you. It’s very rare that you’re going to look up and see what would in effect be a commercial for a company or a product or a brand. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the CEO or the founder is talking about a news story that is relatable within their industry, within their area of expertise. But a publicist should be able to ask the producer, “Hey, at the end of the segment, can we have one question where we ask about the initiative that my client is offering?” or something along those lines.
Generally speaking, they’ll play ball with you – and if they don’t, that’s when the publicist needs to go back to the client and say, “Listen, I really advise that you do this interview because it will lead to other opportunities in the future.”
ROB: You certainly speak with a lot of expertise, so let’s uncover some of the background here. What led to you starting Pace PR in the first place? What’s the origin story?
ANNIE: I was 28 and working at CNBC for Donny Deutsch’s show, and it got cancelled. I found myself suddenly without a job because everyone on the show got laid off. So I sent an email to everyone in my orbit and said, “I lost my job today and I need a job. If you hear of anything, let me know.”
I got an email back that really changed the course of my life forever; it was from a publicist who I had worked closely with and developed a relationship with booking his clients on Donny’s show. He emailed me and said, “I don’t think you have any formal PR training, but I have a client. He’s a broker. He just wrote a book on the market. If you know anybody on any show at CNBC that would have him on, I’ll pay you $500 bucks.” I sent it to my friend who was working on the one o’clock hour and she’s like, “Oh, he looks great. Can he come on tomorrow?” And that was my lightbulb moment. That’s what spurred everything to happen.
ROB: For sure. I of course skimmed through your LinkedIn before we hopped on here, and you can see the DNA of some of your career, and probably number one, I would imagine part of your eye for talent comes from being on the other side. Do you feel that the people you’re booking with know that you have that background? Or is it more evident to them by how you probably approach the entire process with an empathy for their job and what they’re looking for?
ANNIE: A lot of them do, because a lot of them I’m still friends with or have a relationship with. But I do think the way I construct my pitches, the way my staff does by me teaching them, is to really cut right to it, for lack of a better phrase. Producers are getting pitched hundreds of pitches every single day. Every single day, they’re getting hundreds of pitches to their inbox, and they delete 99% of them.
So, it’s really important to reference what is happening in the news today. You don’t need a long preamble; you don’t need to say, “Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which was supposed to encompass X, Y, and Z…” No, just say “Biden’s plan got shot down. If you want commentary on if it’s going to resurrect itself or where they go from here, here is the expert. Here is what they say. Here’s why you should book them.” Just make it as concise and clear as possible. I think if you do that, it’s evident that you have an understanding of how TV news works.
ROB: You make it sound so easy – and of course, I couldn’t come up with that pitch very quickly at all. But that’s why you are the professional. It’s worth highlighting – I feel like it’s pretty common to see a lone gun solo artist or a superman or superwoman with a couple of assistants, but you have managed to scale up the firm a little bit more. Not everybody has your experience booking; not everybody has that network.
How have you gone about equipping new waves of your team to grow and scale and replicate an experience that – maybe you’re able to hire a bunch of people who used to book for shows, but I imagine that’s not everyone on your team.
ANNIE: No, definitely not. A couple people, but not everyone. In early days, certainly pre-pandemic, I had a very small office for a number of years, and my more junior team members would sit right next to me and I would try as much as I could to use opportunities as teaching moments, as I’m putting together a pitch. I also was very much a part of the editing process and trying to have them understand how to get right to the point as quickly as possible while also clearly stating the payoff. Why should the person on the receiving end care about what you’re sending? That’s not easy to learn because most people, I think, think of good writing as long writing and having a lot of flowery explanations. But when you’re pitching for TV, it’s really different than that.
Now we’re at a stage of the company where we can invest in our staff in other ways, through writing courses or webinars or seminars that they may want to attend. But we just try to have a lot of visibility in terms of our pitch writing just so that the junior staff can see how we’re doing it and then learn from that experience.
ROB: I see. I can certainly see some proximity, some room for coaching, probably some roleplay, even, in there. Have you ever had younger staff write some pitches and have someone respond in more of a roleplay mode? Is that common?
ANNIE: I guess I do that when I’m editing and writing back to them, because oftentimes I will say, “What are you trying to sell me on here?” Sometimes we have complex, complicated clients, and it can be really hard to say succinctly in the approximation of 20 seconds what point it is you’re trying to get across.
So yes, because when we used to work together in a small office, I would say, “Hey, Natalie, why should the producer care about this?” or “Hey, why should the viewer at home really care about this topic or this idea?” I think just making it as real as possible was helpful in those ways. So I guess so. I guess roleplaying in that way.
ROB: It’s interesting because there’s a direction – as I was saying with the talking points – there’s a point to where I think some coaching makes you sound really overly robotic, and it’s almost like there’s the other side of the mountain where you’re talking about getting more concise, more human, more to the point. Maybe there’s some New York in there, but there’s a lot of media in New York, so I’m sure a lot of media talk is “Get to the point. We’re busy here. We are inundated with pitches.”
ANNIE: Yeah. You’ll see even, if you start developing relationships with specific producers, a lot of times producers will email me one sentence. They’re not worrying about capitalization and punctuation. If you work in cable news, you’re producing every single day. It’s a talking art, it’s not a written art. Most of the times, the way they’re communicating with the executive producer or the senior producer where they’re pitching a story or they’re pitching a guest is when they’re having their meetings, so they’re actually verbalizing the pitch and the guest they’re getting. So they need to be able to take from the written pitch and use that language to formulate in words how they’re making their case for why they should book this guest or why they should do this story. It’s something that people may not have a knowledge base on if you haven’t worked in TV, but that is how it works.
ROB: It’s such an interesting look behind the curtain. Annie, when you think about the journey so far in building Pace PR, what have you learned lesson-wise that you might wish to go back and tell yourself to do a little differently, or things you’re doing differently now?
ANNIE: This past year, in 2021, we started working with a consultant for the first time in 11 years of business, who helped me develop an operating plan and an organizational chart and a lot of other tools. We sort of joke around saying that we grew up this year at Pace PR. We could’ve done that earlier, for sure. I think I held on to that startup scrappy mentality for a little too long. It didn’t hurt us, but I think it impeded our growth, because since we’ve invested in some of this work, we’ve all noticed not only more growth, but also I think an ease within the workflow in the company.
So. I would say to think even bigger earlier on than I was. I mean, on the one hand, I’ve always grown slowly and methodically. Most startups, the reason they fail the first year is because they spend too much money, they grow too quickly. So there definitely is that balance. But I think I would’ve put on my business hat a little bit sooner in the duration of the company.
ROB: Yeah. Did you start the firm by yourself?
ANNIE: I did. I started it by myself and kind of just asked for help. I knew an attorney who I used to book on TV, so he incorporated the company. I asked a friend, “Do you have an accountant?” and they introduced me to my current accountant. A lot of it was trial by fire, and when I started it was just me, so obviously I didn’t have to worry about staff and a million other things. I could take risks and do things a little bit haphazardly and it was okay.
ROB: Right. Some people have that partner, that co-founder, someone who comes in operationally minded, and sometimes, as you’ve done, you get by on the strength of your strengths. I think it was probably a year and a half ago I hired a coach to come in and help me figure out some of these things, and it felt too early. I thought, “This is a big investment; should I really be spending this money?” But I haven’t talked to a lot of people who hired a credible consultant or coach and regretted it.
ANNIE: Yeah. At least where we are in the business, it just got me thinking differently. When you live and breathe your business and you started it and it’s your baby, it’s very hard to see the forest through the trees. It’s like you only know one way of doing things. So when you get that outside perspective, at least for me, it has been illuminating. I do think the timing is important, but it’s never too soon to at least start thinking about that and thinking about what the future will hold and how to scale and how you might see a growth path forward.
ROB: What are some of the scale points that may have gotten in the way?
ANNIE: Staffing has always been – not an issue, but it’s something that’s so critical to a small business. And I think time management, meaning all of us, from myself all the way on down, are very involved in the client work, in the client-facing aspect and the media pitching aspect, so it doesn’t leave a lot of time or room to think about the business and growing and scaling the business. It’s something that I’ve been fortunate (knock wood) where year over year, the company has grown. It’s not to say I haven’t put time and energy into thinking about how to grow; I have. But I have not ever been systematic and really intentional about it until this past year.
I will say it’s still not easy to carve out time in your day when you really don’t have it, but I’ve been doing whatever I can to make the room and the space for that because it’s really important.
ROB: It’s one level to think about the simple tasks that you can delegate, the lawyers, the bookkeepers, that sort of thing, but it’s another thing entirely to really think about working on the business, on equipping things for growth. It’s a different mindset, so I certainly appreciate that.
ANNIE: Yeah, and if you don’t have training in it or you didn’t go to business school – I had never read a business book. It’s hard to know what some processes can be or ways in which to scale. You may be somebody who has a ton of ideas, but then it’s really challenging to put those ideas into practice.
Somebody gave me the advice that as the owner of a company or someone in leadership, you should spend your time doing the things that only you can do, the things that you’re really good at. I didn’t excel at figuring out how to take my ideas and then implement them into different growth / revenue streams, but hiring and working with this consultant has absolutely been helpful in that way. I would recommend it to anyone.
ROB: That’s great to hear and great to understand. One of the ways I believe that you have chosen to scale the business is with different offices, different cities. How did you think about the right time and the right way to do that? That seems like a big step.
ANNIE: Yeah. Some of it was a situation where someone wanted to move and came to me and said, “What do you think if we opened up an office in D.C. or LA?”, etc. Certainly, in this period of remote work, that’s a lot easier. I think maybe a lot of businesses are having different office locations because people are living and working in different areas.
But I would say for us, just thinking about the pillars of our company, which is business, lifestyle, and thought leadership, politics is a big part of that thought leadership – so having a presence in D.C. is important. It’s important to get out there for meeting media and it’s important for attending events that are going to be useful for new client acquisition or for strengthening relationships with the media.
And then we have a member of our team out in LA, and that’s really the hub of where a lot of lifestyle business is done. I think it’s also important to have somebody there to have their finger on the pulse of what the trends are, what people are talking about – especially in that lifestyle space. That is important when you’re having conversations with prospective clients, to say, “Oh yeah, I have heard of this.” When you have that intimate knowledge, it gives you that leg up when you’re vying for the business.
ROB: As soon as you said D.C. and LA. I was thinking about your pillars. It sprang immediately to mind with lifestyle, with thought leadership, absolutely. It does feel like it can be a little bit of chicken and egg in that case, though, right? How do you decide, is the thought leadership pulling you to D.C., or is it a bet based on what you’re seeing? It seems like there’s a bit of a risk and sequencing challenge there. Did it feel like a risk going into those markets, or did you feel like you had the evidence that made it inevitable?
ANNIE: I think it’s always a risk, because who knows how things are going to turn out? But like when you’re saying the chicken or the egg, I feel like that is the perpetual mind state that I’m in. Less so with opening an office, because there are ways to do that where you don’t have to have a ton of overhead to do that. So low risk on the financial side.
But where I still see myself in that kind of scenario is thinking about hiring. We try to be prudent and hire when we have more clients that require more staffing to service those clients, but in PR, despite the fact that we have very longstanding and great client retention, it still is cyclical. We have a lot of clients that come to us on a project basis, or at the end of their first contract, they may need to shift funds to another area of their marketing budget. So it is a little bit always of that balancing act. All I can say is doing this for nearly 12 years, I think there’s that bit of intuition, which is what I’ve come to rely on.
ROB: Absolutely. Annie, as you’re looking ahead for the future of Pace PR, for the future of the particular industry that you’re in, what are you excited about? What’s changing, what’s not changing?
ANNIE: I am excited about all of the many different media properties that are popping up or that are becoming more robust. I have CNN on in my office and they’re promoting CNN Plus. In instances like that, for publicists, it’s exciting because there’s going to be so many more opportunities for clients to get them exposure. Somewhat challenging to keep up on it all, but it’s a good challenge to have and I’m excited about that.
However, the cornerstone of our business is traditional media, and a lot of people out there will say traditional media is dead, TV news is not going to hold the same weight as it once did. I disagree with that. I think at least in our lifetime, TV is still going to be a really important medium. Even amongst the younger generations, people, especially in big moments, want to turn on the TV. They want to see in real time what is happening. And even if they don’t, getting those clips from a CNN or a CNBC legitimizes and brings credibility to a person or a brand in a way that I think is very different and holds a lot of meaning and is different from a newspaper article or a digital article or a podcast or something like that.
ROB: How do you read when a media outlet starts to turn the corner? Because I distinctly recall I would start seeing these random video clips showing up in my Twitter feed of business news, and I’d sit here and say, “What in the heck is Cheddar?” And all of a sudden Cheddar’s on my TV. It has crossed a little bit from being an upstart to also kind of a traditional outlet. How do you feel out – and maybe it is intuition – when things start to cross the boundary?
ANNIE: I think it’s a question that’s kind of impossible to have an exact answer to because it’s a bit of a science, but I would say for us, something as simple as in the early days, when we would email a client with a request to appear on Cheddar TV, they would always say “What’s Cheddar?” And now, we don’t get that question anymore. How does that happen? Probably by a million little things happening all at once and over a sustained period of time.
But for me, it’s less about maybe the name recognition, but what’s really important is that the quality of the reporting and the interviews is very high from the early days. Cheddar always did great interviews, very professional all the way around and really well thought out. My clients always left feeling happy and like it was a good investment of their time, because even if they didn’t have a ton of eyeballs watching that segment at that exact moment, as I said, having that clip and having it be well-produced and it looked good and it was a well thought out interview – that helps them in their own marketing materials to share that clip or to put it on their website or put it on their social media.
ROB: Makes sense. There is some wizardry to it still. I appreciate it. That’s why we need you. That’s why you’re there. Annie, when people want to find you and find Pace PR, how should they find and connect with you?
ANNIE: I would love to hear from anyone listening. You can go to our website, pacepublicrelations.com. Or you can find me on Twitter @anniescranton. Shoot me a message and I’d love to connect.
ROB: Sounds great. Annie, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing from your deep expertise in this media world.
ANNIE: I really appreciate it. Thank you for having me.
ROB: Thank you very much. Bye.
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