Pitch, pitch, pitch … Two PR professionals dish on the job
When we learned that two of our favorite public relations managers in the nonprofit sector were stepping aside to try something new, we saw an opportunity for them to share some perspective and pointers.
Ann Stewart and Alyson Best have provided a level of excellence that we in the publishing industry value most highly. We wish them both the very best in whatever comes next. Thanks for making our jobs more pleasant and much easier!
– Movers & Makers staff
Ann Stewart is a Cincinnati native and graduate of the University of Cincinnati. Her initial career after graduation was as a therapist at Shriners Burns Institute. Later, during her 10-year hiatus from working while her children were young, Ann discovered her passion for promoting the arts and social causes. She has had a lifelong love affair with music, and tried to incorporate music into every job she has held. She was the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra PR and marketing manager from 2006-2012 and served as communications director from 2014 until December of 2021.
Alyson Best is currently manager, marketing and communications at OneSource Center for Nonprofit Excellence, the only nonprofit resource center in the region. The award-winning communicator has combined a love of storytelling, design and event planning into a career touching volunteer, nonprofit and business sectors – often dragging family and friends into her “good ideas” for the betterment of the community.
How did you get into public relations/marketing?
Stewart: As a board member for AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati in the early ’90s I worked with Gina Martin, a PR professional and fellow AVOC board member. I am grateful to her for mentoring me as I learned new skills in communications and marketing. I met Norma Petersen through my work for AVOC and she asked me to do some volunteer public relations work for the CCO, starting in 1995. So, it has been a long relationship with the CCO.
Best: I have loved to write since a young age but knew there were limited jobs in journalism. I went to the University of Iowa, which was one of the few accredited journalism schools at the time, knowing a strong writing program was key to success. I was one of the few in my class who planned to go into PR. I combined my journalism degree with business and fine arts classes to give me background in this profession and then tried to score as many internships as I could for “hands on” experience. I had a full resume when I graduated and landed a coveted PR job in the Washington, D.C., area because of this.
What was the best or worst piece of advice you ever received in relation to your work?
Stewart: Every PR person has their own style … but I think mine was born out of something a former boss said to me 21 years ago that was hurtful. She chastised me for wanting to be friends with my coworkers. I believe a person becomes successful by being supportive to the people they work with. PR is about building relationships and gaining trust … with your coworkers, with other organizations, and with members of the media.
Best: Know your audience(s) and have a plan. I learned this from Cynthia Hardie, my boss at Northlich, who had a newspaper background and was very wise. She was the master at pitching a story and “working the editor desk.” A good strategic PR plan is broad reaching, covering many audiences and situations – the community, internal communications, how you handle a crisis and your online and social media communications as well.
What do you wish you had learned long ago?
Stewart: I wish that I had learned to be assertive with my suggestions and ideas much earlier in my career. It took decades to find my voice. And now I am probably too opinionated for my own good. That’s what comes of seeing “how the sausage gets made” for such a long time.
Best: I only know how to do things one way, and that is to do it to the best of my ability. I wish I had been able to step away and not put in that extra time to make things perfect – but I still haven’t learned how to do that. This weakness has kept me away from home a few too many hours, but in the end I was able to go to sleep at night knowing I gave it my best effort.
What one piece of advice would you give someone just entering the PR field or wanting to up their game?
Stewart: I would tell them not to use hyperbole – not everything is worthy of a press release. Provide authentic reasons for people to care about whatever you are promoting. Go into public relations knowing that you will be on-call 24/7 – especially if you work for a small organization. Do not ignore traditional forms of media, and mistakenly think that only social media is important and relevant these days. And, always show gratitude towards members of the media … even if you didn’t get the coverage you hoped for.
Best: Students wanting to go into PR need to strengthen their writing and put themselves in as many writing situations as possible. A strong writing foundation is key to success – get on the student newspaper; take advanced reporting classes. And don’t stop there! Take a photojournalism class and learn how to use Excel and Powerpoint and Adobe products. Get as many internships as you can. Join student associations for PRSA or IABC or AMA. And read the newspaper, paying attention to what trends are important in your community. I can’t tell you the number of internship applications I have seen where students haven’t done these things and their resumes don’t warrant a second glance. You can’t expect to learn all these things on the job.
What strategy or tool has proved most successful for you over the years?
Stewart: Pitch story ideas that will engage readers. Strategize to create stories whenever possible. An example of this took place during our 2018 Summermusik season. We needed a cellist to perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and I told our music director that we should hire Coleman Itzkoff, son of our principal violist Heidi Yenney. I knew that he was an outstanding musician who deserved this solo spot. I also knew what a great story it would make, having Coleman return to Cincinnati and perform on stage with his mother playing in the orchestra behind him. We sold a lot of tickets to that concert to fans of Coleman and Heidi, and every arts writer loved the mother/son musician story (M&M cover story, August 2018).
Best: When I started in this field, it was all about having media tours and a press kit full of ad slicks and collateral. Now the focus is on having a developed website and an elevator speech and repurposing your succinct message for different outlets. There is an emphasis on sharing real-life stories and I love that trend.
Tenacity and enthusiasm are key to marketing and PR and knowing what is of interest to your audience. It’s important to document your organization’s journey and the stories that set it apart. Sometimes you can use these, sometimes not – but it is always good to have these in your tool kit. My staff has learned to just “go with it” when I pull out my camera and start asking questions. “There she goes again!”
I have had great success at placing stories because I don’t give up when I know I have a good story to share. Editors are busy people with lots of information coming over their desk, so often you have to pursue them.
What do you see as the biggest misconception about the role of a PR professional?
Best: Public relations professionals can be seen as fact spinners, focused on embellishing or obscuring the truth. In fact, good PR is based on cultivating lasting relationships with the media or other targeted audiences based on trust and credibility. This doesn’t just happen. If a story isn’t worth repeating, good reporters and editors see right through that. If you are working for a quality organization putting out solid work – there is an audience for that message.
What are you most proud of during your public relations career?
Stewart: I’m most proud of the work I did for AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati. I created a concert in 1995 called Artists for AIDS Awareness that took place at Music Hall and brought together performers from the CCO, CSO, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Men’s Chorus, MUSE, Drums for Peace, VAE, Pamela Myers and Cleo Laine. Keith Lockhart served as music director and we closed the concert with all the artists on stage singing Elton John’s “Circle of Life.” AVOC clients were offered free tickets to attend the event and after the concert ended several of them hugged me, overcome with tears of joy. Moments like that stay with you forever.
Best: My public relations work at OneSource Center has been extremely rewarding because the organization’s business model gives nonprofit leaders the tools they need to strengthen and build programs that help others. It is that ripple effect where growth supports growth. Anytime you can lift someone up – that is a “win” for me. I have been blessed to work with this organization in its developmental years and helped strengthen a foundation that others can build on. The organization has a staff and volunteer pool of incredible, talented people who believe in sharing their talent and treasure for the betterment of our community – who couldn’t love this work?
What’s next for you?
Stewart: I will enjoy having free time in the summer, and I won’t miss the stress of worrying about ticket sales. I have a few writing projects that I’ve already started working on. I will do some pro bono work for people and organizations that I want to support. The R word is not in my vocabulary.
Best: I have a lot of “spinning plates” in my life and I don’t want to let anyone down if I can’t give it 100%. This nonprofit work is too important to do part way. But, I don’t envision not being involved and engaged – just in a different capacity. I plan to be a consultant for OneSource Center, assisting with internal projects. I am deeply involved in outreach efforts at my church and have an interest in organizations that address hunger. Then there are grandbabies to spoil, a daughter’s wedding to plan, and many hiking trails and national parks still to be explored! I told my family I thought I would take up knitting when I retired and they all laughed hysterically, “You know you have to sit still to do that, right?” I don’t plan to be idle.