PR copywriting: an interview with Kathleen Hanover

July 19, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Interviews 

PR Copywriter Kathleen HanoverI work with hundreds of people and rarely get to meet them in person.

But I met Kathleen Hanover recently at the local Panera Bread shop and was blown away by her expertise on public relations know-how.

So I twisted her arm and got her to agree to an interview on PR copywriting.


Dean: You’re a public relations copywriter. What do you do, exactly?

Kathleen: I’d describe myself as a marketing expert who frequently uses the tactic of PR to help my clients reach their business goals. I see copywriting — all forms of marketing copywriting — as a marketing tactic as well. But here’s where the PR flavor of copywriting is different. It’s most successful when you serve multiple masters.

What do I mean by that?

Well, when I’m doing direct marketing copywriting — writing a sales letter or web content, for example — I’m communicating to my client’s target audience in my client’s voice. It’s very clear who my client is. My client is the person signing the checks.

However, when it comes to public relations, my “real” client is actually better served if I pretend to forget who’s signing the check. When I write PR copy, I write as though the journalist or editor is my client. I write to AP standards, the editorial standards used in most newsrooms.

I write interesting leads. I supply quotes from my client, my client’s customers, experts, and so forth. I try to find interesting, newsworthy angles that will make the news release appeal to the editor’s customers — the publication’s readers. In short, I write like a journalist, and I bend over backwards to make it easy for editors to run my news releases verbatim.

And it’s not uncommon for editors to do so. This strategy is most effective in smaller publications such as community newspapers. They’re always hungry for content, especially if they have few reporters on staff. But this strategy has even worked in publications as large as the Los Angeles Times.

Dean: I love that you ask yourself questions then answer them. You’re making this easy. So how did you get into the business? Is there a story?

Kathleen: There’s always a story, Dean!

Dean: Ha! Look who I’m talking to.

Kathleen: I got a job at the community arts council in Dayton, Ohio, and one of my responsibilities was promoting the fine art gallery that we managed. About every six weeks we’d mount a new exhibit, and I was tasked with writing a news release that was sent out to a tiny handful of editors and writers in the area. This was before the Internet.

Never having written a news release before, I went to the library and checked out a book on writing news releases. I followed the instructions in the book, and added a couple of twists of my own. I was astonished when my press releases started appearing almost word-for-word under the local art critic’s byline. It was a heady feeling to see my words in print, even after someone else’s name.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Dean: How specialized is PR copywriting?

Kathleen: It’s not the copywriting per se that is so specialized. As I said, I learned how to write a news release in about an hour with a book I checked out at the library. The mechanics are simple. The tough part is understanding PR strategy and what editors and reporters will consider to be newsworthy. The tough part is making a ho-hum product announcement relevant, timely, and appealing to a publication’s readers.

With public relations, it’s a two-part pitch — you have to convince the editor or journalist that your story will help them sell papers or airtime or whatever. Then you have to convince the reader or listener to read your story and take action based on the content of your release.

You have to answer that very basic question — “What’s in it for me?” — for everyone in the “food chain.” And the answer to that question will be different for everyone — your client, the editors, the journalists, and the readers or viewers or listeners.

If you can’t answer that question for everyone involved, you’re probably not ready to write the press release.

Dean: I follow you on Twitter and have noticed that you’re into politics and have other interests besides PR. How do you fit all that into your schedule?

Kathleen: As you may discern from the lateness of these interview answers, I often completely fail to fit everything into my schedule! I am passionate about a lot of causes that can be furthered and supported by public relations, so I probably say yes to too many volunteer projects. But I feel that PR is one of my superpowers, and I get a lot of satisfaction from using it for a good cause.

Dean: Superpowers. I like that. Kathleen, you’ve already said that you do more than just write copy. So what other services do you offer clients?

Kathleen: Because I have over 20 years of experience in both marketing and public relations, I have a lot of different tactics in my toolbox. Most of them revolve around copywriting — things like sales letters, web content, marketing collateral, tag lines and so forth — but I also do quite a bit of strategic work for clients.

Nowadays, there’s far less “vanity marketing” — the kind of self-congratulatory corporate flogging that was done to “create awareness.” Today, clients need every dollar to create results, not awareness. So I’ll look at a client’s business goals and budget, and create a marketing and PR strategy that should help them get the biggest bang for their buck. Then I’ll suggest an affordable, but effective, list of tactics for them to implement.

Sometimes clients have the internal resources to handle implementation, and sometimes they just scrape everything marketing-related off of their plate and onto mine. I’m fine with that.

Dean: What do clients want most from you? What are your most popular services?

Kathleen: In a nutshell, I specialize in persuasive communications that generate a desired response from the target audience. The most obvious example is direct response sales copy, where I’m actually attempting to close a sale with a sales letter or web content. But I also persuade people to take action with radio ads, video scripts, social media engagement, and of course, public relations copy.

I’d say that my sales copywriting is overwhelmingly the most popular service I offer. I simply love writing sales letters and fundraising letters, and I’ve attained ungodly response rates on some projects. It’s very satisfying — for both me, and my clients.

Dean: Years ago, a PR writer would type up a press release and mail it to reporters and editors. How has this changed?

Kathleen: Well, the distribution channels have changed, but this is still the most common way to get a news release published. Some journalists and editors will accept “pitches” via phone or social media, but I don’t know that the news release will ever become extinct. Someday it may be delivered via talking holograph, but I think press releases will always be a part of public relations.

Dean: What sort of things do PR writers have to know to be effective? Do you need a special degree or have a certain kind of experience?

Kathleen: I don’t have a degree in PR. In fact, I don’t even have a degree in marketing. My degree in directing and stage management certifies me to mount a production of Hamlet, but not much else. I’m entirely self-taught, and my methodology has always been the same. First, learn the theory. Then model other people who get results. Try new things. Keep the new things that work, ditch the things that don’t.

The single most important thing to understand, when you’re doing “traditional” PR, is that no one owes your client any coverage. In fact, no one owes your client the time of day. It’s up to you to develop your client’s story in such a way that it becomes “editorial” instead of “promotional.”

You need to be able to look at the bare facts and develop a story that meets your client’s needs for exposure, but — even more importantly — meets the goals of the editor, journalists, and even the publication or media outlet itself.

Dean: SEO is all the rage now. How does that tie into PR copywriting these days?

Kathleen: You know, SEO is an art and science, and so is PR. This topic really deserves its own interview, because in a way, it’s a separate discipline, and I approach it differently than I approach traditional public relations. So I’m going to punt on this one.

Dean: You’re one of the few copywriters I’ve actually met in person. Do you find the copywriting business to be a bit lonely?

Kathleen: You’re only about the second or third copywriter I’ve met in person! Copywriting, like any solo activity, can be a bit lonely. But when I’m connected to the Internet and getting emails, tweets and Facebook updates all day, I rarely feel as though I’m alone.

Dean: Yeah, thank goodness for the Internet. But it’s still not quite like sitting down with someone and having a beer, or in our case a panini sandwich and Diet Coke. Is there a lot of demand for PR? Is there much competition?

Kathleen: A few years ago, I would have said that PR is dying. And traditional media relations is certainly changing, simply because the consumers of media have changed so much. The minority of Americans now get their news from the big three networks. More people trust bloggers than politicians and “the mainstream media.”

So, with dozens and dozens of traditional media outlets going out of business, I’d have said that PR is doomed. But now, we as PR professionals have the ability to take our client’s story directly to consumers, bypassing the “traditional media” in many cases. Our clients still need us to help tell their stories … but again, the distribution channels are changing, and we have to change to keep up.

Yes, as with every discipline in marketing, there’s a lot of competition. Marketing can be something of a “squishy” major, so it attracts a lot of people who aren’t quite sure what they want out of life.

There’s plenty of competition among the mediocre. But the best people in any field can always find work. I strive to be the best, and get outlandish results for clients. Results speak louder than any resume.

Dean: I know what you mean. Seems like some of the worst people at marketing are those with marketing degrees. Probably because marketing teachers generally have no real world experience. Hope that doesn’t offend the marketing majors out there.

One more question. What would you say to a writer who wanted to get into your line of work?

Kathleen: Start paying attention to the print stories that you find compelling, and try to figure out why. Is it the headline that caught your eye? The angle? The quotes? The “moral” of the story? Once you understand what hooks you as a reader, you’ll start to understand how you can help your client meet their goals.

And read good journalism. Read it voraciously. Learn how journalists write. And learn how to tell a story 10,000 words at a time, 400 words and even 140 characters at a time.

Dean: Kathleen, I’ve learned a ton talking to you. And I hope we’ll have a chance to get together again sometime. As a friend of mine says, you’re cool beans.

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Smart Comments

2 Comments on PR copywriting: an interview with Kathleen Hanover

  1. Arvid Westfelt on Jul 20th, 2010 10:29 am
  2. Great interview!

    Kathleen, my first “taste of blood” in PR came about the same way. I wrote my first press release for a friends club, but didn’t know a thing about PR then (although I had a degree in marketing!). So I googled “press release how to”, followed the steps and sent it out. It appeared word-for-word in a major newspaper here in Stockholm, Sweden.

    But as you say, to r e p e a t that moment takes strategic skills, which takes more than an hour on Google or the library to build :)

  3. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on Jul 20th, 2010 11:17 am
  4. This is a great interview Dean. Although copywriting and internet marketing in general, is a solitary task, there is still a lot of communication going on.

    It’s always exciting to hear feedback from other copywriters, because of the various backgrounds that people have, like Kathleen and her stage work.

    …just goes to show that you can do anything that you are passionate about, regardless of your original set of schooling.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire