PR & Earned Media for Your Company: What Owners Need to Know – Kristan Vermeulen

This week on Fast Forward Maine we’re going to be talking about how to generate positive press and media coverage for your company.

We’ve got PR expert and podcaster Kristan Vermeulen on the show and she’s going to talk about everything that goes into good PR, from developing your brand story, to developing relationships with journalists, to the evolving role of PR in a social media world.

Rich: My guest today is originally from Maryland but came to Maine three years ago to discover a world that is all about food, beautiful scenery, and craft of all sorts. She has over 10 years’ experience in the communications industry from handling crisis communications for the Department of Defense, to managing media relationships for one of the top fertility clinics in the nation.

She started her firm Knotical PR, to support small businesses who enjoy their craft and share a unique story. Small businesses that include Seabags, Chart Metalworks, Angel Rocks,  Chilton, Campfire Pottery, and many, many more. You can find her juggling work, mom life, and sailing on the Maine coast when she has time off.

She is also a host of a podcast called Makers of Maine, which just launched last June and takes her listeners on a journey through the lives of makers across Maine, to hear how they get down with their craft. The podcast has over 10,000 downloads and over 6,000 social media followers. And she was recently interviewed on Good Morning America. She’s been featured on nationally televised stations such as Fox Business News and local Maine shows, including News Center Maine and Live and Work in Maine.

Today we’re going to be digging into what you need to know about PR to grow your business with Kristan Vermeulen. Kristan, welcome to the podcast.

Kristan: Thank you so much for having me.

Rich So Kristen, looking back on your career, what was your first job?

Kristan: My first job was an event planner. So I was an event planner for supporting the government. I would travel all over the world, which was an amazing job right out of college. I think that was like the one thing that college grads would want to do is go and travel the world. So I got to go to Hungry, Italy, Germany, to do tabletop expositions and showcase technology that would benefit the war fighter. Really just the military and the combat and commands that are there on site. And it was very eye opening. I got to see so much during that time. Not just within the military world, but then also different cultures. It was the best job to have right out of college.

Rich: Yeah. It sounds like a lot of fun. So how did you end up in PR?

Kristan: So I actually studied PR in school. And right outside of school, I know got into the mode of event planning. I got into marketing, I got into brand marketing, like so many different avenues. And I didn’t even really get into PR until I was at that the fertility clinic, Shady Grove Fertility Center, based out of Rockville. But they’re up and down the East coast now scattered all over the nation, really, they’ve grown tremendously. And I dabbled into healthcare public relations. So I got to represent doctors that needed assistance and building up the reputation as well as talking about stories of folks that are going through the fertility journey.

At the time, a lot of people were very nervous about going into that and it was an amazing thing to get into. And then after that, I jumped right into working for the Department of Defense and I got into crisis communications for PR, so definitely opposite. So that’s really when I started my public relations career.

Rich: All right. So what do you see now as the benefits of PR to a small, growing business here in Maine?

Kristan: I would say that I have dealt with a lot of product placement PR and a lot of business stories in relations to public relations. And I find it to be very beneficial because A) it’s free, it’s an editorial. So I find that a lot of stuff, small mom and pop businesses, don’t have the budget to do advertising. And I say, why not try editorial? I mean, you get much more exposure in terms of a story, and really showcasing it out there to the public. You do get a lot of traffic to your site. You get a lot of, hopefully, product transactions out of it too. And I find that to be very beneficial because an ad only tells you so much, it tells you sort of a little snippet, maybe a little slogan about the brand, and then a phone call or an email to go to.

With editorial, it really showcases a story and a much bigger format in terms of ads. What I find more compelling nowadays, since PR has kind of changed in terms of available marketing channels that are out there, are podcasts. Hence, the reason why I started one last year, because it’s more long-form content.

So I would say that public relations is very key when it comes to trying to get your brand out there, but you have to best prepare yourself, too. And I try my best to help those that want to bring a lift to their businesses and exploring PR opportunities and making sure they’re ready for it.

Rich: So I want to talk about your podcast. And I have a bunch of basic questions, but something you said, I just want to dive into kind of maybe the nerdy side of PR here. You mentioned that it can drive a lot of traffic to your website. Very often online, you might get a link as well as a mention, and obviously a link may have some SEO benefits, plus it’s just a lot easier to drive traffic. Are there any ways that you can increase the chances of a news organization linking to your or a client’s website to get that SEO benefit as well as creating yet another path to your website?

Kristan: So I wouldn’t say that it’s a little bit of a struggle to have reporters, journalists, people in the media, to go and include links into an article, because they’re just so busy trying to get the story done and it’s probably the last thing they think about. But that’s the first thing I think about and representing a business. So I would say clear communication is very key in terms of trying to include a link to a website or link to a landing page that’s very beneficial to a campaign you’re running. What I find very beneficial in terms of capturing results is using a Google UTM parameter.

Rich: Oh, we are getting nerdy right now.

Kristan: Yes, we are. I’m trying to make it a broader term so people can better understand it. It’s a code that you wrap into a link where it tells you where it’s coming from. And I find that to be very beneficial in terms of ROI. But then also at the same time I’ve had people go about doing native ads. And what that means is that you go and create an ad campaign around a story that’s been showcased in a national publication, original publication, or a  local one, depending on what you want to drive traffic from. And these native ads kind of show up on the site where the article was placed. So it really captures more clicks, more traffic. So there’s a lot of ways to get good results when it comes to being placed on a digital online publication.

Now when it comes to print, it’s a little harder. So I’d suggest offering up a discount code. That is the best way to get results. Especially when you’re trying to gauge print is beneficial to you and your brand. But then also at the same time, television and radio, same thing. I always say start with like a small discount code, it’s a good tracker and a good mechanism to really see if it’s a benefit, if it’s worth diving into later on as you build up your PR efforts.

Rich: You also mentioned advertising and native ads. Would you agree that there’s an added benefit to getting into a true article, as opposed to something that you paid for, just in terms of the way that it’s viewed by your audience?  That there’s a reason why it’s called earned media instead of paid media.

Kristan: Yes. I would say that it’s very beneficial in terms of getting editorial with really earned media, just because it’s going to be content that exists out there for a long time. Ads, I mean, it’s temporary. You have no idea if they’re going to shut that down right away. Especially if you keep having the dollars roll into that media outlet. I’m sure there is a timeline when they say, “Oh, we’re just going to shut this down, unless you give us more dollars.” So I always tell my clients that earned media is key, but it makes jobs harder because now there’s publications that are losing funding. And what they’re trying to do is say, “Okay, if you give us a certain amount of money, we’re going to feature you in an article”, and it’s considered sponsored editorial. And I don’t like that at all personally, just because it’s an ad, but it’s editorial, and you’re paying for it. It’s just super weird. It’s a different concept. I’m not going back to the traditional roots of what editorial is, so it’s just making PR a lot harder.

Rich: All right now, I’m sure that if you’re at a cocktail party and you tell people what you do for a living and how you get them into newspapers or into the media, some people must wonder, “Why can’t I just do this myself?” What would you say to those people?

Kristan: I would say that you definitely need to be coached to understand what your brand story is first. I find that I work with a lot of clients that believe what their business story is. And then we kind of go through a mini exercise and they’re like, wow, I didn’t really see my brand in that way. And guess what? That story, those brand cornerstones that you’ve outlined, turns into a pitch. And that is so a value to look at your brand in a different light.

Because I find that entrepreneurs, and I can relate to this because I have other businesses aside from being a publicist, get so ingrained in your day to day and you know what your story is, but if you have somebody looking in from the outside to give you a different perspective, that is super important. So I find that is very key in terms of working with a publicist or marketing expert.

But then also at the same time, it’s really finding the connections. It’s finding a network and continuing on that communication with that network. And I find that’s really hard at first. So when you work with a publicist, they kind of help build that community for you and really engage in sort of what your brand cornerstones are, and then helping promote it through their outlets.

So if you have the network and if you know your brand story, I’d say yes, you could probably do your own PR for sure. But I find that if you have a little hand holding with a publicist, it’s very key. I have a friend who actually started a PR school here. It’s now moved to Maine, but started at New York, and she’s now nationwide for coaching small businesses and how to do their own PR. Like you need those guidelines, you need that foundation to bring it out. And I find that is very, very important. You can’t just do it out of the wind and be like, “Oh, I’m going to do PR today.”

Rich: What do you see as the role of the PR professional these days then?  It’s obviously going to be more than just writing out press releases.

Kristan: Yeah, press releases is a very, very traditional technique, and I find that people are doing away with that. I find that it’s just, it’s called a pitch. A pitch, I find, to be a little bit more of an informal communication. It’s really like a simple email that you shoot out to a reporter or media outlets. “Hi, my name is so-and-so. I represent this client.” You talk to them a little bit more about yourself and who you are as a publicist, and then you talk about the client.

And one thing that I find super beneficial is to be very close knit with that reporter. What I mean by that is, research them, get to know them, who they are as a person. Do they have kids? What have they written about previously? They’re people, right? They’re not just a salesperson you’re going to go and pitch to as a sales opportunity. It’s not sales. They’re people, they write, and they are all about storytelling. So if you get to know the person that’s going to write your story, that’s very important. So I find that is super, super key. And I feel like that’s such a big shift in terms of PR.

And not only is really getting to know the media outlets that are out there very important, but also the media, sort of coaching how you go about telling your brand story is very important. And I find that a lot of people don’t really understand how to go about telling a story on different media outlets. And it’s something you have to be careful of, especially right now in the midst of a lot of political issues that are happening and lots of challenges that we’re dealing with as a country. So I find that people need to be mindful of that and watch what they’re saying and really stick to their guns and stick to their values of how they want to go about voicing that. Because you’re going to get approached with those questions no matter what journalists you’re going to be approached by. So I find that that’s different for PR nowadays.

Rich: Okay. Now, if we’re deciding that we’re not going to handle this ourselves, and we are going to hire a PR professional, what should our objectives be before we even start doing some outreach to a professional who might be a good fit for our company?

Kristan: Well that my recommendations, especially for product placement PR if that’s what you’re looking for, which I think is very geared towards the Maine community. Because for a lot of small businesses and the makers out there, I can’t believe there’s over 99.2% of small businesses that encompass our business economy here. It’s kind of mind boggling. But I would say that you need to make sure you have your ducks in a row in terms of operations. And what I mean by that is that you have enough inventory of your product. If you don’t have enough inventory of your product, you’re not going to succeed in terms of placement. Even if you get placed in Maine Magazine or Down East in a gift guide, it’s a big win/win for you. And then all of a sudden you don’t have enough product and you can get to start a wait list for customers. It’s not going to look very nicely on you.

And so I would say that build your inventory, make sure operations-wise you’re good. But then also at the same time, making sure your marketing presence is appropriate. And what I mean by that is, your social media presence. Making sure that you have good content, good visuals, and aligning that with your PR strategy. For instance, Mother’s Day is going to be approaching, and I find that the more you talk about the topic that you’re going to be pitching on your social media, your email blasts, your website, your blogs, it’s very beneficial. Cross-promotion is so key, and consistent messaging is very key. So I find that it definitely sets the tone with really what you want to do in terms of PR and how you can get your product placed into a media outlet.

So I would say before approaching a publicist, make sure you have all those ducks in a row and your publicist will do a good job in pitching out your story if you have all of those lined up.

Rich: Kristen, a couple of times you’ve mentioned that you kind of focus, or one area of PR is product placement. So I hadn’t thought of it like that. And usually when I hear product placement, I think of TVs and movies, things like that. But I get what you’re saying is that is a category of PR and if so, what are some of the others for those of us who maybe don’t have a product we’re looking to get placed? What are some of the other areas of focus?

Kristan: Yeah, that’s a great question. So yes, product placement I would say is definitely a category, because you’re really focusing on gift guides, singling out a product, reviews on a product. But there’s also a wealth of other categories, such as crisis communications. That’s one where you get into a block or challenge and you need to address it to the public. Which is not really my favorite, but it needs to happen. So that’s definitely one kind of side of PR.

Another one is really just service-based, or campaign based PR, that’s really geared towards service focused businesses. And if they have a campaign going on where it’s very relatable and promoting their services, whether it be a new service or existing services. For instance, I’m working with a client called ecoATM, and they offer kiosks all over the nation to go about recycling electronic devices. And right now they’re doing a campaign really geared towards Earth Day and collaborated with a photographer. So that’s very campaign focused. And the types of publications are going to be very different than a product placement publication.

And that also you have your just your general business awareness. And what I mean by that, it’s sort of business story, new hires, very geared towards business publications. And it’s definitely kind of like a side category. But what I find really interesting, especially with my clients, is that your categories are going to keep building up and it’s not just product placement. It could be a business story. It could be a new hire story. And that’s why I really start off with a PR strategy at first to really get the gears grinding and figuring out ways of, okay, what type of PR activities do we need to do to execute your overall marketing strategy?

So I would say there’s a wide range of categories, but they all kind of interrelated the same time, if that makes sense.

Rich: Absolutely. It sounds like a lot of this is about building relationships with the relevant journalists, more than just a pay and spray of press releases, for sure.

You’ve mentioned a couple of times social media. So I’m curious to know what the impact of social media is on the current role of PR?

Kristan: So a lot of people think that email is the best way of communicating with these media representatives. Well, now in the day of age of social media and the growth of it, especially with the new channels, like TikTok, and I think there’s another one out there now that is only accessible through Apple. Which of course I don’t get the advantage of utilizing because I have a pixel phone right now. But what they are doing is they’re communicating with brands and other journalists and other publicists through social media. So I tell people all the time, I’m like, make sure that your social media is good. Don’t throw anything out there that you don’t want out there, because those guys are going to look at it. Especially if you’re pitching to them through an email.

And I find that emails, a lot of people don’t respond to them because they’re so bogged down. So direct messaging a journalist through social media is definitely key. So I find that social media is very important in that regard, but then also at the same time, especially in product placement PR, it’s a checklist.

So journalists or even reviewers in the PR world kind of go through, okay, this is this brand, it’s got a compelling story. I’m going to look at their social media to see how many followers they have. Which is not necessarily a big check mark. It’s more of just the content and the visuals. Like, are they ready for this big exposure? Are they professional? Are they setting the tone? Do they know their brand story? Are they kind of just cluttered and all over the place? I find that social media is very important that regard.

And then also, being innovative in your social media practices. So some journalists and media representatives aren’t showcasing some brands because they don’t have a TikTok, I’ve noticed. So it’s very interesting to sort of see how media outlets have reviewed and analyzed brands. And they tell me honestly, why they are not going to showcase them. So I kind of coach those brands and be like, “Hey, maybe we should start thinking about doing a TikTok” or “Hey, maybe you need to expand more on your Instagram strategy.” So I would say it very much correlates and it’s very impactful in terms of the PR world, for sure.

Rich: As somebody who’s been doing social media for quite some time, I have to say I’m still stunned to hear that a journalist might tell you that they’re not going to feature a company because they don’t have a TikTok account. Especially if TikTok might not be relevant to that given audience. But is that what you’re hearing from them, is that they want to see a company that’s on TikTok?

Kristan: Yeah. And it’s not just TikTok. I think it’s more about, I’ve heard YouTube, it’s really just playing around with content. Like a lot of people, I think in the media world gets just bogged down with written content and they don’t have time to read it all. So I think the easier, the better. So videos definitely, that’s like the greatest thing ever in terms of Instagram Reels, Instagram Lives.  But I feel like the Reels are really important just because it’s shorter content and it really gives a story and like a one minute timeline. I mean, how great is that?

But then also at the same time too, it’s like, visuals, photos, tell a great story and that sets the tone. And also shorter content. So I think it’s just the easiness, really. I don’t want to say that media outlets and representatives are lazy, but they’re busy and they want to try to find the easiest way into it. So I would say that is the reason why.

But another thing I will add to this is that one of my clients actually is focusing on expanding their wholesale accounts. And one of the biggest nationwide wholesalers said that they will not go and include them into their product line unless they’re on TikTok. So it’s not just PR, it’s wholesale too. So it’s very interesting.

Rich: I think that a lot of people, when they think about PR, think about traditional media. We’ve talked about journalists but I’m curious to know, with your product placement, do you also do outreach to bloggers, podcasters, and dare I say it, influencers?

Kristan: Yes, I do. So a lot of people think publicists just handle the traditional media side of things, and that’s not true. We handle bloggers, influencers, what you just mentioned. We cover it all. And a lot of people also have utilized publicist for reaching out to other brands. Whether it be national brands doing cross promotion, such as giveaways or exclusive products with those brands, to really get a bigger push in terms of their products.

So I feel like the most beneficial sort of media outlets that I’ve seen that I’ve seen a lot of ROI, traditional media is definitely the way to go in terms of gaining a lot of traction. Depending on the media outlet, of course, that you’re working with. And then also the same times, influencers I kind of go back and forth on. It really depends on who that individual is. It’s a whole review process and how I go about choosing and figuring it out. But I work hand in hand with a lot of social media teams and making sure that they execute their deliverables appropriately and they talk about the brand in a proper way. I find that some influencers don’t do a good job of that, so there’s a lot of handholding and it makes my job a lot harder.

And then also at the same time, going back to sort of this like-minded brand strategy. I find that to be the most interesting. And I find that to be the best part of my job. I get to know other brands that want to partner with a small mom and pop brand and elevating them. And that turns into such a good press story. I find that to be just so compelling. So yeah, I feel like it’s definitely not traditional media. There’s a lot of other different avenues that publicists are going to take on in the future, and even presently right now.

Rich: Very interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. Now you kind of touched on this before, but I’m curious to know if there’s a way to measure the ROI when it comes to PR or if there’s specific things that we can and should be tracking when we’re looking into PR?

Kristan: So that’s a great question. So I find that when I go and track the ROI against specific product placements or business stories, what I take a look at first is really the target audience. Like how many subscribers do they have? What does their audience look like in terms of numbers, demographics? So that kind of gauges initial ROI.

Now when it comes to digital, let’s say media outlets. What I do is I really set the tone and make sure that links are included in the article, and working with the journalist or reporter on making sure that’s in there. And then including codes to track that. Website traffic is really important when including links into that, and that is a great tracker for gauging that. But then also at the same time too, I always encourage them to include social media because that way that’s another ROI they can tell and see how many followers have increased in terms of a publication or media outlet that had covered them that day.

So I think that has been a great way to gauge ROI. But at the same time, I know all media outlets are very different and digital is probably the best way to gauge that. You know, in terms of print, TV, radio, I do encourage sort of a slight discount just because it is a good way to track the code and making sure that you’re getting your bang for your buck in terms of the time you put into an interview with these TV channels, as well as radio and print publications, too.

I think a lot of people think that in particular print is dying. And I don’t believe that in terms of the national presence. I can’t say for any local or regional, it really depends on the publication and what their audience entails. But I find that national publications blow it up. And I’ve seen that ROI just through a slight discount code. I mean, 10% to 15% tops.

Now I know that’s very heavy on product placement. Now when it comes to a business story, I find that the best way to capture ROI against that is to create an ad campaign. And whether that be a native ad campaign digitally, or just doing it through Facebook or Instagram, and doing a social media ad campaign where you go and take the followers from those publications through their social media and have them navigate to your site. Even if it’s a print opportunity. Just because a lot of people, when they go and see these brands, they’re like, “Man, I want to know more about them.” So I find that they either go to the publication’s website to find out more, or what they do is go straight to the website. Which is kind of hard to track, but I think you can definitely gauge that in terms of a social media campaign. Or you could just gauge it with the timeline and looking at your Google Analytics and seeing when that story was launched and kind of looking at the timeline that way, just to see if there was any increase in following or traffic when that story came out in a print publication.

Kristan: Kristan, I have to say how impressed I am with your understanding of the analytics side of digital marketing. Seriously. I don’t know that I’ve talked to another PR professional who brings up things like UTM codes and checking out Google Analytics. And there’s actually something, you probably know this, in Google Analytics called annotations. So if you are getting listed in a news organization, if you’ve got some PR going on and the story hits on a Friday evening, you can actually leave a little note for your future self in Google Analytics that tells you that day, and then you can see was there a surge in direct or referral traffic that you could probably safely assigned to that press release.

So kudos for you for going the extra mile for your clients, Kristen.

Kristan: Thank you.

Rich: I want to circle back around. We mentioned that you have a podcast called Makers of Maine. And I’m curious to know, how does that factor into your professional job, or is that just two seemingly related things that you’re doing?

Kristan: So I would say that they kind of go hand in hand, just because the beginning of when I wanted to start this podcast right at the start of the pandemic, I wanted to start interviewing the clients that I have. And they’re all mainly small businesses in Maine. Even though I have clients outside of Maine, I really wanted to focus more on the great state that I live in. Because I’m super passionate about the small business network and community that we have here, as well as the makers that are part of it, too.

So when I started it, I started it back in June. I started off doing stories that I know very well, and the interviews flowed very nicely. But knowing myself, I wanted to challenge myself and I was like, you know, I can’t just do my clients. I have to expand out and interview other makers that I’ve never heard of before. And my very first maker that I interviewed was Maine Flag Company, which is down in Portland. And what an amazing story and learning more about the original Maine state flag. And that’s when I knew I needed to expand this more, and it’s not because I want more work for my publicist job, that is not the intention whatsoever. I really just want to showcase the stories through our podcast, long form content, it’s fun, it keeps the interview and story raw and authentic, and it makes people more comfortable.

I feel like the audio side of things is a lot better in terms of video. People kind of like shy away from the video and it just becomes a little bit more fake sometimes. Unless you’re really good at your job, like Anthony Bourdain, who inspired me to start the podcast. He had a show called Raw Craft, and he did it so flawlessly. I was like, I can’t, there’s no way, I can never do that in a webcast series. So kudos to Anthony. But I think that the podcast has definitely been a hit. I’ve already reached 10k downloads,  and also 6,000 social media followers. It’s growing like crazy, which is amazing. And I’m super, super honored to share these stories of makers across our lovely state.

Rich: Very cool. So we ask all of our guests on the show this question, and I’m curious to know your answer. What one thing would you change, if you could, to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?

Kristan: I would say that a lot of people are coming to Maine, because Maine is a hotspot as we all know in terms of tourism. A lot of people think of it as the lobsters, the hotels that you stay at, the glamping sites as well as the restaurant scene in Portland. I think a lot of people see it that way, but I don’t see it that way. I see it more in terms of the maker side of things.

I think it’s a slice to the Maine tourism pie that I unfortunately think is being missed out on. You know, there is an organization that’s funded by the government called Maine Made. And Tammy Knight, giving her a shout it out, she does an amazing job in terms of promoting these makers. And I wish that there was a way of showcasing them more and having them be more in the light of our state. And I find that it’s definitely improving, there’s a lot of national attention in terms of some great makers in our state, including Sea Bags and Atlantic Kelp Farms at Bribie, and Luke’s Lobster. And you know, our seafood industry is great, and the sailing bit is very popular. But there are a lot of other mom and pop shops here who are just great craftsmen, and women who do such a good job. So I feel like, I think there needs to be more of a push in terms of promoting these guys. And I’m hoping that my podcast does that. But my podcast is only one outlet. There needs to be a bigger push in terms of government, politicians, and backing that, making a whole month to celebrate these makers every year and allowing folks to embrace that and to go and visit these makers at these studios. I feel like that is what our business economy is going to improve on.

And that’s sort of my bit in terms of the maker side of it. I’m very passionate about that, as you can tell. But I would say that is the biggest thing that I see in terms of improving our economy here in Maine.

Rich: Thank you for that, Kristen. Now, people who are listening may want to learn more about Knotical PR, they might want to check out your Makers of Maine podcasts, they might want to learn more about you if you’re a good fit for them, where can we send people?

Kristan; So to check out my PR business, it’s Knotical PR, it’s K N O T I C A L. So it’s spelled not the general term of nautical, a little confusing, but And then my podcast is

Rich: All right. Awesome. This has been fantastic. Kristen, thank you so much for your time today and really appreciate all of your expertise that you shared with us.

Kristan: Thank you so much, Rich. I appreciate it.