Advanced PR – influence, strategy and tactics

In May 2018, Lexi Mills came to speak at Optimisey in Cambridge.

It was a terrific talk and I found it slightly poetic that she rounded it off with advice about going for gold and seeing if it comes off. The old “if you don’t ask, you’ll never get” – because that’s exactly what I got when I approached Lexi to ask if she’d come and speak at my SEO events.

The video is embedded below, with a transcript below that. I’m trying a new transcribing service so rest assured if the transcript doesn’t make sense it’ll be me/that – not Lexi.

Lexi Mills’s PR & SEO talk at Optimisey

Sketchnotes from Lexi Mills' Optimisey SEO talk by Ann-Marie Miller of Carbon Orange
Sketchnotes of Lexi Mills’s talk by Anne-Marie Miller of Carbon Orange

Happy to see you.

I’m Lexi Mills. I’m going to talk to you about some advanced PR SEO strategies and we’re going to look a little bit at adapting to changes in the publishing industry – because I kind of stalk people in publishing a lot to find out what they’re doing and how I can hack it.

We’re going to look a little bit at legal compliance because if I didn’t mention GDPR then I would feel really bad, but I know we’re all quite sick of it, so I’m just going to show you how I’m managing it; and then how you create impactful campaigns; and a little bit about sort of what we can expect in the future.

So my job has largely been to get links and coverage from places like this for clients like this, so all sectors of clients and I did this initially working for an SEO agency, PR agencies and in-house and that was kind of fun.

I rocked up most of these jobs. They didn’t either have a digital department or a PR department and I just had to figure it out.

Now if you’re in-house, you have different challenges to what you have when you’re SEO agency side versus PR agency side, so then I went out on my own and I’m not gonna lie. It was rainbows and sunshine the whole way through.

I got to do everything my way and just take clients that wanted to do things my way. I didn’t have to put up with it PR-like restrictions on SEO or the SEO restrictions on PR. And then I got more and more projects and I was sat there all by myself and I was like: “I don’t want to say no because this is really fun, but I can’t do it all by myself.”

How do you scale yourself?

And suddenly I realised that I had scalability in PR, and scalability in SEO and even in-house, so some level of scale preset in the way the industry is structured, but when I was on my own doing Lexi’s formula, it didn’t.

None of these things worked. I called people in SEO and said, how do you scale yourself? People in PR, and none of them told me anything remotely useful like they tried it. Maybe it was interpretation

And I happened to be sitting next to a girl in a co-working space one day and I was like, how do you scale yourself? And she’s a neuroscientist, super logical, medical SEO, and she’s like: Well, what’s in your little black book?

I was like: Well, it’s not just contacts. It’s loads of stuff.

And I started splitting it out and – almost aggressively – explaining to her why it’s not possible to ‘scale a Lexie’. The way I do things doesn’t work on scale.

Just like we’ll just map it out so this is what I mapped out. I was like, okay, well I know trends. I have lots of contacts, I know experts.

I speak geek and I speak creative. I’m interested in really random stuff and I can convince clients to do really wild stuff and all these skills are what make what I do possible, so how could I possibly get somebody else to do that?

And I looked really hard, failed terribly at hiring and then I was like, what do I do now? Do I just say no to these clients? She was, no, let’s just. Let’s just pick one, just pick trends, this workout, how you scale trends? I was like, okay.

And I really, at the time I was humouring her, but it turned out that it was me being humoured.

So she said, who else has similar challenges to you? Well, it’s the publishing industry more than PR and more than SEO – publishing stuff is from exactly what I was suffering from lack of time and lack of resource.

So what are they doing? Well, they’re using a mixture of machine and human in order to be able to scale. So let me show you what I mean.

They either formulate things or they have something and I was like, that’s great. I’m going to mimic or hack them. I’m going to work out how they’re taking these machines and these humans and I’m going to scale the bits I can by copying them.

And then I’m going to hack the stuff that I can hack. And I was like, this sounds like fun. This is where I sit. It’s my comfort zone.

Link building: How to outreach to journalists

Now if you look at most publications, they kind of cover the same stuff. Pokemon go was the best example of this. You look anywhere on any publication, they’re all covering Pokemon Go.

Pretty much everyone was covering Trump and that’s because largely a lot of publications and using technology to tell them what to cover and in some instances, over 50 percent of what they cover is dictated by the publications technology.

So if you can work out what they're going to be told to cover and pitch to that, you're more likely going to win. #PRandSEO - @leximills speaking at an #Optimisey SEO event

Pretty simple, and this can be a whole media strategy. So I got this client that I adored called Chi. They’re the future of human interface technology. Sounds kind of cool. It was even cooler in real life.

Basically, they have all these research papers from amazing academics all over the world from Microsoft, Cambridge, MIT, and they have a conference and they said: Will, you do PR for the conference? I was like, I will.

Will I get to speak to geeks? Will I get to play with tech? Yes.

So I had planned this whole weekend. It was actually Christmas, so it was going to be four days of just reading amazing geek stuff. And then thinking about which ones I wanted to PR. I didn’t ask the right questions at sales. And they sent me 150 academic papers.

I was like, oh crap. I have a problem.

So I was like, okay, let’s think about the fact that journalists are going to cover trends. And I was like, okay, let me go on Kickstarter and see what are the top things that are trending on Kickstarter. Found those.

Then I booked a flight to CES and I flew down to Vegas and I walked around, I looked at what were the dominant dominant themes, what will the journalists talking about, what was everyone covering?

Then I put all of that into a list.

Then I took all the academic papers and I searched for frequency of these terms and I created a short list. And that was the short list of the papers I a)) read and b) PR’d. And we looked at some of Google Trends as well.

So we put the most energy behind the ones that had the highest volume of search or the most increased volume of search. All this was, was a formula.

And we got over 100 articles. We were targeted on 20 and it was purely based on thinking about the fact that journalists are going to have to cover certain stuff and a mixture of SEO metrics and hands on ‘rock up at a tech conference and work out what’s going’ on helped us do this.

But when I was trying to scale myself, I was like, well I don’t know if a team member would just think to go to CES.

How can you motivate & ENgage staff?

But then I came up with this other idea. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with Etoro?

It’s a, it’s an app for trading and I’d never traded before, but it turns out drunk trading has a lot of fun! Right?

And so I set up Etoro and I started playing with it as a means of understanding trends. And it works really well because search volume and VC deals are running side by side. So if you know SEO you can be pretty good, at least at emerging tech trading.

And so that’s what I get all my team to do. So when people join us, everyone gets Etoro and they get some money in it.

I did try it without money. They have a virtual account. Nobody cares if it’s not real money. You have to give them real money, but you will learn so much about what is an emerging trend based on what is getting money, what’s going up, what’s going down. You don’t even need to look at the Kickstarter trending items.

You’ve got your team checking the app because they want to know how much money they’ve made. It works really well. It’s a lot of fun and they’re all much better at trading than I am unfortunately.

So then I started to look at contacts because Melissa, who’s now, my business partner who is Brain in the Pinky and Brain scenario, she said: Okay, let’s talk about contacts.

That was kind of easier. I was like, okay, let’s start with the media ones and let’s just get BuzzStream. And BuzzStream were awesome. They import all my emails from the beginning of time into BuzzStream and so they had a history of all the pitches I had done and which ones were successful. Pretty easy, right?

We built our own database, all the team feed into it now and it gives you a little bit of GDPR protection, not loads, but because the system has a login, it’s got one layer of due diligence.

And the great thing is you can log into it when you’re chatting to a client and they’ll say, I want to be on this publication and I’ll pull it up and I’ll be like, Oh yes, we spoke to that journalist on this day and this is what they wanted and this is what they said they would publish if we gave it to them.

So actually we make quite a lot of sales just off the database, which was actually designed to manage my immediate contacts.

how to get feedback from journalists

I always had a bunch of just random academic contacts like experts and journalists that when I was just on my own as a freelancer, I would ring a journalist and say: “What do you think about this story?” but that doesn’t really scale, so we use BuzzStream.

And we just emailed a bunch of journalists and said, can we pay you 25 to 75 bucks for your feedback on an idea? Most of them said yes, so we put them all into BuzzStream, tagged them with all their interests and backgrounds and now whenever we get a content idea, we contact them and get them to verify it.

Now we had to throw money at it because when it’s just a friend doing a friend a favour, it’s different, but actually it scaled quite well.

And it's not hard to find a freelance journalist that will give you feedback on an idea and it makes you really a lot more confident by executing it. #SEOandPR - @leximills speaking at an #Optimisey SEO event

The other thing we did with the journalist consulting board is that we started to ask them if they wanted to write, if they did data research and that became super useful as well, so now we have two sides to it.

Then there’s this other side of being able to convince others to do things.

Now you have to be really convicted in your ideas to convince someone to do a really ridiculous idea and a journalist saying it’s a good idea – it’s far better than you saying it, but equally so is a journalist saying it’s a shit idea – it’s also a lot better than you saying it is, because clients will come up to you with a bunch of ideas.

Instinctively you know which ideas are good and bad, but you don't actually need to break the client relationship by telling them that you think it's bad. You can get a journalist to do it. #PRandSEO - @leximills…

How to make PR look like journalism

Now let’s talk about experts in every story.

Whenever I’m doing something what I’m always looking for is the actual story, is the client voice, but you kind of want another voice because otherwise it smells like PR. And it’s actually got to look like journalism and not smell like PR.

So we built a whole database just of academic experts and most of this actually came out of the Chi project. All the people who wrote those papers, I contacted all of them and said, would you like to be an expert? And now we can just search for experts really quickly.

But honestly if you go onto Google’s academic database and you search academic papers with keywords and contact those guys, they will respond because most academic research doesn’t go very far unless they get PR because they don’t get funding unless they get out in the public domain. So it’s a mutual benefit and it’s super, super easy to do.

And then I have to mention Gorkana, so I did some math for you because I do any of you use Gorkana? It’s expensive, right? It’s not super cheap, but this is how I worked out math on a small team.

The average time to find a contact about five minutes. That's 180 seconds per contact. For 100 people that's about five hours of work. #PRandSEO #linkbuilding - @leximills speaking at an #Optimisey SEO event

Well I can do that in two hours with Gorkana and they’re really the right contacts, the exact details, the exact phone numbers and every time I modeled the math because I tracked it in a detailed fashion when we’re building out prices. It was just cheaper to have Gorkana.

And if you look at the emails, they send these out like four or five times a day. If you’re in the UK and the US database, and this is just showing you how many people in moving day in day out.

As much as we have our own internal database, you will never going to succeed with the amount journalists move around unless you’ve got a big system behind you.

So although it feels heavy weighted, I had to bite the bullet and buy it and honestly it made the world of difference and it does this other cool thing.

link building in local SEO

Do any of you do local SEO content building, link building? If you go into it and you put in the post code, it will tell you how many publications are in that area. So the moment someone rings me and says: Hey, can you do PR in this sector or in this location? In the past I’d be drawing on my own personal knowledge, but for a team I had to scale that out a bit.

They can just put the postcode into Gorkana and it will tell them: this postcode, yeah, there’s several hundred publications, we can do local SEO there. Whereas if it comes up with four or five, then you have to widen the territory and that’s how you know that your piece of content can’t be too small.

I live in a town called Brightwalton in Berkshire. Okay. There’s one publication. But if I widened out to Newbury, Berkshire, suddenly we’ve got a couple of hundred and that tells us how we need to construct our content and you can do something else.

So I had a client come to me and they said we want to do something on windsurfing because that’s the term we’re not converting for. I was like, okay. So I put windsurfing in: three publications. Two have ceased.  Who thinks it’s a good idea to do something on wind surfing?

But okay. What about sports? Water Sports, okay. 253. How about a piece on water sports that focuses on windsurfing? Then suddenly you’ve got a viable content idea.

The thing is when we’re investing in these systems, we think that we’re just buying contacts, but when you start to see it as a vetting system for content ideas, you start to feel a hell of a lot better about paying all that money and it has some really good responses or stuff.

Do you guys use Response Source? HARO? Yup. So Gorkana has its own version as well. I love these.

So I have an index of these from about maybe 15 years and I will search what publications have been asking for month-on-month, year-on-year and when they’ve been asking for.

So if you sign a baby clothing company and then you go into your Response Sources of the last three years and the parenting, and you can search the parenting category, it’ll tell you all the things that people ask for every single year, year in, year out. The beginning of your content strategy.

Your outreach strategy is not just a tool to help you get live coverage from journalists for things. It’s a tool to help you construct the entire nature of your content plan.

How do you pitch to an AI Journalist?

Now, there’s been some developments in editorial decision making that are a bit bleak.

I’m not gonna ask you which one of you have done black hat SEO. I’d like to talk a little bit about black hat publishing.

I met with a journalist at a very big publication a few weeks ago and they don’t cover anything that doesn’t have high Amazon reviews because they get the click-throughs.

If you're doing product PR, you might want to work on your Amazon reviews before you do actual PR link building. #PRandSEO #linkbuilding - @leximills speaking at an #Optimisey SEO event

Because I don’t think this is unique to the journalist that leaked this to me. This is unique to the nature of the situation.

Any of you familiar with AI and the machine learning happening in publishing? It’s happening a lot in business and finance and they’re producing 12 times the amount of coverage using machines.

We talk a lot in PR and SEO about one-to-one pitching. The customised pitch is all about you. How do you pitch a machine? #PRandSEO #linkbuilding #AI - @leximills speaking at an #Optimisey SEO event

12 times the amount of coverage they are producing by machine. You want to pitch machines and the great thing is machines can be pitched in an automated fashion. And they pull most of their content from news wires and from the ‘news at’ addresses, so ‘news@Daily Mail’, and news@TheTelegraph, right? They’re pulling it. The machines are pulling from that.

It’s primarily Reuters at the moment and the AP, so if you’re US-based and you’re doing business and finance, you need to be spamming the news@ addresses with your press releases and they need to be in a very standard format and you will end up getting automatic coverage, which means there’s a whole new meaning to mail merge.

Now I’m big into my personalised contact but I’m pitching machines like crazy because I have a lot of finance clients and it’s working extraordinarily well.

I’d be careful about the wires. You can click different options when you’re setting up a wire so that you don’t create, followed links to your site and then you don’t risk getting any issues from doing the wire. But the wires are the primary way they’re taking this content.

The cool thing is really how do we think this will evolve? And I like this the most because it’s the perfect merger of PR and SEO, but the difference is SEO has the upper hand here.

How to get position zero on Google

So if I talk to you about p-zero, knowledge growth, then we will feel a bit like this. Like it’s the precious right? We all want to be the answer to something on Google, but it doesn’t really bring us traffic. It might bring us rep brand recognition, but it doesn’t do much else.

The only reason we’ve ever really wanted it or I’ve ever really wanted it is because it makes me feel like a freaking rockstar when my client is the answer to something, but there’s a new reason Google answer box could help us target media in that light of AI.

So this is a page about credit card debt. This was the answer – it isn’t anymore – but it was the answer to American credit card debt statistics. Look at the amount of links.

This gets updated regularly and I was speaking to a couple of journalists and he said, well, what are you going to build into AI next? And they said, well, AI is just an automation of a manual process. When I need credit card debt statistics, what do I put into Google? Credit card debts statistics. What do I get up? This page. Why do I get this page? Because it has these metrics, so we’re going to start scraping from Google answer box.

We might want Google answer box more than we think and it might actually have a real quantitative value and it can help you create content right now.

So the client that made me aware of Google answer box and that particular page is finder and they came to me and they said, we want to beat this page.

Now I showed you the metrics, right? Does anyone want to try and beat that page? Not really. Not if you want to keep the client. Right. So I turned around to them, said, okay, going for gold means getting that page. How do you feel about silver?

And so instead of looking at credit card debt, we went for impulse spending. Pretty much the same kind of interest, right? Not a bad one, know exactly what they wanted. And then I knew that from looking at search terms, the Internet of things, robotics, we’re all on the up and up.

So we created the first impulse spending handbag.

This handbag opens and closes according to peak spending times. It has geo-tracking and it says you’re walking down the street and you’re like, oh yeah, I had to buy an ice cream it locks, right? Probably it would be used to weight loss… I hadn’t thought about that, so probably next evolution, the weight loss handbag this time next year…

But we’ve just built a page, but we completely mimicked the content and structure of the debt management that their credit card debt page, so we put a whole lot of key information about it up there, we did a survey because they had a survey on their page. We did frequently asked questions and we put a whole load of images up.

But I want to draw your attention to one thing. See the bag kind of looks a little funky, right? We could argue what that funky means in this definition or let’s because we got a top designer to make it.

Now. Jehovah is a lovely guy. He’s an extraordinary creative. We made it quite challenging to work with, but the reason I did it was Jehovah hadn’t had a fashion show in two years and he was going into New York fashion week.

So I commissioned him to design the outside of the bag because I knew that we’d get it on the runway. Now, from a PR perspective, an impulse spending, him back on a runway doesn’t actually help anyone, but from a link perspective, that’s a whole new category of links I can go after.

So that’s what we did. And like, he loves his handbag.

FYI – we also launched in the US and Britain. You can’t Fedex things that look like bombs. You can’t Fedex things that do and expect them to arrive, but you can DHL.

Campaign 66 inbound links. It really wasn’t that hard to do.

We used everything that I told you about. We targeted the machines, so we did the press releases on the wires both in the UK and the US. We emailed the news@ addresses and we did a lot manual outreach on top, but it didn’t take that long.

There were three of us working on this. Not that many, but we built the content to engage people. And that’s the important thing.

Know anyone who needs financial advice, doesn’t Google financial advice. What they do is they impulse spent, right? And they read fashion pages, so by targeting people we actually targeted journalists and Google because journalists recognise that we’re actually doing something good. This is content that would be relevant to their audience and we’d connect to them in the right way.

How do you scale hustle?

So I want to talk to you about two other pots, wild creativity and speaking geek and creative.  How the frick you scale that?

Okay. I did 3D design at university. Not super helpful on mass. But it did mean that I learned how to code and I learned how to operate big machines, which are quite fun. And so I could speak to coders and I could speak creatively, but more importantly it made me feel really free.

Like if I wanted to make a robotic hand bag, I feel like I can go make a robotic hand bag. I’m like, Oh, I’ll get some robotics. I get handbag. You stick it all together with glue gun. It was largely glue gun. But a lot of SEOs don’t, don’t have that background in material science and they don’t have that background in speaking to the wildly different.

PRs don’t typically speak to coders. So I was like, well, how do I deal with this?

And this is when I hired my ex-flat mate Doctor Claire Asher, she’s a professional science communicator. She deals with all our experts and does the liaison and she’s brilliant at it. In fact, she’s better than I was, which was kind of interesting because I was just trying to work out how I scaled myself, but actually I ended up working out how to be better than.

And Gemma Dodd is a creative but also a journalist and she does all of the design and product work and they’re both contract so I don’t have to have a 100 percent responsibility to them. But whenever we have an idea or the team does, we can just ring them.

And this brings me to the next question of hustle.

Hustle is probably the most important thing you can ever do if you want to be impactful.

You know, I didn’t make a robotic hand bag because I knew how to do it. What I did was speak to everyone and just ask everyone I knew until somebody helped me.

How do you, how do you scale hustle, you know, in this day of data overload?

Are you guys familiar with Finding Nemo? You must be right? Okay. This fish has more concentration span than all of us put together.

You can’t expect a journalist to pick up a phone, an engineer to help you unless you’re willing to hustle. But how do you scale and manage that?

Well, I have a three touch point rule. You’re not allowed to send one email; or make one phone call to anyone unless you’ve written your two follow ups.

Most of the time you only have to send the second one, but this is true for both internal and external communication. You don’t get clients to make robotic handbags because you asked them once and don’t follow up

And I pretty much use Boomerang for this when it was just me. Boomerang is great. Does anyone use it? Yeah. It will save your inbox and it means you don’t have to remember to hustle people, but Boomerang has this thing called sequences so you can schedule hustle, right?

You mark the different emails and when to go and you do: ‘If this, then that’ queries.

Brilliant! Scaled hustle and I can log in and manage hustle. I can see who hasn’t been hassled. Who responded, what type of hustle worked? It’s so much fun.

You can do it with parents too for things that you want. I’ve been trying like that… shhh.

How to hack your workspace

So let’s talk a little bit about hacking hustle because I spoke to you a bit about the skills it took to make the handbag. Well, I had to get an office recently and I was thinking, I don’t want to spend all this money on an office. It doesn’t feel like fun. It’s a big responsibility.

Can I hack hustle by getting a really effective office space? Is there a way that can create an environment that makes it easier to hustle in the same way that BuzzStream sequences made it easier to send followup or Boomerang did.

And I was like, well, can I make some impactful things easier? Things that I might avoid doing.

Now with most press, if you’ve got a really awesome headshot, you’re more likely to go to the top of the pile. The amount of times I’ve had really big coverage just because I had a full head to toe shot of a client and somebody else didn’t and they might even had a better story is unreal.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to talk someone into getting headshots who’s never had them or who hasn’t had them in 20 years?

Okay. Firstly they will never like them because they’ll look 20 years older and that’s a problem for them. Right?

You can put them in black and white. That helps. And then you put them in colour later once they were accustomised to the fact they’ve gotten older.

But what really helps is if you have a photo studio in your office and as you’re walking to the meeting you’re like, Oh, shall we just go in here and do some test headshots? You get your test headshots right on the way to a meeting.

Those become the headshots you use because they will be better than the rubbish ones they gave you and if you turn around to them and say you’re getting an article and a link from the Telegraph, if you’ll let me use your test headshot, do you think they’re going to say no? Of course they’re not.

And then this handbag I told you it looked like a bomb, right? Well, I was staying in a hotel when I had to assemble this.

Now assembling a bomb in a hotel. Not a good look. These are the components like a full blown bomb.

They came up with room service and I was just like, ‘Leave it outside!’ because I swear they were going to arrest me. This is New York City, this is mid-town, like bomb country. I couldn’t expect staff to be dealing with looking like that all the time and I don’t think it’s going to be the last time I made something that looked like a bomb.

So therefore, if it’s not going to be the last, I need a place to do such creations and so we found an office that had both a photo studio and a workshop in. And you’d be surprised the amount of time I just find the team and they’re just making something up and bringing it to a client meeting.

We have a 3D printer. If someone disagrees with an idea, we can 3D print it in the time it takes to finish the meeting and then show it to them.

I wouldn’t normally, if I had to go out and book a studio, that’s a big expense. It’s a lot of effort, but by making it so quick and easy, suddenly you scale things that you know you should be doing? Because a lot of the times we know what we should be doing, but the effort to get there is so much that we don’t do it.

If you can hack your environment to be more effective, you will be more impactful with your link building.

Are you all familiar with medical oaths? Doctors? They stand and they do that big ‘I pledge to do no harm.’

The advertising industry has some oaths that they take some codes of conduct. So does the PR industry. We actually have to. The SEO industry doesn't have any. - @leximills speaking at an #Optimisey SEO event

Just like to throw that out there. You can’t hack morals or ethics at all.

We have quite a big responsibility at this point in time. We are in the wild west.

We kind of get to do what we want. The Internet is this the greatest, fastest growing land in existence and the only people you control it are pretty much SEOs and PR and content marketers at this point in time.

We get to choose what content comes up and what comes down. Yeah, there’s one thing to be great to get an links and optimising stuff, but it’s really important to think about what we’re optimising and what that does to the way people think.

I spend a lot of time considering that.

When I'm coming up with content ideas, one of my first thoughts are who needs this information? Not who's searching for it, but who needs it? - @leximills speaking at an #Optimisey SEO event

If you can bridge that gap, you will be the best link builder out there, finding people who need it, but on searching for it and connecting that to the content. That is where the gold dust in every idea lies.

I’m going to leave you with three last points. Squeeze the juice out of every tool you have. Think about what I said about Response Source.

It’s not just something that helps you know what journalists want. Now it tells you what they’ve always wanted historically. Gorkana isn’t just a tool for data – it is a tool for telling you if your content idea is good or not.

Squeeze the juice out of everything and make sure your teams do and dissect where the real stories are.

You know it’s easy to say, this is what one part of the story is, but actually really pull it out. Find that bit in between. Find the piece that people really need to know and remember.

We have a choice everyday of our lives to accept things as they are or take responsibility for changing them.

You will not change things internally unless you take to responsibility for it, and sometimes that means that you move offices.

When I worked for bathrooms.com, every single one of my staff carried miniature rubber ducks with them everywhere and all we do is put them in a beer glass, photograph it, duck in beer;  duck in pond; duck in puddle; duck and puddle with bread, extra good social media.

You’ve got to make everything that you do, the fabric of how your team operates. If you can hack that, you don’t need anything else I’ve told you today.

Thank you very much.

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