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February 28 2012

14:00

How Social Media, E-Books, Self-Publishing Change Writers Conferences

At first, you came to the San Francisco Writers Conference to learn the craft of writing, to hear famous writers describe how they became famous, to learn the secrets of how to create a winning book proposal, to become enlightened by publishers about what they want and, most of all, to pitch literary agents, those elusive creatures who seem always to be heading the other direction.

Today, it's a different story. Today's conference is about all the traditional basics, but also about topics from blogging and tweeting to e-books and self-publishing. I asked four longtime participants in the 2012 San Francisco Writers Conference earlier this month to describe how this and other writers conferences have morphed to include technical content relevant to today's writers.

You can listen to their takes below.

I started with San Francisco Writers Conference co-organizer Laurie McLean, who told me that the core teachings are still there, but two entirely new tracks have been added to handle tech topics relevant to writers today, and the previously unmentionable option, self-publishing.

Laurie McLean
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For more than 20 years Laurie ran a public relations agency in California's Silicon Valley. Then she became an agent at Larsen Pomada Literary Agents representing adult genre fiction and children's middle grade and young adult books. As Agent Savant, she works with authors to create their author brand, then develop a digital marketing plan to help them promote that brand online via social media, blogs, websites and more. Laurie is dean of the new San Francisco Writers University and on the management team of the San Francisco Writers Conference. In 2012, Laurie started two e-publishing companies: Joyride Books (for out-of-print vintage romance novels) and Ambush Books (for out-of-print children's books).

Listen to McLean on adding two new tracks to the conference offerings here.

Listen to McLean on still sticking with the basics here.

Kevin Smokler
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In 2007, Kevin Smokler founded, with Chris Anderson (editor in chief of Wired Magazine), BookTour.com, the world's largest online directory of author and literary events. Kevin now serves as the company's CEO, regularly speaking at industry conferences and book festivals throughout North America on the future of publishing, books, reading and legacy media in the 21st century. His regular topics include print and digital publishing, legacy media, social media and the web for writers, and business skills for artists and creatives. In April of 2008, Amazon purchased a minority stake in BookTour.com.

From Smokler's vantage, despite all the changes, there are some things that are still, and always will be, basic to publishing -- namely, the need for a quality book and connecting that book to readers.

Listen to Kevin Smokler talk about that here.

Patrick von Wiegandt
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Patrick von Wiegandt is a musician and sound engineer in charge of making each session at the San Francisco Writers Conference available in audio formats for sale immediately at the conference and online after the event.

He's seen big changes "backstage," as in the transition from tape to CD to MP3, but because he also hears all the sessions, he has some interesting insights about how the content of the conference has changed since the Internet came to be important to writers.

Listen here to Patrick von Wiegandt talk about the changes he's seen.

Joel Friedlander

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Joel Friedlander is a self-published author and a book designer who blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at TheBookDesigner.com. He's also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps publishers and authors who decide to publish get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read.

One of the biggest changes Friedlander sees is the massive shift in how books are being publicized (authors now being asked to do promotions themselves) and how writers conferences are adapting to reflect that change.

Hear Friedlander talk about that change and others he's seeing here.

Carla King is an author, a publishing consultant, and founder of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp program providing books, lectures and workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994 and has worked in multimedia since 1996. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and as diaries on her website. The newest version of her e-book, The Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Authors, was released in August 2011 and is available on Smashwords, Amazon Kindle, and for the B&N Nook.

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January 08 2012

22:14

So why won’t you cover MY story?

Used to hear versions of this every day when I was still working the field. How come you’re covering THAT story? Why don’t you do some GOOD news? I called your station and they won’t cover (insert grand opening of brother’s store, daughter’s ballet recital, whatever…here).

So I’m about to give away some dirty little secrets and (if you listen carefully) some pretty solid tips on how to get a bit of broadcast news coverage. All of the following is pretty much verbatim in answer to a request from a member of my husband’s church. She had a friend who was opening a fitness center. From any angle (except a few of mine) a non-news story. One word. Boring. But here’s what I suggested.

If I knew how to make the media do anything, I would. But there are ways to get to the top of the pile for consideration. Realize that every day every media outlet has hundreds if not thousands of requests to cover events. The trick is to make it topical – current and of interest to a wider audience. Make the media WANT to come.

My first thought was…oh no (remember, I’m a slug) not another fitness center. THEN I saw it was located right next to Donut King and got a chuckle out of that. Also…seeing that one of the classes has already been featured on ABC (nationally or locally????) is a plus. There is interest in anything new and unusual.

So…you need to plan your strategy, remembering even then that it is hit or miss. And even if you do get a call saying they may come to do the story…a breaking news story will cancel any plans.

Do NOT push this as a grand opening. The interest is more in what is new and different. I don’t know the hours for your grand opening or if they would allow media in before (a day or two)…but you might consider aiming at the morning shows. There isn’t a lot of news happening at 5am most days, so if you offer a live crew an opportunity to send the reporter in to sweat it out and learn how to use the new gear or learn a new movement (reporter participation is good), then you may get a crew down. If you contact the Record you should have the same pitch…although they are more likely to cover a class after the fact than a grand opening. The business of news media is to provide information and to some extent entertainment…which is why I recommend selling the story in some way other than “a store is opening up.”

Send your first release out about two weeks before the event (email or snail mail). Follow up a few days later with a short phone call – “Hi, just checking to see if you got the information on the fitness center and their new (equipment) and (whatever the class is). If you’re interested in doing an early live shot, we’d be glad to have your crew test out the (class and/or equpment). Keep it short…and the best times to call are 5:30am-8:30am, then 9:30 to 11am, then 1pm to 4pm. Why? If you call during or near the time a show begins (with the exception of daybreak news) they won’t really be listening to you. If they are abrupt it may mean they are dealing with a lot of pressure due to breaking news or changes in the schedule. Yeah…lotsa stress in a broadcast newsroom.

Whatever you send out – KEEP IT SIMPLE. The “5 Ws.” Who, What, When, Where, Why. Plus a SHORT graph with your pitch.

All it took was a bit of planning…and the daybreak “happy talk” news show in the area bit – hook and line – and her friend’s store was a star for a brief moment in the market.

Lesson to remember: news departments don’t have to come to your event. Their job is to provide a service to a wider community…in the case of TV stations is is generally regional. Their job is to provide news and information that are meaningful to the lives of their audience. Your little store opening or dancing daughter only has meaning to a small group of people. In order to get your story to the top of the food chain you have to provide an angle that will make it more palatable to the assignment editor and of interest to a larger audience. Good luck with that.


April 08 2010

16:00

The future is…fliers? California Watch experiments with a hyper-hyper-hyperlocal distribution model

Last month, California Watch published a big story. “Shaky Ground,” higher ed reporter Erica Perez’s investigation into seismic safety in the state’s public university system, found — among other things — that “nearly 180 public university buildings in California used by tens of thousands of people have been judged dangerous to occupy during a major earthquake.”

The Berkeley-based outfit accompanied the deep-dive investigation with a multimedia package that included maps of various UC campuses and an interactive history of earthquakes in California. They tweeted the story and sent it out on Facebook. They tailored versions of the story for publication in newspapers across the state, including The San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, The Bakersfield Californian, and The San Diego Union-Tribune. They arranged appearances for Perez on KQED radio in San Francisco and on TV stations in San Francisco and LA.

But they wanted to do more. They wanted to reach members of their immediate, physical community — in particular, the Berkeley students who, every day, attend class in buildings that may be unsafe in an earthquake. (As Perez reported: “No public university in California has more seismically unsafe structures than UC Berkeley.”)

So, as a complement to the story’s web-savvy, multi-platform distribution strategy, the outlet added something decidedly low-tech: fliers. Yep, fliers: the paper-based, interpersonal-interaction-reliant, social-media-before-there-was-social-media method of getting the word out.

Mark S. Luckie — who, in addition to his role as the proprietor of 10,000 Words, is also a multimedia producer at California Watch — designed the fliers, and staffers posted them on kiosks around campus. They also e-mailed PDF versions of the fliers to student groups on campus so they could pass them along to their members.

And then, last week, California Watch editorial director Mark Katches stood outside of the outfit’s offices, on the heavily foot-trafficked stretch of Center Street between the Berkeley mass-transit station and the entrance to campus (it’s “this one concentrated little block,” he says, “where everyone gets off BART, and jams to campus and back”), handing out fliers and spreading the word about the earthquake-safety story and its findings.

“It seemed like a complete no-brainer,” Katches told me. The outlet has made a priority of finding new ways to engage readers (setting up temporary “bureaus” in local coffee shops, rewarding quality comments with iPods, and so on), and sometimes the newest ways are simply tailored spins on the old. As Katches put it in a blog post: “It’s all about getting stories into the hands of people who are impacted by our journalism the most — one at a time, if need be.”

The flier idea was the brainchild of Sarah Terry-Cobo, a freelance reporter at California Watch and a recent Berkeley j-school grad. The outlet’s staff was thinking about how to engage the Berkeley community (“when we published our story on March 18, we hadn’t realized — until it was too late — that our distribution came right at the start of the spring recess,” Katches notes). And, as Terry-Cobo puts it, “I just thought: fliers.”

Fliers on college campuses, she points out, don’t have the in-your-face-and-then-in-the-trash reputation they do in a lot of other places: On campuses, fliers are common. And since colleges tend to be fairly tight-knit communities, there’s a good chance people will want to know the information printed on them. “I just graduated from Cal last year,” Terry-Cobo says, “and I’m the type of person that would take a flier if it were handed to me.”

Which doesn’t mean everyone took the bait when Terry-Cobo did her own flier-ing last week. “I handed out between two and three dozen fliers, in the span of about 45 minutes,” she says. “And for every person that took the flier, there were four or five people who ignored me. And I was expecting that.” Then again, she points out: “Every two or three people you can get to engage makes up for the ten people who blow you off.”

Fliers certainly won’t have impact on the level of, say, a reporter’s appearance on local TV. Still, the core idea here — essentially, that the web is a means for a story, rather than its end point — is, in its way, scalable. Katches points to “Toxic Treats,” a story he oversaw several years ago while he was editor of the Orange County Register. The project, which traced unsafe lead levels in over 100 brands of candy, many of them made in Mexico, was an important piece of investigative journalism by any stretch — it was a 2005 Public Service Pulitzer finalist — but one plagued by a common symptom: The people most directly affected by its findings weren’t necessarily Register, or even newspaper, readers. “So we made a high-gloss, full-color poster, one side in English, the other side in Spanish,” Katches recalls. “And I’ll tell you: That was the enduring legacy of the project.”

For months after the series was published in the paper, Katches notes, “if not years after,” the posters remained hanging in libraries, medical centers, and similar gathering spots around Orange County — a “way to reach people who might not have read it in the paper.”

The flier strategy employs the same kind of logic: get readers, literally, where they are. And it’s also of a piece with the outlet’s fiscal goals. Though California Watch is a foundation-supported nonprofit, its plan for long-term financial stability involves individual reader support. For the outlet, then, “community engagement” isn’t merely a broad, buzzy goal; it’s a specific, and urgent, one. And reaching it will require a willingness to rethink not only editorial models, but distributive ones, as well. “I love the idea of trying to reach an audience in a different way,” Katches says. “And we’re going to try to think of other ways to do that.”

March 17 2010

17:43

PR Pros Use Twitter to Reinvigorate Brands, Engage in Conversation

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts operates luxury properties in countries all over the world, from the U.S. and Canada to Asia the Middle East and Africa. Aside from traditional promotions, one of the ways it connects with current, past and future guests is via its main Twitter account. Several accounts are also maintained by individual properties.

"We push out news and information; we think that's valuable," Mike Taylor, Fairmont's public relations manager, told the Hotel Marketing Strategies blog. "We include package and rate offers. We don't see Twitter primarily as a distribution tool. But if we have something that's a great deal we're going to let people know about it."

In terms of results, it has seen hotel occupancy rates rise after tweeting "online only" discounts, and it's been able to reach out and promote its brand.

"Twitter has introduced us to people we otherwise wouldn't have a relationship with," he said. "So it's sort of that global neighborhood concept where these people wouldn't have reached out to us or vice versa if we were not participating."

Other Twitter PR success stories include Comcast, Dell, JetBlue and Shaquille O'Neil. They have all reinvigorated their brands using the service. All are near becoming social media case study cliches.

Some in the hospitality industry take it one step further: The Roger Smith Hotel, for example, is connected to every corner of the social web. But its innovative use of Twitter is where it really shines. The New York City boutique hotel attracts travelers based on its regular -- and charming -- use of Twitter.

"I really found the genuine ability to connect with people valuable," Brian Simpson, the hotel's director of social hospitality, told Techipedia, "and we have continued to use this as just one of many pieces of the funnel hopefully driving people to be more involved with us outside of just booking a room."

These successes are well documented. However, many businesses, organizations and individuals have trouble converting the case studies of others into success for themselves. As it turns out, public relations thought-leaders suggest it's less about the tool itself and more about learning to adapt and adjust to the new medium.

Conversation is Key

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Maggie Fox, CEO of the Social Media Group, suggests Twitter has become the driving force of the news cycle.

Her company has been Ford's social media agency since 2007, and claims status as "one of the world's largest independent agencies."

"From a PR perspective, Twitter is the circulatory system of the news cycle," she said when asked if PR practitioners can use Twitter effectively if only checking once or twice a day. "It is a constantly churning stream of scoops, updates and perspectives generated by millions of users and mainstream media outlets. Twitter interaction advances the story in realtime, as you watch."

She said knowing about Twitter is one thing, but engaging in conversation is what is key. "Twitter [usage] patterns are different for different people," she said. "Some tweet every quarter hour, others, every day. Whatever suits your style and objectives, go with -- as long as it's regular and consistent. I think the point is you have to use the platform to know it; setting up a Twitter account and tweeting once six weeks ago is not using the platform."

Dave Fleet, a well known PR blogger and the account director at Thornley Fallis, a national Canadian PR firm, said it requires more than just becoming a proficient user of one tool like Twitter.

"If you're able to connect with people through Twitter then great, but you can also make great connections through in-person contact, over the phone, through other online tools or through any number of communications media," Fleet said.

Customization is Essential

Edelman Digital's Steve Rubel agrees with Fox and Fleet's assessment, suggesting "it really depends on the individual PR professional's focus."

Rubel said "customization is key" for both clients and PR pros adopting Twitter as a business communications tool.

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"Generally speaking, however, I believe that every PR professional needs some level of situational awareness about what is going on in a given community at a given time and will need to check into Twitter accordingly," he said. "In addition, those on the front lines will need to become increasingly visible online and offline -- including their client affiliations."

When asked how he advised clients to stay on top of the changes and evolution of Twitter, Rubel said, "I generally don't."

"There's way too much focus on the technology and tools," he said. "Instead I advise them to study audiences and trends and then identify tools that fit. Too many people start with the tools first. That's like buying paint before you have a floor plan."

Fleet said the same is true for PR pros.

"Most people don't need to stay on the bleeding edge of the latest tactical client," he said. "It's more important that they use the various social media tools effectively and strategically rather than looking for the next shiny object. With that said, part of our job as consultants is to stay on top of these tools, and to be able to recommend the best tools for our clients. So, part of that onus falls on us."

Ian Capstick is a progressive media consultant. He worked for a decade in Canadian politics supporting some of Canada's most charismatic leaders. He is passionate about creating social change through communications. Ian appears weekly on CBC TV's Power & Politics, weekly radio panels, and is regularly quoted online and off about the evolution of public relations in a connected world. He describes his small communications firm, MediaStyle.ca, as a blog with a consulting arm.

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