March 29, 2021

Communications, PR Strategy
Masterclass Episode 11

In part 11 of our Masterclass Series on "Building a Strategic Marketing Plan for Your Business," The Five Echelon Group's Founder/CMO Eric Dickmann talks with entrepreneur and SOLID Managing Director - Tracy Russ about building an impactful PR and communications strategy.

Tracy Russ is an entrepreneur, CEO of Russ Communications Inc., and Managing Director of SOLID. He served as the Chief Marketing Officer for Charlotte in the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Here, Tracy was able to initiate and develop a highly successful "We Make It Possible" civic branding campaign over multiple platforms to market the city of Charlotte and the state of North Carolina to more than 35,000 media, delegates, and visitors. His campaign was able to gather a total market value budget of more than $5 million. Russ also previously served as an executive director for Crossroads Charlotte, where he led in connecting people and organizations to drive significant change in the community. In the duration of Russ' career, he has served as board and director for many NGOs and companies in the state, including- ONQ Productions,, A Contemporary Museum of Photography and Film, and Impact Fund of Foundation For the Carolinas. 


Getting Publicity Through a PR and Communications Strategy

One of the primary purposes of any marketing strategy is to build the awareness in your company, brand, products, and services. Most marketing tactics are designed to get the attention of prospects and help move them through their buyer's journey. It's also true that marketing is a cost center. Companies need to spend money to make money and marketing can quickly chew up budget dollars. But that doesn't mean everything is costly, requiring large expenditures.

One of the most overlooked marketing tactics is building a Public Relations (PR) and Communications strategy to build awareness through earned media coverage. This can happen when you build connections with reporters, influencers, analysts, or authors. Tracy Russ defines earned media as media and awareness your business gets from stories. These are not paid opportunities or advertising, but engaging with the media and helping them to help you! Once they are interested, you can engage them in a dialog for an interesting story or provide support for content they may already be creating. 

The mistake too many businesses make is that they push out company or product centric information and expect journalists to write stories about it. The truth is, very rarely do press releases talking about new products, features, sales wins, or management changes provide anything of value for journalists to write about. Sure, Apple fans wait with baited breath for each new product or feature that company releases. But they are unique and most businesses shouldn't expect the same level of a attention. Instead, the focus of your communications strategy needs to be about supporting content creators in their roles and assignments. If you can add value to what they do, they in turn will be more likely to include your information in the content they produce.

Tracy shares that it is important to choose the right journalists that are most likely to be interested in your messages and, as much as possible, build a relationship with them before approaching them with a story angle. Then, there's some built-in credibility, and they're going to be more inclined to listen to what you have to say. Earned media should be seen as a long-term strategy rather than a one-time tactic or a crisis response option. You really want to build those relationships early to establish the best chance to get media coverage as part of a successful outreach and communication strategy. 

Top Communications Strategy Challenges

The Common Mistake of Businesses in Their PR Strategy

Many companies have a PR strategy of issuing four to five-paragraph-long press releases about their latest product or service launch or new partnership with a particular company. They sit back and wait for journalists to call them and write about whatever new things they've pushed out on PR Newswire. Unfortunately, this kind of PR strategy is ineffective and most certainly doomed to fail. Tracy Russ points out that one of the many reasons this strategy won't work is because journalists get inundated with story pitches, press releases, and outreach all the time.  They're very good at discerning which ones might be of genuine interest to their readers, and which ones may not have the sufficient amount of credibility and a WOW factor. This is another reason why businesses should start building strong relationships before you begin sending out pitches to the media. Try to create specially tailored conversations with the journalists and understand what kind of content each might be seeking for their audience. Understand where they post content, view some of the publications and collaborations they had in the past, and what type of stories they seem to gravitate towards. 

 Content Harmony lists the eight reasons why journalists are the best content writers:

  1. They are formally trained
  2. Journalists are inquisitive
  3. They turn out to be fantastic storytellers
  4. Journalists write from a neutral, not salesy standpoint
  5. They are excellent at in-depth research and interviews
  6. Journalists meet deadlines
  7. They are influential
  8. Many journalists are freelance and easy to reach

How to Strengthen Relationship With Journalists

Building relationships with journalists and writers takes time. One approach to strengthening those relationships is by contributing content of value and demonstrating that you can be a reliable source of information on specific topical areas. At some, those efforts may pay off when you receive a text or email from that journalist reaching out because they now recognize you as a subject matter expert in a particular area. Tracy points out that you know you've made a great connection, and you have the beginnings of a great relationship when your phone rings or an email pops up, and it's a journalist reaching out saying- "Hey, I know you're a subject matter expert on this topic and wanted to get your thoughts." Moving forward, if you can continually be a great resource to them, they will keep coming back and you've opened the door to more earned media opportunities. 

Tracy Russ

It may take some time to connect especially with national experts, and may take a great deal of time, But that's, you know, all the more reason to start earlier rather than later."

When you are a small company without a great deal of brand recognition, it might be a little hard to engage with top-tier journalists. The truth is you don't always have to aim for the big names; you can always start at a lower level and significantly increase your chances of success from there. Focus on specialty publications, local business journals, or specialty shows tied closely to your niche in the marketplace. Then work on building your credibility with these journalists. 

It's important to also keep in mind that a company is not a person; it's an entity. It's important to develop personalities within your organization and have dedicated people trained as spokesman. Maybe it's the CEO, the founder, the CMO, or somebody outgoing that is designated to become the face of the company. Often times, employees from the product development team, marketing team or other subject matter experts are the best candidates to be faces of your brand as part of a communications strategy. Tracy adds that a great personality within an organization that serves as the face and the voice of an organization is a wonderful gift. Business owners should learn how to leverage the communications skills of these highly personable employees. 

Steps in Enhancing Your Media Strategy

Tracy shares the three steps on how to enhance your media and communications strategy:

  1. Plan for significant events- Be mindful of significant events during the course of the year and incorporate them into your communications strategy. Product launches, new releases, events, or other potential newsmaking activities are great opportunities to work with the press to try and get coverage. Understanding what's ahead on the calendar helps sharpen the focus as to which target media outlets might be the best candidates for coverage. When the time comes, hopefully you've already built the needed relationships and the journalists will be willing to hear your pitch.
  2. Starting early is key- Devote resources to this effort and identify whether that's an internal or external person or agency. If you need to engage an outside support agency, take some time to find the right agency partner that understands your needs and is willing to work with you to help develop an overall strategy. Many agencies are specialists in specific areas of business and may already have strong relationships. Finding the right agency partner can really boost your efforts if they've already got an in.
  3. Simplify your messaging- Getting the most from earned media meaning taking the time to plan, build relationships, and deliver a message that resonates. Sure, your company's product or service is the great thing since sliced bread. We get it, but that's probably not what the journalist is going to write. Instead of creating a bunch of corporate speak or product heavy messages, work on building story pitches that are more fit for engaging an audience such as customer case studies, research, true innovations, market insights, etc. 

How a Company's Story Can Impact a PR Strategy

A critical element in building out a PR and communications strategy and plan is picking up opportunities to humanize and add layers and textures of the story you're presenting to your customers about your product or service. Every journalist in the world expects you to talk about your product or the service but what your company is doing to reach your market and influence others would be a better way to stand out. According to Tracy, customers often care about social conscience and moral direction in addition to the product or service. The reality is that customers are often drawn to companies with a mission outside of their bottom line. The more you can provide illustrative examples of how that's happening in the real world, the better and more likely you're going to get attention and traction. 

10 Important Ways to Upgrade Your PR Strategy

Russ reminds us that our words and actions don't have to be boastful. However, you don't have to be shy about sharing real and inspiring stories with genuine messages. Keep in mind that people are able to sniff out what's real and what isn't. This is why it's crucial for you to tell an authentic story, including all facets of it. Virtual Speech shares how storytelling can help a PR and communications strategy:

  • Storytelling offers an avenue for business development
  • Storytelling strengthens your communications strategy and gives you a competitive advantage
  • It increases the attention of your audience and increases their understanding 
  • It is a way to market and advertise your brand
  • Increases employee efficiency and engagement
  • It plays a large role in your customer's decision making
  • Humanizes your brand and significantly increases your profit
  • Unconsciously transfers your company's beliefs and values to the customers
  • Emotionally connects people and creates a bond of loyalty
  • Storytelling is memorable
  • Stories create purpose and drive real action

Live Stream Replay

Tracy Russ

Guest Presenter: Tracy Russ

Tracy Russ is an entrepreneur, CEO of Russ Communications Inc., and Managing Director of SOLID. He served as the Chief Marketing Officer for Charlotte in the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Tracy has served as board and director for many NGOs and companies in the state, including- ONQ Productions,, A Contemporary Museum of Photography and Film, and Impact Fund of Foundation For the Carolinas. He is experienced in strategic communications, public relations, marketing, community relations, and civic leadership. 

Eric Dickmann

About the author

Eric Dickmann is the Founder / CMO of The Five Echelon Group, host of the weekly podcast "The Virtual CMO" and YouTube series "Work-Life" and a fractional CMO for a variety of small and midsize companies. An executive leader with over 30 years of experience in marketing, product development, and digital transformation, he has worked with large, global companies and small startups to develop and execute marketing strategies to bring innovative products to the market.

Follow Us


Sign up for the latest podcast news!


The Virtual CMO podcast is hosted on Buzzsprout!

Podcast hosting and a whole lot more! Buzzsprout has helped over 100,000 people start their own podcast. It is the easiest way to host, promote, and track your podcast. I love it and highly recommend it to anyone thinking of starting a podcast.

Interested in learning more? Click the button below to save $20 and also help support our show!