I had an interesting visit this week with my friend Dr. David Gruder, a psychologist and author who specializes in leader effectiveness, business culture and integrity. I was bemoaning the audacity of a PR pitch from a person we know. “It sounds like Power and Authority Shadow issues,” he said. “Clueless, but at the present, unteachable.”
It’s common enough he even has a name for this condition that can afflict the boldest entrepreneurs: New Age Denial. It comes about when an individual combines bravado with misuses of positive thinking to “write their own rules of engagement,” Gruder explains, as opposed to right-matching their hopes with the boundaries of the organization or visibility platform they hope to engage. This started my wheels spinning as I realize how frequently this condition occurs in PR. For example, consider this pitch:
“The last time we spoke you were interested in writing a story about me. So I’m giving you first notice of my intentions.” And then, “I would also like to write for Forbes as a contributor… my professors are impressed with my writing and have acknowledged that it is indeed a gift, however they have also insisted that I seek out the opportunity to have my own column in the New York Times, Forbes, Entrepreneur or another publication where peers can validate my writing gift on a professional level.”
Yes, I remembered her clearly. She’d called my cellphone two years earlier on New Year’s Day to announce, “Today is my birthday, and my gift to myself is that you are going to profile me in Forbes.” Taken aback at the unbidden call on a holiday, I explained that beyond the need to stick to my assignment of public relations, any story would need to be framed with the interests and needs of readers in mind, not to answer her desire to be profiled. So what in her experience would be of value for others to know? She didn’t hesitate: “They should be inspired by what I have done.”
While this person had an impressive story of rising up from the ashes and a genuine desire to help others, her agenda was clear: self promotion. I suggested that when she had a business actually started and applicable experiences that others could learn from, perhaps we could visit again. Two years later she was back, still locked into the idea of being profiled and with an even bigger ask—that I somehow make her a fellow contributing writer as well.
I ignored her email. Then the voicemails began. Finally I responded. “Yes, I remember you. But unfortunately, my response today is the same one I gave you then. Any message you’d like me to share would need to be 1) about public relations, and 2) geared to the benefit of others. And I am not in a position to “make you a writer for Forbes.” She responded angrily that she will “find another way in.”
As stunning as this story may seem, it is far from rare. A young man from India sent so many messages I finally blocked him—“I know you asked me not to contact you, but I couldn’t resist—do you have any good news about me being mentioned in Forbes?” Another had paid money for an unscrupulous writer to promote him in Huffington Post. (To be clear, asking for or accepting payment or compensation of any kind in exchange for editorial coverage is strictly forbidden by contributor rules. In this case, the writer had told the gentleman he was seeking compensation for his writing services only, and that posting the piece in the publication was free. Presumably his publishing privileges are now gone.) After sharing the article widely on social media, the source was mortified when the publication (of course) pulled the article down. So he approached me on Facebook Messenger at 11:00 p.m.
“I need you to write a ‘soft’ article about me right now!” he declared. Yes, we were Facebook friends through connections in common, but I did not know him. “I will pay whatever it costs,” he declared. “And if you won’t do it, who will? This needs to happen immediately.” I declined. Then I blocked him. Once again, a self promotion agenda denied.
New Age Denial—What it is; What it’s Not. It is important to note that New Age Denial is a different thing entirely than having the boldness to “ask.” For example, some of the finest hours in my early public relations career occurred when I marshalled the courage to ask editors in chief of top magazines if they would come to speak at a client conference or a regional event. In many cases they were delighted to do so and even honored, which I’d have never known if I hadn’t gathered the courage to ask.
But smart “asking” requires respect. Do the homework to determine what constitutes a great story for the writer in mind. Don’t ever pitch an individual without reading and really absorbing at least a piece or two of their prior work. Ask with the respect for the individual’s right to say “yes” or “no.” If there’s interest, determine how you, not they can do the additional homework and preparation to see what it might take to bring the answer to “yes.”
“So watch these five [hour long] videos and you’ll figure it out.” (Wrong.) “Now we’ll need an appointment for you with Mr. [Source’s] admin to go over the questions in advance that you’re proposing to ask.” (No, we won’t.) Here again, New Age Denial can cause a confident, positive-thinking entrepreneur to take a concept too far: After including information from a particular source it is dismaying to a writer to be plied with new ideas and messages that presume you and the writer are now “partners.” In extreme cases I’ve been presented with promotional stories individuals have written about themselves in third person “to save you time, by writing it for you.” There is no surer way to bring your PR desires to a halt.
While I had never consciously realized it, after having collaborated with Dr. Gruder on numerous stories over the past several years, he shared his own approach to pitching story ideas to me. In most cases, they’ve arisen organically over the course of a conversation, as this one did.
He noted that I’ve expressed only mild interest or even no interest in some of the ideas he’s proposed in the past. I hadn’t noticed. But as a seasoned professional, he never argued or pressed. In a case like this, my interest was piqued because the situation just happened. I wanted his expertise. Now I was pitching him to share more of his knowledge with me, both because it interests me and because I’d like to share it with others.
What a savvy approach to PR. And knowing the psychology to his method does not offend me in the least. In fact, I’m even more likely to reach out to Gruder (and others like him) as an expert source again and again. How much better is this for a visibility agenda than messaging an unknown writer and 1) feigning friendship, 2) offering payment, or 3) demanding to be profiled? The sharing of genuine education, derived from good experience and bad, is a value-add that lives on long after the shallow words of a profile are gone.