Porter Novelli

sxsw 2016I’ve always dreamed about going to Austin for SXSW. In my 20s, in my 30s, and (gulp) in my 40s. But it never worked out. Whether it was work, spring break, Passover, my birthday (March 19th) or some other conflict, SXSW existed as some mythical event in central Texas that I’d have to continue to read about online.

All that changed last week, as I was fortunate enough to head down to Austin for SXSW to pack a lot of learning and living into three days. I’m a self-professed pop culture/music geek, so after arriving at the convention center, I felt like my head was on a swivel. Where should I go first? Are there really 47 different bands and panels taking place simultaneously? Do I have to eat bbq for every meal?

From what I could tell, it looked like SXSW had collectively taken a slight exhale, as Interactive was shutting down and music was ramping up. So after seeing a few bands at the KCRW showcase and ingesting said BBQ, I settled in for a panel on public relations in the music space. There were bands, publicists, label reps, agency people and college students in attendance – and the challenge was how can bands who are just starting out get press for themselves.

The panel was made up of a reporter and a few writers/music PR people and there was lively debate around the challenges bands face in an extremely crowded space. But for me, the panel also doubled as an introduction to PR 101. How to pitch, how to follow-up, how to be creative, how to not take things personally when a reporter doesn’t respond – it was all discussed. The reporter on the panel mentioned that he gets 250-300 pitches a day, and he barely reads any of them due to time constraints. And the publicists and agency people also mentioned that in this day and age, emails and electronic outreach has turned into white noise. It’s really tough to differentiate yourself in 2016.

So what was the solution? For me, it felt like I was hopping into a time machine and going back to the start of my career. Creative mailers. Press kits. Something that will catch a reporter’s attention. One person on the panel told a story about sending a reporter a t-shirt with a pitch note written in lipstick. I chuckled to myself. Everything that was deemed ineffective since you can now reach reporters via email or twitter was now back in vogue. Back in the day, we used to rack our brains on how to come up with a fun mailer to differentiate our client from the standard press kits – about 15 years ago I even helped produce a talking press kit!

Things become clichés because they are true. What echoed in my mind throughout most of this panel was “everything that’s old is new again.” And in media relations, it seems to be true. There really is so much static and white noise – not just in the music industry, but in all media. Obviously, news carries the story, but if you’re in the consumer space, you do need to revert to some tried and true tactics that PR professionals from the 80s and 90s used to help their clients.

It was refreshing to see the panel (which was made up of younger people) acknowledge that media relations as it stands today is hard – it’s hard because our attention spans have shortened, outlets continue to scale back and content becomes news. But there is still a place for creativity; smart, targeted media relations and sending a reporter a pitch that requires a little elbow grease and effort.

I look forward to returning to SXSW now that I am no longer a rookie. I was fortunate enough to meets some great people, make some great connections and enjoy all that Austin had to offer (a special shout out to the breakfast tacos at Tacodeli!).