“How did you do it?”
I’ve been asked that question many times since starting Favela Experience in reference to how the business earned such widespread press coverage. In the eyes of many, our features in Forbes, The New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and other international media outlets were our greatest point of success.
Most importantly, this achievement didn’t take any magic, special connections, or spending money. To the contrary, I even coordinated this press and gave Skype interviews from my dungeon-like favela apartment often without putting on pants. If I can do it, so can you.
In comparison to my early desperation for PR (so much so that I did this), by the end of the FIFA World Cup I’d learned a great deal about getting media coverage. The key is straightforward but not easy, and if I could distill it in two words, it’s this:
That might sound as us unhelpful as telling a short person to be tall; yet, newsworthiness consists of two important parts, that when combined, are potent bait for journalists. Nonetheless, to truly understand what subjects the media will report on requires empathizing with the people who run the news business. And “Business” is the operative word because if you don’t recognize the profit motive behind media organizations, then you’ll be forever mystified about why TechCrunch isn’t begging for quotes on your new “way better than Tinder” dating app.
You already know this, but media organizations mostly make their money from advertising revenue. Moreover, advertisers show their ads on blogs, TV, and newspapers because they expect the ads will make them a lot more money than the cost of the ads. In order for them to profit, advertisers typically need as many media viewers as possible to see or hear their ads.
No matter how effective the ad, if media outlets have too few viewers or listeners, then advertisers won’t even consider spending their advertising budgets with those media companies.
Be (Strongly) Emotional
Now, how do media companies (especially those intended for mass audiences) get us to read, watch, and listen? It’s simple: they appeal to our emotions. Not just any emotions–fear, lust, disgust, and intrigue are all some of the strongest ones. Journalists know this, so they’re deliberate in choosing emotional stories.
Look at the most-viewed articles on any mainstream news site, and from the headlines alone you’ll likely be able to pinpoint at least one of those emotions summoning you to click. In its most blatant form, the “sweeps week” phenomenon, by which otherwise-orthodox media covers particularly salacious stories, shows how powerful emotions drive the news.
For Favela Experience, the newsworthy emotions elicited by press pieces about us were fear and disgust. First, stereotypes about drugs and violence in favelas cause the public to (undeservedly) fear favelas, and the idea of unsuspecting tourists staying in favela homes only exacerbates this fright. Furthermore, hyperbolic representations of favelas as “squalid slums” provokes hygienic disgust, and presumptions about a rich kid from Beverly Hills taking advantage or poor favela host families induce moral outrage.
Of course, I wish I could say we were so successful with PR because our story incited fascination and inspiration, but I know it was mostly the negative emotions that led reporters to eventually beg me for interviews. If you’re unsure of that, then next time you turn on the nightly news, notice how most stories focus on disaster, war, crime, and scandal, rather than humanitarianism, peace, selfless acts, and societal advancements.
Ultimately, I encourage those aspiring for PR to make themselves controversial, as long as you’re okay with the press and public demonizing you (as was what happened to me). Breaking social norms and pissing off people (especially the ones whose opinions don’t matter to you) is an excellent tactic to get into the news.
The other component of newsworthiness is relevance to context. The media cover certain themes at certain times, so fitting one of those themes and then “being in the right place at the right time” can make your story worthwhile.
In the case of Favela Experience, our story was always strongly emotional, but it wasn’t relevant to the mainstream until the public began to think about the World Cup. That didn’t happen until about six months before the tournament, particularly around the Dec. 6, 2013 draw event determining which teams would play in which host cities. Fittingly, the media only really began to approach me then, their requests reaching a fever pitch in May and June of last year. As incredible as it would’ve been to me before, at that point I actually had to turn away many journalists.
Also important to realize is that the World Cup is a recurring event (every four years) with a pretty predictable media coverage timeline. PR seekers can look at other similarly recurring events to determine when their stories will be most relevant.
How Will the Media Find Me?
Prior to getting lucky, I tried different tactics with journalists to varying degrees of success. Had I never sought out press, the media still probably would’ve found me based on the fact that Favela Experience had a searchable web presence, and the journalists knew people who would’ve referred them to me. Regardless, I still advocate “pitching” journalists because this can speed up the process, even though I don’t have specific recommendations on how to do so.
I attempted cold calls, emails, and Tweets in addition to warm introductions (by searching LinkedIn for who had connections at my target media outlets), but since no single method worked better than the others, I suggest experimenting with all of them. To illustrate the unique paths that led to PR, I’m summarizing the chain of events for some of our notable press features:
LAN (the Latin American airline) blog – While LAN’s blog doesn’t have an immense readership, this piece is worth mentioning because it was the only press we paid for, splitting with our partner Favela Adventures the ~$300 cost of comping the writer’s flight, transportation, accommodation, activities, and food. After a friend told me about him, I cold emailed this journalist because he’s also one of the writers of the Lonely Planet travel guide for Brazil. Forgetting he never replied, I saw he Tweeted an article from Rio’s English news site (coincidentally written by one our customers) that mentioned us. I immediately Tweeted back, and shortly thereafter we arranged a weekend-long visit. An added bonus was that the writer later recommended us in Lonely Planet’s 2014 World Cup guide.
Forbes – I read a Forbes profile about my former employer and noticed the writer’s (actually a contributor–see the section below) beat included for-profit social enterprise, so I figured I’d pitch her. I found her personal website listing her cell number and then called and left a voice message. She quickly returned my call but seemed rushed and disinterested, asking that I follow-up with her by email. I did, but only a week later did she respond asking for a Skype interview. The interview was over an hour, but she quickly published the article entirely about me and my business.
The New York Times video and article – Before I moved to Brazil, a mentor introduced me to a journalist friend living in Rio whom I met shortly after arriving in Brazil to run Favela Experience full-time. That woman told me to contact a fixer (a sort of liaison) for international journalists in the country, but that particular fixer didn’t contact me until many months later. At that point working with The New York Times, she contacted me to arrange an in-person visit by an entire multimedia crew.
CNN article – Though I don’t remember if they’d found us from The New York Times pieces, they emailed me to write an article and shoot video. After this was published, many other international media outlets contacted me citing CNN’s coverage, showing how one feature can spiral into many.
The Wall Street Journal video – Without me seeking them out, journalists and producers from The Wall Street Journal arranged an in-person interview for a video piece shortly before the World Cup.
A Shortcut to Forbes and The Huffington Post–”The Contributor Network”
If you want PR for the purpose of credibility (but aren’t so concerned with mass awareness), then consider pitching Forbes and The Huffington Post. Both of these along with other sites’ business models leverage “contributor networks,” legions of writers often without journalism backgrounds who end up writing for free or close to it. These denominated contributors are separate from the regularly paid staff journalists and freelancers whose work is generally more prominently displayed in the publication. Alongside the article author’s name, you can usually see if he or she is a contributor.
If you didn’t realize that crucial difference in author classification last time you read Forbes, then you’re like 99% of the population. At least for now, you can use this general ignorance to your advantage!
I estimate there are over 10 times as many contributors as paid staff, and you’d be surprised at how unremarkable you have to be to be a contributor for Forbes or HuffPo. After hearing horror stories from a friend who works at Forbes and seeing some embarrassingly bad pieces in HuffPo, I know the bar is low to become a contributor.
Most important is that, in general, you can far more easily get a positive response from a contributor than a staff journalist. When pitching, just remember the motivations of contributors might not match staff–they could be out for self-promotion or résumé padding.
Nevertheless, when the article is published, you’ll still get to brag to everyone, at least the ignorant 99%, that you were featured in Forbes, The Huffington Post, or any other of the myriad publications that use contributor networks.