Publicist Rockstars: “Why You Should Under Promise and Over Deliver” with Nancy Thompson of Vorticom
Under Promise and Over Deliver — When you start out in public relations, you want to believe that every campaign will be a magical success. The truth is sometimes a campaign is like lightning in a bottle; it’s so magical you wish you could bottle it and repeat the success for everyone. However, more times than not, each and every placement will be arduous. It will happen if you plan, plot and consistently work to your visibility goals; but it won’t happen overnight. So, save yourself the emotional and intellectual trauma of not living up to your wildest expectations, and present a more modest, achievable outcome to your client.
As a part of my series about the things you need to know to excel in the modern PR industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Thompson. She began her public relations career at Pocket Books, the paperback division of Simon & Schuster. Hired as a temporary worker, the overburdened public relations team at Pocket Books asked Nancy to pitch in and write press releases for book launches. Thompson loved the work, excitement, and camaraderie surrounding successful book launches and was later hired to be a full-time member of the team. Alas, the wages paid to young publicists in the publishing world were meager. She moved onto the global agency world, ultimately as Executive Vice President at LobsenzStevens, Ogilvy Public Relations and GCI Group before starting her own agency, Vorticom, Inc., in 2003. In addition to being an Internet correspondent for CBS Up-to-the-Minute News in 1993, she also wrote four books on cyber-culture including the first book that explored the adult revolution happening online in the early ’90s and the best-selling net.talk (1994, Ziff Davis Publishing) which explained and categorized the acronyms and emoticons of the Internet era.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My first career was as a professional classical musician. I studied viola at Juilliard Pre-College and played professionally in the Filarmonica de las Americas symphony in Mexico City. However, I ultimately decided that I wanted to pursue a career outside of music. I had no idea what that would be so I ended up at a temp agency where they tested my keyboarding skills. Turns out typing 100 WPM is very marketable and I was able to decide what type of companies I wanted to work at. I love to read books so the publishing industry was appealing to me. It was fateful that I ended up in the public relations department.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
An entrepreneur approached me to publicize their adult content website, known as Whitehouse.com, which he wanted to sell. At the time, my son was in elementary school, and I had heard about young kids visiting this site thinking they were going to the official Whitehouse page. I asked the entrepreneur if he had any children. Turned out he had a young child too. America loves a moral tale of redemption so we rolled out a campaign highlighting how this client had become a parent, and no longer wanted to be involved in the adult content world and would not permit its sale to anyone in the adult entertainment industry. This news received international coverage in The New York Times, Associated Press, Fox News, etc. Dozens of people called offering to pay many millions of dollars for this domain name. While the entrepreneur opted not to sell, he kept his word on cleaning up the site, and it is now a political news site.
Entrepreneurial clients are more eager to take chances and be bold with their public relations campaigns. I was working with Pat Carroll on the launch of XPL Gum, a gum marketed to smokers that naturally worked to reduce the level of nicotine in your system. An ape overseas was gaining notoriety due to his smoking habit. I asked Pat if we could send a lifetime supply of XPL Gum to the ape and inform the press. The New York Daily News and Fox & Friends covered our antics.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was waiting for Robin Norwood, the best-selling author of Women Who Love Too Much to arrive at Simon & Schuster. I was drinking water when I spilled half the bottle all over my dress. The author was about to arrive and meet me for the first time wherein I was to accompany her to an interview. I panicked and went to my boss. She was calm and cool and said, ‘here’s my blow dryer, just use it to dry off the water.” Needless to say, that obviously worked. The lesson I learned is that there’s always a work-a-round to any issue, and it pays to stay calm, cool and collected at all times.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My mother died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease and, anyone who has any experience around this illness will tell you that there may be no more horrible fate. I’m proud to work with NervGen Pharma, which is working on a way to slow down this insidious disease with its compound, NVG-291, which is also being studied for spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis.
A “new Alzheimer treatment that could ‘take the brakes off the body’s repair systems’ allowing it to repair itself,” reports Forbes.com on NervGen Pharma’s proprietary technology platform which was created by Dr. Jerry Silver at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.
“The essence of our technology is that it takes the brakes off the body’s repair systems and allows the nervous system to repair itself,” said Bill Radvak, the company’s executive chairman and co-founder. “You can think of it as the body’s nervous system has a housekeeping function that is constantly at work, fixing bad connections with new ones and tidying up redundant ones.”
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously. When I started in public relations, I stressed out about reaching out to the media. Was the interview subject interesting enough? Had I captured enough unique merits to share? Sometimes, the only way to know the virtues of a pitch is to pitch. It’s OK not to hit every ball out of the ballpark. The more you pitch, the more you are able to trust your instincts.
It’s OK to Push Back. Back when it was on the air, it was not uncommon for clients to believe that they were destined to be on the Oprah show. There is a difference between pitching an A-list actress with a New York Times bestselling book vs. the CEO of a start-up company in the green energy sector to a show like Oprah. However, while a publicist, as well as the average guy on the street, recognizes this, a client may not. It’s OK to push back and clarify the objectives of various media outlets and what they are, and are not looking for.
Under Promise and Over Deliver — When you start out in public relations, you want to believe that every campaign will be a magical success. The truth is sometimes a campaign is like lightening in a bottle; it’s so magical you wish you could bottle it and repeat the success for everyone. However, more times than not, each and every placement will be arduous. It will happen if you plan, plot and consistently work to your visibility goals; but it won’t happen overnight. So, save yourself the emotional and intellectual trauma of not living up to your wildest expectations, and present a more modest, achievable outcome to your client.
Success Has Many Fathers; Failure is an Orphan — When a campaign is successful, everyone takes credit. Needless to say, a lackluster campaign lives a solitary existence. I’ve written bylined articles for literally dozens of executives. I’m proud to say that virtually every piece of thought-leadership I’ve written for clients (and I’ve written hundreds of articles) has appeared in major business and trade outlets. I’ve yet to draft an article I could not find an editorial home for. What’s funny, though, is I’ve had clients, in the past, who started to believe they actually wrote the articles. One former client called to say that their wife was so impressed with them, as they never knew they had any writing ability before!
Keep Learning — When I led the technology practice at Ogilvy PR and GCI Group, lower level executives were in charge of mastering the online media databases and other tactical technical issues. When I launched my own agency in 2003, I realized that I had to learn how to use these technology tools. Today, I can build a media list fast and I always look for new technology tools to master. Whether it is becoming skilled at Facebook advertising, understanding a new database tool, or reading a new book, take the time to slow down, learn and grow.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
I have found I’ve met the best new people from people I already know. Always look to extend your circle of influence by getting to know people that your friends and colleagues know. Get to truly know new people. Don’t talk about yourself but ask questions and listen. Making new contacts is like dating in some ways. Dates want to talk about themselves, and so do most human beings.
Don’t go in for the kill. There’s nothing less appealing than someone who asks for a job or tries to land someone as a client minutes upon first meeting. Let things play out and impress new people by being a genuine human being who cares about other people.
Use social media to expand your network. I have over 5,000 contacts on LinkedIn today which has grown organically since the platform first launched. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a new contact on LinkedIn to ask to include them into your network and be sure to include a short note reminding them where you met.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Every client Vorticom has in our roster has come by referral. These referrals are by current or past clients, or associates who were involved with that current or past client in a different capacity (such as investor relations, financing, etc.) When I led practices at the global PR agencies, we would frequently be part of new business pitches where we went against two to five other agencies. Running a smaller agency, it doesn’t make fiscal sense to be part of those types of pitches.
Doing great work is the best calling card. New clients come to us based on the quantifiable work they have seen us do.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, is a beautifully written, inspiring and terrifying story. It is a biography of World War II hero Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic track star who survived a plane crash and spent over a month drifting on a raft, and then survived several years as a prisoner of war in three vicious Japanese camps. You come away in awe of the human spirit and how Zamperini not only survived the worst that humanity has to offer, but that he thrived when he returned home. One’s own struggles in the PR world, or anywhere else for that matter, seem inconsequential in comparison, and Zamperini’s journey through the dark to the light is transformative.
Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Whether you are religious or not, let’s all follow the biblical rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Public relations professionals need to be kind to each other. I’ve seen too much backstabbing and cut-throat behavior in this industry. Undermining others doesn’t raise your rank, it only diminishes it.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.