The Art Of The PR Pivot: Fitness Titan Kathy Smith

Here’s a PR challenge that applies to serial entrepreneurs and every executive with a high-level brand: How do you stay relevant through the changing phases of industry and decades of time?

This is the discussion I had with Kathy Smith, the iconic fitness expert whose entrepreneurial career has changed shape more times than the fitness industry has changed fads. In all, while fitness enthusiasts can reminisce about Jane Fonda, legwarmers, VHS videos, Thigh Masters, Buns of Steel, kettle bells, yoga and CrossFit, it is interesting to note that Smith’s career and brand, perhaps to a degree no other fitness professional can match, has spanned more than 30 years.

Kathy Smith’s personal brand as a fitness icon has spanned 30 years (Image courtesy of

How does this happen? From videos to books, DVDS to a partnership with BeachBody, a new performance monitor, weekly podcasts (guests include Dr. Mercola, Dave Asprey, etc.) and an all-in-one app, Smith has managed to stay relevant and in demand through every flavor-of-the-month in fitness and every new fitness technology trend.

“You have to look into the future,” she says. Unfortunately, for many of her contemporaries, fitness personalities have branded themselves so heavily around one technology or idea — VHS workouts, weighted fluidity bars, boxing, spinning, Callanetics (isometrics), Dancing to the Oldies (Kathy admits that she adores Richard Simmons), the Gazelle, Prancercise (yes, it’s a thing), that when the craze is over the fitness personality, along with the fad or idea, is done.

In the case of technology, fitness entrepreneurs have been so enamored of their short-term success they have often failed to forecast the future of an industry that has made seismic shifts every 5–10 years. For example, Smith notes that she recorded four fitness albums as audio records that people could exercise to.

“Each of the first sold close to a million, but by the time I got to the fourth we hardly sold any,” she said. “The technology had been replaced. And if you weren’t ready for it…” The same thing happened to VHS after DVDs came along and to DVDs after downloadable streaming.

Organizations that made millions of dollars on DVDs, or on a piece of equipment have been slow to invest in the research and development of what will work next until they’ve pressed an extra few hundred thousand albums or video tapes “destined to land in the dollar bucket at T.J. Maxx ,” she observes, laughing.

Long-term relevance requires value-add

“To stay relevant, you’ve got to have something to talk about,” Smith maintains. “Four months is a century ago.” For example, Smith learned early on when she went to NY to speak with reporters each year to come prepared with things to talk about as opposed to passively waiting to answer their questions. “I was always ready with a trend, and idea, something that might not have anything to do with me, but that would provide value to the reporter as an ongoing source.”

“Good PR is cumulative,” she observes. “The one-off press hits are fine and good, but cumulative coverage — an initial story followed by five mentions in five other stories — that comes from being involved in different aspects of business beyond your own product you’re pushing or you’re particular niche.”

Thought leadership at work. For Smith, the concept was intuitive. Over the years she’s worked with a number PR people — some who’ve been great — but the hardest challenge for a person with an iconic brand is the PR people who are territorial and protective — stick to this message, this outlet, be sure you mention this product or promotion in every media hit.

But Smith became proficient at bridging her marketing message to any number of stories — love of the outdoors, a hot new class in NYC — “I don’t think this diminished me whatsoever to talk inclusively about other topics and people. In fact it helped to sustain the relevance of my own fitness brand.”

Stay away from the competitive fray

As fitness personalities ebb and flow, one of the biggest lessons Smith has followed has been to avoid the goading to badmouth other programs and people. “It seems like every reporter is pushing for something negative.” Smith would find something genuine and positive to say to turn the question around.

About CrossFit, for example: “As much as CrossFit has its detractors, it’s built a community of like-minded individuals and is one of the best no-nonsense franchises helping to popularize the concept of strong being the new skinny.”

“People should remember that what they say to a reporter will be put in print and will live with you forever,” she says.

Media training is worth every investment you make

Take every opportunity as a spokesperson to learn and practice the ability to think on your feet, to turn a negative question around, to stay gracious and relevant and to avoid turning into an infomercial — (I call it the fire hose affect, when a spokesperson uses every opening as an opportunity to flood the airwaves with a torrent of words. Like a hose, the gushing message pushes listeners further away.)

But learn to forgive your mistakes

Has she ever had a bad PR experience? Smith recalls a KTLA segment in L.A. in which the show had gone to a commercial, and as she chatted with the backup people and host she failed to realize the program had come back on the air.

The stage presence and vocal register she’d have used on a broadcast program had devolved to the hanging and grooving mode of conversation she might have had with a friend. Then she realized the time was gone and the segment was over. “How did I manage to blow that?” she laughs, recalling the walk of shame back to the green room to assess what she’d done.

“Bad press” to Kathy Smith has primarily involved the times a DVD wasn’t reviewed in the way she’d have hoped, or people asked her about competitors and then took the response out of context, hoping to draw out a feud. But she does recall with pride the day Vogue Magazine said “Step aside Jane Fonda — Kathy Smith is the fitness expert to follow.”

Sensitivity counts

Don’t use a personal hardship to market a product. For an entrepreneur in the media, it’s inevitable that life happens. But Smith has carefully avoided allowing her personal situations to intermix with her public persona.

For example, she happened to be preparing a heart health kit and was set for an interview with Dr. Kathy Magliato cardio thoracic surgeon and author of “Heart Matters,” which was the basis of the television show “Heartbeat.” Smith’s own sister, two years older, had a heart attack and passed away just this Spring. It was natural to share this information, and by nature she is open about situations that can raise awareness of a critical issue, but she is cautious not to let the tragedy of situations such as her sister’s death (or the history of heart disease in her family) to become intertwined in the marketing of products.

Similarly she has lived experiences that could have made for big time headlines and stories. But thinking about reputation, family, and also the impact a salacious story would have on her children (Smith has two adult daughters, Kate and Perrie) she has left those stories alone, as yet another strong facet of an enduring personal and company brand.

Smith’s daughter Kate Grace, a surprise win in the 800-meter Rio Olympic trials (Getty Images: Patrick Smith)

A strong brand can span generations

Here’s a personal story Smith does not mind re-telling — her older daughter, Kate Grace, age 27, successfully qualified for the Rio Olympics 800 meter team last month (July, 2016) by winning the 800-meter race with a personal best time of 1:59:10, despite training struggles that have persisted through her years of collegiate track (she is a graduate of Yale) including plantar fasciitis and a difficult-to-diagnose tendon tear in one of her toes.

Coaches had cautioned Kate to bow out of the 800-meter race to save her strength for the 1500-meter race in which she was favored to win. In a style that very much mirrors the resolve of her mother, she went with her instincts and entered both, leading to her stunning victory and a guaranteed Olympic team berth.

Perhaps every goal worth achieving involves at least some degree of risk, hard work, intuition and pain. But to those who persist to the end, the rewards can be stunning.

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