5 Questions for Meg McAllister [INTERVIEW]
In the run up to BookMachine New York, we’re running a set of interviews with publishing professionals connected to the City, with an interesting story to tell.
Meg McAllister has over 20-years of public relations and brand promotion experience in the US, Canada and the UK, with an impressive list of clients including Random House, Harper Collins and Warner Brothers, her agency is renowned for working with some of the industries biggest names.
1. How has the nature of PR and communications changed over the past few years?
There are so many changes, but I think the most relevant have been the introduction of social media as a primary PR tool, and how the growth of that medium has impacted how PRs think and and behave. In many cases social media has surpassed traditional media in terms of influence when promoting a new book or product to the consumer audience. Getting a review in The Times or USA Today is still major, but it doesn’t outweigh the need for a strong online media presence too. That’s altered the way PRs have to think as well (for the better in my opinion); less flash more substance, less hype more genuine conversation.
2. Working across different countries must pose a number of challenges; what has this taught you?
I’ve seen it less as a challenge and more as an education in the subtle cultural differences between countries in terms of promotion. For instance, in the US where there is SO much noise, public relations still relies heavily on breaking through by associating a product or brand with a major event or high-profile spokesperson. But in Canada, where there is less brand selection (though it’s growing all the time), consumers are more discerning and want facts and information more than gloss and glam. And in European countries you see an amazing sophistication in terms of social mores, far greater than that of North America which can still be quite provincial. Don’t get me wrong countries like the UK still have a strong conservative faction, but the public reaction to issues of everyday life — gender and sexuality, religion, etc. — is much more humanistic and “live and let live” than it is in the US or Canada. North America likes to think itself über sophisticated, but in terms of public relations there is still an overwhelming sense of not offending the middle American (or middle Canadian) sensibilities. Let’s it put it this way, newspapers with page 3 girls, or public transport with ads advocating LGBT tolerance wouldn’t fly in the heartlands of North America; the corn fields of Iowa or the fishing villages of Nova Scotia. Things like the easy and open acceptance of sexuality and nudity, or the common use of strong language, which Europeans take in stride, are still things largely relegated to cable tv and a smattering of magazines in the US and Canada.
3. What advice would you give to anyone looking to break into PR?
Be as broad-based as you can in terms of knowledge; knowing a little bit about a lot of different subjects will often get you further than having a wealth of expertise in just one subject can. Absorb a wide and varied range of media each day, I start my day with a cup of coffee, channel surfing the local and national (and international via BBC) morning news programming, while skimming a large number of publications online…from the publishing trades, to the Huffington Post, to the Guardian, and People.com, Gawker, and Mediabistro. I also keep my Twitter feed rolling in the background on my computer screen and click on article links recommended by my tweeps throughout the day. And on weekends (or airplanes) I still love to read traditional media sources (newspapers and magazines) the old fashioned way — by turning the pages. And finally, PR people always need to remain a student of the media and what they’re covering. You shouldn’t be pitching an outlet if you haven’t read, watched or listened to it recently, and you should always check out the last few articles written or stories covered by a journalist before pitching them your topic.
4. In your experience, what can publishers do more of to accelerate their own PR?
Publishers need to stay abreast of the ever-increasing sources for online promotion. Staying relevant with their own social media platform, as well as helping authors (many of whom are newbies to the medium) establish a foundation for their own social media presence. Contacts at online media outlets need to be developed and cultivated with the same focus and respect that traditional media book reviewers and national television producers have always been given. And publishers need to work harder to engage and build relationships direct with readers via social media rather than looking to the media (online or traditional) to act as the main or sole conduit to promotion. People are talking online, publishers need to become part of those conversations and start more of their own.
5) Any personal predictions for future changes to the nature of PR and publishing?
In terms of PR, I think the emphasis on transparency will continue to be majorly important. It’s not just a marketing buzz word, it’s a reality, and failing to respect it can and will damage PRs (and the the clients’) reputation in the blink of an eye. As for publishers, they need to accept and really understand that it’s not just about selling books anymore, it’s about providing multimedia content. They can no longer sit back and wait for news to happen, they have to create the news themselves.