How To Make PR Work For You

Sam Dingman, Photo Courtesy of Shark Party Media
Sam Dingman, Photo Courtesy of Shark Party Media

Rewards await for those who think beyond social sharing.

Amy Westervelt pulls double duty as the founder of the podcast network Critical Frequency and the host of its flagship show, Drilled. Despite the impressive amount of responsibility, she recognizes that she’s not always the best advocate for her work.

“I am not great at self-promotion,” she says. “I feel braggy just stating positive facts about the show, so I really needed someone who could do that on our behalf. Time is definitely an issue, too.”

As Drilled set to launch its third season, Westervelt wanted to build on the success of the first two by broadening the reach of her critically acclaimed investigation into climate denial.

“We felt like we’d reached enough of the choir, people who care about climate change, and needed help reaching beyond. The whole reason we spend so much time reporting Drilled and storyboarding it to land on seasons that are narratively interesting is to create a show that’s entertaining whether you care about or get climate or not. But we weren’t always reaching listeners in that camp.”

Westervelt decided to bring in a public relations firm, and she’s not alone. As the industry continues its rapid expansion, many shows are relying on PR personnel to stand apart from the pack.

“Press about podcasting is no longer the wild frontier it was a few years ago … But it's still a bit of an untapped market,” says Ray Padgett, senior publicist at Shore Fire Media. “It seems every year a huge number of new people discover podcasts for the first time; with thousands and thousands of shows competing for their attention. How do you make sure those new people give a particular show a try? Press is simply a means to an end. Fundamentally, what every show we work with wants is listeners. We aim to get them the press that will attract people who will love the show.”

There’s no silver bullet for PR success, and every endeavor is undertaken with a certain amount of risk. The best plans understand this, and look to a client’s size, goals and appeal -- in a word, its brand – to map out a confident way forward.

“What good PR looks like depends entirely on the podcast; there's no one-size-fits-all strategy,” Padgett says. “For a new podcast, it might be about getting attention and trying to break into a ridiculously competitive field. For an established podcast, it might be more about making sure journalists don't take the show for granted and setting up the occasional high-profile interview so the show continues to find new listeners.”

While it’s too early for Westervelt to measure the impact of her PR hire, other shows have found adding PR to be an elixir for growth.

Audience Increases and Gravitas

First Draft with Sarah Enni is a conversational podcast structured around author interviews. Launched in 2014, Enni meticulously cranked out episodes for years while resisting urges to invest more than her labor.

“I've hesitated in the past to pay money to have anyone help me with my show,” Enni says.

Over time her attitude began to shift. She took on a producer and later hired a social media assistant. By 2019, First Draft was approaching its 200th episode, and Enni wanted to mark the occasion with a promotion bigger than anything the show had ever seen.

She connected with a senior publicist at Shark Party Media, and what started as a conversation about ginning up interest in one special episode evolved into a plan to aggressively court additional opportunities. Enni says her monetary investment was significant, but less than what she expected. And the results have been worth it. Not only are more people listening to her show, but Enni says she’s now seen as more established and more versatile by a number of different outlets.

“[My publicist] in particular, she doesn’t just suit my podcast, she suits me. She knows that I’m a young adult fiction writer, an indie podcaster and an improv comedian. And she has connections in all those industries,” Enni says. “I don’t think every podcaster wants to be potentially the monologist at live comedy shows, but [she] understood when we talked about my background that it would be really fun for me.”

Cross Promotion and Correct Promotion

Sam Dingman has worked on podcasts as a writer and host for more than a decade. It was early in his career that he learned a powerful lesson in cross-promotion. The podcast TBTL aired some of his submitted work and name-dropped Dingman’s then-show, The Road 2 Shambala. The shout out boosted his tiny audience by several factors. To this day, he believes that cross-promotional opportunities, or what he calls ear proximity, are among the very best ways to gain new listeners.

“I've always thought that people listen to podcasts the way they listen to their favorite bands, which is to say, it's not even so much always about the quality of every single episode. It's that people just like spending time with that particular sound and those particular personalities,” he says. “That's why I think this ear proximity thing is so important.”

Dingman’s PR firm, Shark Party Media, has prioritized finding opportunities for Dingman to talk about his current show, Family Ghosts, on other shows and platforms. Its assistance has opened some doors for Dingman that he never would have imagined knocking on, including a listing in the New York Times.

Just as important, these new connections are relevant to the type of audience he wants to cultivate, which hasn’t always been the case. The “ghosts” in his deeply personal, documentary-style shows are metaphors for secrets or trauma carried by families for generations. Before publicists arrived to create a well-crafted letter of introduction, most execs assumed the show literally discussed supernatural beings. It was written off by places that were a good fit, and courted by ones that weren’t.

“That meant that we ended up kind of in nowhere land, in terms of trying to find places to talk about the work,” Dingman says. “That's one of the many problems that I feel it has been helpful to have somebody to partner with.”

— Zach Brooke