Top business and lifestyle outlets are now showing uncynical fascination with self-improvement stories. But that doesn't mean PR pros don't need a hook to sell pieces on self-help. David Ward reports.
Most PR professionals believe that any subject, product, or service can be made relevant to the media and public so long as it's packaged and presented in the right way. That's not always the case, but occasionally you find a category, or even an entire industry, that renews your faith that a subtle shift in focus can make all the difference.
Take self-help and self-improvement. Years ago, the popularity of programs like EST (Erhard Seminar Training, and Latin for "it is") and books such as I'm OK, You're OK, was often treated by the press with either bemusement or as the hook for social commentaries on how a materialistic society was scrambling to find a replacement for a lost value system.
But now, self-help authors, motivational speakers, and seminars on everything from improving your productivity to becoming a better boss are the subject of major business and general-interest titles. Even The New Yorker recently devoted a feature to a career coach who advises top executives.
The growing media interest in the self-improvement industry owes a lot to how the field itself has changed. "It's not so much based on trying to become enlightened now, says Bruce Ehrlich, editor of the newsletter Mind Media Review. "It's more practical, merging with the concept of lifelong learning."
"If you want coverage, it has to be expanded to deal with real-life issues, echoes Dean Draznin of Fairfield, IA-based Draznin Communications, which represents Transcendental Meditation.
Nowhere has the self-improvement movement found a more receptive audience than the business press. While average American white-collar workers may be loathe to publicly admit any desire for self-knowledge or self-improvement, they are interested in becoming better managers and seeing their careers take off.
From the late '80s, with the publication of books like Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the best-seller lists have been filled with tomes that portray self-improvement in business-management terms.
"We're finding that people are more interested in how they can be productive, says Debra Lund, publicity director for FranklinCovey. The publisher has taken Covey's teachings, and come up with a thriving business of seminars, books, software, and audio tapes. "When I call publications, I'm dealing with more reporters who have workplace issues as their focus, Lund continues.
Coverage on the rise during the slump
Media interest in the entire self-help/career counseling arena has increased during the economic downturn.
WHERE TO GO
MAGAZINES: Psychology Today; Yoga Journal; New Age Journal; Forbes;
Fortune Inc.; Incentive; Entrepreneur; Dow Employment Weekly; Real
Simple; New Yorker; BusinessWeek; McCall's; Rosie; Cosmopolitan; O!;
Body & Soul; Self; Women's Day
TRADE OUTLETS: Mind Media Review; Publishers Weekly; Kirkus Reviews;
Book Lists (published by American Library Association); Library Journal;
Training & Development; Corporate Meetings & Incentives
TV & RADIO: Bloomberg Business Television; Time Warner's Fortune
Business Report; Tribune Media's Making Money; PBS/The Business Channel;
NBC's Today; National Public Radio; Good Morning America; local and
regional morning TV and talk radio shows; Oprah; The View; Lifetime;
The broadening of the self-help category into the business and lifestyle press has changed the parameters of outlets for PR pitches. In the past, they may have been limited to Psychology Today and new-age magazines.
Now key reporters tend to be in the business and family beats, including USA Today's Stephanie Armour and Sue Shellenberger of The Wall Street Journal.
Arielle Ford, a noted publicist in the spiritual/self-help category, and author of Hot Chocolate for the Mystical Soul, says a few motivational and self-help experts are well-known enough to generate media interest on their own. But most need their PR to be centered on a new product or book. "The book makes all the difference, she says. "It provides instant credibility."
But Ford is quick to add that it doesn't mean you're always pitching book editors. In fact, she says, "I never work with literary press. We go to the lifestyle editor, the health editor, or the financial editor. And we tailor our pitch for that specific publication."
Radio making way for TV
In the past, the self-help category was ideally suited for talk radio.
But Lund says while there are still some opportunities, many national and local hosts are now searching for harder-edged, more controversial topics. "Drive-time radio still takes it, but they want five to seven minutes and focus on the people as they drive to work, she says. "It used to be we'd get a half-hour or even an hour."
Compounding that has been the rise of nationally syndicated radio stars.
"It used to be that every media market had lots of talk radio hosts," says Ford, who until recently represented Deepak Chopra. "Now Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, and Howard Stern are in every market, so they're eating up precious time. There are fewer and fewer talk radio outlets for self-help people"
But TV remains a solid medium for self-help, especially on local and national morning shows, and with stars such as Oprah Winfrey. But, Ford warns, "You have to have a hook. Nobody's looking for 'rah-rah' motivational stuff."
Jane Wesman Public Relations has represented many self-help authors, including Dr. Gary Buffone, who spent 25 years working with people who faced life-threatening medical conditions. His upcoming book The Myth of Tomorrow advises people how to adopt the philosophy of living for today without going through a near-death experience.
There are a handful of self-help/motivational superstars, such as Anthony Robbins, for whom the traditional rules of PR don't apply. Phil Lobel, publicist for Robbins, says he deals with an extensive number of media requests, and tries to accommodate as many as he can, often via e-mail and phone interviews.
However, Lobel says there are some skeptics in the media who are resistant or, more often, have not been exposed to Robbins or other "life coaches."
Of course, self-help programs are not without critics. One group that's come under media scrutiny has been the Landmark Forum, whose intense multi-day retreats have led some to accuse them of mind control. But Ehrlich notes that the media has even tempered some of its criticism of groups like the Forum, which originated at EST several decades ago, in part because there are hundreds of thousands of supporters who insist they have been helped by it.
FranklinCovey's Lund suggests that self-improvement is likely to remain a hot topic, especially given the impact of technology on communications.
She adds that reporters often approach the topic as a potential story, only to realize they can incorporate some of the philosophy to their own lives. "With e-mail, voicemail, and cell phones, one of the main topics we deal with is coping with information overload, she says, "to which many media can really relate."