PR: Know When to Bunt, But Don’t Forget to Swing for the Fences

The following is a guest post by Gregg Johnson. Gregg is the CEO of Invoca, a call center intelligence service. He is a seasoned digital marketing and SaaS leader, with over fifteen years of extensive experience bringing products to market in emerging categories, leading large teams, and working with the world’s best enterprise brands. Most recently, Gregg led Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s social marketing product line, where he integrated $1 billion of M&A investments into the Salesforce product portfolio. This post originally appeared on Medium.


During my first “official” week at Invoca, our marketing team and PR agency arranged a discussion with Ken Yeung from Venturebeat. We pitched a storyline about a long-time Salesforce executive joining a startup as CEO (another proof point in the trend of Salesforce spawning a next generation of cloud computing leaders). The end result was a solid article that provided a good overview of Invoca and the market opportunity we are pursuing. But as we sat back as a team and reflected on how we (and specifically I) did, it was clear — the article was a solid B from our perspective, but also represented a missed opportunity.

“Why a B?,” you’re probably asking. The article was positive and spoke well of the company.

Let me start with an analogy related to the game of baseball.

Imagine you’re managing a baseball team, it’s early October in the playoffs, you’re in an elimination game, and your team is down 1–0 in the bottom of the ninth. Runner on first, no outs, facing your opponent’s closer, and you’re at the bottom of your lineup, with someone who doesn’t hit very well at the plate. While you’d ideally love to score multiple runs, you’re really focused on scoring just one in order to get to extra innings.

As a professional baseball manager, what do you do?

You tell the batter to bunt.

Every.

Single.

Time.

(In writing this post, I discovered that there is quite a lively, quantitative-driven debate over the merits of sacrifice bunts. I clearly don’t watch enough baseball to have picked up on this before! For the moment, I’m staying with the old school assumption that the bunt is the right call in these circumstances.)

A successful bunt advances the runner to second base, now you’ve got one out (at worst), and at least two chances for a base hit that sends the game into extra innings.

Don’t think twice. Bunt and move on.

In ways, I view elements of press briefings in the same way. A journalist isn’t doing their job if they doesn’t ask the hard questions, get beyond your point of view, and uncover something that everyone else has overlooked. The importance of that role in our society has never been more evident than it is today, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for journalists.

So in prepping for briefings, I always try to anticipate and prepare for the likely tough questions, on topics like competitors, any negative strategic conditions, or market rumors. At Salesforce, I was fortunate enough to work with great PR pros like Jane Hynes, Bruce Francis, Kendall Collins, Gordon Evans, and Joe Ciarallo, and see how they handled delicate questions and issues. In 2008, Bruce even brought in an ex-colleague from CNN to grill us on camera and train us on how to handle tough lines of questioning.

The approach that these experts taught me was straightforward: anticipate the challenging questions, rehearse your answers, field the questions when they come, give a direct, well-rehearsed reply, and move on. It’s like a good bunt — don’t try anything tricky.

But for this interview with Ken, in focusing my time primarily on handling the tricky questions, I neglected to prepare myself for the opportunities — I was ready to bunt, but I had forgotten when to swing for the fences. Take the baseball scenario, and tweak the circumstances just a little bit. Assume the bases are empty, there’s nobody out, and your cleanup hitter is up — and suddenly bunting is a downright stupid strategy. As a manager, you should be telling your best power hitter to swing for a home run.

So, back to the press briefing. As expected, after some background discussion about Invoca, Ken started asking the tough questions I expected.

Tough question 1 — answered.

Tough question 2 — answered.

Touch question 3 — answered.

Then the conversation turned casual again. Since we were on the phone, I sat back in my chair, took a sip of water, and relaxed a little. We were 30–35 minutes in now, discussing customer stories and market trends, all straightforward singles. And then Ken asked me a completely unexpected question — a great pitch to hit, right over the middle of the plate:

“So do you aspire to be the next Marc Benioff?”

What?!?!?!

Foremost, I don’t expect to see a “next Marc Benioff” in my lifetime — he is too unique of a visionary, a leader, a social evangelist and a “character” for me to imagine anyone even vaguely resembling him. And I certainly am not arrogant enough to think that person might be me…

But on a more important note, I was not prepared for “that” question — despite the fact that it was the exact question you would want to be asked, the rough parameters of which I should have anticipated (e.g., “what parallels do you see between Invoca and when you joined Salesforce?”). This was an opportunity to talk about our vision for the market, to explain how Invoca was connecting brands and consumers using voice in the same way that Salesforce does digitally, to emphasize how voice was transforming computing today the same way that cloud did 15 years ago, etc… In retrospect, I have a litany of quotes for exactly this circumstance!

Instead, after stumbling through an explanation of how my personality was very different from Marc’s, I talked about how much I appreciated Marc and Parker Harris’ (Salesforce co-founder) leadership, what I learned in my time at Salesforce, and how I hoped to apply it at Invoca. In other words, I recovered from my initial surprise and gave a decent answer, but didn’t handle it nearly as smoothly as I would have liked. It was probably the equivalent of a single, yet again; and I had missed a great opportunity to pitch a bigger story about how Invoca fundamentally changes digital marketing and consumer engagement.

So, in my first official week on the job, I learned a valuable lesson about PR — be prepared to bunt, but don’t miss the opportunity to swing for the fence. That means thinking through, and even writing down, the headline that you’re hoping to shape, or the quotes that you want captured. Anticipate how you can proactively work those points into the conversation, and how you can “bridge” from topics you expect the journalist to raise to the specific statements that you want to make. You don’t want to be making things up on the fly; you want to be going down a path for which you have a prearranged plan. It is a similar type of preparation to what I had already done, but focuses on the “upside” as much as handling the tough questions.

Well, I guess new jobs are all about learning new lessons, right?

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