Adjacent marketing, storytelling, hiring a Chief People Officer: Jeff Hahn on running a PR business in the lockdown era

By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur. 

Jeff Hahn is the author of the crisis communication book Breaking Bad News and owner of a family of integrated public relations (PR) agency brands in Austin, Texas. Focusing on the foodservice and energy sectors, these agency brands include Apron Food & Beverage Communications, Hahn Public Communications, the Predictive Media Network, and White Lion Interactive. From merely 10 employees when he first bought it, the firm now employs 36. 

He joined the latest episode of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur podcast to talk about the skills he learned from corporate life, as well as the tools and tricks of running a PR firm — especially in the lockdown era.

Image from LinkedIn

Getting Noticed through Adjacent Marketing

Reflecting on his time in his agency, Jeff noted that connecting to and joining unaffiliated organisations is one thing that he’s continued to do successfully.

For instance, he’s in a group of 120 regional civic leaders in central Texas. These leaders have nothing to do with his PR business. However, by staying connected with them and being an active member of the affiliation, he’s gotten more referrals in ways that he would have never imagined. 

The clients he gets are typically not someone from the group itself but someone that a group member knows. Jeff calls this indirect or adjacent marketing. He considers being part of something else that’s not connected with what you do as investing in something bigger than you. 

Adjacent marketing was something that he did naturally and unwittingly in the early days of his PR business. But looking back on the last 15 years, he can say that it’s been a really powerful generator of new business for him.

This is why he also encourages his team members to find their own organisation that’s associated with their part of the practice (his agency has two big practice areas: energy and food). He’d implore the heads of these practice areas to find an adjacent or orient-affiliated kind of network where they can contribute — and make that part of their natural networking. 

Image from Breaking Bad News website

In the end, he believes that the investment that you make in building a better world will come back to you.

Jeff’s firm started small, and the businesses they worked with were all local. For him, connecting to local people was a natural play. Now, he’s thankful that none of their clients are local or even regional. This shows that their company is scaling. They now have enough mojo in their brand, systems, and business processes to become more of a mega-regional, if not national-level, PR firm.

Coping with the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 has made it tougher to go out and play a part in different community organisations. But what Jeff has found effective is being the convener or the person that sets up Zoom meetings and creates the agenda. If you make that effort, people will come. Because there’s a real hunger for social networking and socialisation in this era of COVID and Zoom.

Shifting one’s talent and energy from going to community meetings into convening and facilitating online meetings has proven to be a powerful way of keeping the conversations flowing. 

This has even led Jeff to the discovery of a second, natural ability that he had: Now, he’s also getting invited to facilitate the meetings of other organisations, which he can do for pay. Currently, he’s facilitating workshops and finding himself inside of other fascinating conversations, even though it’s on Zoom. Recently, he did a workshop for 60 people in San Antonio on an issue that he even had no experience in. 

This skill that he learned over the years has turned into something that generates more references as his name and business card are being passed around by other people. 

How Content Writing Helps

There are business owners and entrepreneurs who are not naturally gregarious or socialisers. 

To a certain extent, Jeff considers his personality to be leaning towards being an introvert. When he facilitates, he gets exhausted afterwards because the activity takes all the energy out of him, rather than putting some energy into him.

In writing thought leadership and posting content online, he found a place where he can recharge. He has recently published a book on crisis communication called Breaking Bad News, which he spent seven years completing. But that careful introspection and that long time have allowed him to communicate a whole new point of view into the marketplace, which is still in support of his agency’s business practices.

For him, research and writing are tremendous introverted outlets that have kept him balanced.

Image from Amazon

In the process, Jeff learned that he has an affinity for long-form and good research. But while he thought that people would appreciate that, in reality, they don’t. And it’s simply because they can’t. 

The biggest lesson for him is to find a single place (it could be LinkedIn or Medium) and try not to overcook the grits, as people in Texas would say. Try not to write too long because people just don’t have the time and the bandwidth to read anything that’s more than three to four minutes long. Instead, he advised writing fewer words with more impact (which is the hardest thing to do). As the old saying goes, “I would have written less if I had more time.” 

So write a good headline, fill the content of the body with three good paragraphs, and you’re done. Publish it and you’re good to go onto the next content. 

Focusing on Writing

Jeff regards writing as the one thing that he wants to stay focused on. As Warren Buffet once advised to entrepreneurs: Learn how to say no more than you say yes.

He’s decided not to venture into other formats such as video, audio, and infographics. If he’s going to write content, he’d do it really well. And what he found, later on, was that he’s getting noticed; he’s getting inbound conversations. But what’s most important is that he’s happy with the product that he’s putting out. His output is focused and he’s even actually interested in reading it and consuming his own content.

As it has been effective for him, he was also able to get clients to follow the same approach and get the same kind of results. This is especially true in the energy business where there’s this enormous shift happening: Around the world, there’ll be a change from a molecule-based to a mineral-based energy ecosystem in the future, around 30 to 40 years away. If a business wants to be relevant, they have to have a point of view today and start talking about that future. 

Jeff has written content for clients who are interested in establishing relevance and helping shape that future. The content is being paired up with digital marketing that his team does to help promote it. This one-two punch has proven to be very effective.

Working with Traditional Media Reporters

In terms of working with people in the traditional media, Jeff shared that the reporters they’re working with are eager to know that they’re speaking to someone who has a genuine point of view — to someone interesting enough to interview. 

In their agency, they pitch something that can perfectly fit the article that a reporter is writing or thinking about. They do so by browsing through their library of content and searching for an interesting thing that one of their clients is working on. 

Image from Unsplash

Apart from that, Jeff also went the extra mile by producing a podcast for one of his clients. In the podcast, they’re inviting reporters as guests, which is a sort of a reverse pitch. The client hosts the podcasts and they get to ask the reporter questions and, in the process, slip an idea or put in a little quote. 

Just like any other human, guesting on a podcast is an honor and a privilege for reporters. It’s something that strikes the ego and something that they love: They take the time to do it so they can also get into an interesting conversation. 

The Challenge of Keeping in Touch With Employees in the Lockdown Era

When talking about communication, it’s not just about the external. It’s also about the internal or your allies.

To keep in touch with his people during this time and get them aligned, Jeff made significant adjustments. Even as a small company of 36 people, the first adjustment that he made was to hire a Chief People Officer (CPO).

At first, he was completely resistant to the idea until he discovered, especially in the lockdown era, that people have a serious need to connect and have safe conversions. The CPO that he hired talks to their employees, helps them understand what’s happening in the company, and becomes a communicator on his behalf when he’s not connecting to his people individually. It’s an investment he made and it’s starting to show real benefits. 

Right now, the war isn’t necessarily against the pandemic itself; it’s a war for talent. Trying to find talented people at a competitive price is difficult. So they’re now focusing on retention and not necessarily on recruiting and hiring.

He has also made adjustments in the frequency of his own communication with the entire staff. Before, their all-hands meeting used to be only once a month. Now, they hold it every Thursday.

Image from Unsplash

In lieu of social hours, he also facilitates Zoom gatherings and invites other guests. A few weeks ago, he had a magician join them on Zoom. They sent out decks of cards to everybody and had themselves a social hour with the magician and enjoyed the experience together. They’re inventing and investing in different ways to keep their employees aligned.

However, Jeff pointed out that he’s quite concerned for the younger generation of workers. As they don’t have the experience of growing up inside the office, going to and from work every day, being social, and learning cues — they are missing a lot of things. This is especially concerning with fresh-out-of-school people who also did schooling on Zoom. Now that they’re starting their career on Zoom, he’s worried that they’d miss the intangible and soft skills of the career that only come through social interactions.

Before, when having early meetings with clients and going to their office, there’s a sort of elaborate protocol that simply isn’t existing in online meetings. So it’s going to be also interesting how today’s generation is going to engage with clients.

Connecting with Partners

Entrepreneurs are dealing with three different audiences. Apart from clients and employees, they also have partners to deal with.

To keep his network of partners spinning, Jeff uses storification (borrowing the term in my SPEAK|PR program).

One of the things that he’s doing is spending more time with them on Zoom — both individually and collectively — and trading stories with them. For him, it’s about finding one of the most important gifts that he can contribute to the continuation of his relationship with his partners.

He pointed out that it’s important to tell stories about what’s going on in your world. How are you feeling? What are the characters and the setting? What’s the conflict and the conflict resolution? This is real storytelling. What he learned from convening these sessions is, the more that he can storify what’s happening in their business, the better people feel and the tighter the connections are. 

Image from Unsplash

When you simply talk about the particular client you have — the revenue and the work you’ve done — it’s not considered a story. It’s merely a list. When storifying, you have to tell the story about your client’s struggle. What hurdles did they face? What are the changes that are happening in their business? It’s about tapping back into the archetypal stories of overcoming a monster or Goliath. It’s about starting from the emotive side, rather than from the business, task-list side. 

Jeff employs this kind of approach when connecting with partners and he’s found that it’s more time-insensitive and stickier. 

To learn more and get in touch with him, visit the Breaking Bad News author page. If you sign up and you’re a listener of my podcast, you can get a free copy of the book through a special promo code.  

This article is based on a transcript from my podcast The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, you can listen here.


Cover image by Alex Knight on Unsplash.