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EPISODE 9 – Maeve O’Sullivan

Pre-Planning PR for Maximum Impact with Maeve O’Sullivan

When done right, PR can gain exposure for your brand that money simply can’t buy. But in many businesses, it’s an afterthought to a wider campaign and a last-minute press release is rushed out to little effect.

In this episode, I’m joined by freelance communications expert Maeve O’Sullivan who gives valuable insights into building relationships with journalists, strategic PR planning and embracing a variety of content forms to maximise your PR efforts. 

In this episode, we discuss:

  • The importance of integrating PR into campaigns from the outset
  • Using embargos to warm up relationships before a launch
  • How you can leverage media coverage to maximise its impact
  • Why PR isn’t just about press, and how events, podcasts and other media can grow your brand
  • How to create press-worth campaigns 




Maeve gave two book recommendations. The first…

“Copywriting is…” by Andrew Boulton offers an introspective and nuanced exploration of the art and craft of copywriting, weaving together over a decade of Boulton’s personal experiences, observations, and the highs and lows he’s encountered in the field. This book isn’t a straightforward guide on how to write; rather, it’s a deep dive into the essence of copywriting, exploring the emotional rollercoaster and intellectual challenges that come with being a “wrangler of the alphabet.” 

It’s recommended as a perennial read for anyone involved in the creative process of writing, providing not just insights but also a source of solace and inspiration. Andrew Boulton, with his dual hat as a copywriter and lecturer, brings a rich perspective to the table, making “Copywriting is…” a must-read for those looking to understand the profound, perplexing, and profoundly enjoyable realm of copywriting.

Find the book on Amazon



Maeve’s second book recommendation is…

“The Happy Writing Book” by Elise Valmorbida is celebrated as a transformative guide that delves into the symbiotic relationship between creative writing and personal well-being. Praised by authors, playwrights, and educators alike, Valmorbida’s work stands out for its ability to unlock the creative potential within individuals, encouraging both seasoned writers and newcomers to explore and express their inner worlds through the written word.

Through 100 prompts and exercises, Valmorbida demonstrates how creative expression not only enhances writing skills but also deepens one’s engagement with the world, making it a must-read for those seeking to harness creativity for self-care and personal growth.

Find the book on Amazon

Episode Transcript
Episode transcript

This week on Marketing Freed, I’m joined by freelance communications expert Maeve O’Sullivan. Maeve, great to see you again. How’s things going? Good. Great to see you again, too. I’m having a good week. Cool. Look, Maeve, just want to give a bit of background to, to the audience, as to why I started the podcast.

it’s because I want to encourage more businesses to work with independent expert freelancers rather than agencies all the time. And I think by doing so, you get a better service, probably at a lower cost. And I think most businesses perceive freelancers as someone who does a bit of grunt work and they’re cheap and you can find them on a freelance platform like Upwork or Fiverr and that is definitely not you.

You operate at a level that’s really strategic, you’ve got a great background, great career. I’d love you to just introduce and talk about your background a bit for the audience. Oh, thank you so much. and, yes, thank you very much for having me on this podcast. I’m looking forward to listening to the other episodes.

so yes, I have been, I have been now working in PR for exactly 25 years to my amazement as of this year. Yeah. My, my very first press release was sent via fax. I only did one fax press release. Everything else has been done by email, but that gives you an idea of how the technology of the business has changed in my career, let alone how PR has changed.

and, I’ve been, work, I’ve been freelance since 2018, and prior to that, I had about 15, 20 years working in the creative industries, working in house in design, advertising agencies, design studios, and prior to that, I’ve worked, to be honest, I’ve worked across a number of different sectors, and I think if I’ve learned one thing about PR, Yes, you need sector knowledge, of course, but ultimately it’s about having the tools and having the skills to find great stories and build reputations.

And having a fax machine. And having a fax machine. How did you get by with that? you can’t tell with a fax whether someone’s actually read your press release. that’s how it was though. Haven’t times changed. Haven’t times changed, yes, I know. And now we can even track opens on emails and everything.

It’s, a very different world. Yeah. And how did you get into freelancing? it was a bit of a. like with so much in life, timing was everything. I’ve been dabbling in freelance. I think you reach a stage in your career, especially in PR where inside a business, things after two, three years, things can start getting a little bit repetitive and the last thing you want to be is bored in a position.

It’s nothing to do with the business itself. It’s much more about the kind of work you’re doing, the kind of stories you’re telling. And you want to stay fresh and challenged. Alongside that came a move from London to Birmingham, so I live in the Midlands now. And, it was just that little kick out of the nest I needed to really go, you know what?

I’ll be changing my role anyway. Let’s just do this. Let’s take this opportunity. And you know what? I’ve been so lucky. I haven’t looked back. And the Midlands accent hasn’t stuck. Hasn’t quite rubbed off on me yet. I’m learning certain intonations, but no, I’m afraid I do stick out a little bit.

Yeah. there’s, no, danger, being a freelancer of getting tired and frustrated or just repetitive with the work that you’re doing because you get so much variety. Absolutely. What sort of businesses do you work with? So I still, my heartland still remains creative industry. So I work with, design studios, tech, digital, you name it.

But equally what I’m really enjoying about working for myself is that actually I can work with almost any kind of business. I think for me, they really need to understand the importance and value of brand and also really try to be doing something good in the world. That’s my big filter is, are they going to be good to work with as people?

Do they really get. The value of brands and also what are they trying to achieve out there? And I’m guessing with your, involvement in these brands, it’s not just about getting press coverage, although that’s probably quite a significant part of it. But I think when most people think about PR, they probably do think about, oh, it’d be great to get us in a magazine or on TV or on radio, but it’s so much more than that.

Can you talk about the services you provide too? Absolutely. And that is often the first thing on people’s minds, and I don’t, blame them at all, because that’s the shining, exciting thing half the time. There’s so much else to PR. It is fundamentally anything that involves building reputation. media relations plays an important role in it.

However, we work on everything from website content, social media strategy and implementation. I, I have myself produced a podcast. I’m about to produce another one with an amazing client of mine. soon, it’s, all those different pieces that help. Your customers understand what you do as a business.

And I should, I didn’t mention this at the top, but my focus is B2B sector, of course, and, all of these elements apply across any sector, really, and, I think we like to say with PR, we do also get our noses into a lot of different elements of the business because we’re also thinking about employee engagement sometimes.

And, the, internal communications and reputation. Because if you don’t have happy people these days on social media, you could be broadcasting all the great corporate communications messages you like, but if your employees are on glass door, giving you one star ratings, that’s a reputational issue that needs to be dealt with right away.

Yeah, and you’re absolutely right to flag that’s a reputational issue for potential hires and maybe even existing employees. But even wider than that, it’s the sort of thing that external stakeholders will be looking at as well. And whether that’s your shareholders or potential customers or future journalists, that’s the sort of thing that they’ll be looking at.

Is this really a brand that we want to work with or provide coverage to? Absolutely. And it’s easier than ever to, blow the lid off of a An old school classic corporate communications controlled message because there are so many platforms out there that can do that. So way back when I was faxing that press release, I only did it once it was email otherwise, but it was a very different time.

It was a bit more. Old school in that we control the message that goes out to media. and, ultimately we were trying to build good relationships, but fundamentally anyone could scratch the surface of a claim that is made by a business and it wouldn’t take too much work these days to figure out whether it’s authentic or not.

Do you think it is something that PR and communications can control? Ah, that’s a good question. Yes and no. I think, you can control it to the extent that you can be, you can have your strategy, you can understand. The landscape, you can manage the timing of your messaging and what’s going out when, what you can’t control, though, is those unexpected crises that come up or information, a bad news day or something going wrong and.

Those elements that you can control when you’ve got your plan, when you’ve got your strategy, when you’ve got everything organized and you really understand the business, you can manage the uncontrollable. But what you can’t do is stop that kind of thing from happening. And I think that’s where some business owners and business leaders get a little bit tied up in knots ’cause they think they can stop anything negative from happening.

And that’s just not really possible most of the time. But you can give yourself the best chance, the best possible opportunities by thinking ahead, by preparing in advance. Absolutely. And being prepared to admit mistakes. People will forgive a mistake, an honest mistake. People will forgive you saying, you know what, we got that a little bit wrong, and here’s what we’re doing to rectify it.

What they won’t forgive is trying to cover up and hide and obfuscate. Okay, that all makes perfect sense. Thank you. And when we spoke before, I know something that you’re keen to discuss is actually how organizations can plan PR into their campaigns right from the beginning. So it’s not just Sort of last minute press release a bit of an afterthought.

How would you go about that? Absolutely. I’m pleased to say it happens less and less lately, but I think the frustrating thing can be and the missed opportunity is when company is say two three weeks before some or even a month before a really big event. In its, lifespan, and they suddenly think, Oh, yeah, we really need some media coverage for this, or we really need to be, make it make noise about this.

at that stage, it’s not completely too late, but you are missing so many opportunities to get a rich story out there. So I would say to most of my clients, we’re working on projects, 3 to 6 months in advance, if possible. sometimes it’s not, sometimes you have to react quite quickly, but for anything that you can be planned about, and if you do have that amazing moment coming up, whether it’s a project launch, a new product release, some, significant hire that you’re working on, or a new market that you’re expanding into.

Work on it early, because especially if you want those media relations, those press opportunities, we want to be talking to media early under embargo and journalists out there, they respect embargo. They understand why they need to be hearing stories, confidentially, and they will respect that they will respect timelines.

And, that will help you get much richer editorial opportunities down the line than if you just fire out a press release. And yeah, sure, you might get some news. That’s great. But what you won’t be getting is comment pieces and being invited to be interviewed for, bigger stage moments and things like that.

I know from our previous conversations that you’ve got some great examples of taking that approach where you are baking PR into the campaign from the beginning.

Could you talk about those for a bit? Absolutely. one that springs to mind when I was still in house working at retail and brand consultancy Fitch, we had an amazing opportunity. We’ve been working with Adidas on their brand communications campaign around the World Cup. big moment. there were about 13 agencies and studios involved in this.

This was a huge project, and understandably, the client was very protective of what was said when. So the official line that went out was no agency or studio could say anything to media about, have anything published in the media until the final whistle blew at the World Cup. Now, of course, no journalist is going to be writing about a campaign.

At the end of the world cup. we decided to be a bit clever about it. And again, as I was saying a moment ago about speaking to journalists under embargo, speaking under confidentiality, we went out early and briefed in our trusted contacts explained, look, you cannot write about this right now.

Look at this amazing campaign. Here’s our role in it. And we established our credibility in that kind of sports branding space and that, getting into the conversation about brands and sports and how they interact because, of course, that’s the kind of thing that journalists that we wanted to be in front of were writing about in the build up to the World Cup and, They, again, the journalists are very respectful.

They didn’t write about the campaign. Actually, they were looking for the richer story themselves. by getting in early and saying, look, here’s what we’re doing. You can’t write about it right now, but Here’s our credibility. We were able to get lots of really great comment opportunities with some great titles, talking about brands and sports, the nature of sports sponsorship.

What does it look like? And what does it mean for brands? and then we were ready as soon as, that final whistle blew. We had the case study up on the website. We had some thought pieces ready. We had an awards entry ready. So again, thinking about that wider picture of PR, we had all those other opportunities ready to go that weren’t reliant on a press moment, because we’d done all that ahead of time.

It’s interesting point about the embargoes because I Not being experienced in PR, I would be really nervous about mentioning anything to any journalist or blogger in advance. If it’s super critical, it’s all kept hush until a particular point in time. In your experience, do journalists typically, or almost always, adhere to that sort of agreement?

Absolutely, journalists are professionals just like we are, and they can’t, get those stories if they’re not respecting embargoes. Now, obviously, there are, when you’re in the world of current affairs, there are public interests. situations that, I don’t usually have to deal with that, may cause a journalist to break an embargo.

I’ve had one experience in my whole career where a journalist has ignored embargo. It was in a market where they are perhaps less respectful of such things. It’s, a very competitive market. It also wasn’t over a story that really was a big issue, but it just meant that I knew after that never to trust them again.

and I never, and, you are careful what you would never do with an embargoed story is do a BCC email, to journalists, you don’t know, you would pick and choose approach one at a time, be quite careful about it. And again, strategic planned and early so that you can be making sure you’re laying the groundwork for the right stories, but you would never, approach a journalist.

with all the information until they’ve agreed to that embargo, you go out with a little bit of teaser, is this a kind of thing of interest? And if they write, if they respond, and they’re interested, and they acknowledge the embargo, and then you can start having those conversations. And presumably, there’s no legal recourse, if they do break it, that’s just part of how it works, unfortunately, but by and large, it would be damaging to their career.

In the long term if that’s just how they operated it would be absolutely damaging and I think this is this Alongside reputation, that’s the whole thing about PR reputation It’s about the business, but it’s also about the individuals involved. Everything we do is about relationships same with your line of business, right?

Yeah, if you Prove to be unprofessional with an individual then they’ll remember that and they will tell other people and so You know We that’s so much of what we do is based on those good Relationships that we build with journalists and with other people that’s out there in media And it all ties back to your earlier point about it is a long term Strategic activity and you do want to be building those relationships in advance To make it to make the most of it.

let’s imagine a scenario where you’ve started off. you’ve built those relationships with journalists. you’ve got some coverage. How do you make the most of that? Absolutely great question because I think some people sometimes people just don’t think that bit through they’re so focused on I want to be in the FT.

What does that mean. So there are a few sides to it. First off, As a PR, I need to be plugged in, I may be working externally, but I really treat myself as part of the team of the, business I’m working with. So I want to be plugged in with the new business people. I want to be plugged in with the CEO or MD.

I want to be plugged in with all those right elements inside the business to go right. This is coming out next week. What are we doing with this? And making sure. In the short term, we are making sure it’s getting communicated out in all the appropriate ways online, through, for new business to be connecting in with their prospects, all of this kind of thing.

But then the other piece, which we will have thought about much earlier is right. This, article in the FT for argument’s sake. This is one step in the journey. So that opportunity that I described when I was at Fitch around the World Cup, that was one step in the journey of building Fitch’s reputation in a whole new way.

it was repositioning itself. So what, is next? And what I want to be doing is that journalist that I’ve got that connection with and have placed that story with, I want to be already talking to them about the next thing. Now, that next thing might not be for a few months time, but you’re planting the seeds because they’ve already showed they’re interested in the topic.

They recognize the credibility of the firm. How do we build that relationship? I feel like I’ll be a bit of a broken record about this. It’s really useful to have that reinforced. Yeah, because nothing in isolation, right? You need to be thinking about that next. This is a stepping stone onto the next thing.

So what are we trying to get? Are we deepening that relationship with the FT? The FT runs all kinds of events. do we want to try and aim for a stage moment? Do we want to be commenting on future features equally. What other publications do we need to be looking at and other broadcast platforms?

So it’s all, it’s, about thinking about everything as a step in the journey, not an end in of itself. And is that, I suppose part of your approach because you’ve got to start a relationship from somewhere, and I guess journalists are probably inundated, particularly if they work at a marquee publication.

They’re probably inundated with requests and press releases every single day. It’s going to take time to get yourself noticed and get yourself trusted. Have you got a process for doing that? Absolutely. It, takes time. It takes time. So the benefit of working with an external, PR consultant or agency is that they will have a certain number of already established relationships.

So I have, they’re, a bank of journalists who know me, they trust me. So if they see an email coming in from me, they know that they are, there’ll be something relevant. I am a person who would much rather be, quiet than pester a journalist with something that I don’t feel really clear that they’d be interested in.

Equally, there are the journalists that we’ve never met before. That takes time, so that starts with an initial, email perhaps, or following them on social media. Always following them on social media, because you want to learn more about what they’re interested in, what they’re writing about.

Think about when you’re becoming friends, or you’re, getting into a relationship with someone. If, all you’re doing is talking at them about you. That’s not going to go very far. learn about their interests, learn what topics they’re writing about, so that when you get in touch, you, again, you can maybe refer to a recent article, you can actually make the link for them as to where this story fits in the wider editorial.

That they’re working on. So again, it’s about building the again, the earlier, the more time, the more lead time you have, the better. What also really helps it. It goes without saying is if you’ve got something really big and juicy, if you’ve got a celebrity attached to your project. That will always help that will always help if you have third party endorsement.

that could be. So I work with a lot of agencies and studios. So they have a brand inevitably that they’re working with a consumer facing brand if they’re willing to be involved in the PR outreach. So when we develop a campaign plan. We also factor in how could we, if the client is willing, hero them, make sure that they’re getting out there.

And, generally the business media are much more interested in hearing from brands than agencies. The reality is, so the more that we can involve the client and really tell their story about why they, went down this path, the better. and it’s, yeah, it’s just, about time and really understanding what.

That journalist is interested in, or that show or that, that outlet. Yeah, and you mentioned a scenario where perhaps you’ve got something really juicy to get the journalist excited. I’ve heard two different schools of thought, two different approaches with this. One where, you’re trying to secure some coverage.

You may be struggling to get noticed by the marquee brands that you really want to get coverage in. And one approach that people take sometimes is, we’ll start getting coverage in the next tier down. Some influencers, some bloggers. to provide some coverage and hopefully that will entice, the tier one publications to start getting interested in it.

The other school of thought is, no, as soon as the second tier or third tier start covering it, it’s no longer a fun news story. I don’t know where you stand on that or perhaps there’s instances where both approaches work. Yeah, both approaches do work and I, and, inevitably, again, sort of clients are interested in the top tier, the marquee brands, media outlets.

And they’re like, Who cares about the trades? The trades matter so much. They really do. They are, they shouldn’t be ignored or the, that next level down because that is also where those. Those marquee titles look to for again, it’s that reassurance that credibility. so how have you been written about in the design trades?

If if you’re going to be positioning yourself as a brand experts, to, to the, nationals, they’re going to check, they’ll Google, they’ll, just make sure that the person that they’re getting onto their show or into their article is actually. And they’re looking for that third party endorsement.

I would say never, ever ignore those next year. And also there’s nothing to, it’s, just about getting that breadth of, of, information out. I think what you do want to do, though, is. Again, if you’ve got something really, big, get in early with the marquee titles, get in early with those top tier ones, because if it’s time sensitive, yeah, you’ve got that one opportunity with them.

And if you’ve given it to perhaps a title, that’s not quite the number one on top of your list, it’s not news anymore. Okay, totally understand. Thank you. And you touched earlier on one of the projects that you’re helping a client with is with a podcast. I guess that’s another way of just building credibility.

So it’s another sort of long term approach that brands can take to evidence to the world. We are someone worth listening to. We’ve got a following. We’re an authority on a particular topic. Are there any other approaches or any other tactics that you might employ? yeah, podcast, I’ve just been doing my background research on a podcast.

I’m working with a client on setting up a new one. We, created one in, during lockdown in response to everything shutting down and of course, media relations just stopped for what the kind of topics I was working on and we just thought, what can we do that’s appropriate at this time?

So we created a Podcast about five seasons worth, which really helped the design studios, new business outreach. What I like, I know you’re asking me about other things and podcasts, but what I will say on, on, in, in favor of podcasts is it’s creating this content that you can use on an ongoing basis and people are consuming.

Media and content in so many different ways. there are all kinds of ways. social media, we were talking the other day about, what is and isn’t newsworthy, what’s relevant to be trying to get your media moment for and not everything is right to approach the press with.

And if you try and throw everything at them, then they’ll switch off. so that’s where podcasts do come in. Making use of social media. We all complain about LinkedIn, but my goodness, if you use it well, it is really helpful for building those networks and being insightful. Now, there’s only so many more top five tips for X, Y or Z, but actually, if you’ve got five really interesting top five tips, you should be sharing them and linking them into that.

piece of news that, that, content that you really, want to be sharing, events, conferences are back and I’m delighted. I was, I attended one about three or four weeks ago, and it’s just so lovely to be back with people and hearing speakers, video. Never underestimate the power of just cutting together a really interesting video, that again tells the behind the scenes of what you’re doing and showcases your work.

There’s so many different, things to do and the podcast has become, a bit of, a cliche, but I will, I think it’s a really great part of the toolkit now. really important one for the right individual and for the right topics. Yeah, and, your point, particularly about events as well, I think, is don’t, it all ties back to the, the overarching theme of what we’re talking about is plan it in advance.

Don’t, if you’ve got an opportunity to speak an event, whether that’s because you’ve been invited along, or maybe it’s your own event, or maybe you’ve just paid to get a speaking slot at an industry event, make the most of it. Don’t just rock up and talk. Have someone, like you said, recording a behind the scenes session with you, before you go and talk.

Record the talk, edit it down, don’t just post up an hour long. Conversation on your social media edit it down into bite sized chunks and try and get as much value as you possibly can you spoke a bit about this There’s some opportunities sometimes where there’s a really juicy campaign or maybe there’s a product launch or an event Those are I suppose the this sort of obvious.

This is a moment in time where you can generate some press coverage I suppose there’s sometimes when there isn’t that obvious moment in time where you can generate Press coverage, but you can come up with campaigns to try and stimulate that. Have you got a particular approach or a particular process that you run through to try and come up with ideas that are press worthy?

that’s really the fun stuff. that’s, again, the keeping in touch with, with your good contacts is important and really being inside the business. I, had a boss once who, would turn to me. Every time we were having like a one to one and he was sharing some insight into the business and he’d go, don’t tweet about this.

That’s not what I do. I don’t sit there gossiping about my company. That’s not my job. And I always say to people, 95 percent of what A good PR knows never goes anywhere outside the business, not because it’s negative or detrimental or anything like that. It’s just simply that it may not be relevant. It all needs to be filtered.

So the more I know about the business, the more I can come up with creative ideas. Now, there’s that piece so that, as I was speaking earlier, we couldn’t do a big press release around that World Cup campaign, but actually that would have been a flash in the bag. Flash in the pan. What we were able to do was get several months of media opportunities by talking about sports branding.

So what’s the bigger story? What’s the more creative story that you can tell around that project? the designers in the studio did created an amazing kind of, custom designed book commemorating the photography around this campaign that we used as a giveaway to clients. It was a beautiful piece of design and print.

Let’s not forget prints. We’re talking about everything online and digital. But my goodness, a really quality piece of print that’s been thought through and well made is still can have impact stands out more than ever now, I think. Yeah, and creating your own events. a good old fashioned PR stunt of some kind or another never hurts and working your own network.

So who are those people of influence or those unexpected people? So a lot of time I’m helping, Clients reposition themselves in some way. Maybe they’ve gone through a rebrand themselves, or they’re looking to expand into new markets. So how do we surprise people? How do we turn up somewhere where you wouldn’t normally expect to see this business?

That’s usually the best way to go about it. And that’s when you can really start thinking creatively. Press releases have their place. They are useful ways of communicating information to journalists, but by no means are they the heart of what PR is about. Brilliant. Thank you. Maeve, I’m conscious of time.

I’ve absolutely loved our conversation. it’s been full of really helpful tips. Before I let you go, I’d like you to provide one marketing book recommendation, please. Okay. what I’ve got here is I’m a, ultimately I’m a writer. Copywriting is by Andrew Bolton. It is an amazing, whether you are writing, we’re all writing every day for a living, learning how to be succinct and to communicate well is Possibly the best skill you could ever learn, I would say, and this is a fantastic guide and it’s very easy read and it’s very enjoyable because he’s a great writer.

I’m going to sneak in, though, the Happy Writing Book by Elise Valmerida. This is a creative writing book, and for me, I find that gets me out of my marketing business mindset and helps me be a better writer. because I’m thinking creatively and actually thinking differently about the words I’m using. So I’ve, been a bit naughty and brought to, but.

you can probably tell from my background, I love reading and I’ve not heard of either of those books before. So thank you very much. I will be sure to track them down. Maeve, you have been a wonderful guest. Thank you so much. how can people connect with you afterwards? I am on LinkedIn every day.

you can find me on LinkedIn. I’m gradually tiptoeing back into X as it is now known. and via my website, www.moscomms.com, which is going through a redesign right now. Brilliant. Thanks a lot, Maeve. Great to have you on the show. Thanks everyone. Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.