The PR group started podcasting in April 2018 to improve staff facility with podcast tools and systems—and the team quickly learned just how hard it is to get a new podcast off the ground.
“Podcasting demands humility, patience,” the team shared in its application for PR Daily’s Digital Marketing and Social Media Awards.
“Our slow audience growth has humbled us. Still, our patience and perseverance has been rewarded, as we’ve realized steady increases in downloads, and witnessed other pleasant, although unexpected, returns.”
That perseverance earned Washington Media Group a win for Best Podcast.
“The biggest challenge is getting started,” says Robert Johnson, president of Washington Media Group. “And once you have a show, the next challenge is keeping it going each week.”
However, Johnson says the project has become a labor of love. “For our team, it’s a fun half hour, as we stuff ourselves into our humble but loveable studio near the White House to discuss our views on PR issues, and to share what happened to us during the week with our fans.”
The show’s creators—Johnson and colleagues Summer Johnson, Crystal Zhao, Jessica Cahill and Brian Boeckman (along with some “amazing” college interns)—enjoy being able to cover a wide array of topics. Johnson says the show got its best results once it adopted a multi-segment format and used variety to entertain and enlighten.
“Flack Pack fans have responded well to the variety show format we launched in January,” he says. “In fact, our audience doubled overnight.”
However, that more complex format can be demanding on personnel and other resources.
“We still have to go to the simpler format of one host and one interview when vacations, client travel or projects limit our ability to pull everyone together,” Johnson says. “But the shows with multiple voices have more energy, and more surprising moments for the audience. When we get together, and the ‘On Air’ light goes on, you never know what someone will say. The result is listeners get to know us and our personalities, which builds a more authentic relationship between the Flack Pack and the PR community.”
A note on equipment
When launching a podcast, it helps to have a background in audio production. Johnson admits that while many podcasters just use a microphone and their computers, he and his team use a studio at a WeWork.
“We are pursuing a better product that requires the latest in recording and editing gear capable of delivering high-quality sound,” Johnson says.
The Washington Media Group team also relies on employees with a background in broadcast journalism to help them produce a top-quality show.
“We use those skills to plan shows, anticipate story opportunities, and schedule and produce guest and entertainment segments,” says Johnson. “We provide a variety of public relations services to our clients, but when we are producing the Flack Pack, or any other podcast in our lineup, we put on our journalist hats and think like news people to find guests and stories that will appeal to our audience.”
Johnson warns that anyone looking to produce their own podcast should prepare for long hours and a hefty time investment.
“Producing a show, whether it’s for a radio station or a podcast, is a 24/7 exercise,” he says. “We always are on the lookout for topics that will appeal to the members of Flack Pack Nation. Some we generate. Others are pitched to us by other PR people, book publishers, and university researchers and professors.”
A slow burn
Building a podcast audience, like any kind of content marketing, is gradual and laborious PR work.
“It takes a few years to build a podcast audience, and that is happening slowly but surely for our show,” Johnson says.
“Ultimately, audience size will be the measurement of success. But more than that, we have learned there are other benefits to justify the time spent producing the podcast.”
There are additional positives, he says.
“The Flack Pack allows us to test new podcast production techniques without exposing clients to the dangers of our laboratory work,” says Johnson. “We produce podcast shows for four clients, with more clients expected to engage us to launch their own new shows before the end of the year. So it’s important to have a way to try new things before we introduce innovations to the people who pay our bills. The Flack Pack podcast allows us the freedom to take risks, since we’re the client.”
Not a bad idea for agencies and communications operations: Test the wares on your own messages before selling your knowledge to others.
Johnson says the exercise also helps team members brainstorm and test their creativity.
“Because everyone on the team is involved in the show, staff members get practice thinking on the fly, speaking extemporaneously, and exposing and testing their creativity, all while we build staff chemistry during the studio sessions,” he says.
Johnson points to rewards beyond audience engagement.
“The Flack Pack is good for our business,” he says,” even though we never talk about our business on the podcast, and we never ask anyone to hire us from the platform of the show.” Like all good content marketers, Johnson says Flack Pack team members allow their work to speak for itself.
“We treat the Flack Pack as a news program,” he continues. “It must be independent and known for its unbiased and unfiltered approach to the issues facing our industry. Editorial integrity is very important to us.
“Even though we don’t talk about our company, our work on the Flack Pack has resulted in invitations to present to conference audiences. Our clients also listen to the show. There is evidence that it has also led to new clients for our firm.”
Takeaways for starting your own podcast
“Those who are thinking of adding a show to their communications mix should consider audience, message, content, capacity and commitment before launching,” says Johnson. “They also need to make sure they can handle managing a tactic that barely mentions the organization’s name.”
Start by analyzing your target audience, a familiar exercise for most communicators. Johnson advises asking: “Is there an existing audience, internal or external, or both, that can help get a podcast off the ground?
“An existing audience will help a show succeed faster,” he adds.
For message, consider whether your talking points and overall mission translate well for a podcast’s causal, conversational format. “In other words, does the organization have a mission that audiences might find interesting or useful?” Johnson says. “A half-hour show can feel like forever if there’s nothing interesting to talk about.”
Message is intrinsically linked to content—and an organization that isn’t used to creating content might find a podcast a difficult undertaking.
“Does the organization’s area of focus or expertise generate enough content to sustain a regular podcast program?” asks Johnson. “If it’s tough finding good stories for a newsletter, it may be tough to program a podcast without help from journalist types.”
Finally, consider capacity and commitment. Time is a crucial consideration.
“Will the staff have 20 to 30 hours a week to spare producing a monthly podcast?” Johnson asks.
He argues that would be podcasters should seriously consider outsourcing the work. “It’s the only affordable way to ensure success,” he says. “Otherwise, the organization will have to hire a staff to produce a product worthy of the organization’s good name and support.”
How podcasting is different
Johnson warns that not every organization or leadership team will have an appetite for what it takes to make a successful podcast.
“Podcasts are not infomercials,” he says. “They are opportunities to demonstrate expertise. They help build leadership through association, with the issue, the people who know the topic, and the audience.”
It’s an attempt to build visibility for your organization, but you are going to have to get leaders comfortable with how little your organization’s name will be mentioned.
“We mention our company name one time after the monologue each week,” Johnson emphasizes. “One time. That’s it. It’s hard to argue to upper-level managers that talking about yourself is a bad thing, especially if they’re paying for it, but with podcasts, self-promotion is a kiss of death.”
Still interested in looking into what podcasts can do for your organization? You might reach out to Washington Media Group to collaborate on an episode. Johnson says the team is looking to engage the PR community and would welcome all comers with ideas for a show segment.
“We always are on the lookout for contributors,” he says. “We have five PR and media experts from around the U.S. who appear often to discuss issues they think are important or relevant.” If you are interested, you can contact the show at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Congrats again to the Flack Pack team for a well-earned win.
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