5 Things Selling Vacuum Cleaners Taught Me About Media Relations

April 9, 2014

As a former journalist, I do a lot of media relations here at Fast Horse. It’s not all I do, but I spend a fair amount of time pitching story ideas to reporters, either by phone or email (and occasionally face to face).

As a college student, I once spent a summer selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners door to door in Minneapolis. I was selling $400 vacuum cleaners at a time when you could buy a Hoover for $79. I managed to sell enough suction that summer to pay for half of my upcoming year in school.

I often find myself comparing media relations to vacuum cleaner sales — or to any kind of sales. It takes a certain collection of skills and attributes to do well at either. Here are five things that selling vacuum cleaners taught me about media relations.

Know exactly what you’re selling and why they should buy it. I had to be ready to answer all kinds of questions about my machine and why it was better than other choices the consumer had. Similarly, any reporter I talk to has dozens of other stories they could be working on. Why should they pursue mine? Hesitation can be fatal to the sale.

A little patter helps. I usually spent a few minutes chatting with the homeowner before getting down to business. When I pitch a story, I generally start out the same way — mentioning a connection to the city the reporter’s in or commenting on something they’ve written recently. There are times, of course, when a reporter emanates a get-down-to-it vibe so intense that you can immediately sense it over 1,000 miles of fiber-optic line. In that case, I dispense with the pleasantries and launch right in. It’s the equivalent of sticking your foot in the door before they slam it in your face.

It’s tough to sell junk. I truly believed that I was selling a superior product, and it gave me confidence. When I’m pitching a really good story, I’m more relaxed, more confident, more articulate, more persuasive. When I’m pitching a story I think is weak, it’s harder to be a smooth salesman.

People can be jerks. Sometimes the door is slammed on you and you’re aggressively reminded that your very existence is an affront. You have to shrug it off.

You never know which door your next sale is behind. Without persistence, no salesman will ever succeed. And neither will a media relations person. No matter how many reporters brusquely dismiss you or how many fiendishly labyrinthine voicemail systems you face, you have to make the next call. It might be the one that pays off.