How not to ask for free publicity

Each of us builds up a valuable network of acquaintances over the years — former coworkers, people at clients, and people we met at corporate social occasions and events, for example. These folks can help you with a little free publicity, provided you don’t approach them as a selfish ass.

Asking isn’t a problem if you’re approaching somebody you’ve kept in touch with. But what if it’s somebody you haven’t spoken with in years? They may be inclined to help you, if you’ve got something interesting to share. But what’s the right approach?

Prepare before approaching

If you want someone to help you, you need to know their context. This is easy to do in just ten minutes or so. Here are a few simple steps:

  1. Look up their recent job history on LinkedIn. If they’ve had a few jobs since you last talked, you’ll want to get an idea of what’s going on with their career and LinkedIn is the easiest way to do that.
  2. Google them. See if they’ve been quoted, appeared on stage somewhere, or wrote something, say, on Medium or a blog.
  3. Check out their recent posts on popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. This will give you an idea of where they’re coming from.
  4. If they have their own web site, check recent blog entries, the About page, or the bio on that site.

This simple preparation allows you to move forward with confidence and context and shows at least a minimal amount of respect. My friend Rebecca Otis Leder’s new book Knock gives lots of detail on how to do this, including how to prepare to connect, focus on others, unlock commonality, and practice gratitude — all ways to make the outreach more likely to be productive for both parties.

(Gee, here I am giving free publicity to Rebecca. I wonder how that happened.)

How to schmooze badly

Part of what made me think about this was a recent communication I received from a guy who I had first connected with when he was an executive of a marketing agency, ten years ago. The sum total of our interactions since then were two birthday messages on Facebook and a note on my Facebook wall when I left Forrester in 2015. My impressions of him are neither positive nor negative — we are just two guys who know each other.

And in the description that follows, I admit that I did not behave as nicely as I might have, and I think you’ll see why. As you read this, ask yourself — if you were seeking free publicity from me, what would you do differently?

My first communication from him last week popped up on Facebook Messenger (posts below with “OA” are verbatim what this old acquaintance sent me):

OA: Josh is this still your mobile still [inaccurate phone number]? Lastly, I just co-created a show with [prominent pundit whom I respect] with [celebrity] and I’d like to give you a sneak peek. Hope you’re well my friend. It’s been way too long. No bullshit.

My mobile is [OA’s mobile number] btw

I responded with my correct mobile number, and he continued with this:

OA: Thx. All good there in relative terms I hope? When this is over and you visit LA, please put me on your call list. I keep in pretty solid touch with Augie and a few others of the old Forrester crew but haven’t done as good a job with you. I will reach out soon with our pilot of [his show’s name] with Host [pundit name]. It’s content in your wheelhouse so I hope you enjoy.

This seemed promising. I knew and respected the host and was interested in the topic. Since I work so much with nonfiction authors, I responded:

Josh: Looking forward to it. My clientele is all B2B influencers.

Next, I get a text message that reads as follows:

OA: Hey Josh, it’s [his first name] here. We should almost certainly catch up soon on the influencer work then. Are you do anything on clubhouse yet? We are about to launch a club called [name of show] just like our show. We just recorded the first one the other day which will end up sampling things from the Clubhouse audio in post . . . if that makes sense. Also I wanted to ask you, what platforms are your B to B influencers using that are essential? Are they using Kajabi by any chance? I ask because I’m trying to assess partnerships for a particular situation right now.

Oh and would you email me a press kit or direct me somewhere please? I think that’s the easiest way to pre introduce you to my production team. [Email address]

At this point I am very confused. I never said I was on Clubhouse. I don’t have a press kit. He is going off in a direction that seems weird for connecting with someone who just works with authors. So I respond:

Josh: [OA], you’ve made many unverified assumptions. I don’t use Clubhouse. I don’t use Kajabi. I don’t even know what it is. And I don’t have a press kit. Why would I? If you want to know what I do, check my site, under how I help.

Since I have a site crammed full of content that’s easy to find on Google (and he already has referenced “No bullshit”), I figure this is the easiest way to get him on track about what I do. I explain myself and my work right here, and the first words are “I help authors.” Pretty clear.

But here’s what comes back:

OA: Congratulations. You have passed my test. You are indeed the real Josh Bernoff.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help me when I am trying to find platform partners but Kajabi looks the most interesting and well scaled platform for B2B thought leadership. The fact that you don’t use clubhouse makes me a bit uneasy that you aren’t at least experiencing this social media phenomena. At any rate, I will be back in touch shortly now that I have the lay of the land.

Okay, now I’m getting annoyed. He reached out to me, presumably to promote his new show. Then he made a bunch of assumptions without checking. When I told him to look at my site, he responded by telling me he is uneasy with my experience. Hey, dude. You reached out to me for free publicity, and now you are uneasy that I’m not qualified. Screw that. So this was my response.

Josh: I help authors write books. That’s it. Since you’ve now basically called me out of touch and clueless, let’s stop wasting time. Cross me off your list and stop behaving like an ass.

And of course, he’s mystified:

OA: What are you talking about? I didn’t intend to be an ass. I have no idea what you’re up to these days until now. I think you’ve received a message that I didn’t intend to send. Glad to know that you focus on authors. I am working adjacent with influencers and monetization. I still view you as a Godfather to social media so that’s all I was really commenting on. Peace

Nobody intends to be an ass. They just come off that way when they don’t do even minimal preparation before reaching out. “I have no idea what you’re up to these days”? Well, you could have checked, it’s not like I’m hiding it.

How did this go so wrong?

Consider what would have happened if OA had taken a moment or two to check out my LinkedIn, my web site, my blog, or my social media feed, all of which are easily found through Google. (In case you’re wondering, we’re connected on LinkedIn and Facebook and follow each other on Twitter.) And he could also have easily checked Clubhouse to see that I’m not on there. I even directed him where to look.

He would not have assumed I was still all about social media, as I was ten years ago. (Who do you know who does the same thing they did ten years ago?)

He would have known I worked with authors.

He might have decided that I wasn’t worth pursuing at all, which would have saved us both time.

And if he did reach out, he wouldn’t have made a bunch of assumptions about what “My clientele are all B2B influencers” means, such as that all B2B influencers are on Clubhouse and Kajabi and I must be into both, as if that is the only way to connect with people.

Just a few minutes of prep would have enabled him to avoid looking and behaving like a selfish ass out for free publicity from some guy he met in 2011.

You’ll be in this situation at some point. Getting free publicity is easy if you have a good network — provided you’re willing to put in ten minutes or so of effort.

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  1. It’s funny. Something very similar to this happened to me not that long ago. The guy committed about six faux pas in our first five minutes—including asking me precisely how many copies of my new book I’ve sold. WTF?

    Needless to say, I won’t be working with him.

    1. You mean that he asked you for free publicity, and then probed to pre-qualify you and potentially reject you?

      If that’s correct, then yes, the guy was an absolute ass. If someone reaches out to you for free publicity, they don’t get to grill you first.

      (I sure hope it wasn’t me!)

      1. He wanted me to be on his show but hadn’t done even basic homework.

        He screwed up the two-word title of my book—impressive, actually. He then wanted an intro to the For Dummies folks even though his idea for a book already exists. I showed him a physical copy of Working From Home For Dummies during our call.


        He also wanted a PDF of my book. He claimed that his show sported 170,000 listeners despite a Twitter following of more like 300.

        Brass tacks: It didn’t pass the smell test. I politely declined. Seemed like a waste of time.

  2. He loaded your number into his online tool that sends automated text messages. It wasn’t him directly.

    He probably was reaching out to a bunch of old contacts and they all probably received the same message.

    He didn’t reveal to you that he was doing this, as that would reveal him as disingenuous in wanting to reconnect.