Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Amazing Story Of Offbeat PR Guy

Hi, there. Hope you are well. We thought you'd like some information for an interesting feature. It's about a Kansas public-relations professional who has carved a unique niche for himself by sending the nation's media outlets thousands of copies of news releases for "practical yet peculiar" consumer products.

He's Todd Brabender -- whose clients include the SummerSled (it works on grass) and Litecubes (the glowing ice cubes). His latest PR pitch, for the Fish 'n Flush toilet fish tank, begins: "It's a unique new product whose decorative appeal could turn the bathroom into the most talked about room in the house."

Mr. Brabender, who is 41 years old and a former media person himself, is the kind of PR guy journalists hate to love -- but love nevertheless. An old-fashioned press agent with newfangled powers, he blasts emails far and wide from the basement of his flagstoned mid-American home. Media elites may fume over coverups and spin, but for reporters with holiday news holes to fill, a bulletin about guppies in the toilet is cause for elation.

As Lisa Reicosky wrote in the Canton, Ohio, Repository: "Sometimes in this business we receive press releases we just can't ignore." That was the first sentence of her story on the Fish 'n Flush. "The toilet fish, yeah, that caught my eye," says Ms. Reicosky. "I'm part time. I need the PR people to give me my ideas." The Repository (circulation 65,000) gave the Fish 'n Flush 241 words.

At least 500 newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations -- online and off -- have taken this bait in a year, says Mr. Brabender. He figures it would have cost the makers of the Fish 'n Flush a million dollars to buy that kind of advertising. As it is, except for Mr. Brabender's $2,500-a-month fee, they haven't spent a penny.

"It's all Todd, generating PR for us," says David Parrish of AquaOne Technologies Inc., in Orange County, Calif. AquaOne designs leak-control hardware and uses a clear-plastic showroom toilet tank to display it. "We were standing around one day," Mr. Parrish recalls, "and I said, 'Wouldn't it be fun if we had fish in it and you flushed it and the fish didn't go down?'"

Thus the Fish 'n Flush came to be. A Web site went up with a mail-order price of $299. Somebody who knew somebody put AquaOne in touch with Mr. Brabender. His release went out and orders came in. With no advertising and a "how did you hear about us" box on the site, AquaOne could draw a straight line from media plugs to sales.

"We see the geographic pattern," says Mr. Parrish. "If we get orders from Bangor, we know Todd's done something in Bangor." Sales have reached 1,000. Now Mr. Brabender has launched a second Fish 'n Flush campaign. The vehicle isn't a new story, just new reporters.

"There's such turnover in the media," he said one workday morning, "we'll hit people who missed it last time." Clean-cut and clear-eyed, he sat at his computer fielding Fish 'n Flush queries: the DIY Network, Exceptional Parent Magazine, the Muncie Star Press. Said Mr. Brabender, "We're out on the dance floor one more time."

It's a crowded one. The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts roughly 100,000 Americans in journalism but 235,000 in public relations, most of them in big organizations. But technology has not only given rise to mobs of small shops between the coasts, it has also turned the humdrum news release into a reviled variant of spam.

For reporters offered a chance to disseminate "relationship advice" from a porn star-rocker power couple, or to cover "the top 10 reasons label printers make great gifts," the delete button is never far away. To survive the cull, a pitchman needs a gimmick.

Mr. Brabender's: "funny yet functional," a newsroom natural. That's why CNBC's "The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch" wanted Michael Daoud on the show. Mr. Daoud invented the Xshot -- a stick you screw onto a camera to take pictures of yourself -- and on the day of the New York taping, he got on the phone to Mr. Brabender for a pep talk.

"Don't sound like a circus hawker," Mr. Brabender told him.

"Right, right," said Mr. Daoud.

"Keep an eye on Donny," Mr. Brabender said. "If he glazes over, wrap it up. Don't spew. Be a well, not a fountain."

"A well, not a fountain," said Mr. Daoud. "Great advice, Todd."

After hanging up, Mr. Brabender said, "My goal is make it easy for the media. Media people like easy stories. I know. I'm a former media guy myself."

From 1988 to 1994, Mr. Brabender worked at 6News, a Lawrence TV channel with two daily newscasts and long stationary shots of traffic on a Kansas River bridge. He grew up in Rock Falls, Ill., where his father was a salesman for Senco nail-guns. ("It's a great nail-gun," says Mr. Brabender.) His "blood boiling" to be a newsman, he came here to the University of Kansas, got a journalism degree and then went straight onto the crime beat at 6News.

"Bike thefts were up one year," he says, but when his wife got a job at more pay for half the hours, he quit to stay home with their two kids, and signed on with a service that monitors mentions of corporate names on TV. "I saw stories about new products," Mr. Brabender says. "I thought it would be neat to be a person who got the media interested in stories like that."

He says he had thought most successful PR types lived in New York or Los Angeles, but in 1996 a friend of his, Cathy Hamilton, dreamed up a gag gift -- Boyfriend in a Box -- a set of sham snapshots and love notes to help women fend off advances. She asked Mr. Brabender to publicize it. He did. The gag went over big, and the next thing he knew, Mr. Brabender was founding Spread the News PR, his own firm.

To start, his research tools were a yellow pad and a chair at the public library. Now, for $850 a year, he logs on to ProfNet, where reporters looking for sources tell PR people what they're up to. For $3,500, he gets MediaSource, a list of reporters that he uses to make sure his release for SingingCoach learn-to-sing software, for instance, doesn't go to somebody who covers national security.

Mr. Brabender doesn't want to be a pest. He doesn't send out samples, except on request (and hardly ever sees, much less uses, any of the products himself). And he tries never to send a release to one reporter more than three or four times.

He doesn't pitch himself, either. Weird clients just attract weirder ones, enough this year to pull in fees of $300,000. Not that the play Mr. Brabender gets them is totally ecstatic. In November, Esquire magazine consigned the Cone-i-Vore pinecone picker-upper to its "things we won't be covering this month" column. On the other hand, Lena Fiore can barely believe what he did for Toilet Tattoos.

"People say PR is a frill, but it's such a necessity," says Ms. Fiore, who is 43 and lives in Macedonia, Ohio. The Toilet Tattoo, a decorative toilet-seat appliqué, was her invention. "I have a white commode," she says, "and I wanted to cover it without using a germ-harboring rug." She has them manufactured in Minnesota.

A friend led Ms. Fiore to Mr. Brabender. "There was a sincerity about him," she says. He blasted out his release in September, announcing "a unique new bathroom decoration." By his count, the news has filled 1,229 inches of space in 131 newspapers, including six inches in the Oconomowoc Enterprise of Oconomowoc, Wis.

"People are skeptical of advertising," says Ms. Fiore, who doesn't do any. By itself, she says, Mr. Brabender's release has brought half a million Toilet Tattoo sales to her Web site, at $9.95 apiece. "I don't know what it is about newspapers," says Ms. Fiore. "When people read about something, maybe it's more real to them. They seem to believe it whether it's true or not."

[Via -]

Additional Resources For Creative PR Approaches:

PR Idea Book: 50 Proven Tools That Really Work

Unleashing the Power of PR: A Contrarian's Guide to Marketing and Communication

PR on a Budget: Free, Cheap, and Worth the Money Strategies for Getting Noticed