Ashley Crouch is a woman of many talents. As the founder of Appleseed Communications, a premier PR firm for female entrepreneurs, Crouch knows the ins and outs of public relations like nobody else. Impressively, she also created Master the Media, an online publicity accelerator for business-owners who want to take their companies to the next level.
Crouch is also an award-winning visibility strategist and has written for the likes of Forbes, The New York Times, Business Insider, TIME.com and Refinery29, just to name a few.
We chatted with the PR expert about the changes she has witnessed in the industry, what she sees for the future of media and about tips on how to be the most successful in business.
1. Can you speak a little about how PR has changed in the past decade?
The landscape of public relations has dramatically shifted in the past ten years allowing individuals to hold more power than ever before.
First, the rise of social media has democratized how stories are heard, shared, and picked up by the more “traditional" media outlets. It has given the average person access to top journalists to pitch story ideas, and also share their stories with a global audience. For example, in the case of the #MeToo phenomenon, stories go viral in a matter of hours with global hashtag movements.
Second, media outlets have become increasingly fragmented, specialized and niche, which allows for high concentration of specific audiences and could help generate better ROI, but also allows groups of people to silo themselves off from one another creating cultural blind spots. Political groups are often caught off guard by the success of various candidates because they truly “never saw it coming."
Third, stories are pitched and shared in less formalized ways than ever. Press releases are much less effective and many stories get pitched through text message or growth hacking techniques baked into the product or company itself (encouragement to share on social, take action, sign a petition, are all examples that could lead to publicity). I teach people how to share their stories in pitch letters for maximum impact. It is easier than ever, if one has the skills.
Fourth, companies can generate their own “media" through video and content creation, then cross-publish it on large, national and global outlets, such as Huffington Post or Thrive Global. Or, articles can go “viral" on platforms like LinkedIn and lead to television opportunities for the thought leader.
Fifth, staff writers within media outlets are being let go at accelerated rates, creating a vast pool of high-quality freelance journalists that write for many outlets. If a person knows how to find them and build relationships, it can increase their chances of being featured on national platforms, because there are many outlets one journalist could assign the story.
Sixth, PR was often considered a luxury available to large companies with big budgets. Today, I consider it the new critical life skill that all individuals can and should learn how to do. By the year 2020, at least 40% of America's workforce will be freelancers. These individuals need to know how to position, differentiate, and leverage media to set themselves up for success. My mission is to train 1000 women how to package and share their story in the next six months.
2. When you launched Appleseed, what was the white space you were looking to fill?
Appleseed began to offer women entrepreneurs premier PR services at an affordable price point. Since that time, we have become the first “one for one" PR company to exist through our Seed Fund Project; for every client served, we offer microloans to women entrepreneurs in resource-poor nations to grow their businesses. We are working in nine countries right now with this profit for purpose model.
We just expanded our offerings to include an all-inclusive online visibility accelerator to teach the A-Z techniques for publicity and partner with the best in the industry for training on what really works. Our school of visibility, Master the Media, teaches entrepreneurs around the globe the principles of how to get media, write for top publications, speak on stages (and get paid), and leverage social media for maximum ROI.
3. We've all heard the dismal numbers in regards to how much funding female founders receive vs. men. Can you tell us any thoughts on how to counteract this?
Businesses need three basic things to be successful: 1. a great product, 2. funding in the form of paying clients, customers or investors, and 3. a powerful story. Which comes first? Not every business requires venture capital to be successful. But a company with funding but no story can fall flat. I teach how to package and share your story to leverage media, attract qualified clients and customers or investors if necessary, and demonstrate social proof and credibility. As for moving the needle with venture capital, the more we can increase the legitimacy of female-founded businesses and their proven success rates, the more we can normalize these ventures as sound investments. There are investment funds launching that focus or prioritize female funded businesses, and accelerators designed to help women entrepreneurs reach 1 million in revenue.
4. Editors are no longer necessarily associated with just one publication, how do you keep on top of all the turnover?
Often, media databases are not up-to-date, since there is so much turnover. They are also usually out of reach for small businesses or entrepreneurs to afford. Instead, you need the skill set to know how to find the most up to date contact information and build relationships that transition through all platforms. For example, I pitched a story that went viral to the Senior Style Editor at Huffington Post back in 2013. In 2014, she moved to Mic. and offered to let me write a story for them. Now she is at Racked and we still keep in touch. It is about building real friendships, which I teach how to do.
5. What is the undercurrent philosophy of good PR, if you had to describe it in a few words?
Understand how to package and share your story for maximum impact in media.
I developed a proven Formula that anyone can use to plug in their message. It is already proven to work for students around the globe. You can access it here.
6. What are common PR mistakes you see people making over and over?There are five common reasons why people fail at generating media attention:
- They don't know what to say or how to tell their story well.
- They don't know who to contact so they never pitch themselves at all.
- They pitch themselves, but did it wrong and never heard back. (There are so many reasons people mess up a great pitch opportunity, such as a terrible e-mail title, a boring pitch letter, no story idea, making it too long, not including the right information, and many more. I give people my 5 time-tested pitch templates that proven to work here.)
- They didn't follow up.
- They got the opportunity and were not prepared, so the interview fell flat.
Happily, I teach how to overcome all of these problems with a free online masterclass, 7 Ways to Get Media Attention [In Half the Time].
7. What are the rules for using social media to pitch? Is it inappropriate?
Social media is an excellent tool for generating high-quality media opportunities if done well. For example, I secured an opportunity to produce one week of radio shows for SiriusXM radio for a new fashion brand - during New York Fashion Week - all from a well-timed tweet to a stranger. It must be done well.
For example, leverage social media to begin getting to know a specific journalist, their interests, hobbies, and how they view the world. Engage with them in an authentic personal way. This detective work will help you put your best foot forward when it is time to pitch.
8. You talk about how female entrepreneurs need "a celebration tribe." Can you explain what that is and why it's so important?
Men brag constantly. It is a hallmark characteristic of their performance, networking behavior, and upward social movement. It alerts everyone of their achievements and capability. Women, however, often feel uncomfortable sharing their wins. When speaking with women entrepreneurs around the world about why they did or did not share their professional wins, they told me they “didn't want to toot their own horn," or “look like they were bragging too much." But this lack of bragging or verbal celebration holds back our careers, and our personal performance.
Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle that requires sustained, long-term high performance from every individual. The world's leading high-performance coach, Brendon Burchard, has coached over 2 million students worldwide on the 6 qualities necessary for High Performance. Celebration is not just a nice fluffy thing; it is critical for the health of a company, a vibrant culture, and must start from the top.
So many entrepreneurs run on the hamster wheel, chasing the next metric, goal, or deal, and I was one of them. I remember working in a company where a huge milestone would be met, and there was no team celebration, no recognition, and business continued as usual: grinding. Over the long term, this influences the culture of the company and the morale of all its individuals. One begins to wonder, what is the point?
Brendon Burchard encourages people to “Strive Satisfied." He says we need to integrate the wins at every step of the journey in order to avoid burnout. Just as we need a tribe with whom we can share the struggles, we also need to feel comfortable sharing the wins with each other - without feeling like we are “bragging too much."
Celebration punctuates the journey of being an entrepreneur. It infuses the labor with meaning and offers a feeling of progress, which translates to more purposeful effort.
I foster a culture of celebration within my own company, starting with myself. Each Friday, I have an event in my calendar, “Fistbump Friday", where I calculate the personal and professional wins from the week. Within my media accelerator, students are invited to #BRAG and share their wins each Friday with each other. It is amazing to see how much everyone is accomplishing and encourages us to keep moving forward!
9. How do you see the future of PR and media evolving? Thoughts on bloggers and the power that they hold?
Media platforms will continue to fragment, become more niche, and expand as individuals create their own media platforms by harnessing the power of video and social media. The techniques for storytelling evolve for emerging platforms. Power bloggers and “influencers" will begin to generate as much if not more ROI than large mainstream traditional media outlets. Many brands will become media platforms themselves to maintain a loyal audience and generate buzz that drives behavior (i.e. sales, list growth, clients, and students). Overall, brands will need to know how to tell stories with more authenticity, consistency, and stay visible in an increasingly noisy market.
March 6, 2017. I will never forget the date and I will never forget the place. And despite an unfortunate series of events that evening that led me to be over-served, I will also never forget what he did or what he said and the squirmy high pitched voice he used that night.
At a bar in Manhattan after a work event, my business partner put his hand up my dress and pulled at my stockings, grabbing me by my crotch telling me over and over again that he just wanted to put his fingers up my pussy. Unimaginable. I must have been pretty drunk - maybe even blacked out - because I don't remember exactly what happened right before that. Not good. But what was even worse was this person who I knew and trusted took advantage of my condition and instead of helping me when I was clearly in bad shape, he hit on me. Or at least that is the way I looked at it initially.
He is very strong. I grabbed his forearm with both my hands and told him no and to stop and I tried to pull his hand out from under my dress.
He did not listen and he did not stop even though I told him no multiple times.
Even though I physically tried to fight him off.
It was bad. When something like that happens to you it plays a trick on your brain. If it was a stranger I would have yelled for help. But it was not. It was someone I knew and trusted. Eventually, I did get him to stop and convinced him that it was time to go. On 5th Avenue I told him we were both going home. He said he wanted to take me to a hotel. He started grabbing up my dress again and telling me again that he just wanted to put his fingers up my pussy.
"I have a big dick and you are going to like it." he said.
I continued to tell him no and to stop. He grabbed me again and literally put his tongue down my throat. I tried to push him off; to tell him no; to breathe.
But he was stronger than me and he didn't listen. I was nauseous. He made me nauseous and so did the wine and scotch that I drank that night. I managed to push him off with one big burst of strength. And then I went to the side of the building and threw up. I threw up the booze, I threw up his disgusting words, and I threw up his tongue being jammed down my throat.
He asked me if I was okay and I looked at him with anger and disgust and I said no.
"No I am not okay. This is not okay. You need to leave. Go home." I yelled. And he finally listened to me.
I woke up in my bed the next morning not feeling so well on all fronts. I had a text from his wife. Whom I never met. Asking if he had done anything inappropriate the night before. I was still thinking he hit on me. I panicked. "No. He was fine." I responded.
He called me later that morning and said he couldn't remember the night and asked me if I remembered anything. I let him know he hit on me and that he used disgusting language and he was completely out of line. That he wanted to take me to a hotel. He said he didn't remember.. "You told me you had a big male part and I was going to like it."
He snickered and said well I do but that's besides the point. And then he proceeds to tell me we were never going to talk about this again.
He was heading out on a guys trip and by the time he returned I was heading out to an industry conference. I hadn't told anyone. Not my family, not my friends, no one. It was 10 days since it happened.. My female colleague asked me at the conference how the partnership was going and I said not good. I told her he hit on me and that it was beyond awkward that it was disturbing. She asked me what happened and I told her the whole story.
"That's is not hitting on you that is sexual assault" she stated.
And that was the first time I ever considered that this was more than someone hitting on me. It was a lot to absorb. I knew I couldn't work with him anymore and I shared that with my friend. She said not only can't you not work with him but you have to report him. I really needed to wrap my head around this.
Before heading back east I changed travel plans and headed out to spend some time with my daughter who was working out west at the time. I shared what happened with her. She was appalled. She was clear. She reiterated what my colleague said. She was disgusted with this person and said I needed to report him. It was a reversal of roles but she gave great advice. I then shared what happened with my husband and then my other two children and then some of my friends.
The next day I met with my management team and shared what happened and included the details. It was so uncomfortable to do but I knew it had to be done. I told them that we were no longer going to work together and I was going to tell him but that I wanted to spare his family and not report him to HR. I know - silly me to think this way. Of course this warranted an HR intervention. This was not my works though and I think I was still in shock in a sense that this actually happened. My brain was still playing tricks on me.
I walked into his office and let him know I didn't want to work with him anymore. He was stunned. And then for the second time to date that weird whiny voice came out. Why? But I want to still work with you. Why don't you want to work with me? It was a trigger. I snapped. I then blasted him with exactly what he said and did that night. He covered his ears and said he couldn't listen anymore. There was no changing my mind and he agreed to part ways. And then he said he never wanted to talk about it again.
Until my manager called me at the end of the day and said it had to be reported to HR. I expressed my concern and asked if we could please not report it. I don't want him fired because he has a family and I didn't want that on me. Too bad too late it was serious and needed to be reported. My brain was still playing tricks on me. I knew he had crossed some serious lines and his actions were assault and a crime. Still it was someone I had known and worked with and trusted.
The next day he called my office. He shared that he told his wife and she was very angry but they were going to work it out. I am glad we will never have to talk about this again. We were going to responsibly separate our business so we needed to be cordial. I told him that unfortunately that will not be the case because HR is now involved. The high pitches voice came back. Oh my god why? What did you tell them? They are going to think I am an animal. Please please I am begging you call them up and tell them you were lying tell them take it back tell them you made it up. But I didn't lie, I didn't make it up, and I certainly wasn't going to retract what I shared. He called me back multiple times begging me to take it back. He begged me to tell management that I had made it up. He asked me that if I couldn't do it for him to do it for his family. I felt bad for his family but I told the truth and I wasn't going to retract it. His multiple calls bordered on harassment so I stopped taking his calls.
I received an email from HR. They wanted to meet with me to discuss my concerns that I raised with management. We met that week. She indicated that she had known my name as all external recognitions come through their office and they need to approve all nominations. It was an odd statement, almost a power play. Other than that, she came across as warm and supportive as I shared the entire story. I knew that he would be fired because as I recounted the events and the behavior I realized his actions violated more than company policy. I felt badly about that because of his family so I said I didn't want him fired. She proceeded to tell me that they would determine what to do and it was their job to decide what to do. She also said they wouldn't be able to tell me what they did. They would be meeting with him soon because of the nature of the incident.
A couple of days later, I knew they were meeting with him and I was sick to my stomach. Any minute now he would be fired for his behavior and actions and although I knew it was the right thing to do, I still struggled with the effect this would have on his family. I wasn't thinking clearly of course as he would be the reason he was fired, not me. It was his choice and his actions.
Later that day he was still employed and I couldn't figure out how that could be possible. I later received an email that the HR woman had more questions. Okay. The second meeting was disturbing. It took a very different turn and tone.
"If you are lying you will be fired. He could lose his job, his family and his livelihood. Are you sure you are not lying? And you may not discuss this with anyone. If you discuss this with anyone you could be fired." I was traumatized by this woman. She proceeded to make belittling comments and victim shame me. "I could see how he could get his hand up that dress. He said he was pulling on your stockings but not up by your crotch."
She then gave me an anatomy lesson on where in my body my vagina is - sharing that she has had this same anatomy conversation with her two young daughters (like 4 and 6) really?
"I told him to stop numerous times I told him no."
"He said you meant no not here."
"I had to literally pull his foreman out from my dress." Then she indicated that I really couldn't pull his arm from that angle. Insinuating that I was lying and making it all up.
This is what we refer to as victim-shaming and it is toxic behavior. And it actually is to me the more difficult aspect to overcome. There was more. But you get the picture.
Fast forward to October 2017 and the #metoo movement erupts. I have shared my experience with close friends and colleagues and have received tremendous support and for that I am grateful. I had lunch with a male colleague, a good friend who had been part of the team who hired me. He was in a position to refer clients and I wanted to know what he looks for when referring clients. He answered that he only refers to teams. I asked him why he doesn't refer client opportunities to me. He said because I don't have a partner. But I had a partner and you know it didn't work out. I am good at what I do. I don't need a partner I have a whole team. He then said yes he knew all about my partner and what happened. What did they tell you happened? That you had a prior relationship with him and it just didn't work out. What? There was no prior relationship. Did they tell you.... and then I proceeded to vomit out the whole incident ...omg no I didn't know. I am so sorry. No they didn't tell us that. It was just s bunch of us guys talking about it. It was a while ago. Don't worry. We all know you and know you are a quality person. Just put your head down and work and eventually everyone will forget about this. I thanked him and I was thankful for his friendship and that he shared this with me. And then I called the best attorney in New York City to discuss this. My biggest mistake when the incident first happened is that i did not get legal representation on day one when this first occurred. I didn't do anything wrong so I didn't think I needed an attorney. I now realize that was a critical mistake on my end. Always always always seek legal advice no matter what!!!! He must have had a top attorney. His job was on the line. And as a result he was protected and I was not.
The attorney I met with and hired is a rock star. She asked me what I wanted. I want him fired. I had completely changed my position on this. My mind was no longer playing tricks on me. He screwed up. He crossed the line. He committed the crime. He was still at my company showing up at conferences, seeing him at the office - it made me sick to my stomach. It felt so different because now it felt like he got away with it, didn't accept any responsibility in this and was even a bit arrogant. Too late I was told. They had already decided his fate and could not change it. Do you want to leave? Do you want money? Has your business suffered as a result of this? No, no and no. I like the people here ,I know everyone, I know how to navigate the firm. I am not leaving. And my business is doing great. And no. I don't want money. I just don't. Well then what do you want? I want them to never do this to another human being. It was the most traumatizing time of my life. I was stressed out every day. I was worried that they wouldn't believe me and I would be fired. It scared the hell out of me. I was terrified. I ended up with bronchitis. I threw my back out and had unbearable pain for months. I attribute this to the stress and the duress of the way I was treated by the woman in HR and the way this was handled.
The attorney was my saving grace. The attorney found 10 violations of case law in this investigation and prepared a letter to my firm. This attorney is one of the best in the country and they were appalled by the way this investigation by my firm was handled.
I was slow to respond when it was time to send the letter in. I was told that it may reopen a new investigation and cause me more duress. I was told my goal of procedural changes would never be known. I was told there was no real upside for me. After 9 months of stress I decided to end it and I chose not to send it. I wanted to stay at my firm because I have many great relationships and resources and the people are not the HR woman who failed me failed our firm and failed our community. Who said there are places in hell for women who don't help other women? I was thriving in my business and did not want to leave and did not want money. I only wanted the firm to change the way they handle these matters going forward. But there was no way we would know if they would make any changes and their would be no upside for me in delivering the letter. There was only more downside. Speaking up cost me. It cost me my health for a time - I came down with bronchitis during this investigation and three out my back for a year. It cost me my mental health for a while as I actually was in fear that maybe they would believe him and his lies as he tried to save his job and if they believed him and not me then I could lose my job and it cost me because I did not know that I would need my own legal representation.
I thought one day if I ever do leave my current firm I would deliver the letter as part of my exit interview. Or maybe write a book one day and share these events then. The book would be about more than this one incident - it would be about resiliency and finding my own definition of success. But...
Earlier this week news broke That Rowan Farrow has a new book coming out and it shares details about the rape that caused NBC to fire Matt Lauer. It brought back a flood of emotions and the events of that night. The sexual assault. The idea that something like this could happen to someone like me and at this point in my life. Really? I am grateful that NBC and the people that sat at the desk with Matt acknowledge his "appalling, horrific and reprehensible" behavior and confirm why they took immediate action against him as soon as they learned of this behavior. It gives me hope that we are not going to accept this type of behavior or action. I do not accept it and my heart goes out to the woman who has been forced into the limelight, with photographers chasing her down in front of her home, snapping pictures, freezing her image in time when she is scared and she is vulnerable and she feels violated. Again. She was brave to speak up and face someone so much bigger stronger and more powerful then her. I understand where she is coming from. How maybe her mind played tricks on her too. There is a huge cost to sharing such an assault - an assault on your body but even more an assault on your being - and being publicly identified as the victim.
On a positive note, many firms have changed the way they address these incidents now. I hope my firm has revisited the way they handle sexual assault and the way they treat the victim too. I hope it will be a better experience for the next person and they are treated with respect, support and kindness.
Fast forward to today. He is still working at my firm and every time I see him I get a visceral reaction and feel nauseous. I think if this event had happened six months later in the midst of the #metoo movement he would have been fired. I also "heard" that this same fellow had been fired years ago from another firm for sexually harassing a woman. But there is no public information available on this. This is the cost of keeping things quiet. An opportunity to repeat this behavior. Maybe worse next time.
I like to think my firm now knows they made the wrong decision and should have fired him.
I have chosen to not be a victim. I spoke up. It did cost me. But I would do it again. I have been determined to find ways to support women and to have a positive impact on others and make a difference at my firm. I share this article anonymously in order to protect myself. Because we need to put our oxygen mask on first and we need to heal and move past the damage caused by others. In my case - by him and by the woman who works in HR.