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Building your content strategy with Sherry Sanderford | On Top of PR podcast

By On Top of PR

On Top of PR podcast: Building a content strategy with Wounded Warrior Project’s Sherry Sanderford and show host, Jason Mudd, episode graphicLearn the role of content strategy and why a solid content strategy is important to your marketing and PR efforts with our guest Sherry Sanderford, public relations manager at the Wounded Warrior Project.



Our episode guest is Sherry Sanderford, public relations manager at the Wounded Warrior Project. Sherry is a strategic communications leader with extensive experience in corporate, health care, and health technology communications.



The one with Wounded Warrior Project’s Sherry Sanderford on how to engage your audience through a successful content strategy.



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Five things you’ll learn from this episode:

  1. What is the role of content in today’s PR environment?

  2. How can organizations drive content through a multi-channel strategy?

  3. How does a solid content strategy support earned media efforts?

  4. How do you measure the impact of your content strategy?

  5. What are lessons for PR practitioners operating during a pandemic?


  • “Good content is the gift that keeps on giving.” — @ssanderford

  • “Let's get back to a broader view on public relations, of which earned media and media relations is a component.” — @ssanderford

  • “Having a very strong customer base, follower base, supporter, or donor base is key.” — @ssanderford

  • “We have to be willing to be open to new ideas that may be coming from folks that we might not necessarily have thought understand our business or the work that we do.” — @ssanderford

  • “I think taking a little bit more time and guiding people produces enormous rewards in the end. You get richer stories and content. Be willing to laugh and learn.” — @ssanderford

If you enjoyed the episode, would you please leave us a review?


About Sherry Sanderford:

Sherry Sanderford is a strategic communications leader with extensive experience in corporate, health care, and health technology communications. She recently joined the Wounded Warrior Project as the public relations manager. Her responsibilities include leading a team of public relations professionals in charge of external communications and reputation. Previously, Sherry ran S2 Communications & Consulting where she provided communications strategy and consulting to businesses and non-profit organizations, primarily in the healthcare space.


Before that, Sherry spent 20 years at Aetna/CVS Health leading executive communications, internal communications, and media relations for numerous business areas. She enjoys connecting people to one another around a shared purpose.


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Presented by: ReviewMaxer, the platform for monitoring, improving and promoting online customer reviews.




Hey, thanks for tuning into "On Top of PR." This episode, we have Sherry Sanderford, and she is with Wounded Warrior Project, and we are gonna talk about lessons learned for PR practitioners operating during a pandemic. We're gonna talk about content and content strategy, how to drive content across multiple channels, and also how you measure that content. So I hope you'll tune in, and I think this is a great episode.


- [Narrator] Welcome to "On Top of PR" with Jason Mudd, presented by ReviewMaxer.


- Hello, and welcome to another episode of "On Top of PR." I'm your host, Jason Mudd with Axia Public Relations, and I'm joined with Sherry Sanderford. Sherry, thank you for being here today.


- Thanks Jason, I'm looking forward to the conversation.


- Well, I'm glad you're here, and I'm glad to be here, and I'm excited today to talk to you about content and content strategy. And so, real quick for our audience, share with us just a few sentences about you and your rich background.


- Sure. So currently I am the Public Relations Manager at Wounded Warrior Project, a national nonprofit based in Jacksonville, Florida, that serves our nation's ill and injured and wounded veterans, post-9/11 veterans. I joined the organization earlier this year, interestingly right in the middle of COVID. They were two weeks past sending people into, to work from home, and so it's been an interesting ride. It's about six months in, loving it, wonderful mission, wonderful organization, wonderful supporters, and it's a lot of great stories to tell. Before this, I spent about 20 years in corporate communications, leading large communication practice for businesses at Aetna, which is a national health insurance organization that's now part of CVS Health. And so, it's been quite the change to go from a corporate environment into nonprofit. A lot of transferable skills, things move quickly and more slowly at different levels, and for different programs and opportunities. And for me, it's a little bit of kind of return to what I really was interested in coming out of college. I spent a couple of years in the nonprofit space before going into corporate, and so this is kinda returned to that early passion from early in my career.


- Well, it sounds like you've got a perfect blend of experience for your current position, and for our topic here today. What a great organization Wounded Warrior Project is, and something I've been a big fan of since its inception, and no matter where I go, I noticed the logo, you know, somewhere, typically in an airport as people are traveling. Real quick, just kinda personally, what attracted you to this position and this opportunity, Sherry?


- So, first of all, I mean, you can't, you know, you can't argue with the mission of the organization. It was formed in 2003. Really, at that time, the organization started as a grassroots initiative to really take backpacks of care items to veterans who were, you know, coming off of the battlefield, and were at Walter Reed, you know, up in that our nation's Capitol area. And were coming back with nothing, no care items, no clean shorts, nothing like that. And, it kinda of started out of the founder's basement, and it's grown to serve close to about 150,000 post-9/11 wounded warriors nowadays, and their family members. And the organization, you know, one of the things that really attracted me to the organization was just the power of the mission. But every person I interact with, and I still interact with, I'm just, I'm convicted by the fact that what we're doing has gone well beyond, you know, sort of the early days of the backpacks, that the organization is very committed to helping people deal with the invisible wounds of war. So much of what attracted me, and what I enjoyed about my life when it was working Aetna was the work we did to really make people's lives better through better health, and at Wounded Warrior Project, we're very focused on helping restore people to their very best visions of themselves. And a lot of mental health programs, a lot of financial wellness programs, to kinda get them on their feet as they transition. And there's such a range of programs, and when you're in the world of communications and public relations, telling those stories, and having the opportunity to really put the people forward who are being served by your mission, there's nothing more rewarding than being able to tell their stories and help people tell their stories.


- Yeah, I absolutely agree. Again, a great cause, and I think in many ways it's a dream job, so I'm really happy for you, and the opportunity you have there to grow and expand the organization's visibility and awareness and programs through your role there. So speaking of roles, let's get right into it, what is the role of content in today's PR environment, and how are you using content in your current position, Sherry?


- Well, I like to say, and I often tell my team, good content is the gift that keeps on giving, but I think it's important in the world of communications and marketing and public relations to really say what we mean by good content. And as I was thinking about our conversation today, for some reason, I had a long-term memory come back to me, and I went all the way back to my high school senior English class, and I remember our teacher, it was a classroom assignment, we were studying aphorisms, and aphorisms are, I'm trying to think of the proper definition, but an aphorism is basically something that is a principle that becomes pretty well acknowledged or commonplace. And the assignment was, you know, write an aphorism. And so I sat there, I think the class period was probably 50 minutes, and I remember looking around the room, and my friends were busy scribbling their ideas, and I was just sitting there, you know, I guess it was the proverbial writer's block. And, I had about 15 minutes left in the classroom, class period, and finally, I was like, "I've got it." And I wrote down, "If you have nothing to write, write nothing." And, you know, I was all proud of myself, and my sarcasm was not lost on my teacher, but it's a long story, but I say this because our world today, we are bombarded with information and messages, I mean, every brand, every organization out there is trying to figure out how to get our attention and get our eyeballs on whatever content they're serving up. I mean, there's not a lack of content out there, but I think we would all agree that there's probably a lack of good content out there. And so I try to keep that in mind, when I think about sort of content strategies, and what we're doing with content that, it has to be relevant, it has to be meaningful, it has to educate people, it has to inspire people or entertain people. So I think it's important to define good content.


- Yeah, that's outstanding. We talk internally about how important that, kind of three principles that we checklist all of our work with, and they surround the idea of, does this make the person's job easier, their day better? Does it help them get better at what they're doing, right? I think too often, especially in corporate communications, the focus is on us, the company, and what we're doing, right? And I tell people all the time, and I've mentioned on this podcast before, we don't go to a movie to watch a story about a building, or about a legal corporate entity, right? It's about the characters within that company, or the people who are being served, and the journey they go through, and the difficulties they face. And so, you know, you're talking in your content, I'm sure, about a lot of journeys, a lot of heroic journeys and sacrifices, and lifelong commitments. And so I think that's excellent. So, talk about, a little bit, you know, about the content that you're developing today, and what are some of the challenges in doing a great job of either storytelling or developing that content.


- Gosh, that's a good question, you know, and it's one that I think we deal with every single day. In fact today, I was just spending time with my team kinda mapping out like, what's our content strategy around November, because that's a big month, it's Veteran's Day, and of course we all know, with the election, getting any attention on anything during that time period is gonna be tough for all of us. So, you know, I think that for us, and really for any organization, you know, content planning, your content strategy, figuring out that content goes back to whatever your mission is, what's your purpose? You know, what are you trying to do? And at the end of the day, we're trying to serve wounded warriors, people who have returned from the battlefield, who've served our country, and have been injured, whether physically or have the invisible wounds of war. And so, a lot of our content planning goes into what do they need? What do they need to know from us? How do the programs and services that we offer meet a particular need for them, back to your question, or back to the point that you said you shared with your team. And so, there are times during the year where we may have more to say, we may have less to say, and I think it's really about being strategic around where are those moments in time where you have relevant stories to tell, because the audience has to kinda be primed for those stories, and I think it kinda starts from a planning standpoint there.


- Excellent excellent. That's very true, and something that every organization should really be reflecting on, I think personally, who's the audience that we wanna reach, right? What do they know? What do we want them to know, and then what do we want them to do, right? And, there's kind of a military-


- We say think, feel, or do, you know, there needs to be some sort of behavioral activation, right?


- Yeah, absolutely. There's kinda that old military cliche, tell them what you're gonna tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them, right? And, you know, it's kinda the same thing, you really just need to know, who's your audience? What do they know, what do you want them to know, and what do you want them to do? I was having a conversation yesterday, and the person from the company said, "Well, everybody's our target audience." And I was like, "Ugh," you know, "If everybody's your target audience, then nobody's your target audience?" And they're like, "But it works for Walmart," and I'm like, "But you're not Walmart, right?" And even Walmart has its own little audience. So, kind of like, before great recession, Walmart was trying to move more towards Target's space of being a little bit more luxurious, if you will, and Target was trying to move down to Walmart's space, and for both of them, I'm like, "No! Stop!" Like, "Stay where you are, be happy, you're both killing it. Don't try to dilute your brand and your customer," because there are some people who go to Target because it's not Walmart, and some people go to Walmart because it is Walmart.


- Right, some people go to both, so you can buy your pajamas at one place, and, well, you know. I've never worn my pajamas to a store .


- All right, excellent. Well, real quick, Sherry, let's take a quick break, and we'll come right back on the other side.


- [Narrator] You're listening to "On Top of PR" with your host Jason Mudd. Jason is a trusted advisor to some of America's most admired and fastest growing brands. He is the Managing Partner at Axia Public Relations, a PR agency that guides news, social, and web strategies for national companies. And now, back to the show.


- All right, and now that we're back from break, so Sherry, tell me about your content strategy there at Wounded Warrior Project, and is it multichannel? Are you using multiple channels for your content? And what does that look like?


- Yeah, we are, for sure. And, before I do that, I wanna share a little bit. So, as I said in the beginning, Jason, my career, I've been in lifelong communications, public relations. And when I got started in PR, there was this mentality, and this'll probably date me a little bit, but there was a very clear distinction, and I'm sure some would argue there still is, between those who earned media coverage and those who paid for it. So, you know, there was that divide between the PR, and advertising or marketing. And I think over the last probably 10 years, particularly the last five years, those lines have blurred a lot. And so, I think it was, I'm looking at my notes here, Gini Dietrich, I'm trying to remember the year, I think it was, she said back in 2009 was when she really initially kind of developed the concept around a PESO strategy, so paid, earned, shared and owned. And I don't think it was until her book came out, "Spin Sucks," I think it was like 2014 when that phrase was actually put together. But, you know, I really think it probably took me a couple of years after that to really begin to internalize that strategy, and think about it with the way I work, because I think I was probably more of a pure-play PR professional, and kind of saw those lines to be still distinct. But at the end of the day, what marketing needs. what advertising needs, what public relations need, what corporate communicators need are good content, or is good content, should I say. And, I think it all starts right there. So that's really kind of the foundation of what I look at, and whenever we're looking at a strategy, you know, the strategy looks at all of it. We have our own channels where we can host our content on our website, the newsroom in particular, our social channels are a really big avenue for us to reach supporters, and warriors, and donors. But at the same time, we have, you know, there are some certain paid opportunities that we have to take it into account, and I think everybody in the world of public relations acknowledges that with the continued challenges that journalism faces around just, reduce, you know there's fewer jobs, there's fewer or outlets out there, we're seeing more and more outlets move to pay-to-play, and even on the side of journalism, sometimes those lines begin to blur a little bit.


- [Jason] Yes, for sure.


- So I think we just have to be smart, we have to learn from one another, we have to understand the distinctions in the value that you get from something that you earned, versus the value you might get from something that's a paid placement, and so it's no longer an either-or strategy, it's an and strategy.


- Yeah, I like that, I like that a lot. You know, I know Gini, and she's great, and certainly is due credit for creating a you know, the PESO Venn diagram that's been shared so much on social media. I think the PESO model itself has been around for decades


- Probably, you're right. We just didn't accept it, right?


- Yeah. So, you know, and I just mention that because we've talked about that before here on this same show, and I've been corrected for giving her the credit for it. So I learned that, you know, hey, it's good to give attribution and credit. In fact, when I first saw the PESO Venn diagram, it was in a PRSA presentation with no attribution to her or her book, and so, you know we started using it as if it was a PRSA concept, and then, you know, as I got to know Gini, at some point, she just kinda said, "Hey, by the way if you're gonna use that, please give us some attribution." I was like, "I didn't know it was yours or I would have." So, yeah, but all good. So, you know, you're right, I mean, a solid content strategy supports earned media efforts, and a lot of people, when they think of PR, they only think of earned media, and it's so much broader than that, and obviously, you know, much less tactical and certainly, much more strategic about getting the message out there to your audiences, who are both internal and external, kinda thing. So, how are you using a solid content strategy supporting your earned media efforts?


- So, I'll share a little bit about kinda the transition I made between corporate and PR. So, you know, take me back probably, as I said, when I really started to sort of adopt, and accept, it's probably more the right thing, the integrated model, I always knew integrated, but I thought other people needed to do that paying for stuff, right . And that you know, creating the content and giving it to people. So, it was probably about three years ago, when I was with Aetna, I led our local media relations team, so we had a team of folks that handled media relations at the local level around the country. And interestingly enough, at the time, their jobs, and I think their job titles were focused around media relations. And, I was working at that time to kinda effect a change in the way that we worked. And so I kinda broadened their roles, and I said, "Let's get back to a broader view on public relations, of which earned media and media relations is a component." And we started down this path of really starting to create content assets, you know, videos and, if we did, for example, maybe we were staffing an event for the Aetna Foundation, or something in a local market, and how are we going to get media attention on that? And we really started kinda creating assets and videos and things along those lines, kinda working across the teams. And it was quite the learning curve for people who had traditionally grown up, you know, where you built relationships with journalists, and that's kinda how you got coverage. Fast forward, I joined this organization, Wounded Warrior Project, about six months ago, and one of the things that really attracted me was that while my job as public relations manager, and I lead a team of people whose job it is to get earned media coverage, they're not focused solely on getting that earned media coverage through just the pitching efforts, but also developing content assets. One of our primary goals is to create multimedia news packages that we can use in a number of different ways. We make those available, post them on the Wounded Warrior Project website. We make them available to our social media team that we work very closely with, assets for them to use and push through, you know, the number of different channels that we, you know, put content on through social media, but then also making those packages available to media outlets. So that's one of the ways that we have really strived to gain media coverage, particularly in the local markets, and where see demand for that the most, I really think, is in the local broadcast market. So when we're, whether it's an event, sometimes events are ones that generate just wonderful assets, you know, rich visual assets. If you've got a soldier ride where you have injured warriors who are riding adaptive cycles and, you know, all kinds of just kinda wonderful visuals, and maybe they're doing this 40-mile cycling event through Long Island, it lends itself very well to visual assets, and so being able to kinda flip and turn, you know, get those video assets and flip them to a local broadcast station has really been a shot in the arm for our media relations earned media efforts. So I think our earned media strategy is a component of it, but we're never solely focused only on the earned media, we're also focused on how are we also getting those, you know, those visuals, those stories, in front of people who may not be in that local market, not see that broadcast, but will tune into our Facebook channel. I can't even remember, we have several hundred thousand followers on Facebook, I was like blown away at how many people you know, how many people we have on Facebook, and just what a wonderful channel that is for us.


- Absolutely. It's very helpful, you know, I've said this for decades, good PR people have always known how to communicate directly to their audience, even moving around news media and, you know, news media is obviously an audience, a channel, and a tool of all good PR, but sometimes they're just not gonna tell the story that you need told, and so you need to find a way to communicate more directly with those channels, and certainly social media has made that a lot easier, for good or bad, right? There's pros and cons, but-


- Well it goes back, Jason, I think too, what we were talking about earlier, which is the importance of having good content, and knowing your audience, and who you're trying to, you know who you're trying to appeal to, who cares about that content?


- Absolutely. Yeah. So I'm curious, how do you measure the impact of your content strategy?


- So I think it's a combination of some of the traditional measurements. We do look at impressions and reach, share a voice in certain instances, but some of those more traditional earned media metrics aren't always necessarily representative of who's actually consuming it. I mean, you and I know that impressions might be, let's say it's a million, but the people who really saw the story and did something, going back to what's that behavior we're trying to get them to do, you know, did something about it is a much smaller number. So I think, one of the things that we all have to do and be much more tied into is working with our social media team, working with our website team, because they have access to analytics, whether it's Google analytics, or whether it's specific analytics that they're tracking through different social media tools to see who's consuming the information and what they're doing. I'll give you, you know, as I shared earlier, I started with the organization in late March, and in June, June is Post Traumatic Stress Awareness Month, and that's a huge issue for the people that we serve, for the warriors that we serve, that's one of the invisible wounds of war that really challenges them. And so, we used that month as a way to share a lot about the programs, to share the message of hope, that you can learn to cope, and you can recover, and have a full life, and not be sort of held down by the manifestations of maybe trauma, you know, that you've experienced in serving your country. And so, with that, we had a special campaign site where we were kinda driving eyeballs, and it was really interesting to me, because, or maybe I shouldn't say interesting, it didn't surprise me, but I just think that being able to, you know, put information out there, whether it was, you know a media tour, or a month-long social media content campaign around PTSD awareness, and then to track what people are doing, and in that particular instance, you know, soliciting donations really wasn't a goal for our campaign. Our campaign was to get the message of hope and awareness out, and let you know the people, post-9/11 veterans know that we have services and programs available to help them. But I was able to track donations, there were donations that came as a result of that campaign, specifically through the links and things that were out there. So I think those are more actionable metrics, and really, people in in business and, you know, the C-suite cares about not necessarily the donations part, but they care about the, you know, what were those actionable measures, not just did a million people have eyeballs on this, because they know that not a million people saw something, just like we know it, but what did people do as a result of it?


- Yeah. Very good, very good. Well, we kind of alluded to this a little bit earlier, when you talked about kinda repurposing content for Facebook, and then earned media and otherwise, but I'm curious, you work at a nonprofit now, every company I've ever worked with, and every nonprofit I've worked with always says they don't have a big budget, so, I find that interesting that even the billion dollar brands claim they don't have big budgets. Everybody wants more. But you're at a nonprofit right now, and even though it's a large nonprofit, you know, how do you get content when you don't have a big budget for content?


- You know, it's interesting you ask that question, because I'll tell you, when I was actually going through the interview process, I remember one person saying to me, actually, it's the woman who hired me said, she had come from a health care background as well, and she said, "The stories and just the opportunities for content are like manna here, like they're falling from the sky constantly." So, I think, number one is having a very strong customer base, follower base, in our instance, a supporter or donor base is key. I'm constantly amazed at the people who want to help us tell stories, and are willing to flip out their cell phones and do a quick interview nowadays, you know, on their phones. I mean, that's been one of the, you know, people talk about the challenges, and sort of everything negative from the pandemic, well I actually see there's been positives for our industry that now, news media are fine, if someone's not, you know, they can't actually interview someone in person, they're comfortable doing things like this via web conferencing, Zoom, what have you. Just like that, we have people who are willing to get on the computer, or get on their phone, take a video of maybe what they're doing, you know, whether it's a warrior out, we've got a lot of people who, you know, sort of the physical health and wellness during this time is such a critical component to their mental health and wellness. And we're doing a lot of virtual programs, but the challenge with the virtual program is you can't really get there, and you can't send a staff person or whatever with a camera to shoot something like that, or maybe even you don't wanna go to the expense to hire a local videographer, because it's just one person that you're shooting, it's not like a big event. But people are willing to take their their cameras, or get on the computer, and provide us their stories, and send those into us. So that's one way, and that's been, that's very much a very current, real time example. But as I said earlier, the team here, I'm really blessed with the folks that I work with, they're your, you know, sort of, multitalented, a number of them have broadcast journalism backgrounds, so they're used to kinda shooting stories, and developing stories, and they have that ability to do the technical side of it, but they understand the value of storytelling. So, when we're in a normal setting, although I haven't figured out what that is, because I haven't been in a normal setting yet here, you know, they all go out to events, and get footage. We might send a videographer out there, or hire a stringer or something like that, if it's big enough. So, I don't know if that answers your question Jason, I think I kinda got, I think I kinda went down another path, but maybe it was, maybe it was interesting.


- No, it was very interesting, thank you. We just have time for one last question, and that would be, thinking about the pandemic, right, which has been impactful for everyone, and, jokingly, I feel like PR pros and corporate communicators are being asked to do twice as much as we normally would, but what are some lessons learned for corporate communications pros and PR pros operating during the pandemic?


- Number one we have to, we have to be Gumby, we thought we had to be flexible before, we absolutely have to be a whole other level of flexible nowadays. And I think that we have to be willing to be open to new ideas that may be coming from folks that we might not necessarily have thought kinda understand our business, or the work that we do. You know, I've been really, as I said a moment ago, and touched on it, I mean, I've been really encouraged, there used to be this kinda expectation and mindset that, for example, maybe if it's a broadcast story, that the video quality had to be high def, it had to be shot professionally, and we couldn't do that, no one could do that during this time period, and I think you're seeing media outlets kinda, I don't wanna say relax their standards, but be more flexible themselves, that we all recognize that we'd rather get the story and understand the information that what's going on than have it look beautiful. We like how it looks, and we don't wanna compromise on quality, but having the access to the information is critical, and figuring out ways to do that ourselves is critical. I also think that this time requires PR professionals, communication professionals to be, you know, more hands-on with those that they're working with. We need to help people become comfortable with technology, we need to take the time to teach them. We've gotta learn it ourselves first, but I think just taking a little bit more time and guiding people produces enormous rewards in the end, you get much more rich stories, content and things like that, and just, you know, be willing to laugh and learn.


- That's good, I like that last advice the most, of being able to laugh and learn. So, if we're not learning, you know, we can't get any better, and so, you know, we talked earlier, you know, at our agency, we try to get 1% better every day, and some days maybe you didn't get better, and so it's very easy to be 1% better the following day. But yeah, well, Sherry, I can't believe we've run out of time already, this was a great conversation. Thank you for lending your smarts to our audience today, I'm really glad that you were here, and I hope you were glad to be here too. And certainly, if we have an audience member who just wants to connect with you, what's the best way for them to do that?


- I think the best way is on LinkedIn, I'm really responsive, I'm out there on that, and that's probably the most obvious way to get out there without spelling out my long name, and a really long URL email address .


- Sure, well, we'll put a link in the show notes to your LinkedIn profile so people can connect with you there, and just as a tip, I would recommend that when somebody reaches out to you, make sure that you mention to Sherry that you got to know her through the podcast, versus just a cold and unexplained connection request, which we get so many of those, and normally, at least for me, I ignore those unless the person really explains why they wanna connect. So, Sherry, again, thank you for being on the show, and for our audience, thanks for listening, or watching, depending on what platform you're on. And like Sherry said, I hope that we can all laugh through and get better every day, what we're doing, and through this difficult time, just learn to enjoy it, and remember the memories that we're creating, and we'll be able to talk about it when the normalcy of life returns, hopefully in the, not too distant future. So Sherry again, thank you for being here.


- Thank you Jason, thanks for having the conversation.


- Thank you.


- [Narrator] This has been "On Top of PR" with Jason Mudd, presented by ReviewMaxer.

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