Bloomberg Tax Journalist Kelly Phillips Erb, aka @Taxgirl, Talks Media Relations, Diversity and How Taxes are Fun
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Kelly Phillips Erb, attorney, writer, and blogger.
Kelly is a Team Lead for Insights & Commentary at Bloomberg Tax. Her job is to tell stories about tax and help tax professionals share their stories. She also is a managing shareholder at The Erb Law Firm, P.C., where she focuses on tax law. She earned her J.D. and LL.M. in Taxation from Temple University School of Law. While at law school, Kelly interned at the estates attorney division of the Internal Revenue Service, where she participated in the review and audit of federal estate tax returns.
Kelly authors the popular “Taxgirl” blog, which is listed in the ABA Journal “Blawg 100 Hall of Fame.” She also has a podcast by the same name, which features conversations about tax, money and the choices that we make, and has charted in several countries on Apple podcasts.
Kelly is a former editor turned senior contributor for Forbes and previously penned a weekly column with Bloomberg Tax before joining them as a staffer. She has appeared in CNN Money, NPR’s Marketplace, BBC, Time, Forbes Magazine, Esquire, Martha Stewart’s Living, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the New York Times, to list just a few.
Where to begin? You are a practicing lawyer and a journalist. Let’s start with you being a member of the media. I’m sure you get lots of media pitches. What works, what doesn’t and what should people never do?
Kelly Phillips Erb: I don’t have a set formula for what works. I have more “no’s” than “yeses.”
For yeses, I say timely, informative, different, simple. I love when someone writes to me and says, “I have a client who wants to write a story for you about the child tax credit, and here’s his credentials.” That’s perfect.
Things that I don’t love, which I know well because I’ve been on both sides. I’ve pitched articles, and then I get articles pitched to me. I understand why people do them. For the media outlets that I work for I was a staffer at Forbes for a while, and now I’m at Bloomberg, we get a lot of, but don’t love, notifications of promotions. For example. I always say, “Those are the things that your mother wants to know, but she’s the only one reading that.” It’s awesome that you got promoted, but that’s not newsworthy.
Where it is newsworthy is when the promotion story has an angle. For example, why does it matter that you got a promotion?
We did get a promotion story recently about a female vice president and it was important because she was one of the highest-ranking people in her field. That was novel and different and interesting and newsworthy. So, especially at Bloomberg, I’m in the news division, so when someone pitches me a promotion story, I want to know why. What are you doing that’s different? Why would readers care? If you pitch a promotion story, it should always have an angle of, “Why would it matter to someone other than your mother?”
Internal news: same thing. A lot of law firms like to send notification that they’ve hired three new people. That, on its own, isn’t news. If it’s because you’ve just acquired an office in another state because you’re expanding, that becomes news. When people are pitching, I like simple, timely and different, but also newsworthy because that’s sometimes what goes missing in pitches — why does it matter to anybody other than you? At the end of the day, it’s about the reader.
I get pitches that use the wrong name or the wrong media outlet. But the thing that I would say I love is when people do their homework. It’s frustrating to me when people do not. I get a lot of pitches, and we joke about this on Twitter a lot like, during tax season when people will say things like, “Dear Kelly, you might not know, but it’s the middle of tax season.” I then say to myself, “why would you start that way?” Because first, I’m a tax attorney. Secondly, I write about tax news, and thirdly, it’s March. Even people who don’t do those things for a living know it’s tax season. I love pitches where people do their homework. I dislike pitches that feel generic. I dislike pitches that suggest to me that you’ve sent it to 10 different organizations without regard for what they do.
Gina Rubel: I also have had people, and not at the outlet where I am now, but I used to get pitches where they would say, “I saw an article last week in Forbes, I thought you might be interested in,” and it will turn out to be a piece that I wrote. They’re trying to do an angle on another piece.
Packaging matters. Even if you’re pitching to me something fantastic, if I can’t get past the first paragraph, it’s hard. I’m a middle child, so I want to be kind to everyone. It’s in my nature to give people a break, but sometimes when you get a lot of pitches throughout the day, you must be thoughtful about what you take and who you follow up with directly. I appreciate the same level of thoughtfulness when someone’s pitching to me.
Do you look for a subject line that stands out?
It depends, sometimes people get my attention with the subject line. There was a guy last year who was pitching for his boss to be on my podcast, and it worked. He referenced, in his subject line, a story that I had written. But it was, “I know you are interested in this.” It was a clever twist on something I had said. That caught my attention when I was skimming, because I thought, “Hey, that’s my headline,” and then I read the article. The subject line should be thoughtful as well. I mean, it’s part of the pitch. To me, it’s like a headline.
It doesn’t have to be over the top, it doesn’t have to be crazy puns or anything, but it should reflect what it is. I read an article the other day that the average businessperson gets 129 e-mails a day. I get more than that, but when you think about that, what is yours that makes me click first. I go through all my e-mail, I read all my email. But there are priorities, right? You open the ones that are either filled timely, so for example, directly answering your question, if someone pitched something to me right now about the child tax credit, it would be to their advantage to have child tax credit somewhere in that subject line because that isn’t just, “Hey, I have a pitch for you,” It’s , “Hey, I have a pitch for you and it’s timely because child tax credit is important this week,” because IRS is sending out checks this week.
I’m looking for those. G20. OECD, those kinds of things that are happening right now, that should be in the subject line. That catches my eye when I’m skimming. That’s like, “Oh wait, they may have something for me this week and this is happening this week.” Otherwise, I just look for thoughtful pitches and it takes you a while sometimes to sort through them in the evening when you’re clicking through just to see what’s left in the pile.
What trends are you seeing in the industry and how do they impact the content you share?
There are a couple of things that are happening right now in the industry. Tax incorporates accounting, it’s also legal. We’re looking at:
- Multi-national corporation planning. How are international firms responding?
- How are firms responded to changes in administration and potential changes in the tax code?
- Diversity and inclusion. If you tell us you have a DE&I task force, tell me why that matters. Tell me how that’s changing your incoming class. Tell me how that’s changing your management practices.
- The post-pandemic reaction, return to office, what are we doing? It is a huge story for the tax profession.
- There’s a whole lot of states right now that want to say if you’re working from home and you’re across the river, New York, New Jersey, Philly, we know that well, where are you an employee. What does that mean? With the home office deduction being gone, how are employers doing to respond to that?
A turning point that we’re seeing in the profession that we haven’t talked about on a big scale before that we’re talking about a lot right now, is how tax professionals are dealing with the pandemic, coming out of it, how it affected us all mentally, and what that means. I see a lot of people leaving the profession, switching gears, and thinking about how to do their job differently. All of that is news. You can reflect on it as well, but if 20% of tax professionals leave the profession, that’s huge news. What does it mean? Conversely, the IRS is doing huge hiring initiatives because of the increased funding.
Because of #taxTwitter, a sense of community developed over COVID. I hope we can continue those discussions even inside of news.
There’re a lot of tax and legal professionals that felt alone during the pandemic and felt the weight of what their clients were going through because we were seeing people lose jobs and lose businesses. We had small business owners who had worked their whole lives for something that they potentially wouldn’t have in a year, and it took an emotional toll on professionals. Again, that’s news.
I ran a story around Father’s Day about how tax professionals who are fathers have been responding to the pandemic in the way that they look at being a dad differently. One of the things I said in that piece, which I thought was interesting because it was new to me because I had not thought about it that way as a mom. I think about how my kids respond to my career a lot and we don’t ask dads those questions. I was under the impression, and this is completely wrong of me, which is what the piece was about, about me being wrong about this, was that we didn’t ask them those questions because I didn’t think they cared to talk about it. But they did. I put out a call on Twitter and I can’t tell you how many people wrote me paragraphs about how the pandemic has changed their view on the profession, how being a dad became more important to them during the pandemic.
If you pitched, “I’m a dad who’s an accountant”, that’s not news, but “I’m a dad who’s an accountant, now let me tell my story about how my job affects my view of fatherhood,” now, that’s a story. So that’s been interesting to me.
Where else do you source stories besides Twitter?
A lot of times it’s word of mouth. I’ll have a conversation on my podcast, and somebody will mention a name, and I’ll say, “Oh my gosh…” There is a guy who is going to be on my podcast that someone mentioned to me, “Oh, you’ve got to talk to this guy because he does tax on TikTok.” I am on TikTok, but I don’t follow it that closely, and so it was intriguing because it was a referral, it was, “Let me tell you a story …” and I ended up getting an e-mail from him. He and I talked — he’s fantastic — and it was such a great fun episode.
I use LinkedIn. I don’t always love LinkedIn as much for sources because of those things we mentioned before about subject lines. Messages gets lost sometimes in inbox messaging, which is what a lot of professionals like to do on LinkedIn. It’s difficult for me to sort through all the requests I get on LinkedIn, so I prefer e-mail in that regard because I do like a good subject line. If I get five private messages in a morning, that just adds to the list. I don’t think some people on LinkedIn are as targeted as they could be.
One of the cool things about Twitter — even though it’s wider– is there’s hashtag #taxtwitter. When people are using that tag, I know that they’re talking about tax. That’s easy to follow.
I do greatly appreciate Facebook for the same reason that I like Twitter. It helps me get good sources. People will tag a friend and say they’re proficient in something and that helps.
A lot of times I will also check sources on LinkedIn. If somebody says, “Oh, you should use Gina,” I’ll go and I’ll look just to make sure it’s who I’m looking for. I want a tax attorney, maybe this is a story for where a CPA doesn’t work or vice versa. I do my homework.
If somebody gives me a name, I don’t care if it comes from Facebook or Twitter. Twitter for me is more immediate and I like that. From knowing me all these years and people probably picked up on just from hearing me on this podcast, I can be wordy. Twitter forces me to be brief, and it forces other people to be brief. I find it to be more efficient.
Are you on Clubhouse?
Yes. The interesting thing about Clubhouse is that it wasn’t available for non-iPhone users until just recently. I am on Clubhouse. I haven’t done it yet, but I am doing a Twitter Spaces coming up, which is similar.
Gina Rubel: I’m on Clubhouse. It’s one of those things where you pick your outlet and you take time on it, and you realize that you just can’t be everywhere at once.
Kelly Phillips Erb: That’s fantastic advice because I will say people will ask me about Twitter and they’ll say, “Well, I’m already on Instagram and I’m doing great.” I say, “Stay on Instagram and do great.” I like to play on other platforms just to see what’s going on. Again, I’m on TikTok, but you won’t see me dancing.
Gina Rubel: You’re not going to see me dancing either, but you’ll see my dancing dogs.
What do you look for when you’re approached with a content submission?
I have a weekly column where I look for sources and then I also have insights. Our insights on Bloomberg are actual articles and pieces that are written by tax professionals that we publish.
That would be my content. We like to think of insights as practitioner led articles, practitioner written articles, and it’s almost like a watercooler. What are people talking about right now? What’s important to them? What can you say about it that would be interesting and different, or what can you distill for people? When I mentioned earlier about how tax professionals are broad, I joke all the time, I’m awful at partnership tax. It is not interesting to me in the same way that maybe estates are, or maybe Section 280E is. It’s important for folks to know what’s happening all of the time. If they can’t answer a question, they can at least direct somebody.
A general counsel is a great example. They should know what’s happening and what people are talking about. They don’t have to write a white paper themselves. Our articles, especially on insights, are about 1,000 words because I’m not looking for a research paper. If you’re an expert on 1031 exchanges, tell me why they’re interesting now? Is it because interest rates are going up? Is it because there’re changes in the Biden administration that might make them more attractive or less attractive?
That’s the kind of stuff that I love. I love timely things; I love things that are relatively simple. Again, we take some pretty heavy concepts, but they have to be distilled down because yes, we have a commonness, and yes, we have academics that read us too, but a lot of them are just busy tax professionals. They don’t always have time to sit down and … it’s like, “What am I reading over my coffee this morning?” I want to know what’s happening, why does it matter to me, what should I know. I don’t need to drill down into it for 20 pages later.
There is a place for that, there is a home for that. We have it at Bloomberg, they have it at other places too. That’s just not what I do.
Timeliness, simplicity, ability to communicate. If it is a complicated concept, I will give you an example of how that worked. There was a special report about Baker McKenzie that we had. There were two folks that were in that special report that came on my podcast. They were talking about transfer pricing, which could be complicated. They were talking about it and how digitalization has changed transfer pricing. They did such a great job in half an hour explaining this complicated concept — it was still sophisticated and high level but explained in a way that people understood. If transfer pricing wasn’t your world, you could leave that conversation and think, I just learned something.
Somebody who did a great job of that is Ari Palmer-Salafia. She was terrific. She talked about research and development credits. I loved that interview because when I was talking to her, the things she had to say, high level, she said it in a way that somebody like me, who knows a little bit about tax but does not do R&D credits on a regular basis, could take away some meaning.
I also want readers and listeners to have a takeaway. That’s important to me. Whether it’s on the podcast or in an insight, I want the reader to leave knowing something different than before. If all you took away from that conversation is, “Hey, I have an architect client who might benefit from R&D credit because I didn’t know that those applied to architects,” that’s the win. I love a simple concept, distilling information down for a lot of different kinds of levels of sophistication, and timely and a takeaway.
Do you work with Cesca Antonelli?
I sure do. Yes. I report to her. Not directly, she’s a few levels higher. Cesca runs our newsroom.
Gina Rubel: I interviewed Cesca last week. Wonderful person. I recently got to know Cesca a bit, and so that was a fun interview to do. You’re on the same page. Everything she said, you’re saying much of the same in terms of how you like to be communicated with as a member of the media and what brings value.
Listen to Episode X of On Record PR with Cesca Antonelli on INSERT TITLE HERE.
As a tax lawyer, what has it being like being a woman in a predominantly male sector of the industry?
It’s shaped a lot of how I think about things, and how I think about the world. It also impacts my journalistic style in terms of what I want to bring and trying to always think about lots of different ways to look at things.
I’ve often been the only woman in the room. I’ve often been the youngest, especially among tax attorneys. In Philadelphia, it’s a lot of predominantly white male older attorneys. When I cut my teeth … you mentioned in my bio that I was at IRS interning and I was in the estate’s division, I started out practicing in estates work, there are more women in estates I would say than pure tax. I transitioned to doing a lot of tax, especially international tax that still is male dominated.
I’ve learned a lot over my career. With age, comes wisdom. There’s still a lot of discrimination – sometimes we get so programmed for it that we jump to conclusions, assuming it’s always there. I’ve started looking at the world differently because of that and I’ll give you a great example: when I had my first child, my husband and I had a firm together, and one day we had a conflict and when she was little, we didn’t have her in childcare. We would switch around; she would come to the office, and we’d just hand off. One time I had to go to a tax supper club in Philadelphia, and tax supper club is as geeky as it sounds. It’s an invitation only tax attorney club where we sit around at lunch time and talk about things that are important to the tax profession. Usually someone presents a topic, and we all take furious notes and it’s great fun.
But one time I had to bring Kate to this event, and I don’t know that he will ever even remember this, but Victor Keen, who was at Duane Morris at the time, was in charge that year of tax supper club. I brought Kate in her little infant carrier and slipped in the back. There may have been two women there that time. Katie was super good, but I was so nervous the whole time that she was going to cry and ruin someone’s presentation. At some point, Victor Keene said to me, “You brought your baby,” and I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Can I talk to you after?”
I spent the rest of the meeting expecting to be chastised. I was so concerned about this. I was already running through all the excuses in my head like, “I normally wouldn’t bring my child to an event, but I didn’t have another option.” I’m going through this whole scenario in my head, and he just wanted to see the baby. He was playing with her. It was a great moment. It changed a lot of my perception. I try to be open minded about the way that I view people who view me because I always thought I was one of the handful of women that people always were looking for reasons to challenge why I was there. It took me a little bit of age and getting comfortable in my own skin to understand that. Then it became more important to me to make sure that I reached out to other women in the profession and especially younger women. I answer a lot of emails from younger professionals asking me questions about what I think about having kids while you’re working, or going to school, or how do you … what do you do … as has happened to me when someone hands you a cup of coffee in the hallway of court and calls you “doll.” Opposing council did that to me in Philadelphia once.
Gina Rubel: That’s when Kelly, you turn around and say, “Can I call you Ken?”
Kelly Phillips Erb: I wasn’t clever enough at the time to think about it, I just remember looking like, “Are you kidding me?” As I get older, it’s more important to have people who look like you in the room, so I try hard to do that. There’s something that I also took with me to Bloomberg, when we do our stories, when I do my podcast, when we’re doing our spotlight series, highlighting tax professionals. I’m constantly thinking about, not just making sure that we have a woman there, but people of color, people who are from rural areas. I’m from rural North Carolina. I’m a first-generation college graduate. I want to see more rural people represented. As much as I love Philadelphia, I understand there are smart, sophisticated tax people all over the country. They’re not all in Philly, New York, DC and Chicago.
We think about diversity in terms of broad spectrums, and that’s something that having experienced … I’ve been passed over as well for jobs. I’ve told this story many times too, I’ve been asked in job interviews if I was having kids. Chris and I … Chris is my husband; Chris and I were interviewed for the same job in law school. I was asked what my favorite movie was as my questionnaires and offered a dollar less an hour for the same job. The guy who was doing the interviewing didn’t know that Chris and I knew each other, but yes, we were discussing it afterwards and I’m like, “I can’t believe that happened.” I had journalism experience at that point. It was a research position, and I had researched for a law school professor. Chris had none of that and he was offered more money.
I’ve seen it, and I know it, and it’s important to continue to have conversations about it because that’s the only way that we can fix what’s wrong — figuring out what’s happened and how to make it better. As I say with my Victor Keen story, sometimes it’s just perception too, right? We need to make sure that we’re thoughtful about what we put out into our profession, and make sure that we’re asking the right questions, and being as inclusive as we can. When we realize that we’re falling, think about ways to fix it.
What is your favorite book and why?
Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes. Highly recommend. The audiobook’s fantastic because her voice is so great. The whole premise is that her sister gave her grief for saying no to too many things. She decided to say yes more, even when she was already established, she was saying no to things because she thought she was too busy, or it was just too much. I know that, I know that feeling. It becomes easy to say no, so I find that book inspirational.
If you could meet one person who’s alive today, who would it be?
Yellen. Just because I just want to know all about what’s happening with G20. I want to know what’s going through her head with respect to inflation. Definitely Yellen.
What is your superpower?
Making connections both in terms of ideas and people. I’ve always thought that about … maybe it’s being a middle child, but I like making introductions for folks, and I’m good at it. Also connecting ideas, that’s what I do for a living, whether it’s in law or journalism. I wish it were something cooler like X-ray vision, but it’s just making connections.
What word do you find most distracting in the English language?
When you were a young child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
What I’m doing. My kids have asked me this. When I was a little girl, I did want to be a baseball player, but that did not pan out. I started to be a teacher when I was in college, but when I was little, all I ever wanted to do was write, and I wanted to be a mom and I wanted to be a lawyer because I used to watch … even though I was first generation college grad, I used to watch Perry Mason with my grandfather growing up. Old reruns on TBS. It was a moment that he and I had, and my great grandmother used to then say that I argued just like a Philadelphia lawyer. I always thought, wouldn’t that be cool to do that? I didn’t even know any lawyers at all. I’ve done everything that I wanted to do when I was little. I mean maybe not as high. Right? I still would like to write a prize-winning novel and that kind of stuff, but yes, writer, mother, lawyer.
What one piece of advice do you have for our listeners?
It’s the same advice maybe that I give to my kids, which is just to be thoughtful. That word thoughtful is loaded, right? Because thoughtful can mean kind. But it can also mean to give thought to something before you do it. I can be impulsive, but I have learned over time that if I have an ask, I want it to be thoughtful. If I need a favor, I want to be thoughtful about the way I put it out there, and then when it comes to social media and writing, you only have so many chances to say what you want to say, so be thoughtful about it. Make it matter. Make people walk away thinking, that was a respectful use of my time.
Do you have any questions for me?
Kelly Phillips Erb: All this time that I’ve known you, I’ve never asked why you would want to work with lawyers. I get asked this question a lot on the journalism side.
Gina Rubel: I’m a third-generation lawyer. I grew up in the legal industry and one of the things that people don’t understand about law is that it covers everything. As a law firm marketing professional who does public relations, marketing, strategy, crisis communications, we’re working on issues that are different every day. One day we might be working on tax issues. One day we might be working on cannabis issues. Another day we’re working on franchise issues. Another day it’s employment law. We have clients in 25 states and two countries and they’re brilliant people. I did not like litigation which is the area that I went in because I’m just not an argumentative person, although, I’m sure my kids, my mother and my husband would probably disagree with that. I like putting the puzzle pieces together, figuring it out, and then telling other people’s stories.
On the PR side, I enjoy that. Legal is not just what I know, it’s who I am. It’s in my DNA. It is in yours as well. It’s one of those things where … and when people ask me if I always wanted to be a lawyer, no, I didn’t. I’m a lawyer by default, which is interesting. I never wanted to be bored – let me put it that way. I always wanted to be excited by something new.
I’m a learner. Law gives me that opportunity to work with some of the brightest, most interesting people, and just like you, I no longer practice formally anymore whereas you do. But we both meet some of the most incredible people. When I was niched in one area of law, I would have never met you, I didn’t do tax law. Or I wouldn’t have met the AGC of Microsoft who I’ll be interviewing for the podcast. I wouldn’t have met Pavani Thagirisa, a diverse woman AGC from S&P Global who is the head of legal for ESG, who I’ve recently interviewed. They’re all in law. But everybody’s doing something different. The topics are fascinating to me.
My advice to people is, no matter what the information you get, research, research, research until you come full circle. Look for all the sources that like Bloomberg Tax, or Wall Street Journal, New York Times, investigate the information to make sure you’re getting relevant, accurate, timely information.
That’s what I love, and I just love our industry. It touches everything we do.
For additional conversations with members of the media, check out Furia Rubel’s Media Relations Podcasts.
Learn first-hand what legal reporters are looking for when they are choosing what news to report and which stories to tell in our blog post Five Things Legal Reporters Want You To Know: An On Record PR Podcast Roundup.
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