For the vast majority of journalists and editors, when they pick up a telephone call it’s probably the last thing they want to hear from a PR exec: “Did you get my email?” Considering the increasing sophistication of spam folders, it’s a pretty safe bet that the reporter(s) did in fact receive the email. But it’s even less of a mystery on why the reporter ignored the email and summarily nuked it from his inbox, with a poorly targeted pitch being the main culprit. What’s often left out of this equation is why PR people persist in doing something that will only serve to alienate the reporter and put at risk any potential of establishing a rapport.
Wither “pray and spray?” Not anytime soon unless PR reps get better training and think smarter about how they pitch stories and deal with reporters.
“The worst is when [PR reps] send out a shotgun email and hope that someone will pick it up, rather than really knowing what you cover,” said Sean Callahan, marketing director at Bizo and former executive editor at Crain’s BtoB. He added, “Not doing their homework is the biggest problem.”
By continuing to rely on the “Did you get my email,” phone call, PR reps are sending journalists the wrong message. The message betrays that the PR executive hasn’t researched the media company and doesn’t respect how—in an age of shrinking newsrooms—reporters are exceedingly pressed for time. Perhaps more troubling, it also tells media companies that that the PR industry is giving media relations training short shrift.
Despite the growing atomization of media and marketing, relationships with editors and reporters still matter. The “Did you get my email” phone call may pique the interest of a reporter or two and land a story but that probably doesn’t measure up to the number of reporters and editors who get ticked off by the practice.
Better to put it to pasture once and for all and instead have a more methodical approach to pitching the media.
“Today we have fewer reporters required to cover greater portfolios and required to file far greater content to feed print, online, social and video outlets,” said Dallas Lawrence, VP of corporate affairs for Mattel Inc. “PR pros need to embrace this new reality, they need to develop well packaged content opportunities for reporters and they need to redouble their outreach efforts, making sure the ever shifting landscape of potential reporters covering their industry are kept informed and engaged throughout the year.”
Indeed, PR pros need to fundamentally alter their mindset if they want to cultivate relationships with reporters and other media reps.
In addition to ceasing the “Did you get my email?” syndrome there are other practices that PR pros should stop if they don’t want to annoy reporters.
“What drives me crazy is when PR people ask to see a draft of the story before it runs; that’s not going to happen,” said Doug Spong, president of Carmichael Lynch Spong. “They may read you an excerpt, but you shouldn’t even ask.”
PR pros also need to reevaluate their fetish for the short-term. “You need to focus on relationships, and not a transaction, and take the ‘Relations’ portion of ‘Public Relations” literally,” he said. “You have to work hard not to be a dead-end for reporters.”
It’s OK not to land a pitch, of course; the mistake lies in an off-target pitch, said Albe Zakes, global VP of communications of TerraCycle.
When Zakes in 2008 was promoted to head of PR one of his first moves was to take inventory of the company’s media relations strategy. He found it somewhat lacking.
Zakes created a living document designed to give members of his PR staff “good storytelling techniques and how to avoid being a pest,” he said.
The document recommends, for example, that PR reps touch base every now and again (sans a pitch) with reporters covering their markets to see what’s on their agenda; being an invaluable resource for information related to the reporter’s beat(s) and knowing the reporter’s audience cold.
Since instituting the plan, TerraCycle has seen its media hits grow to thousands annually, from hundreds, according to Zakes. “I can’t attribute that entirely to media relations,” he said, “but I can attribute some of that growth to the PR staff being much more productive.” PRN
Sean Callahan, email@example.com; Dallas Lawrence, @dallaslawrence; Doug Spong, firstname.lastname@example.org; Albe Zakes, email@example.com.
Want Media Reps to Bite? Get Real
There are no tips, no tricks, no surefire ways or guarantees to get yourself into (or out of) a story. But there are definitely ways to improve your chances. Here are a few tips to boost your odds.
1. Know your topic. Conventional wisdom dictates that you should know what interests reporters. What interests them is and always will be content—and the people who understand it. Every detail. In my experience, I have always advocated for account people delivering their own story. Who can possibly understand and tell it better? Certainly not a media department. Own it and demonstrate your knowledge.
2. Be honest about the ‘importance’ of the news. Truly important news will “sell” itself on its own merits, so watch out for hyperbole and overstatement. I used to have a fondness for using exclamation points. A well-known top-tier reporter once told me, “Don’t ever use exclamation points unless you have a cure for cancer.” Ouch. But I never (well, rarely) did that again. I will sometimes tell a reporter why a piece of information I am sharing is not newsworthy. This approach may not get me immediate coverage, but has paid dividends down the road in terms of enhanced credibility.
3. Why and why now? Prepare for every media conversation by disciplining yourself to answer two key questions: Why should the reporter pay attention to what I have to say? and, why should the reporter pay attention now? It’s harder than you think. Perhaps you can provide access to a difficult-to-reach expert, or offer an exclusive. But understand that the conversation is not about you. It’s about the reporter.
Keeping it real is the most effective way to gain the eyes and ears of reporters. A bit of humility, modesty and understatement can go further than you think.
Lee Davies is senior VP of Makovsky. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before You Write or Call Journalists, Reflect
• How exciting, timely and unusual is your story?
• What’s your hook/focus/goal/key messaging?
• Is the pitch tailored to the media you are pitching?
• Have you worked with the journalist before?
• Who is your intended audience?
• Why should the journalist’s editor/boss/reader/audience care?
Source: Albe Zakes, TerraCycle