Can Media Relations Pros Accurately Target Journalists with Automated Lists Alone?

It’s not news that errant pitches clogging inboxes are a favorite complaint of media. No matter what survey of content creators you consult, an overwhelming majority whack at pitches that have little or nothing to do with their beat(s).

We’re not even considering overly long, poorly crafted pitches that make busy readers search for news. Or pitches containing misspelled words, poor grammar and faulty, outdated information. (A recent pitch touted a company as the only B Corporation in N. America. Nope. There are 2,000+ in the U.S. alone.)

Maybe it’s too much for media to expect 100% accuracy in automated pitches. Still, reporters sometimes feel as if pitching technology's filters are broken or non-existent. “Finding the right pitching target is an age-old problem and one of the most labor-intensive parts of traditional PR,” says Steve Marcinuk, co-founder and head of operations, Intelligent Relations.

Journalists' Headaches

Consider these scenarios:

  • A media member produced diversity stories that fit her beat. Should her 'reward' be pitches for any (and seemingly every) diversity-related story?

 

  • A journalist published a book review on a topic relevant to her readers. The pitch came from a firm specializing in book publicity. Her 'reward' is a daily barrage of book pitches. Nearly none of the books has anything to do with her beat.

 

  • A content creator accepts a pitch from a PR firm and produces a story. As a result, the PR firm places the media member's name on a list. You know what happens next–she receives every pitch the firm sends (or so it seems). Topics range from personal finance and new year/new you pitches to suggestions for spicing up one’s sex life (honest!).

 

  • A related scenario. An automated pitch from an unknown PR pro is accurate. Would you like an interview with an expert who can comment on today’s breaking story? Yes, the media member responds. And…nothing. No reply. 2 hours. 24 hours. 48. The desperate reporter sends more follow-up messages. Crickets. She moves ahead, producing content using other sources. The kicker: a few days later the expert's topic remains in the news. Sure enough, the identical pitch arrives. Would you like an interview with…

What We Asked

Since it’s the rare media member who’s escaped all the above, we asked media relations pros what gives. Can technology improve targeting? Spoiler alert: There's hope. Yet technology requires a human assist.

Another question: When a pitch finds a correct target and a journalist accepts, why is she ghosted sometimes? Can technology help?

For answers, we avoided PR pros who eschew pitching technology. Those who pitch manually only are an atypical species.

Lifesavers, But…

Instead, we spoke with more mainstream media relations pros. They hand pitch, but also deploy tools periodically. Lisa Morgan, a former journalist and now a VP of content at Bospar, calls tools from Muck Rack, Cision and Meltwater “life savers.”

Marley Lumbard, a publicist at Qulture Media, agrees. Technology is an “enormous help” for “quickly finding” content creators who cover a certain beat.

Even Tim O’Brien of O’Brien Communications, not a huge fan of pitching tech, admits, “there are times when you must rely on a wire service to distribute a news release or a media relations database that bridges the gap between one-off pitching and mass distribution.”

Technology and Human Input

However, Morgan, Lumbard and O’Brien agree pitching technology is at its best when communicators understand it isn’t a silver bullet. Instead, the most potent recipe combines technology and PR pros’ elbow grease, they say.

Pitching tools, Morgan says, “are blunt instruments…they lump journalists into [topic] buckets that aren't always as accurate as they should be.”

As such, deploying a pitching tool isn’t a cue for the media relations pro to relax. Tools, Lumbard says, “aren’t sophisticated enough to do your entire job for you.”

Adds Morgan, “You need to know the capabilities of your tool,” what it can and can’t do.

Accordingly, Marcinuk says media relations pros combine technology with manual “hunting and pecking,” seeking more accurate targeting.

On the other hand, too many media relations practitioners simply “spray and pray,” Marcinuk contends, using tech-provided targeting lists without checking them for accuracy.

The Work Begins

However, those interviewed here don’t do that. For example, O’Brien believes mastering tools is vital to his job. “Learn to hone your [tech-generated] list to journalists you know cover the beats you’re targeting, and who may have already written stories on the topic…”

The tools mentioned above, “to varying degrees, enable you to do that,” he adds.

It’s O’Brien’s “varying degrees” that Lumbard addresses. “While you can use keywords to narrow your search to relevant reporters, then further filter it using location, language and other options, depending on the platform…the experienced PR pro knows there's more to do,” she says.

For instance, even after manual filtering, “most pitching platforms still populate inaccurate or outdated results,” she argues. “This is where your reliance on technology needs to end.”

Like O’Brien, Lumbard advises combing through automated lists. As media members change jobs often, as well as beats, and newsrooms shrink, checking lists repeatedly seems sensible.  “Make sure the journalists [still] cover the topic you're pitching.” In addition, ensure the style of story you’re pitching works. “Don't pitch an interview to a journalist who doesn't do them,” Lumbard says.

Check and Check Again

Similarly, Kafka Media Group co-founder and COO Michelle Kafka advocates checking and re-checking pitching technology. For instance, vet media members’ beats at sites where their content resides. With freelancers, view their online portfolio for better targeting, she says.

In addition, Kafka advocates asking reporters if their beat “still is in-line with what I've found it to be” via technology or “if anything in their pitching preference has changed.”

She correctly notes this added effort not only ensures targeting accuracy, it also “helps create relationships and better understanding–which are invaluable.”

[Next: We examine improvements in pitching technology and how PR pros can ensure they respond to content creators who accept their pitches. The series' final article will spotlight tech providers’ responses to what we’ve presented.]

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him: @skarenstein