How Not to Tick Off Journalists: A Former Editor’s Advice

As a former reporter and editor who had to decide which pitches from PR people lived or perished, I’ve amassed a list of several things that assure that your pitch ends up in the circular file, some without even being read.

Below are pitching approaches most likely to tick off journalists:

  • Misspelling the recipient’s name. I know editors who say “if the PR person isn't careful enough to check on the spelling of my name and it’s wrong in the body of an email, I won’t even read it” or open an envelope that isn’t correctly addressed. Let’s face it: Journalists can get along without you. You can’t get along without them. Show respect by getting names correct.
  • Using “Mr.” when it should be “Ms.” See above.
  • Coming on like some of those annoying TV commercials in which the director believes that shouting will make a greater impression than normal talk. Pretending to be excited when pitching doesn’t impress journalists. A good story does.
  • Telling an editor that you have a great story. It’s the journalist’s job to decide if you have a great story. Saying so doesn’t make it great or even good or passable.
  • Telling an editor that you must have an answer in a short time span. Journalists don’t work according to your clock. You have no idea about what other stories they are working on or what their deadlines are. If you need one story so badly that you give the reporter a short time to say yea or nay, it’s an indication that your program is devoid of news-making angles.
  • Pitching the story to a more prestigious publication after telling a lesser pub that it’s exclusive. Yes, journalists have feelings. They especially don’t want to be misled. Waking up one morning and seeing a story you offered them as exclusive in another publication before they used it is a good way to make them very unhappy.
  • Sending a pitch loaded with typos and poor grammar. Even subpar journalists work very hard to make certain that their stories are grammatically correct. Sending a pitch with mistakes could raise a red flag about other information in your pitch.
  • Pestering an editor about when a story will appear after it gets a thumbs up. Once a week is acceptable. More frequently is annoying. Just because your client bugs you doesn’t mean you should bug journalists. And it will not result in the story being used sooner; it might result in it being killed.
  • Not knowing the publication that you’re pitching. That’s a certain sign to journalists that you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • Not knowing the beat of the person you’re pitching. See above.
  • Complaining to a reporter that the story only had a couple of lines about your client, who came to town just for the interview. Doing this almost guarantees a ticked-off reporter. Quite often this scenario becomes a reality because a client is reticent to answer the reporter’s questions expansively or say anything newsworthy.
  • Complaining to a reporter that the “plug” was left out despite an hour-long interview. In my experience as a reporter, editor and PR practitioner, the major reason for that happening is because the PR person didn’t know how to brief the client on working in the plug in a newsworthy manner. If the PR person has worked with the reporter previously and is on good terms with the journalist, much more often than not the plug will be included because most reporters understand why the interview was arranged. Any PR person who really understands news reporting should know various ways to make a plug newsworthy without it sticking out like a sore thumb. If you have a good relationship with print reporters, you might be asked, “What did you expect to get out of this” or “What plug would you like?” Prior to taped radio and TV interviews, friendly interviewers often say, “The best way to make sure that the plug doesn’t get cut is to have your client work it in naturally. I’ll ask a couple of questions that will permit the client to do so. But I will not ask, ‘Why are you here.’” In live interviews it’s essential to provide the client with several ways to make the plug seem newsworthy. Not difficult to do, if you think like a newsperson. (In my experience, most PR people do not.)
  • Complaining to a journalist about not including your client in a roundup story. Hardly anything is more annoying to a client than picking up a prestigious publication and seeing competitors in a roundup story without any mention of themselves. That’s usually the fault of the PR person for not staying in touch with the beat reporters. Should the journalist have alerted you that a roundup story was being done? Not necessarily. Roundup stories rarely have input from every business in that sector. The major players in the sector are always included; lesser businesses sometimes get included. But having proper professional relations with beat reporters by continually keeping them updated about your client will assure inclusions in such stories.
  • Not informing a journalist that the client mistakenly gave wrong stats to a reporter during an interview, and not updating the reporter with new information for the story before it was published. Informing a reporter that the client inadvertently gave wrong numbers during an interview and providing the correct ones is a must. For long-deadline stories, not keeping the reporter updated with new information is tantamount to a PR felony.

Lesson to remember: Journalists don’t have to adjust to PR people. You have to adjust to journalists.

Arthur Solomon was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller and a journalist. He is a contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at: arthursolomon4pr@juno.com