PR Needs to Think Strategically to Pitch Better, Tech Insider Says

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[Editor's Note: Tech insider Lisa Morgan has an 'all-sides-of-the-desk' background. In addition to traditional shoe-leather reporting jobs, she's developed branded and sponsored content for outlets including The Economist Intelligence UnitInformationWeek, SD Times and Cyber Security Hub. In addition to earning a law degree, Morgan had stints at PR agencies, programmed conferences and helped judge tech awards programs. Late last month, the 'politely pushy' tech PR firm Bospar signed her as VP, content.

Hoping to tap into her extensive experience, we asked Morgan to discuss the state of PR agency pitching. In short, she believes many PR firms need to think more and stop using databases as a substitute for thinking. She commiserates with PR pros, noting their heavy workload. Still, she feels there's time to think and be strategic. Her remarks were lightly edited. A revised version of this interview will run in the November edition of PRNEWS.]

PRNEWS: As a former journalist, what do you think PR can do better?

Lisa Morgan: There are very common mistakes PR is making on pitching and they’re made regularly. The thing is, they’re easily corrected. A lot of them are made because of what PR agencies are teaching [new staff].

Also, you see either an emphasis on strategy or creativity, but not both. Without both, you’re really shooting from the hip and not getting the momentum you want. It’s important for PR to think a little harder. A lot of times, I see agencies using data bases as a substitute for thinking. You can’t do that if you want to be effective.

PRN: That’s a lot to unpack. Let’s take them in order. Please talk about the pitching mistakes you’re seeing that are based on what PR agencies are teaching. Are former journalists also making these mistakes?

Morgan: Well, for ex-journalists who get into account management, they sometimes have trouble pitching their former publications and old buddies. It feels uncomfortable for them. They usually go to PR because the pay is better, but sometimes they don’t succeed in this role.

PRN: We’ve heard that about some former journalists working in PR. Tell us about the pitching mistakes you say are the result of what agencies are teaching staff. 

Morgan: This is sort of a continuation of using a PR database instead of thinking. If you continue to send news to someone who’s a feature writer, they’re never going to [give you coverage]. And if they tell you two or three times not to do it and you continue, it gets really annoying and they’ll blacklist you.

PRN: Same with irrelevant pitches?

Morgan: Yes. When I got them I’d take those pitches and move them into a folder and never look at them again.

One of the things some agencies teach people is, ‘It’s not your job to understand [the companies you’re representing] in any depth, because they’re the experts in their business.’ Yes, but if you can’t answer the most basic questions about what your client does or what their business or business model is, that’s the kind of stuff that’s going to get [the agency] fired, because you’re not going to get the results.

For example, I was getting pitched over and over [with irrelevant news for my beat]…and I fired off a note to the head of PR at the agency. It was a large agency and one I respected, generally speaking. I asked why they continued to send me irrelevant pitches and said, ‘You guys should be smarter than this. You’re wasting peoples’ time.’ Their response was, ‘Well, that’s just how we do it.’ So, for the 10-20 percent of people who [find out what a journalist wants] and follow instructions, it’s an easy win. It’s low-hanging fruit.

PRN: How did you like to get pitched?

Morgan: Say I’m writing a story about AI model failures. I’d say, ‘What can your client speak to?’ And if someone sent me a note saying, ‘I have a client who can talk about algorithms or modeling,’ that’s great. What I don’t want is a response where they send you a name and a link to a bio. I want to know what the person can talk about.

Or they send you a note that says, ‘You can talk to our CEO, Bill Black.’ I don’t want that. What does he know? What can he talk to? I’ve asked you to tell me what [someone] can talk about because I want to see if they can fit in this story or not.

So, I’ve given you specific instructions that are really easy to follow. And I’m thinking, ‘You guys are getting paid to get results. I’m giving you an easy way to do it and you’re not doing it because you’d rather do things in a cookie-cutter way because it saves time.’

PRN: What about newsjacking?

Morgan: You can do newsjacking well or badly. The problem I have with newsjacking is when you are pitched someone who doesn’t have a particular expertise in the topic. Look, everyone has an opinion about Facebook and what it should do [for example]. Just ask them. But what [is the executive you’re pitching to me] bringing to the table? What value does that person add [to my story]?

PRN: Is part of the problem that the PR pro may not know the story [that’s being newsjacked] and/or the executive they’re pitching well enough to make an effective pitch?

Morgan: Yes, that’s part of it. Now, if you pitch me and say, ‘Would you like to speak with Dan White, who was chief of data science at Facebook?’ That’s valuable. The guy used to work there, so he has insight into a part of the issue. You have to position your client [and tell the journalist what he/she can speak to].

But if you do, you better be certain that your client can [speak about] what you’ve promised. PR people think their clients can address everything. Nobody can do that. You’re smarter to know exactly what your client can talk about. If you don’t know, ask [the client before you pitch the person].

PRN: Talk about using a PR database as a substitute for thinking. It’s pitch and pray, right?

Morgan: That’s essentially it. Part of the problem with databases is they have general categories. I’d get a pitch that was way off and I’d ask [the person who sent it], ‘Why did you send this to me? It’s not even remotely what I cover.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, you cover technology, don’t you?’ But that’s like saying, ‘I’m going to have food for dinner.’

You know, in many cases people are paying PR agencies a lot of money. You may be paying [a PR firm] a couple thousand dollars an hour and there’s not a lot of thought going on there. [PR is] being paid to get a job done and bring value to the table. And the main problem is they’re just not thinking hard enough.

They need to peel the onion a little bit and learn to think strategically. And yes, that comes with experience, but I’ve had pitches from principals and presidents etc. as bad as those I get from account coordinators.

PRN: Now, let’s look at strategic thinking, which, you say, sometimes is lacking. How do you improve that?

Morgan: Becoming strategic is more of a thought process, a forest-from-the-trees problem. You have to be able to zoom out and see the forest. What is it you’re actually trying to accomplish? What is the client’s business objective? How is what you’re doing fitting into it? It’s a matter of learning the questions to ask clients and caring enough to learn about what they do, so you can bring ideas to them.  

PRN: Why are some PR pros and agencies doing things without thinking?

Morgan: Partly it’s because [new PR pros] are being taught [the wrong things]. I remember being in an agency and someone was having trouble with media calls. The agency head said, ‘Why don’t you put so-and-so on the call with you? He doesn’t know anything about the topic you’re pitching, but he doesn’t need to.’ I don’t agree with that. Hey, maybe we’ll just grab anybody [and put them on the call].

The other thing is PR pros have a lot to do. So, they need to be extremely organized. You have email, Slack, Webex, social media…so you’re constantly running, and it’s hard to find time to think.

But you do have that time. If you cut out the waste you can find time to ideate. Think! It’s not illegal yet.

PRN: How do you cut out waste?

Morgan: Sometimes press releases go out just because they can. It’s garbage. And clients are paying for this. Sometimes, [the client] insists. OK. Fine, you put out the release. But sometimes they say, ‘Well, we have to do two press releases per month, so we’ll make up some news.’ That’s a waste. Maybe, though, you can use that content as a byline or a blog post.

PRN: You have to have guts to tell a client, ‘Nobody is going to cover this press release.’

Morgan: True. When I was running groups [at a PR agency], an interview question I used to ask [job candidates] was, ‘Would you ever tell a client no?’ If the person said they would not, that told me the person was not a fit for us.

You don’t just want to do stuff, you need to think about what you’re doing. Not every client will listen to you, but a lot of them do. If you’re going to be a strategic agency, you have to cherry-pick your clients a little bit. If they’re just going to be tactical maybe that’s not the client you want. ‘Do you want to take our counsel or do you just want to tell us what to do?’ You might need to pay the bills and so you take that business, but it’s going to drive you crazy.

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