Update: Since our first talk, I started to ask more direct questions. This is what I know so far…
A.L. is an award-winning journalist. Awards such as the Peabody, so real awards. He works for “an innovative, credible and relevant media organization” that produces news via a website, public radio program, podcast and social media platforms. You have heard of his organization. He is a minority and speaks passionately about issues such as feminism, gun control, politics. He’s a minority. So imagine his surprise when he received a pitch that said something along the lines of Trumps was Right… when he made Racist comments Against four Women. Oh boy. So A.L. did what most frustrated journalists do, he posted the pitch, and his irritation as to how off base it was for him on social media.
A.S. is a producer for the local affiliate of a major broadcast news station. His tweets are hilarious. He is literally pitched everything under the sun. Except for two keywords to note – he is a local TV guy and he’s the producer. So local, we get that, don’t pitch national stories. And producer, he doesn’t assign news stories, he puts the show together. Yes, he’s likely in a daily meeting with the news director, but pitching him is not the most direct path to getting news coverage. And if your pitch is lame and irrelevant all you will get is a snarky comment on Twitter.
I follow A.L. on Twitter and his post about the trump tweet pitch had me thinking. Was there an intentional thought behind sending this to someone who clearly does not cover this angle of politics or was it just another errant PR pitch. I set off to find some answers and hijinks ensued. A.L. was kind enough to message me back to confirm what I thought I was reading. Then I went for a search for the agency that sent the pitch. Nothing online except a poorly tended Facebook page.
Ah, well there’s your answer. They’re not a real agency, they don’t even have a website. Then I thought I would appoint myself as the PR police and I messaged (via FB so thanks for that stain on my soul) the “company” to find out what they were thinking and if they wanted to share thoughts with me.
This was my response. It says, “I never beat my wife.” That was my only response for over 24 hours. I waited for the ‘just kidding’ or ‘wrong person’ reply but that was it. That was his response. (I found out through other messages that are really random and slightly offensive that it is a male and he’s very
against “traditional” media and he suspects that I believe everything I read in the news. Except that’s who he pitched — the news. So none of it makes sense to me and I decided that I just needed to back away slowly. So while he wanted A.L. to run with his story (interviewing a very political person) he really is disgusted by this whole thing that we call news reporting.
But he’s right and I am wrong because good news since he started his business he has sent out 100,000 pitches. Yep, that’s why he is so successful – according to him. He measures this all based on the number of pitches he has sent. There is nothing on his social media profile about the actual success of these pitches, actual news stories that he’s gained for clients but in the number of times, he’s hit the send button.
It was all too weird and wrong so I thought I would just go bark up another tree.
So I moved on to a fashion pitch faux pax. That is much easier to digest. This one comes from an outspoken journalist C.K. who is hilarious, but also, she lives in New York and there’s more than one Caitlin Kelly, so do your research. Her steady stream of public relations fails makes me laugh and cry. This on, while not weird and toxic, is just lazy. A day before the show, on the other side of the country, to a journalist that doesn’t cover anything related to Badgley Mischka, fashion, clothing. Not even retail. Just a lazy send all that infuriates journalists.
So Domenica D’Ottavio over at Hubspot did an awesome report on this earlier last week and I thought ok yes, it’s time to talk about this again. An overview:
The Top Ten Worst PR Tactics
To summarize our findings in their entirety, these are the top ten worst pet peeves regarding PR pitches with which journalists struggle:
- Hasn’t researched your work / Irrelevant to your beat
- Hasn’t researched the publication you write for
- Too many follow-ups
- Self-promotional without a real story
- Cold calling
- Mass email blasts
- Generic angle to a common story
- Lack of cooperation or transparency (i.e. broken embargoes)
- Not personalized
- Copy of a press release
We can keep shouting to the wind or preaching to the choir, but I think that that the fact that the #PR industry’s continual failure to meet journalists’ needs continues is a failure of leadership.
While proper pitching seems like #PR101, the fact that there’s a steady stream of #PRfails and disgruntled journalists means that this is NOT the occasional untrained staffer, fly-by-night agency or a couple of rogue freelancers (which exist, but sadly are not the main culprits).
This is a failure of leadership in the #publicrelations industry.
Day-to-day journalist outreach has gone unchecked by the senior managers in our profession for too long and it’s time to take our pitches and professionals to the next level — whether it’s from an agency, in house team or freelancer.
Today’s topic was my biggest pet peeve and the area of public relations that I am most concerned about: Media Pitching & Press Releases. People like to say that the press release is dead, and while I don’t agree with that, I do feel like most press releases should be killed before they’re even typed.
First of all, there is a general lack of understanding as to how the media works – from fake news to press releases to media relations and its role within our industry. We would go a long way in making our world, especially our digital lives, more informed and peaceful if as a society we determined that journalism is a required subject for our youth. A basic understanding would serve our communities and then as a silver lining, educate the youngest entrants of our profession.
Beyond a shared understanding of news, communications professionals at the entry-level would have a basic understanding of newsrooms and digital media, creating professionals that are better prepared to tackle media relations.
There are numerous articles on the correct processes for creating and distributing press releases, yet journalists are still overwhelmed with inappropriate, ridiculous or ineffective releases and pitches.
With a shared understanding of how and when to create press releases and the appropriate uses for those releases, we can move forward with creating a higher level of respect among journalists.
My easy (possibly too easy) approach to press releases is the following: be SMART!
S – Strategic Stories that are well planned and developed, that are;
M – Meaningful to the recipient (not your boss) as well as;
A – Accurate (in fact & newsworthiness); distributed to media lists that are;
R – Relevant, and,
T – Targeted.
Having recently found myself on the receiving end of a HARO request, it was painfully apparent that those in charge of promoting their companies had no clue how to pitch. Of the 27 responses that I received, 2 were totally off-topic, which resulted in an automatic delete.
Of the remaining, 12 were passable. The others were either unreadable, ridiculous or tedious. One was sent in ONE PARAGRAPH IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Not easy to read and really undermineD the sender’s presentation. Three of the pitches basically said ‘call us for more information’ without offering any details as to why their expert or product was suitable for the article. Three pitches attempted to get me to sign up for a newsletter or product demo without answering my questions. Two were direct sales pitches for books on the topic I had queried. Those examples, while read, will not make it into my article.
While this seems like basic PR 101, it happens every single day, and there is a constant stream of journalists complaining online about our collective lack of skills. And I agree, as a profession, we are not that good at making ourselves look smart, sophisticated, or knowledgable.
I know there is a small group of my peers who know this and agree with me, and while it feels like I am shouting into the wind, here are my Jules Rules for press releases and their possible distribution.
- Ask yourself and your team: is this a strategic story? Do we actually need a press release? What are the alternatives to communicating this piece of information? Should this particular release be used as website content and not sent to the media? It’s ok to write a press release and not send it. It is ok to have it available on your website for general information purposes.
- If the press release has a relevant story that is building your overall strategy, then determine which media is going to find it to be meaningful. This is where the hard work of carefully editing, reviewing, trimming your media list comes in. Last year or last week’s media list may not be relevant. You have a large database of media contacts at your disposal, but that does not mean you need to contact all of them. Spray and pray does not work and likely causes more harm than good.
- Once your press release and media list are created take the time to make sure the effort is accurate. Besides the obvious fact-checking, determine that this is news by a standard outside of your organization and that the final list of journalists is the right group to receive the information based on job title, beat, location, publishing schedule, deadlines, interests, etc. Just because someone covers your topic does not mean they want your press release.
- Which leads to relevance. Vendor databases can give you a wealth of knowledge and information. However, it takes a critical eye for subjective information and detail when finding journalists that will agree that your release relevant to them at that time. Just because they wrote about this exact topic last month does not mean they are going to write about it again. Many topics are one-and-done for news organizations. Riding on the coattails of a previous article is not sound media relations. Only research and situational awareness will keep you from falling into this trap.
- Which means I am beating a dead horse here, but your efforts must be targeted. This does not mean add more targets to your list. This means that you need to be able to defend every target that has been added to your list. If you cannot state exactly why they need this press release, why you know they are waiting for this informational gift, then put them on a maybe list for further review.
I learned media pitching in the old days when (gasp) we had to telephone journalists and I am telling you, if you are ever dressed down by a loud, angry reporter for wasting their time (knowing that his entire newsroom can hear him and probably all the people in your office too) you will never, ever make that mistake again. Technology has provided a zillion corners for us to cut. Pretend that you are going to call someone, interrupt their day, and then have 30 seconds to make your pitch. If you’re not comfortable doing that, then maybe rework your list. If you pretend that you cannot hide behind email and voicemail you get crystal clear on what is reasonable and not reasonable to pitch on that day at that time.
I would love to hear your thoughts and join us Tuesday mornings at 10 am (MST) for more #PrimeTimePRchat.