I knew things had gotten bumpy when a theater’s PR manager suddenly reneged on an interview we’d scheduled with the director because he was disappointed in the limited scope of the planned article. In a spate of fairly rude calls and e-mails, he suggested that journalists should sign contracts with the organizations they cover, to stipulate exactly what the stories would say, “So nobody would have disappointed expectations.” But it was too late for me. I was not welcome at their theater and no-one had time to speak with me. Until later that day, when he changed his mind and invited me back. I declined.
As a freelance arts journalist, I’m often amazed at how many people have very strange ideas about what constitutes “relations” in the field known as public relations. There’s a big difference between blundering communications staffers and the sweet, sweet redemption of PR folks who know exactly how to shepherd a pitch.
Huh? folks say. What do you mean, “pitch”? Beyond the baseball field, a pitch is basically a story idea. A writer might make it to an editor or a communications manager might make it to a writer. It’s how you say, “this is why my story is worthwhile for your audience.”
Is PR going downhill?
A good piece by Zoe Fox recently explored the ways that amateurs use social media to harass—oops, I mean, pitch journalists. So many of the mistakes she points out seem straight out of Obviousville, but it’s clear that a surprising number of people just don’t get it.
A commenter on Fox’s piece offers a clue to the deficit as he scoffs at her advice. “Why would anyone pitch a journalist for any reason in 2013?” he asks. “Journalists, and traditional publications, no longer matter. Forge your own path people, do your own work, garner your own audience.”
There’s no question that journalism as an industry has taken a major hit in the last decade or so. As the field crumbles, diversifies and experiments with new forums and platforms, have PR folks sensed the free-for-all and gotten nuttier, throwing off the chains of professionalism and good taste as fast as amateur writers have taken to their own blogs?
The dreaded four
I’m all about creativity. But when it comes to PR, please don’t “forge your own path”—unless you want to alienate the people whose audiences you want to reach. As with any other industry, there are rules and courtesies that govern the PR field. On a typical workday as a freelance journalist, I get a steady stream of pitches, especially arts pitches, from people who have seen my byline somewhere, who know me, or who think they know me because we met once at some gallery opening two years ago.
Most of those pitches never go anywhere but the dregs of my inbox. Why? Well, I’m busy for one, and am also dealing with several editors’ assignments. But other reasons a pitch doesn’t see the light of day fall into four main categories:
1) Misunderstanding the writer’s role
2) Not doing your homework
3) Failing to build a relationship
4) Annoying the crap out of writers while they’re trying to work
So let’s break it down.
1) What do you do, again?
The guy who thought that all journalists should enter contracts with the organizations they write about is a prime, if fairly off-the-wall, example of that first problem. It’s amazing how many people don’t seem to understand that my responsibilities are to the facts, the publication and my readers. We are media colleagues, but I’m not a branch of your PR office.
I remember another irritating situation where a PR staffer initially agreed to schedule an interview with a performing artist who was visiting a local venue. Then, for the next several days, as my newspaper deadline loomed, she seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Finally, the day before my story was due, she returned my calls and said I should write about another artist, “because we would really rather have the press for that event.”
She was trying to run out my deadline and then rope me into helping her promote something else, as if I would totally disregard what my editor wanted. Sorry, lady. Not my job to give your organization a leg up in its promotions schedule.
Some people have strange expectations of what my job entails, even if they haven’t done theirs. A word to the wise: don’t fail to update your website and ignore my calls and e-mails, and then, when the story is published with the help of another source, write to complain that you don’t like what it said.
2) Shots in the dark
This sends me into a face-palm every week. It seems so painfully obvious that I sort of hate to bore you by saying it, but so many people just don’t get it. If you want to make a pitch, do your homework.
That homework falls into two main categories. First, don’t waste my time if you can’t present a compelling idea or issue. Don’t call me to say that you represent a bunch of musicians and that I should come see them play. Why—did one of them give the first-ever mandolin concert atop Mt. Everest? Or are they just one of a thousand open mic night singer-songwriters wanting some publicity?
Word to the wise: just because a certain group of people has never heard of you before is not a good enough reason to pitch something targeting those people.
As for the other piece of your homework, that’s all about me. Don’t you love it? Before you make a pitch, answer these questions:
- Do I tend to cover a certain geographic area?
- Do I have a special interest or expertise?
- What have I written about recently?
If your pitch falls far outside these, spend your valuable time targeting someone else.
And please, people. Double-check the name. Quit addressing your e-mails to “Alania” or “Alanna.” We won’t even get into the misspellings of my last name. Actually, double-check all your spellings. See the e-mail I got last week titled “Pubicity.”
The things that’ll land your resume in the trash (misspellings, poorly targeted info) can also scuttle your pitches.
3) The “relations” in public relations
Getting some traction with your pitches can be as much about the relationship we have as the effort you put into that particular pitch. That means that every once in awhile, it’s ok to see me as a person, not this thing behind a reporter’s notebook. Don’t make every conversation we have about something you’re trying to promote.
Excellent PR professionals follow up quickly and consistently throughout the process, and always deliver what they promise. Wonky ones take days to return my call, or make a pitch and then leave me hanging. It’s frustrating when my editor and I take the time to give an idea the green light, and then it turns out you can’t book the interview after all. Whether or not I’ll do the story you’re suggesting now depends a lot on my experience working with you (or trying to work with you) in the past.
Word to the wise: don’t pitch me your idea repeatedly over a six-week span, and then when I say yes, say you have to think about it because of “privacy concerns.”
4) Sorry, that was rude
When I said don’t annoy the crap out of me while I’m trying to work, I meant don’t annoy the crap out of me when I’m trying to work. Technically, all the problems we’ve discussed above also fall into this category.
Don’t ask me for an advance draft of the story so you can make changes to it. Perhaps it’s part of the syndrome that leaves newspapers increasingly printing press releases as stories because they can’t afford their own reporting, but it’s amazing how many people think that a feature or news article is something they should be able to control.
Don’t write to me before the interview or the event to suggest lines that you think I should include in my story. Actually, don’t do that anytime, ever.
A word to the wise: If you do not know me, don’t come up to me in the crowd when I am busy doing interviews, examining the artwork, or covering an event, and try to pitch me on something then and there. Do I burst into your office, sit in front of your computer, and tell you what I think your next project should be?
I know it’s tempting, but please, spying my reporter’s notebook and thrusting flyers at me is not the same as building that relationship we were just talking about. If you want to chat, I am happy to shake your hand, offer you my card and take yours, and I’ll consider your idea when you follow up.
The bearers of hope
When the media professional’s world is so topsy-turvy, from mastering new platforms to braving people who shout that we’re not worth the paper that we’re not printed on anymore, expert PR staffers bring unmitigated joy to my inbox. They’re the ones who can promptly schedule the interviews I’m after, who call me back the same day, send friendly reminders about scheduled meetings and events, and understand that my job is to get the facts right and tell a good story. I strive to match their professionalism in my own work, and their pitches will make their way to the top of the pile.
Are you a writer or a PR professional? What tips would you add? Feel free to leave your questions, and I’ll do my best to answer.