I heard journalism’s dead. Some days, PR is too.

When journalism died, did PR die too? (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
When journalism died, did PR go with it? (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

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.

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Add yours →

  1. Sounds like you really enjoy your work 😎

  2. Is there any room for creativity in the standard PR pitch? It seems to be incredibly formulaic (for the sake of the journalist I assume) with dates, times and selling points all crammed in sentence after sentence. I understand that journalists are busy and a long winded pitch would get immediately trashed but is there any place for humor or originality within that brevity?

    Thanks so much!

    • Hi, great question. Whether or not a long-winded pitch gets trashed goes back to whether or not you’ve built a real relationship with the writer. If I know you and have worked successfully with you in the past, I will probably entertain a long-winded pitch, b/c I know it’s likely to be tailored to me/my coverage area. If I don’t know you and you’re writing a novel of a pitch, your first couple of sentences better be super-compelling.

      On the originality/humor question, I would say let the writer’s previous work, and/or voice on social media, guide you. If they show a staid approach, keep things brief, specific and purely professional. If the writer has a history of writing in an offbeat way or has a sense of humor in his or her public social media accounts or blogs, he or she is likely to appreciate a pitch with a little sass. Pitching is hard work and it definitely takes a lot of creativity.

      Another thing I would add is that the pitch does not have to say EVERYTHING about what you’re trying to sell – all dates, times, etc. That’s what your press release includes. A pitch and a press release are not the same thing, though they do go together. Make your pitch with only the most essential and compelling info, and attach a full release so the writer can read the details if desired.

  3. Hi Alaina,
    I was just curious what you think is the best way to approach the situation where you know someone is working, but still want to introduce yourself. Exchanging business cards is a must after you’ve started the conversation, but what is the best way to get it started? Is an Elevator pitch the way to go, or would it be better to say, “Hi, my name is Olivia, and I would love to speak with you this week if you have a chance.”?

    • Hi Olivia, thanks for reading and for your question. I would say there are no hard and fast rules about this situation, except for the rules that govern general good etiquette. If a journalist is engrossed in something else or doing an interview, don’t move in at that moment (or hang over my shoulder…). Otherwise, writers are people, too! Just turn on those social skills, say hello and introduce yourself, say a few words about why you’d like chat at the writer’s convenience, and be sure to leave your card and/or ask for the writer’s (follow up via e-mail next day if you do get their info and they seem receptive). I know from my experience as a hyper-local journalist that getting the good leads is about having a good personal network, so I do like to meet new people with interesting story ideas, as long as they don’t try to hijack the business at hand or assume that I’m in the business of helping to promote them.

  4. Hi Alaina,
    I was wondering if being a freelancer (as opposed to being on the payroll of a particular PR firm) allows you more leeway to sidestep some of these common mistakes? I can imagine a scenario where an employee in the latter situation could be committing these PR blunders simply because they are following “policy”? Another option is that perhaps some do-it-yourselfers with limited training and experience could be giving the rest of the industry a bad name. Any thoughts on this?

    • Hi John, thanks for this interesting question. My PR experience is mostly non-profit, so I probably can’t speak too well to the atmosphere of a large firm or for-profit agency. I guess it’s possible that some rotten pitches are getting out there because somebody’s boss doesn’t know what they’re doing and set a bad policy.

      As for the second option, I do definitely think that the latter problem with do-it-yourselfers is especially common in the arts world. Someone who really fancies themselves a playwright/actor/artist or whatever is trying to do their own PR or PR for their small company, and they really don’t know the professional ropes. I have had a lot of pretty funny e-mails over the years from these types, or from really raw youngsters. One good tip is not to write to a theater critic/writer and invite her to see the show, and add as part of your pitch, “we’ll give you a free ticket to the show!” (Yes, the exclamation point really happens.) Issuing press tickets (typically a pair) is standard if you want a writer to come to opening night; if you act like that’s an incentive for me to choose your show over someone else’s, you really don’t get it. That said, everyone can learn. I’ve certainly made my own blunders over the years and I’m sure there’s more to come. Just always keep learning and moving on.

  5. Hi Alaina!

    I’m just starting out as an Arts & Entertainment writer and I found your post humorous yet perfect for anyone who is trying to be a publicist. It’s a quick, straight-forward version of how people in PR should act. Needless to say, I love it!

    I just had a quick question: as a beginner, I tend to have to be the “annoying PR person” and reach out to many publicists in order to get a story. Do you have any advice on how I should approach this situation and get less people turning me down?

    Thank you!

    • Hi, thanks for your nice words. Glad you found the post valuable. I’m a little confused on what your question is – are you an arts writer looking for stories to write/publications to write for? Or you’re trying to build a PR career? I have worked on both sides of the arts press table and the fundamental principles of reducing the “no’s” are the same: whether you’re a writer pitching an editor/publication or a publicist pitching a writer/editor, make sure what you’re proposing is a fit for that audience/writer/publication, and that you have a unique/timely/compelling angle (WHY is this important or WHY is it different from other things that are going on?). That said, I think as a writer or as a publicist, a lot of rejection is likely par for the course, especially as you’re just getting started. Learn what you can each time and keep moving forward (and if you can’t catch coverage on something with one writer after trying once or twice, it’s probably best not to bug them again for that pitch). Network as much as you can and leverage those relationships when you need them.

      If you want more advice on networking, you might enjoy this post: https://alainamabaso.com/2012/12/12/10-non-fatalistic-real-life-tips-for-freelance-writers/
      There’s a string of good discussion in the comments thread, too.

  6. Hello Alaina,

    I want to start by saying how much I have been enjoying your blog. I was directed here by my current PR professor for an assignment, but I found myself poking around on other posts you have written for about the past hour. I really enjoy your view! That being said, I know you have mentioned an arts interest, and I was wondering what your view was on pitching arts and culture. I know that just because a show or gallery is opening doesn’t mean the news has to cover it. I also know that you want to pitch the ‘why should anyone care’ as your hook. However, my question is: In this day and age when many arts and culture organizations, as well as their patrons, expect to have some special aspect in their productions or showing, is a theatre’s new season or a showing by a local painter really news worthy anymore? It just seems like every theatre, gallery, etc. always has either a ‘local premiere’ aspect or ‘celebrity’ aspect, thus effectively minimizing the uniqueness in these pitches, especially in a highly concentrated city arts area.

    Best wishes,

    • Hello Ryan, glad you’re enjoying the blog and thanks for your great question. I think the answer to this comes down to three things: relationship (yours with the writer, as mentioned in this post), audience, and access.

      Let’s take one of my recurring coverage areas in NW Philly, the Woodmere Art Museum. I tend to cover most of their exhibits because a) I have a successful relationship with the firm pitching the exhibitions, b) they aim the pitch at me because they know my audience (in this case, Chestnut Hill and other NW Philly residents) are interested in what’s happening in their backyard and c) they know I want a chance to sit down with the artist and conduct the interview that strikes my fancy. Also, probably most important, they’re a quality museum that curates good exhibitions.

      So in other words, you wouldn’t necessarily pitch a premiere at Woodmere w/o another hook to a city-wide publication, but that may appropriate for a pub w/ an extremely targeted focus, if the premiere is happening in that area. And when you make that pitch, don’t just try to sell the writer on attending the exhibit and writing about it or interviewing someone on staff at the organization. Yawn. Let the writer know what is newsworthy or unique about the ARTIST’s life, outside of the exhibit, and give the writer personal access to the artist without demanding a list of questions to approve or trying to sit in on the interview. When I approach these kinds of stories, I like to make them into profiles of the artist, digging into his or her motivation and experiences, as much as writing about the art. So tempt me with the prospect of an interesting interview. For example, a story I did this year at Woodmere was about an exhibition including work by a Holocaust survivor. So I interviewed him and made the article as much about the artist’s life as about the art. Here’s a link if you want to see the finished story:

  7. Hello Alaina,
    I really enjoyed your read and your humorous viewpoint on the current world of public relations and journalism. I am an amateur writer and your humorous writing is quite similar to how I write.

    I have a quick question for you- many people who write for arts and entertainment mainly focus on music and if not that, then performing arts and theater. While I enjoy those, I prefer the digital media and video games realm. Most people do not write about those topics, or at least not from what I’ve seen (particularly games.) I know journalism is often very formulaic, as someone mentioned in the comments, and room for creativity is often very small, so getting noticed would be even harder.
    That being said, do you have any advice for someone who is starting out, especially in a field like video games where many people tend to ignore? I realize Social Media is great for reaching out to people, but at the same time I know not a lot of people enjoy gaming and won’t take time out of their day to read anything I write.

    • Hi Koren, glad you enjoyed the blog and thanks for your question. First off, I’d disagree that journalism is formulaic and that room for creativity is small. Yes, there are building blocks and courtesies that everyone should follow on both sides of the press table, but that does not mean that work in this field is done by formula. Good stories aren’t formulaic – they have unique characters and perspectives. And just b/c you follow certain rules with your pitching doesn’t mean you’re sticking to one formula. The best PR folks are great at customizing their approaches.

      I honestly know nothing about the video games realm – the last video game I played was Astro Warrior on an old Sega console in early 90’s. Ok, and a game of arcade Pac-Man now and then. But no matter what the topic is, if you know what your audience is, devote yourself to pursuing it. Don’t write about video games and expect to knock everyone’s socks off. You’re right that a lot of people won’t read it. But a lot of people will if you target the folks who love video games and don’t worry too much about the rest. The fundamental rule of building your audience in any field is consistently providing good content.

      If you can’t find a gig or a byline writing about digital media/games on someone else’s publication/site, launch your own blog if you haven’t already. As far as I know, there are a lot of bigger cultural issues to tap into with gaming (like violence or sexism), so explore them if that interests you. And network among other video game fans in person and online to score some interviews: you could reach out to animators, developers or whoever and ask for an interview for your blog about their work. The double benefit of that is that you’re providing something of interest to your readers if you choose your subject well and ask good questions, and you also have a good chance of reaching a new audience if your interview subject shares the post with his or her own network. All that helps you build your credibility as a voice in the industry. I do this a lot in my own field, interviewing essayists and authors. Good luck!

  8. Hi Alaina-
    I am another Entertainment & Arts Management student, and found your article very interesting. For a little over four years now, I have run a music blog and have spent a great deal of time dealing with issues that you have pointed out. One thing I wanted to ask you though, was that sometimes I feel like I need to cover a few of the not as desirable artists when I first start working with a new PR Firm because I want to make a good impression and potentially get one of their larger acts. Is this something you have had to deal with? As I’ve built up my name more and more, I don’t run into this issue as often, but how do you deal with trying to get a larger interview and then they say ‘no, how about this person?’


    • Hi Arin, congrats on your success with your music blog. In answer to your question, it depends. As you can see from this blog post, I have had the experience of a PR person holding out on me b/c she wanted me to cover something other than what I was assigned to cover. In that case, I was on assignment, so I pressed for what I and my editor wanted, and ended up getting it b/c I stuck to my guns (got the interview I needed just in time to file the story). If I had been writing purely for myself/my own site, I probably would have had less leverage and incentive to go after the interview I wanted. You make the call each time. And while a lot of navigating the field in arts journalism is a tight relationship with PR firms that can facilitate the good stories, I would say don’t stress to much about “making a good impression” – you don’t work for them and they are not your only avenue for stories. Concentrate on producing your own quality work and if you can build your voice and presence, more of what you want will come to you on your terms. It takes time, as you’ve already learned.

      Another perspective on this is just to follow your own interests. If the “not as desirable”/less famous artist appeals to you, go ahead and cover them over the big act. Don’t cover anyone out of a sense of obligation, and develop your own judgment about what acts are worth your time, regardless of how famous they are now. And who knows who’ll be the big act tomorrow?

  9. Hello Alaina,

    I throughly enjoyed your article. Making personal connections is what public relations should be about rather than blatantly using people to push to get the information they need. Would you agree or disagree that public relations is often a form of brain washing to convince people of ideas that are not their own? If so, can this only be prevented by doing freelance work?


    • Whoa whoa whoa. Good public relations isn’t brainwashing, it’s finding a creative way to tell the world about why your cause, product, exhibit, show, whatever is worthwhile, or why you have a worthwhile story that should be told. If, as a writer, you parrot what the press release says, that’s not brainwashing, it’s just lousy journalism. Freelance or employed by a firm (or, for a writer, freelance or employed by a publication), the same rules of good work and good personal connections apply. PR isn’t propaganda. Glad you enjoyed the article, thanks for reading!

  10. Hi Alaina,

    First I just want to let you know that I really enjoyed the article throughly as it is straight to the point, honest, and humorous. Also it is very interesting and useful to hear not only what journalist like yourself dislike about many of the current PR practices, but also how one would go about being cautious of what not to do. Like others who commented, I am also an Entertainment and Arts student. I understand that PR practices should focus on building a relationship with, and presenting stories of particular interests to the journalist. I am just wondering that as someone starting out in the “business”, would it be wise to build a solid relationship (beside researching and “doing homework”) and getting to know the particular journalist personally before I even attempt to pitch? Would it be rude and uninviting if our first contact that we exchange be “Here is my name and I have an interesting story that you might be interested, I hope to hear from you soon.” ?

    Thank you for the great article and your time,

    • Hi Mari, thanks for reading; glad you found the article valuable. There’s no need to become a journalist’s bosom companion before you make a pitch. If you really do “the homework” and you’re familiar with their publication(s), coverage area, interests and style, go ahead and make a well-formed pitch. I often don’t build a personal relationship (either in person or digitally) w/ publicists until after I’ve done a few stories. And sometimes the relationship always stays purely professional, which is fine. I guess one tip to remember would be that just like PR folks, writers are juggling a zillion contacts. Sometimes I do 7-10 interviews per week. Can’t tell you how many times someone has come up to me at an event, remembering me from a story or interview, and I’m silently embarrassed b/c I can’t remember them out of the other 150 stories I’ve written in the last nine months.

      Bottom line, nothing is rude and uninviting if you’re courteous, professional, make a good pitch and prove you can follow through. A personal relationship with the writer can be built on that later.

  11. Hi Alaina,

    Great article! You mentioned briefly how social media has been used to pitch journalists but I was wondering what your experience with social media has been when it comes to pitches and public relations. Have you found social media to be helpful in building relationships in any way or do you think traditional PR is best?


    • It has to be a mix, nowadays. Anyone who relies solely on social media or traditional PR isn’t going to get very far. And when you use social media, remember that it’s really just the same fundamental rules in a different, newer forum: Build relationships. Don’t just constantly promote yourself. Provide something of value to your audience/followers. Check out the article I link to in the post about social media PR if you haven’t already – there are great tips there.

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