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Sifting Through Journalists’ Gripes ...

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Since I embarked on my PR adventure in 1983, everything has changed.

Except one dynamic.

Journalists griped about PR folks back in 1983, and they’re still griping today.

To be objective, the bad behavior of a select few cultivates “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (yes, I did take away a few more morsels from that Shakespeare lit class in college). In short, we bring much of this pain upon ourselves.

When PR contacts a journalist with the ever-so-clever opener, “Did you get my news release?” or mass blast a pitch with zero relevance to 90 percent of the journalists out there, we’re asking for ridicule.

As someone with a toe in the influencer sphere, I’ve experienced this bad behavior first-hand and even wrote about it in “Why Journalists Get Cranky About PR” after I was pitched to review a book I had already publicly reviewed.

Confessions of an Ex-Tech Journalist

Bekah Grant published “Confessions of an Ex-Tech Journalist” that details her experience as a journalist at VentureBeat. Given that she wrote over 1,700 articles for VentureBeat and assuming a conservative pitch-to-story ratio of 10:1, she came in contact with at least 17,000 pitches from PR. I’d call that a decent sample size.

For those who don’t have the time to read the 1,931-word diatribe, I’ve pulled out five key passages and added the PR upshot —

  1. “I wrote an average of 5 posts a day, churning out nearly 1,740 articles over the course of 20 months. That is, by all objective standards, insane.”  
     
    PR Upshot:
    Thanks to print, online, video, etc., demands crush journalists to do more with less. Ironically, this means that they now need the “right” pitch that can provide a shortcut to a finished story more than ever.
  2. “In a perfect world, important stories would attract the most pageviews, but that is not the world we live in. Miley Cyrus and cat videos get more pageviews than stories about homelessness and healthcare.”  
     
    PR Upshot:
    Story pitches with an entertainment dimension increase the probability for success. This doesn’t mean you need industrial-grade humor a la Conan O’Brien. A mere touch of levity or amusement will elevate your pitch (though you probably want to stay away from levity if pitching a story on homelessness) .
  3. “We the tech media do not owe you (or your clients) coverage. My job is to cover the news, not to promote your company.” 

    PR Upshot: The ideal door opener starts at the industry level and then moves to the client part. This concept goes by the phrase “thought leadership.” Note they don’t call this “thought followship,” meaning the insight or perspective should be fresh.
  4. “Newsworthiness is defined by timeliness, relevance, significance and prominence, and human interest. The fact that you want articles about your company does not constitute newsworthiness, and disseminating pitches that meet none of those criteria is likely a waste time.” 
     
    PR Upshot: Takes us back to the commoditization of news and that most product announcements miss the mark from a journalist’s perspective. In fact, when we encounter new-biz opportunities that largely depend on news announcements to fuel media relations, we politely take a pass.
  5. “It is important to be succinct, yet also provide actual information. I received emails so obtuse, vague and laden with jargon, I couldn’t understand what I was being pitched.” 
     
    PR Upshot:
    This is where storytelling expertise comes to the fore. Think like a journalist, not a promotional flyer. And get to the point.

Why doesn’t PR think like a journalist and apply the same storytelling techniques?

The No. 1 obstacle is time, not expertise or smarts. PR often doesn’t take the time do its homework and customize each outreach to the individual journalist’s needs. It’s easier to send a generic pitch to 40 journalists than devote 15 minutes of research to each journalist, which calls for an extra 10 hours of work.

Yet, all the data and barbs suggest that five customized pitches produce better results than flinging a generic pitch to 40+ journalists.

Above all, apply common sense.

Mike Butcher from TechCrunch Europe offers his take on common sense in reference to the pitches that come his way:

“Many opening gambits are very simplistic emails which don’t answer basic questions. Many even say (WHY?!) ‘Can I send you a press release?’ Are you kidding me? Are you really kidding me? I am now going to have to waste 10 seconds of my life replying to you with something like “Hey, so I have no idea if you should send me your press release or not because you know what’s in it and I don’t. So OK, sure, knock yourself out. Join the party in my inbox.

Given that PR and journalists bring different agendas to a story, it’s inevitable — and I would argue even healthy — that some tension exists.

It’s when media relations becomes a volume game that PR gets into trouble.

Note: If you enjoyed this post, you might check out “Journalist Prefers to Interview Executives Minus PR.” As the title suggests, some journalists view PR supporting an executive interview as nothing more than a “babysitting service.”


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