The relationship between the media and PR can resemble a tug of war.
But it’s not like the tug of war at your grade school birthday party when the mom splits the kids into two equal teams ─ also making sure that the big kids are equally divided ─ and shouts, “Go”!
Instead, the media has a clear advantage in its tug of war with PR and concluding the game with a “No.”
Here’s the point that’s easy to forget as these battles rage in the trenches every day. Journalists would prefer to say “Yes” to a pitch that fits their audience and comes with accessible third-party resources and supporting data that doesn’t scream “Me, me and here’s more about me.”
PR at its best serves as a source for journalists.
To guide PR in striving for this utopia, several journalists have taken the time to share their perspective. I’ve captured three of them for your reading pleasure, starting with Steve Wildstrom, who sadly passed away last month. Steve wrote the Technology and You column at Bloomberg Businessweek for 15+ years, so he knew a thing or two or three about PR pitches. In fact, he titled this passage, “How To Give Your Pitch a Chance.”
Before you contact me:
Take the trouble to read my blog posts and columns. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll be wasting your time, my time, and your client’s money. It’s not hard to figure out the sorts of things that interest me and my readers and that I am likely to write about. I take a rather expansive view of personal technology and I’m very open to new coverage areas, but my view of personal technology would never stretch to cover customer management relations software, high-end databases, gigabit switches, or anything else of the sort. I also write about technologies, products, and services, not companies. To be really blunt about it, if you can’t take the time to read what I write, I’m not likely to take the time to listen to what you pitch.
How to contact me:
The best way to make an initial contact is through email. The phone is a second choice. Use one or the other. Don’t call me to find out if I got your fax or your email. I guess they teach you in flack school to begin every conversation by asking “Is this is a good time?” or “Are you on deadline?” It’s just annoying. If I don’t have time to talk to you, I’ll tell you.
If you send email, please keep your message relatively brief. Do not send pictures or product images, especially high-resolution ones, PowerPoint presentations, or big PDF files without checking first. I spend a lot of time on the road and few things are more infuriating than downloading a picture you have no use for on a 14.4 modem connection in a hotel room.
My Two Cents
A few years ago I wrote the post “Why Journalists Get Cranky About PR” which hammered the point of doing your homework on a journalist before the pitch. If you find the time required to do this a burden, perhaps you’re better suited for a job in email marketing.
The second perspective comes courtesy Jeremy Wagstaff, the Reuters chief tech correspondent for Asia based in Singapore.
Wagstaff has a sense of humor ─ calls his blog “Loose Wire” ─ which comes out in his guidance to PR updated in July.
I’m always happy to hear from public relations professionals and anyone who thinks their client/service/product may be of interest to me.
What I’m interested in:
- Telecoms, media or technology: pretty broad, and I’m interested in more or less any kind of innovation.
- Technology and society: reports, individuals, etc: on how technology improves, or doesn’t improve, society — particularly, but not exclusively, the developing world. Love surveys of how people hold their cellphones or eat celery while typing.
- Technology and politics: cyberwar, infowar, security issues, hacktivism, that kind of thing.
- Well thought-through trend pieces: I know you’re doing it to promote your client, no need to hide that. But you might have a good angle, or prompt me to think of one, so I will always take seriously a well-thought through pitch.
- Relationships: I really want to know how to reach someone in a company or organization when I need them. So I’m usually happy to meet for a coffee with anyone who can help me do that.
What I’m not interested in:
- new appointments, unless they’re really senior and the company’s really big.
- too many press releases: keep them limited and keep our interest. If I get more than one a month from the same company I’ll downgrade them so they’ll usually skip my inbox, so it doesn’t help anyone to send out too many.
- press releases which you can’t help me follow up on. No bigger waste of time than piquing a journalist’s interest and then saying ‘we can’t give you any more information or someone to talk to about this.’ Not least, this means we have no way of actually confirming the press release is authentic.
- non-disclosure agreements: I will observe embargoes but please do not ask me to sign NDAs unless there is a really good justification. Even then it has to go through Thomson Reuters’ legal team and that takes time.
- junkets. I’m not in a position to accept junkets, and I don’t like them anyway. This extends to group lunches, all-day conferences and other attempts to herd journalists together and curry favour with them. Coffees or informal lunches one on one work.
How to reach me:
Email is always best (include [pitch] in the subject line to ensure it reaches me). Doesn’t have to be long, but try to take into account what I cover and have already written about.
Some notes on pitches and communication:
- Please, no phone calls unless one of us is actually dying.
- If it’s the first time you’re emailing me, please indicate somewhere near the top that you’ve read this page.
- no pitches which restrict what I can and cannot write, because you’ve offered that to another outlet. We decide what the story is, and while I quite understand you may be making similar pitches to others, don’t try to circumscribe what you might share with me because you promised it to someone else. You’re either interested in me being interested in you, or you’re not.
- If I don’t respond to an email pitch, please don’t keep pestering me. I’ll read everything, but I won’t reply to everything. My recent favourite, a follow-up email prefaced by: “just floating this back up to the top of your inbox.” Imagine if everyone did that.
- Please don’t blast me with pitches if you don’t actually cover Asia or can’t connect me to someone who does, or can’t pass me onto someone who can actually deal with me. So responses like “it’s not yet available in Singapore” or “sorry, I didn’t realise you’re in Asia. We don’t deal with Asia” aren’t particularly welcome or useful. It’s a global world.
- Face to face is always best, Skype/phone second, email third.
- One-on-one is better. Not with other journalists. Not with minions or colleagues and others taking lots of notes in exercise books. Not, if possible, with PR. If this isn’t possible, please let me know beforehand. This applies to phone calls too: I prefer one on one phone calls with no lurkers or helpers or note-takers in the background.
- No ‘helpful’ interjections. One reason I try to apply the above rule: I really appreciate the help from PR of setting up interviews, rounding up their people is no easy task. But it’s not useful to anyone to then interject during an interview, either over the phone or in person. It wastes time: I can’t quote you (though I will if necessary), the interviewee can’t contradict you, they can’t really repeat what you’ve just said, and the undercurrent of the interview is lost. Journalists may not seem to have a rhyme or pattern to their interview techniques, but actually they do, and by asking your own questions, making your own comments, or suggesting questions or answers you interrupt that. Your role is to place interviewee and interviewer together and ensure they’re as well-briefed as possible before the interview. And then get out of the way. Anything else undermines that.
- No interviews over expensive lunches: I’m sure I’m alone but I don’t like these. Too much crockery and cutlery, too many people pouring iced water over your notebook, and often too many hangers-on snaffling up the free lunch. Let’s just meet in Starbucks or a local equivalent and get to know each other that way. Save lunches for when we know each other really well and can enjoy them one on one.
Post interview notes:
- If I’ve conducted an interview, attended a press conference or borrowed one of your gadgets/apps, please don’t ask me when the article will appear, what other products I’ll be reviewing/companies I’ll be interviewing, or whether you can see the article before it appears. And please don’t try to browbeat me into writing a story after an interview. An interview with your client does not guarantee I’ll write anything. And certainly not according to your schedule. (If I’ve borrowed the gadget, for sure remind me you want it back.)
- Please, no follow-up emails to ask how the article is coming along (unless you’ve got something useful to add). Sometimes these things take time, and sometimes editors don’t want the piece after all. If you’ve got your Google Alerts set up, you should know as soon as I do when it comes out. In most cases I’ll add you to my mailing list so you should see the article that way too.
My Two Cents
Some PR folks will read Jeremey’s treatise and conclude he’s at best a curmudgeon and possible qualifies for jerk-hood. Having worked with Jeremy, I can speak from personal experience that’s not the case. He simply hopes to scare off those who would waste his time. With that said, I do believe that PR absolutely has a place in supporting press interviews. I did like the line, “You’re either interested in me being interested in you, or you’re not.”
The third entry comes from Mike Butcher, editor at large at TechCrunch based in London.
Naturally he focuses on startups. Though there’s some “bite” to his narrative (rant?), pragmatic advice is there for the taking.
I’m UTTERLY SICK and TIRED of dealing with MILLIONS of tech entrepreneurs (these days there are a HELL of a lot of you) and (some) PR people who have ZERO clue how to pitch me/TechCrunch/the media. Their pitches are long-winded and rambling. They ask if they could ‘send some more information’, as if I care. I have no idea if it’s interesting or not until you send it! Many just ask me out to lunch or coffee. (Thanks, but I prefer drinks, and I also prefer drinks with my *actual friends* — fine if you have somehow become someone I like to drink with!). You see, if I took all these offers up I’d never have to pay for food or coffee again. But I’d also never get any work done. Yes, it is always better to try and form a working relationship with a journalist before pitching them an idea you think they might want to look into. It is always better to RESEARCH what the journalist generally writes about and who their title is aimed at. But you are not going to get your ‘foot in the door’ unless your first interactions are concise and to the point.
In the main all the below applies much more to new startups who have no clue how to approach the media but, incredibly, I still get some PR people who can’t cover off these basic questions in their opening gambit. In either case, their opening lines are often a short email which amounts to “Hi, we exist. Can we have a post on Techcrunch now?” This, of course is utterly stupid.
The most solid pitches come when the startup relates what they do to a CURRENT news story of the day. For instance, say Apple just came out with a new kind of headphone, and your startup has a product relevant to music or headphones. THAT is when you should jump all over the media – while your story is current and you can get into the tail-wind of a hot story. Not 6 months later when we’ve all moved on and forgotten about headphones.
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.”
You are going to save us all time — and visits to psychiatrists — by simply addressing some basic questions FIRST.
Mostly, ‘press releases’ are written in the way a PR’s client would write a news story. They are usually pretty rambling and designed to please the client (read: stroke their ego) rather than assist the journalist to get shit done, and fast. So, I think the press release format is DEAD.
Instead, I have come up with a checklist of things you need to cover off at the opening pitch, before the process of further questions happens. I have EVEN (wow, I’m so helpful aren’t I?) proscribed the number of sentences you should use. Now, the eagle-eyed among you will realise that this is just a rough guide. If you can tell me why your company rocks in one sentence then great. Sure, 3 is fine. But if you have to do it in 50, then, I’m sorry, but you may have a problem understanding and communicating exactly what it is that you do.
Are you going to have to send me 70+ sentences? No. But you MUST at least try to address as many of these questions as possible. Putting it into an easy to digest format, so that the journalist can make a quick decision about whether to start talking to you or not, can be helpful. If this is not your style, then fine. Try something else. Write War And Peace. But I’m just trying to tell you that this is potentially going to save you and the journalist a lot of time. Time is a big deal in the media business.
Sure, granted, the final resulting article might well go into fine detail about what it is you do. It might even be a pretty long article. That’s for the journalist to decide. But if your FIRST interactions with the media is something akin to a chapter of War And Peace, then you have a problem. As I like to say, “50% of being a startup is about communication”.
If you are trying to ‘change the world’, then you are going to have to communicate that.
In the first instance, before pitching what you THINK is news, you MUST make sure it actually IS news (like NEW, ‘never been published before’ new!) and follow this format. Savvy PR people will sign off the traditional press release (this product is the world’s leading yadda yadda) with the client but STILL use the below format AS WELL to ASSIST the journalist.
Meanwhile, I intend to write less news anyway, and concentrate more on opinion pieces and video.
Some tips: All TechCrunch writers can be emailed on Tips@TechCrunch.com (very high traffic, but it is read). And all European writers can be email on EuroNews [@] Techcrunch.com
If you just want me, I’m on mike [ @ ] techcrunch.com
A note on Subject lines and opening sentences: Subject lines should read like headlines: “Catty, the Uber-for-Cats, Raises A $20M Seed Round” (LOL!). Opening sentence should NOT.
Read: “Hi Mike, How are you? It’s hot in London huh?”. It should read: “Mike, With the news that Uber has expanded into on-demand Cat Delivery, I bring you a startup that is going to BLOW those guys out of the water and this is EXCLUSIVE for you.”
A final word:
A lot of this may sound incredibly arrogant. Perhaps it is.
I don’t dig coal for a living and the Taliban doesn’t shoot at me as part of my job. I’m lucky.
But journalists have to parse a lot of information quickly now. It helps the sender out if they are told, in black and white, the best way to get noticed and maybe even read. That’s what this exercise was about.
My Two Cents
Hey, he did close with a “Thanks!” If you take away one point from Butcher, it should be “journalists have to parse a lot of information quickly.” Nail your story in a package that the journalist can consume in a nanosecond.
OK, maybe some journalists are not predisposed to say “yes.”
Even in these cases, you’re still going to increase the likelihood of success by doing your homework.