I’m not a big of fan of research on journalists.
The studies always “reveal” the same core points:
- Don’t mass blast email pitches to journalists.
- Offer a point of view, not vanilla commentary.
- Stop foisting non-disclosure agreements on us.
- Read the room (understand the journalist’s readership).
- Corporate speak dulls the senses.
There should be tension between journalists and PR.
We’re striving to build a positive public profile of our clients or companies. Journalists are charged with reporting on industries and issues. Overlap between the two charters certainly exists, but when PR misses what it takes to effectively work with a journalist, tension can morph into acrimony.
Ask a Journalist
I used to curate the stories from journalists on how the ills of the world could be traced back to the practice of PR.
The New York Times piece, “Swatting at a Swarm of Public Relations Spam”
“A few months back, alterations were made to The New York Times’s email system, and suddenly I noticed that P.R. spam started showing up the way flying monkeys appear in “The Wizard of Oz.” Swarms landed each day, imploring the Haggler to write about Christmas Cookie Treat Boxes, or a document previewer called Igloo, or a liquor called Pura Vida Tequila, which ‘will be in the house this season at Qualcomm Stadium.’ Woo-hoo.”
The Gawker story, “Do PR People Deserve Our Sympathy?”
“Does the act of being paid to be the smiling human face of an inhuman soulless corporation sometimes wear on a person? I’m sure that it does. But if journalists stop pointing out the craven, dishonest nature of PR, we are not doing anyone any favors.”
And my personal favorite from BusinessInsider, “Dear PR Lady: Here’s Why I Didn’t Open Any of Your 3 Email Pitches (although I wish I had)”:
“I had never met or heard of the people sending me the news, and it was clear that they didn’t know me either.”
Which brings me to a recent study from Fractl that surveyed over 500 journalists on their preferences when it comes to news releases and email pitches.
Let’s start with the value of the news release.
The data states that more than half of journalists don’t subscribe to any news release services. It occurred to me that the chart neglects to note that publications themselves subscribe to various news release services, so these announcements still find their way into the journalists’ inboxes.
Next, the survey examines if journalists value news releases as a source for stories.
According to the data, journalists put the value of a news release one click higher than decaf coffee.
PR spends over $4B annually distributing news releases, the vast majority of which deliver zero value to journalists. Still journalists are pumping out stories daily and weekly that start with a news release. By the time the journalist finalizes the story it might not contain any words from the release, but the basis of the story comes from the announcement. And if PR constructs a news release that actually tells a story — and minimizes the adjectives and adverbs — with relevance to the publication’s audience, stories will “borrow” chunks of content.
We developed and distributed a news release earlier this year for the Fremont Police Department about the use of a Tesla as a patrol car. The release generated 116 original and syndicated articles in Tier 1 publications ranging from Mashable to Quartz to U.S. News & World Report. More revealing, 20.6% of the content in the media stories was directly lifted from the news release.
This isn’t to say that PR should start flinging out more news releases. Instead, it means when an announcement warrants a news release, the right story in this format works.
Here Comes the Pitch
Turning our attention to the email pitch, this chart captures the volume.
I’m not so sure about this one. In my experience, journalists at top publications grapple with 50+ email pitches on a daily basis (drill down of the data shows tech/science journalists receive 23.86 email pitches daily). That’s why they have no patience for garbage and spend a few seconds on the subject line to determine whether to invest more time in the missive. They can’t afford to miss a genuine story, but they also can’t spend five minutes on every email pitch and flush half the day down the drain reviewing pitches.
As for the value that journalists place on email pitches, these numbers came out higher than expected:
Over half of the journalists found value or extreme value in email pitches.
As the internet continues to commoditize news, it could be that the email pitch is evolving into a path for journalists to write differentiated stories. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part that PR has figured out the power of one-off storytelling.
The Fractl study examined the length of an email pitch:
As previously noted, journalists need to be time-efficient in discerning a worthy pitch from bad stuff, so it makes sense they would prefer brevity. With that said, if your pitch lays out a compelling story that aligns with how journalists write — anecdotes, humanized dimension, hard numbers, etc. — journalists will take the time to read 200 or even 300+ words.
As for rejection:
Those top three reasons — irrelevant, boring and self-promotional — bring us back to the basics. It’s reasonable for journalists to expect PR to do its homework (relevance), recognize that journalists cover industries and issues, and pump some life into the pitch.
I know, not exactly a groundbreaking insight.