Stop Blaming Journalists for Bad PR

24 Oct Stop Blaming Journalists for Bad PR

I recently read a blog post on a daily news site dedicated to PR, marketing, and media that basically called out all the ways that journalists frustrate PR professionals. While the post made some fair points (breaking embargos can, in fact, cost us a client), I felt that many of the points were a bit on the whiny side (yeah, journalists routinely don’t respond to pitches).

For the sake of not throwing someone under the bus I’m not going to link to the post, but I am going to highlight a few ways we can do our jobs better, take more responsibility for our actions, and not bite the hand that feeds us. If we stay focused on these things, we can improve or continue to enhance relationships with reporter contacts. Ultimately, that’s the most important thing to our success.

Respect their time

There are some amazing journalists out there who will respond to every single pitch they receive, even if they aren’t interested. These journalists are the exception, not the rule. Journalists receive hundreds of emails a day from PR professionals looking to get their expert or client in the news. I imagine the onslaught is overwhelming and that often many PR pitches go unread for days. Heck, even reporters I have good relationships with sometimes take a few days to get back to me because they are busy.

To develop a good relationship with a reporter, respect the fact that they are busy – not sitting around eating bonbons. Understand that sometimes it might take a few days for them to get back to you. Sometimes they just may not respond at all. Because while we may think what we have to say is so incredibly important, the reality is that reporters often already have a list of articles they need to write. Unless there is breaking news, nothing we are pitching is so urgent it requires an instant response.

Understand what they write about

Contrary to what we may want to believe, reporters are not relentlessly checking their email again and again to find the perfect pitch for the perfect story to cross their path. While some reporters can pick and choose which stories they cover, a good many also still take their marching orders from editors.

Reporters typically cover certain beats or topics, and if you aren’t paying attention to what those are you may well deserve the ridicule and scorn you are sure to incur. Services like Cision, which lists reporter beats, are notoriously out of date, but tools like TechNews, which will pull actual articles based on keywords, and social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn provide much better insight into what a reporter is really covering. Twitter especially is a great way to find out if a particular reporter is out of the office at a conference or on vacation.

Be human

This is something I say a lot to our junior staff when I’m giving them pointers on how to write an effective pitch. Being human is much more effective than trying to win a reporter over by being the most creative person in the room. Always remember that you’re writing to another person.

The first thing to think about is your subject line. Is it too full of buzzwords, or does it look like it could be confused for spam? If the answer is yes, then it will be. I find that keeping the subject line direct can be helpful. Some subject lines I have particular success with include, “Quick question,” “For your consideration,” and “<Client name> News.” A few caveats, though. If you say “Quick question,” it better be quick, “For your consideration” works best when looking to secure an authored article and you are sharing an abstract, and “<Client name> News” should only be used if the client’s name is recognizable and well known.

Social media is also helpful when being human. There is one reporter I’ve shared a beer with previously who is known for skewering PR professionals on Twitter. I always make a point of checking his Twitter before pitching him to get an idea of what he’s currently writing about and to make sure he’s in the office. One of the last times I pitched him he had just returned from out of the country and had experienced an earthquake on his return trip. I referenced this in my email to him — showing that I am, in fact, human — and it certainly helped me to get a positive response from him.  

Prepare as best as possible, but realize that nothing is guaranteed

The vast majority of public relations is earned media, not paid, and that means nothing is ever a guarantee. Sometimes reporters will go through an interview and then decide that the idea or news is just not worth writing a story about. It stinks but it happens.

It’s our job as PR professionals to manage our client’s expectations and that includes letting them know that it’s entirely possible that an interview may not lead to an article. I do believe that generally, we know what is newsworthy enough to warrant an article and what really is best as an informational interview.  

It’s also our job to set our clients up for success during an interview. That means preparing them with talking points not only about the topic to be discussed during the interview but also background on the publication and reporter they’ll be speaking to. Sometimes reporters come to interviews unprepared. With this information in hand, our client can pick up the ball and run with it if it’s apparent the reporter is not going to.  

Don’t paint with such a broad brush

The original blog post I read listed several more things about journalists that are deemed as being bad behavior, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with all of them, I also think that it’s unfair to make generalized statements about all journalists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are more than 38,000 people who are deemed to be reporters and correspondents) Are there a few rotten apples out there? Certainly. But there are also plenty of PR professionals and agencies that give the work I do a bad name, too.  

It’s high time that PR professionals stop whining about how tough our jobs can be (there’s a reason it’s number eight on the list of most stressful jobs) and instead focus on the things we can control and simply do our jobs better. I, for one, love what I do and find that when you really take time to do this job well, positive reporter relationships will follow.

Jennifer Edgerly
jedgerly@speakerboxpr.com
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