Journalists Sound Off on How PR Pros Can Improve Media Pitches

headway-5QgIuuBxKwM-unsplash August 29, 2021

While we hear PR pros talk about how often their pitches go ignored – we don’t always hear the other side.

Journalists have some REAL complaints about practices public relations practitioners engage in that make their jobs more difficult. Unfortunately, these missteps can also make it tougher for PR pros to develop the relationships they want – and need – to do a better job of landing earned media coverage on behalf of clients.

We know that securing stories is more difficult than ever (the struggle IS real), but sometimes, those who practice public relations can be their own worst enemies.

During a recent Twitter exchange with Ellen Chang, @EllenYChang, a journalist who writes for U.S. News and other national media outlets, I was surprised to learn of behaviors practiced by some PR practitioners that sabotage those relationships.

In the spirit of helping public relations pros improve their relationships with reporters – and in turn, their results for clients – here are some basic PR 101 tips for those who pitch stories, directly from Chang and a few others who offered tips.

Pitching Tips to Help Land Earned Media Coverage

1) Spell their names correctly: “Misspelling reporters’ names” is a pet peeve, per Chang (but this one came from multiple reporters). This is a big one – yet there’s a simple fix. Proof your pitch. Then, proof it again.

No one likes it when their name is misspelled.  If you went to journalism school (as did some of us in PR), you’ll remember that double and triple-checking names, numbers and other basic information is drilled into us from day one. Because if you can’t get the basics right, the reporter is less likely to read on to get to the point you were trying to make with your pitch.

2) Make it easy to contact you: Another complaint of journalists? “PR people who have no title or phone number in their signature line,” says Chang. Put your contact info – all of it – in the email or on the press release. Make it clear how to contact you.

3) Be available to speak to reporters: When a reporter contacts you, make yourself available. Chang says she encounters a number of PR pros who seemingly don’t want to talk to reporters – or don’t return calls.

“If I call, I really need something, and no, you can’t email me.” It’s in your best interest to build those relationships by being responsive.

4) Mind the deadline: Remember that journalists work against deadlines. “Disregarding deadlines and then frantically emailing/calling after a piece has run to ‘make it right,” is a PR misstep journalist Dan Przygoda, @dprzygoda, often sees.

This one came up over and over. If you’re pitching the media, responding to any follow-up questions or requests for additional information should be at the top of your to-do list.

5) Be responsive: To follow on to the tip above, if you’ve promised something, be sure to follow through. “Forgetting to follow up in a timely manner” is a pet peeve of journalist Dwayne Butler, @enyawd59.

When a reporter asks you for something, make it a priority to get it to them right away. Waiting a week to answer a question – or respond with customer references, images or other information – is not going to help your cause.

“For example, I always ask agency people for a list of their clients and topics they can discuss,” says Chang. “I rarely receive them.”

6) Tell the truth: Do you share with your client the background on the interview? “When it’s clear the PR person hasn’t communicated to their client what the interview/segment is about or have spun it to their client in a way that doesn’t reflect the intent,” said Przygoda.

Why not be upfront? Of course, they’ll find out anyway – and it only reflects poorly on both of you.

7) Have images, customer references, data and other background information ready to go: “Not having high res images,” says journalist Francesca Baker, @andsoshethinks. “Not having case studies lined up.”

Before you pitch, you should have ALL the info a reporter may ask for in response ready to send. This could include images, logos, headshots, customer references, data/statistics/research, background information, and a company spokesperson who can answer questions or be available for an interview.

Never assume a client has all of this on hand. On multiple occasions, I’ve learned late in the game that executives don’t have a current professional headshot – so they try to rush out to have one taken. By then, it’s too late. Be ready BEFORE you ever send out a pitch.

8) It’s OK to follow up – but use common sense: Per Baker, “Emailing, calling and DMing all the same time” is NOT a way to build a relationship with a journalist. In fact, it may backfire if they label you a pest. Or worse, block you.

9) Be a newshound: “There are folks who are just lazy- don’t read anything or listen to radio or TV,” Chang says. “The good PR folks catch my stories the minute they are live and tweet them out before I even know.”

10) Prepare your client for media interviews: “When you don’t prep your client on rudimentary tasks such as providing stats, it’s embarrassing for both the client and you. Your client should feel confident going into an interview,” says Chang.

11) Know who you’re pitching: “PR folks should know what I do. Yes, I work for a TV station, but I’m a digital producer and have NOTHING TO DO with booking your client on our TV programs,” says Arun Kristian Das, @arunwithaview.

If you don’t know who does what in a newsroom, spend some time finding out. Not only should your subject match up with the journalist’s beat – your pitch should be sent to the appropriate contact at that media outlet.

And, “Please check the location/coverage area/state for a media outlet before sending a PR pitch,” says Paula Wethington, @WethingtonPaula, a digital producer for Gannett Michigan. For example, if your pitch or press release has to do with a local or regional story, you want to send it only to reporters who cover those areas.

12) Read their work: “My greatest annoyance (as you know) is endless pitches on topics I’ve never covered (lazy)…. Read our work!?” says freelance journalist Caitlin Kelly, @CaitlinKellyNYC.

How can you expect a journalist to care about your pitch if you haven’t taken the time to care enough to read some of their stories?

13) Remember that journalists don’t work for you: “I hate when PR people treat publicity events as a ‘treat.’ This is my literal job that I get paid 10% of what you do. Or PR people who act like they’re hiring me. Are you paying me? No? Ok,” says journalist Joy Hiu Lin, @joyhuilin.

In general, it’s a good idea to drop the attitude when working with the media. They don’t owe you – or your client – anything. Remembering that in all your communications with reporters can go a long way toward building a better relationship.

14) Schedule press releases to hit the wire during working hours: Chang mentioned that she sometimes sees press releases going out at odd hours. She suggests this could be because junior PR practitioners aren’t taught the basics when they start working – and perhaps no one checks their work.

Learn how to use tools like the scheduling software – or basics such as this may earn you (and the client or organization you represent) a reputation for being sloppy.

15) Choose the right person for the media interview: “Just because someone is a CEO doesn’t mean they’re a great interview,” says Kelly.

Sometimes, we need to help clients take the ego out of the equation and choose the best spokesperson for the interview. And, that’s not always the CEO. Whoever that interviewee is, be sure they’re media trained and ready to go.

16) Don’t ask for a list of pre-interview questions: While this seems to be something clients sometimes request, don’t expect reporters to comply.

“I’m OK with giving an angle, but I don’t have time to provide questions,” Chang says. And, even if a reporter supplies a list in response, don’t expect them to stick to that list in an actual interview. Sometimes the most interesting points fall outside the list of questions – or the journalist may get something in the interview they didn’t expect, she says.

Chang also feels that there is usually a lot of information available to PR people who want to know the style of the stories reporters generally write. By doing their homework – actually reading what a reporter has written – public relations people can gain insight they can then use to brief clients before the interview.

17) Don’t stalk them: Reporters get annoyed (and creeped out) when PR people use tactics to hunt down their personal email or other information. Instead, use the contact information provided. If they have open DMs on Twitter – and some do – it’s OK to pitch them that way (some even say how they prefer to be pitched in their Twitter bios).

There was a recent Twitter thread in which journalists explained how they feel when this happens. As you might imagine, it doesn’t help public relations practitioners get in their good graces.

“As a rule, any pitch sent to a personal email or account gets automatically deleted without reading,” said reporter Victoria Song, @vicmsong.

Who would blame them for feeling this was a violation of their privacy? Remember, reporters are human, too. A little empathy can go a long way.

18) Build the relationship using common sense: Would you want to work with someone who asked obvious questions or didn’t take no for an answer?

Chang says that at times when reporters do respond to pitches sent by PR people, that only leads to more questions. And some information is often obvious in the query – such as the angle or deadline.

19) Don’t ask to review the piece before it’s published: When I asked Chang about clients who ask to review the piece before it goes live, she responded, “Don’t ask – you should never, ever ask.”

Remember, it’s not like you’re buying an ad. If you want full control (and some clients do), suggest that route instead of pitching earned media articles.

20) Be active on Twitter: Multiple reporters expressed disbelief that more PR pros aren’t active on Twitter.

Not only do they post queries seeking sources there, but it’s also a way to start to build relationships by interacting with them, liking and sharing their work.

21) Assign media pitching to PR practitioners who understand what they’re doing: As Chang says, “PR is not that easy and is super strategic, but pitching reporters is low on the scale,” at some agencies and organizations.

If junior members of the public relations team are doing the media outreach, take the time to train them. And – check in on their work. Be there to answer questions and provide guidance.

PR Pros, We Can Do Better When It Comes to Media Pitching

This advice directly from journalists in the trenches should serve as a reminder as to how PR pros can improve when pitching reporters. In many instances, practicing common sense and paying attention to detail could help us do a better job, positively impacting our work with both the media – AND our clients.

About the author: You’ll find Michelle Garrett at the intersection of PR, content marketing and social media. As a public relations and communications consultant, content creator, blogger, speaker and freelance writer, Michelle’s articles and advice have been featured in Entrepreneur, Muck Rack, Ragan’s PR Daily, Meltwater, ThomasNet, Attorney at Work, FairyGodBoss, Freelancers Union and more. She is the co-host of #PRLunchHour on Twitter Spaces and is the founder and host of #FreelanceChat. In addition, Michelle was named among the top 10 most influential PR professionals by Commetric in April 2021 and a Top Digital PR Leader in 2020

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