PR: Over, but over what

The death of PR? A further evolution of Twitter? One journalist’s way of making a stand against poor pitchings? All three? Neither? Dennis Howlett’s declaration on Wednesday that PR is “so over” and he’ll only now receive PR pitches via Twitter has sparked plenty of debate from both journalist and PR bloggers in the past week.

Dennis’s source of frustration will be familiar to anybody working in this area of the media:

“After 17 years, I’ve come to the end of putting up with what most PR offers. It is time to draw a line in the sand. Accordingly, any PR that emails me gets this standard response: “I’ve stopped accepting email pitches. Please follow me on Twitter and pitch in 140 characters or less.” Why be so draconian?

In any one day I field up to 20 PR requests. I can guarantee that 90+% of them have done zero research to find out what I’m interested in. In the worst cases they won’t have done a basic Google search to find out who I am or where my interests lay. In 2008, that’s beyond unacceptable, it’s criminal. Why?”

During my time in journalism, I probably got more than 20 of these requests, either via email or phone. I still get several email pitches, even though I’m now mostly in PR, but people who’ve clearly not done the remotest bit of research on who I am and what I do. And as a blogger who gets an occasional pitch, I’d estimate about half of these are interesting to me. And Twitter is such a easy, instant place to do work on, surely Dennis is onto something here.

Well, yes. And then no. With a bit of added maybe.

Andrew Bruce Smith is supportive of Dennis’ stance, and can sympathise:

In short, I think Dennis is absolutely right. But it’s important to properly understand what he is saying.

Dennis is perfectly entitled to request to be approached in the ways in which he chooses. And if he wants to be pitched by Twitter, then that’s what PRs will have do to – simple. He is merely taking a drastic, but logical, step to filter the noise he is subjected to.

 think about who does the pitching in agencies – as has been noted ad nauseum media relations tends to be delegated down to the junior ranks. On the whole, these are bright intelligent folk, But without getting too ageist about it, they haven’t had enough life/industry/business experience to have the kind of knowledge or insight to build a case that would stand up to Dennis’ scrutiny. 

Again, that’s a fair point, and Chris Nee notes what you’d need to do to pitch on Twitter. It looks straightforward, although there are several key questions Chris raises:

“There are some outstanding questions though. What will be the preferred Twetiquette? Should pitches carry a specific prefix? Will Dennis click on hyperlinks? What of the importance of the pre-built relationship?”

Because it’s easy to see how you could get some PR people who don’t get Twitter and aren’t on there, but suddenly decide this is where they need to be and, in short, irritating the hell out of journalists and bloggers with careless pitching.

Sally Whittle goes further and thinks Dennis is unnecessarily cutting off other sources, no matter how frustrating some of the bad pitches are:

Asking for concise pitches and even expressing a preference for short pitches on Twitter is one thing. Insisting that you won’t even deign to look at information submitted using a technology that 99% of people are familiar with, and insisting on them using a technology only 1% of people (if that) are familiar with? It’s bobbins, I reckon.

A Journalist’s ultimate responsibility is to the readers. Surely we have a responsibility to consider information on its merits, as far as is practical, and not to arbitrarily cut off 90% of the available information because it’s not delivered in the precise format we’d prefer.

She has a point. I agree with Sally. And Dennis. And Andrew. And Chris. And I don’t think that’s too contradictory.

In Dennis’ case, if Twitter is the best medium for him to do business in (and there’s no reason to suggest it isn’t), then it makes sense that he focuses most of energy on there, although there is a danger he may miss something useful elsewhere. On the other hand, if you’re a PR, you’ve got no excuse now for not knowing how he operates.

But this doesn’t mean there should be a mass migration of journalists and, subsequently, PRs to Twitter. And nor does it necessarily mean that PR is dead either (although that’s not really what Dennis is saying). What it does neatly articulate, though, is that PR (predominantly agencies, but in-house should also take note) should perhaps re-asses how it does business.

Firstly, I think it’s worth saying that a large proportion of journalists won’t necessarily appreciate some of the more creative pitches. For all the writings on this blog about how journalism needs to get more Web 2.0, no industry suddenly downs tools and completely changes overnight and many journalists will still favour email or phone calls.

What it does show is that PR needs to spend a little more time researching who they’re pitching to and the best way to ensure that a pitch results in coverage.

There’s a time and a place for mass mail outs – especially if it’s something that needs doing at short notice. Chances are that list will also contain several journalists who the sender has a decent relationship with, or the sender knows don’t mind email pitches. That’s fine. There’s also a time and a place for the phone as well.

But as journalism gets increasingly fragmented, so PR needs to be able to glue together these fragments into something resembling a shape again. And if that’s cold pitching, that means understanding that if a story may be of interest to, say, Dennis, a national newspaper journalist, a couple of select freelancers, a web-only news service, a local newspaper and radio station, and a couple of bloggers, then a one-size fits all attitude won’t be good enough here.

Interestingly, Chris Reed probably nails it closest when he says that email is somewhat broken as a communications tool:

“I reckon that the PR industry (probably in common with many others) is over-reliant on email. Simple.”

Given the amount of emails that get sent each day, it’s never been easier to ignore an email pitch. That means that, although email isn’t completely dead as a communication tool, it’s starting to become a little less relevant, and there’s the potential for it to get the same way as traditional snail mail.

When you’ve got sites like Twitter, Facebook and even Xing and LinkedIn, blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 tools, there’s definitely the means to do something that means it’s easier to make the pitch a) more tailored to the individual and b) more likely to stand out.

These aren’t the be all and end all of communications either, but it really does come down to building up research and personal relationships. Basic cold pitching just won’t cut it any more.

Like Chris, this may also seem like a simple an obvious statement, but if you’re pitching a story, then it’s all about tailoring it to the person you’re pitching it to. That’s the same if you’re pitching via phone, email, Twitter, or other. And it’s remarkable how many people in PR still don’t get this.

This doesn’t mean spending hours on an elaborately-crafted personalised pitch for every person on the list, but by doing a bit of research and adjusting the pitch as necessary. So if that means tweaking what you’ve written to making it more relevant to a blogger or a journalist, or sending some extra material – picture or video or other – for a site that is more heavy on that type of content, or even rewriting it in 140 characters, then so be bit.

PR isn’t dead. Email isn’t dead. But communications is changing. And that means PR needs to adjust just as much as journalism, if not more, when it comes to communications.


5 Responses to “PR: Over, but over what”

  1. 1 Dennis Howlett December 6, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. The one thing I’d add is that I’m not a journalist. I used to be a hack but that’s no longer the case and hasn’t been so since shortly after 9/11. I’m a blogger. That’s very different. It strikes me that the UK PR cadre hasn’t understood that. Not that the US folks are much better.

    The best advice I can give anyone is to run a SearchTwitter on @dahowlett to figure out what I’m interested in, what I’m up to, who I’m talking with etc. Add in a FriendFeed search on dahowlett and you’ll get even more information. And it can be automated via RSS.

  2. 2 chris reed December 6, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    Hi Gary

    Very nicely thought through response. And I’m pleased that we agree that how best to pitch = how people most want to receive a pitch.

    (You’ll be pleased to know my comments are *usually* shorter than my posts…)

  3. 3 Andrew Bruce Smith December 7, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    Thanks for link – Chris’ comment re: e-mail as a “broken” communication channel is largely true. If you think about it, all the PR industry has done in the last 15 years is to swap sending out press releases via the post for e-mail – in effect, they have become in many cases sub-standard direct marketing agencies who also run a poor press release telemarketing service (did you get my press release?).

    Even if you treat the press release as a direct marketing device (which I’d generally advise you didn’t), you’d think people might bother to learn best practice from the few direct marketing firms that know how to do e-mail marketing properly. I suspect that e-mail distribution lists are largely built mostly on “gut feel” rather than any kind of analysis of previous response, open rates, etc.

    For the record, I should say that I was one of the first PRs in the UK to send press releases by e-mail in the early 90s. Back then there were only handful of journalists who had e-mail – they all thought e-mail press releases were a fantastic idea. If only we all knew then what we know now.

  4. 4 Gary Andrews December 8, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    So, it seems that the general response is that email really isn’t always the best way to pitch people?

    Part of me feels that PR has lapsed into a comfortable way of doing things – send out press release, follow-up with call, then shrug and say “I did all I could” if the journalist doesn’t follow it up – that they’ve forgotten the best way of getting coverage is to target those who will be most interested in the story but the most relevant means possible. Which may or may not be email.

    Having just re-read that, it doesn’t seem difficult either…

    Dennis, it’s an interesting point about considering yourself as a blogger not a journalist (and maybe something for a later post). If I was asked to define what you do, I’d have said “journalist who blogs” or “journalist working online/in blogging” not just “blogger”. Which differs from your own definition, and somebody’s else’s definition may differ from that.

    I think the lines between blogging and journalism have got increasingly blurred (Techcrunch is technically a blog, but I’d call it journalism, of sorts) that, in some cases, you may even be able to use the words interchangable (more as a shorthand than an exact form of description though).

    Then you’ve got people like me, who have a day job in PR, yet still do a bit of journalism, and blog in their spare time. I’m also a blogger, but a “blogger who occasionally does journalism”.

    This could get confusing… 🙂

    I think the base point, though, is that, in very very different ways (and, lordy, I’m definitely not in any way comparing the ramblings I write on here to what you do) we’re communicators who PRs consider worth spending time pitching ideas to, no matter how good or bad said ideas are. And that’s probably true for any journalist or blogger who’s ever been pitched to.

  1. 1 » Howlett lets off a Howler The Red Rocket: Technology, PR and social media marketing Trackback on December 8, 2008 at 10:23 am

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December 2008

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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com

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