Posts Tagged 'pitching'

Come on PR, you can do better than this

Somehow, somewhere, one of the email addresses I use at work has got itself onto some kind of PR mailing list. How this happened I’m not exactly sure, but it’s the only explanation I can think of for the sudden influx of assorted press releases landing in the inbox each day.

Given that the address in question is a PR address, I doubt they’ll be getting coverage any time soon.

Interestingly, I’ve had a few colleagues and fellow PRs mention that they’ve been getting assorted press releases as well. There are clearly a few people out there in my chosen industry who haven’t done their homework.

It’s a tad depressing, to be honest, to see such bad PR first hand on a daily basis. I don’t want to indulge in a round of PR bashing – it’s not overly constructive for one thing – because I also see much more good PR than bad PR on a daily basis as well.

Nevertheless, my heart still sinks at the idea that there are PR people and companies who still think a mass mail out to all and sundry is an effective way of working. Sure, you’ll probably get a bit of coverage but, by the same token, if you throw a handful of tennis balls into a crowded street, chances are you’ll hit a couple of people.

Once, in a hurry, I did a mass send-out cobbling together a list from assorted sources. The pick-up was poor. I’ve since gone back to that list, made individual dialogue, established what form of contact and what type of stories they’re looking for, and the response has generally been a lot more receptive towards whatever I’m doing. I know, bad me for taking the lazy way out.

In many respects, I have some sympathy for Charles Arthur and others who’ve been known to lose it on occasions with PR. If you’re on several of these lists and constantly get an endless stream of emails, it can get very irritating. I’d never completely give up on emailed pitches though. During my full-time newsroom days, every now and then, amongst the dross, you’d find a little gem. Sure, it’s not substitute for actually going out there and getting stories, but it always a welcome surprise.

It still doesn’t excuse the arbitrary mail-out lists though. Part of me pities the companies who hire whatever firm it is that sends out these releases. The other part thinks that if they’ve chosen such a bad PR representative they deserve to see their cash go down the drain.

It’s so easy to do lazy, bad PR (then again, it’s also easy to do lazy, bad journalism). You wonder what they must do at work all day. Checking that you’re actually contacting the right person? That surely shouldn’t be too hard, no? I still wonder how this work email got onto the PR list. It’s not exactly easy to mistake for a journalist’s address.

Every now and then I consider emailing them back pointing out, politely, that they’re contacting the wrong person. Then again, I’ve had somebody insist I was the right person and got angry when I pointed out I couldn’t give his release coverage (reminding me somewhat of that woman from the Apprentice last night who insisted on arguing with the customer).

And then you occasionally get the truly impressive PR fails. Like today, when I emailed one of the random releases back, again politely pointing out they were going to the wrong place. I got an out of office. Ten minutes after we’d received the release.

Thankfully I know enough people in the industry who are doing inspiring stuff. My colleagues for one. Or the people I meet at varying networking events. But then it’s always the bad examples that drag down the industry’s reputation (justified or otherwise), and cause journalists to tut and sigh and roll their eyes and declare PR to be useless.

Generally speaking we’re not useless. But when, as a PR, you get pitched with hideously bad PR you wonder how these people managed to land a job in the industry. Or if they’ll still have one in a couple of years.

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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.

JournablogoPRlism

Back in the journalism days I used to get regular calls from PR and marketing bods with stories that really weren’t worth my time of day. Frequently they’d push stories that weren’t anywhere near my patch (including one PR who, upon being informed I covered Devon and not Cornwall, tried to flog a horse carcass well on its way to the glue yard by going down the line of ‘well, they’re near each other. And it’s a great story. You might as well take it, as it’s a quiet news patch’. Cue raised eyebrow on my end of the phone). The other favourite was a story that was nationwide but had no relevance to a more localised patch. It had to be a very slow day for one of those stories to get into the daily meeting.

Then there was the only time I’ve ever lost my temper. Having agreed to do an interview for story that was actually relevant to my patch (local author up for a prize – not great, but a space filler. Or churn, as its now called) I got the call at the arranged time only to find no author and a PR for a national chain on the other end of the phone, and, furthermore, to be told the author was never going to be interviewed. That went way beyond the lines of what was acceptable and, after doing a quick pre-record out of politeness, that message was conveyed in no uncertain terms to the person who set up the interview. It takes a lot to wind me up to that stage.

Now I’ve hopped onto the other side of the fence – hopefully not irritating too many journalists since the move – but despite being on the PR/social media side of things, I have a lot of sympathy for Charles Arthur’s rant against incompetent PRs:

“Later: phone rings. My phone. It’s been passed on by a colleague who works on blogs.
PR: “Hello, do you blog?”
Me: “Er, yes.” (Thinks: among other things.. what an odd way to open the conversation.)
PR: “I’m calling from Panasonic because they’ve got a new camera that’s come out and we thought you’d like to write about it.”
Me: “So what’s different about it? Cameras come out all the time.”
PR: “I don’t know exactly, but you’re a blogger aren’t you? Would you like to write about it?”
Me: (feeling slight stroke coming on): “Why? What’s this blog stuff? What is it about the camera? What’s special, different, newsworthy, if anything, about it?”
PR: “Umm, well, that’s not what I’m doing but I thought that because you blog…”
Me: “I edit the Technology section of the Guardian. Google me. Goodbye.””

The comments below the post are fascinating as well, with some criticising Arthur for complaining about PRs ringing him, while others add or discuss his points. But it still remains that the above is simply bad PR. Knowing who you’re contacting, or at least knowing who you want to be contacting, still remains one of the first rules. Nothing what the hell you’re talking about is pretty high up there. And expecting just because somebody blogs, they’ll be happy to write about any old tat will probably start moving onto the rule list in the near future.

But it does raise a question how Public Relations professionals should pitch to bloggers. The landscape’s changing, and there’s some very influential blogs out there – both group and individual – so it’s no good condescending the writers by expecting they’ll be happy with any old scraps that you throw their way.

While the line between journalism and blogging isn’t exactly clear cut, anybody working in the online medium should be afforded the same courtesy as anybody from traditional media. A bad pitch, like the one above, can not only alienate somebody you might be aiming to build a good working relationship with, it can also alienate your brand or company if they decide to name and shame.

PNeo has some very good tips on how to first approach bloggers. This line is especially relevant:

“Many of the media relationship basics still apply though, a blogger is more likely to be interested if you give them something that is newsworthy and relative to them.”

It’s fairly simple, no?

From my own experience, I’d add a couple of things. Firstly, unless I knew the blogger well and it was really necessary to speak to them direct, as PNeo suggests, I certainly wouldn’t ring them. And neither would I hassle them unduly to follow up on a press release or similar.

Secondly, when I’m pitching something for the first time – be it cold or after exchanging comments or emails – I’ll always include a line somewhere asking them to let me know if they don’t want unsolicited press releases and the like and, if they do, what the best address is to contact them on (with the best will in the world, sometimes it’s not always obvious where the best place to send material to is, even after looking around the blog).

Thirdly, if I’m pitching to a blogger, they get treated with the same respect and professionalism that a journalist would get. If I’ve made the effort to contact a blogger, then the least I can do is be across their subject, my subject and know where to go if they follow up with an enquiry.

I’m not quite so convinced about the idea of making an effort to engage on their blogs before ‘first contact’. Fine, if you have something to say and can add to the conversation, but if I’ve not got anything to say, personally, I’d rather not say anything at all (despite, quite possibly, the vast reams of shite posted on here acting as evidence to the contrary).

Plus, there’s another side to consider. If, like me, you’re active online in a number of communities outside of work, then you need to think what, if any, the effect will be. You definitely need to make it clear what hat you’re wearing, so if I’m commenting on a work-related issue, it’ll be my work email. If it’s personal, there’ll probably be a link back to this blog. The internet has made the whole of the media – journalism and PR – more transparent and anybody who’s engaging online needs to recognise this.

Moving onto a different part of the fence, I have outside interests, writing-wise, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that somebody might want to pitch to me as a writer rather than a PR (although press officers and publicists specifically working in the area of non-league teams who play in front of one man and his dog are, I suspect, few and far between). How would I feel about getting an unsolicited pitch as a blogger by email or phone?

Email, I’m reasonably laid-back about and have always been pretty ruthless with the delete key (partly because I’m an utter anal retentive who likes to keep their inbox clutter-free). If I had time and they were really barking up the wrong tree, or I simply wasn’t interested, I’d probably drop them a line to say so. But, like Charles, I’d be less appreciative of unsolicited phone calls, especially to somebody who is a blogger of little consequence (yes, I know sometimes it pays to be a little bit persistent, phone-wise. But, as always, this depends on what you’re pitching and how important it is for whoever to take it. And if it’s that important, a good PR should be able to convey that within 30 seconds of the phone conversation starting).

Good blogs or websites are no different, in a lot of respects, from traditional media (and traditional media’s incorporated aspects into their own sites). I’ve applied pretty rigorous standards to anything I’ve edited – be it news bulletins or newspapers – and that’s not going to change just because I’ve shifted to an online media, even if it is just a personal blog. There’s no reason to suppose other bloggers and web editors won’t have the same attitude.


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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