Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
September 30, 2011 9:57 PM

A Basic PR Blunder That Most PR Professionals Make... Constantly

Public Relation professionals do the darndest things.

Some background first: I practiced journalism, worked in communications and did a stint in a PR agency before shifting full bore into marketing and communications. My journey (which includes this Blog) has also brought me back to journalism part-time (I do a bi-weekly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun along with a column, Media Hacker, for The Huffington Post). Because of those columns, I've found myself on the hit list for a whackload of PR professionals who pitch an array of endless and useless press releases (more on how I feel about that here: Attention PR People: Here's How To Pitch A Writer).

There's something very wrong happening here.

PR professionals are making a big mistake in assuming that every person who is published in a newspaper or magazine (print or online) is a professional journalist with a regular and consistent beat. It's not easy to know if a writer has a specific beat or if they're just riffing on something they find interesting unless you spend a handful of minutes actually looking through their work and trying to notice if there are any trends, rhymes or reasons. While all of this is basic stuff, it's the kind of stuff that is still often forgotten in an attempt to "spray and pray" a media list in hopes of a few extra hits. The latest blunder is when a PR professional hits you up with a "story idea" that is an exact duplicate of a story that you just published.

I can't tell you how often this happens.

I'll have a story published about crowdfunding and the next day, there will be ten pitches on crowdfunding. I know the drill: PR professionals are using tools like Google Alerts (or something more sophisticated) to track the main keywords for their own clients, and the minute anything hits the radar, they spray that author, journalist or writer with some new opportunity. I'm sure there are a lot of PR professionals that are nodding their heads in agreement with this tactic, but it is severely flawed. Here's why: if I just published an article on crowdfunding, do you really think an editor (or my audience) is going to want another article on that exact same topic only about your company now? More often than not, writers do not have beats. They write one piece about something new and interesting and then it's done and on to something else. Those same PR professionals are probably reading this and saying, "fine, but because you did write about crowdfunding, should that topic come up again... now you know about my client." Maybe I am now aware of your client, but you're actually harming their chances of getting into a future column on the exact same topic, because all I'm thinking as the writer is: "why would they pitch me a story about something that I just wrote about... it's more than a little after the fact."

Build relationships.

Yes, the PR world is extremely cut-throat. Yes, the PR world is full of challenges - especially when it comes to media relations and getting "ink," but wise up. These traditional blitzkrieg tactics are not only getting old, but they're getting tired. Build relationships (the kind that take time and effort to build... the real kind). Yes, technology makes it easy to blast every writer with a pitch, but remember that technology makes it even easier to mark your company's domain as spam and have everything you ever send (from anyone in your organization) to a permanent spam folder. That's what I do. And, in talking to many of my writer friends, they all do the same thing. In the end, your clients who may be worthy of ink may be getting relegated to a spam folder for the prior sins of your colleagues and other clients. You may think that it's the writer's loss then, but it's not. In a hyper-connected world, the real cream does rise to the top and we're often informed by our peers and community who is interesting to cover.

Furthermore...

This blunder seems like something so simple to fix. Instead of emailing the writer with a story pitch that is exact/similar to the one they just published, why not leverage the moment to send them a thank you note? Something like, "Hey Mitch, I work for PR Company XYZ and I saw your article yesterday on crowdfunding. We have a crowdfunding client to, so I wish I had known that this was an area of interest for you. In the future, would you mind if I connected to you when I have similar clients with a relevant story to tell?" It's basic, it's simple and who knows, you just might get a response. And, if you don't? Simply read this and move on to your next possible opportunity. Ultimately, you don't look smart pitching a story on a topic that was just published. You look desperate... and somewhat amateurish.

Or am I being too harsh?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Nate
    Mitch Joel

    I see this all the time. Mostly I just ignore the spammy emails, but sometimes they lead me to a related story or they have a detail that I hadn't considered before.

    Reply
  • Posted by Kelly
    Kelly

    It's pretty hard to send a thank you note from an already blocked domain now, isn't it? Journo's aren't exactly perfect, either.

    Reply
  • Posted by Kim Garretson
    Mitch Joel

    Great post Mitch. As an old copyeditor, I think in your second line it should be "full bore" not boar.

    Reply
  • Posted by Lisa Stockwell
    Mitch Joel

    Great post. I was just interviewed by someone who writes a newspaper for PR professionals and gave him very similar advice. I'm not currently doing any stories (strictly marketing copy these days), but I'm on all the lists as a member of ASJA. I may get one pitch a month that makes a human connection, and even if I'm not interested in the subject, I actually read it.

    Reply
  • Posted by Crayonz
    Crayonz

    I tend to agree with bill hicks take on marketing; and by extension PR. I have found the majority of PR professionals to be talentless failed creatives in their late forties, trying desperately to hang on to last years Audi, the 5 Bed detached, and the trophy wife. Or am I being too harsh?

    Reply
  • Posted by Adam Singer
    Mitch Joel

    Not too harsh at all. Especially if your inbox for blog emails looks anything like mine. Seriously scary how bad most PR people are - how do these people keep their jobs?

    Reply
    • Posted by Rachel Kay
      Mitch Joel

      Mitch - good post, and while nothing new, is a good reminder of how to build long term relationships with journalists. If a topic is evergreen, it never hurts to add a new spin and provide a new angle that might be important later. But it's always effective to let a journalist know you are reading their work and have a vested interest in the content.

      Adam - Wow! That's quite an insightful comment! I'll assure you there are some pretty talented PR people out there who add a lot of value outside of spamming bloggers and journalists. I'm not sure how constructive it is to the conversation to denounce a set of professionals. It's disappointing that your only takeaway is that PR people shouldn't be employed.

      @rachelakay

      Reply
  • Posted by Matt
    Matt

    Good post. I agree with most of what you have said, especially when you said "the PR world is extremely cut throat."

    Reply
  • Posted by Chad B
    Mitch Joel

    Excellent pot! Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
  • Posted by Darika
    Mitch Joel

    For this reason though I always thought it was a shame services like Features Exec weren't more used/used better. Wouldn't it be great if you didn't have the relationships (on either side) but someone was pulling together a relevant feature and somebody else had the relevant client.
    With media so fragmented these days it's impossible for either PR or writer to hold the small number of close relationships they once did.

    Reply
  • Mitch ~ As a former PR pro now morphed into PR professor, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your laying out my mantra so clearly. "News is NEW." I have my Writing for PR class (Publicity Techniques) tomorrow evening...your post will be mandatory reading...and remembering!

    Reply
  • Posted by ohdanyel
    Mitch Joel

    Excellent post! Extremely helpful as a new PR professional to read this advice.

    Reply
  • Posted by Andy M Turner
    Mitch Joel

    An instructive post for many, I hope. I often email a reporter I've never had prior contact with if they write about a subject one of my clients has an interest in. I do this on the basis that if and when they next return to the subject, they might like to talk to different people. Most people write back and say thanks for the new contact.

    Reply
  • You are right...you are so right. But's let's review how some of these droning late-to-the-party pitches came about:
    Agency management promises client that their account team will make X pitches per month. The efficacy of the pitches is only part of the equation - the sheer NUMBER of pitches, even dumb ones, is what persuades the (stupid) client that their PR agency is 'working hard for us.'
    Junior staff are told to get out there and complete X pitches this week...surely some of them will strike gold and anyway, we promised the client X pitches! So, nice young PR people (who often have way too many tasks assigned to them, since the agency laid off lots of staff, including some more senior people who could have taught them how to choose and make better pitches) end up making droning pitches that annoy journos and waste the (stupid) client's money.
    Yes, it does sound like there's a better way...

    Reply

  • Hi Mitch,

    I think you also make a common mistake when you call what these people are doing PR. PR (public relations) is much (much) more than press (or media) relations.

    Public relations include everything an organisation does in order to foster goodwill between it and its publics. Hence, your business's holiday party (for example) falls under the purview of public relations.

    That said, as you know, I've been in the PR business for almost twenty years now. And it's only since I've been working with blogs and social media that I can truthfully say that I've been doing *public* relations. And I haven't emailed a journalist since I don't know when ;-)

    Now, are some media relations people hopelessly lost in the current environment? Absolutely!

    Regards.

    MS

    Reply
  • Posted by localrankexpert
    Mitch Joel

    Any small misstep can be a cause for negative publicity. In social marketing there PR blunders you need to avoid.

    Reply
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