10 things you should never do when pitching a journalist

There are abundant ways to shoot yourself in the proverbial foot when trying to land media coverage. Keep these advisories in mind.


Shortly after Johannes Gutenberg gave the world the printing press, someone invented the PR pitch.

Or at least that’s what probably happened, because it wasn’t long before medieval Europeans realized mass communication was a force that could change the world in ways that even kings could not. Now who keeps the keys to this kingdom of momentary fame? Those proverbial Peters known as producers.

After many years of cold calls and unwelcome emails, one producer finally decided to do something about it, in hopes that the journalist and PR professional might finally live together in peace.

The news gods have bestowed upon me these 10 commandments of pitching, which I now share with you. Heed these things, and thou shalt prosper.

1. Thou shalt drop generic greetings.

Hello, media professional, my name is Blah Blah Blah, and I didn’t put any effort into learning your name or organization, because to me, quantity is much more important than quality.

DELETE.

Not only does the “spray and pray” method require no skill or effort, but it is also arguably the least effective way to pitch. You don’t have to know exactly what a journalist’s beat is, but at least learn their name.

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2. Thou shalt read minds.

Try to, anyway. Most of the time, you can predict exactly how a journalist will respond to your pitch just by being honest with yourself about the qualifications of your guest and the needs of the producer or reporter you’re contacting.

It is perplexing that PR people pitch guests they already know have a zero percent chance of getting on the air. You’re actually hurting your chances of future success.

3. Thou shalt avoid wordy subject lines.

Here are a few examples from three emails I recently received. Names have been changed to protect the oblivious. I’m also including examples of what the subject lines should have read:

Bad: A World-Renowned Real Estate Broker Reveals a Government Conspiracy Targeting Your Monthly Payments

Better: The Government Is Ripping Off Homeowners

Bad: Accelerating Strategic Growth: Company Hires John Smith as Senior Vice President of Network Operations

Better: Company’s New VP Boasts 40% Portfolio Growth in Q3

Bad: “Get off Our Butt!”

Better: Your Diet Is Failing—But It Might Not Be Your Fault

Keep them short. Keep them simple. Don’t go for pure shock value.

4. The newsroom loveth the cheerful giver.

Got a newsroom that you want to build a relationship with? Send them chocolate. Everybody loves chocolate. Include business cards and postcard-size info cards about yourself or your PR agency.

Make sure your specialty is unmistakable. If you specialize in booking lawyers, then let that information be clear. As the newsroom staff munches those chocolates, you want them to remember three words: your first name, last name and specialty.

5. Thou shalt not use Gmail, AOL, Yahoo or any other popular email provider.

This is more for the veteran “back in my day …” style PR agents. A few folks contacted me after reading my last article, disappointed that I would crusade against such a seemingly arbitrary thing as a person’s email address.

Though I can appreciate the passion behind the responses, I’m going to double down on my belief that a failure to adapt would almost certainly breed adverse results in any industry.

In the eyes of the technologically literate, a generic domain email address is often a telltale sign of your age. Props to Doug Gross for pointing this out first.

If you’re still using a generic domain to run your business, I would encourage you to set aside some time one weekend to learn how to use the Internet.

6. Thou shalt save the trees.

Most of your clients have probably authored books. The reality is that many books sent to newsrooms will end up in the book bin. Every newsroom has one, and if you haven’t heard anything back about those 50 books that you sent out, I’m sure you can guess where they’ve ended up.

It’s the digital age, so encourage your author to format his or her book for e-readers or to save the manuscript as a .PDF so that if a journalist is interested, you have only to send a link.

7. Save thy swag.

Every newsroom has a vast collection of notepads, pens, mugs and paperweights all sent by PR firms hoping to make a lasting impression. I can appreciate a good notepad or coffee mug as much as the next person, I can’t help but feel that sending 20 notepads to an organization might not be as effective as some might think.

8. Thou shalt not lie.

Time and time again have I been cold-called by PR folks hoping to pull the wool over my eyes. Journalists are trained to read between the lines and to hear the words you don’t say.

The last thing you ever want for your business is for reputable news organizations to question your integrity.

9. Thou shalt not bombard.

Journalism is all about deadlines, so calling every hour to ask whether a producer or editor has had a chance to read a pitch won’t help your client. A little persistence is good, but you must recognize when you’re getting on someone’s nerves.

10. Thou shalt scrap the script.

The phone rings…

“Hello?”

A shaky voice on the other side of the phone squeaks: “Hello sir. My name is John, and I’m with the firm Youdontreallycare. I have an amazing guest that I think would be good for your program at your station.”

This intro is about as effective as a corny pickup line in a bar.

Put the script down and talk to us like we’re people. We are people, and a little bit of outreach can go a long way. Practice a few “back-pocket” openers—things you can talk about for a few minutes with anybody for the sole purpose of breaking the ice.

Here’s a sample script. The PR person’s lines appear in italics.

“Hey, is this Joe?”

“Uh, yes?”

“Hey Joe, it’s John at the Somethingsomething firm. Is it warm in L.A. today?”

“Uhh, it’s all right. Warmer than yesterday.” (Notice that the journalist doesn’t trust you yet.)

“I’m still jealous. It’s like 20 here today. I woke up this morning, and my cat was sleeping on my face.”

(Laughter.)

“Seriously though. I love that guy, but he curl up on anything to keep warm. One time I put my laptop down on the coffee table, and I came back to find my press release had about five pages of random letters in it.”

(More laughter.) “Yeah, my cat is the same way.”

BOOM. You’re in.

Do you see what just happened here? This is called “opening.” It’s about finding common ground, warming them up, gaining their trust and then convincing them that you care about their program. If you practice this and the preceding nine commandments, you will get your guests booked.

Praise be to news.

Austin Cross is a Los Angeles radio producer. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the views of Austin Cross alone and do not in any way represent those of his employer. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.

Topics: PR

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