The other day, looking for contributions for a list story I was drafting, I
posted a query on one of the platforms that connects journalists with
The responses provided me with an observation that I will humbly share with
our learned and highly literate readership.
Some professionals, it appears, do not attentively read queries from
reporters on sites such as Help a Reporter Out or PR
Failure to do so is sure to doom your pitch.
If this were my problem alone, I would assume that I am not writing
clearly. The trouble is, I have heard other reporters make similar
I write this not in the spirit of peevishness, but as, I hope, a public
service. All have sinned, and I am as guilty as the next person of hastily
replying to an email, only to reread it and realize I missed the point.
This means I must write a second response, and then apologize on top of it,
wasting both my time and that of my recipient.
Look before you leap
This said, take extra care when leaping in with a reply to a query on
platforms such as HARO or ProfNet. The same goes for when a journalist puts
out feelers seeking sources on Twitter.
I am almost tempted to suggest that you read the reporter’s query aloud to
make sure you don’t skip any key phrases as you skim it. Trouble is, you
might get locked in the broom closet if you slip in there to avoid
irritating your colleagues as you read.
For my recent story, the subject line was “Communications and writing lessons from first lines
of famous novels.” I was hoping to gather diamonds of wisdom from
professionals in the field for readers of our publications, which (for
those who haven’t noticed) cover internal and external comms.
[EVENT: Internal Communications Summit]
The replies came in three forms:
These were the majority, and I thank all who wrote me, even if I
couldn’t fit in your suggestions. I drew quotes exclusively from this
Close, but no cigar.
These folks suggested opening lines of books, but they interpreted
their text from a literary perspective rather than offering a takeaway
for (again) readers of a PR or communications website. I am guessing
many are fellow former English majors. Comrades, I tip my
fur hat to you. For the future, please take a closer look at our websites.
Thanks, but no.
Several respondents sent first lines from their favorite books, but
they didn’t include any takeaways at all, just lines such as “Call me Ishmael” and “It was a pleasure to burn” and so forth. One response read in total: “Famous Lives in Novel:
Joan Slater Social Crimes.” (Oh.) I commend this group’s literary
tastes. Nevertheless, I, too, read books, and I could come up with my
own list of opening lines. What I needed was communications tips.
Those who succeeded
This suggested a distinguishing characteristic between the group that got
to add another mention to their monthly quota, and those who didn’t. The
successful pitches came from those who:
1. Read the query carefully.
2. Tailored their reply to our readership.
HARO polices for off-subject responses, so I wish to make clear: Everyone
responded in good faith. Nobody abused the system. A love of books ran
through all the replies. No doubt we’d all have a splendid conversation
over a pint of stout in Dublin or a couple of vodka shots in St.
Petersburg, Russia. In fact, let’s do it.
Still, as when you send off a press release, each HARO pitch comes to me in
the form of an individual email. Possibly there’s a way to turn these off,
but that would force me to keep monitoring the website for updates.
If the responses aren’t on topic, they just get in the way. Unlike spammed
pitches, though, I don’t delete them unread, because that would be
counterproductive for me and unfair to those who took the time to reply.
So, thank you all for responding. I am grateful, truly. First, though, take
a moment to reread the query. We know communicators are good at deriving
meaning from texts.