Want to follow up with a reporter? Don’t call

Calling to ask “Did you get my email?” is the one of the fastest ways irritate a reporter. Here are three ways to follow up with them without picking up the phone.

Journalists, as a group, have a lot of pet peeves: sources who want to go off the record for no good reason, overly literal editors, and the Oxford comma to name a few.

But what’s their biggest complaint?

Getting calls from flacks who want to make sure their emails arrived. We live in 2013—the email always arrives.

Jeffrey Young, an otherwise calm and thoughtful Huffington Post reporter, once wished death on the PR pro who dares waste his time following up on an email. (“DIE IN A FIRE,” he tweeted).

Washington Post wunderkind Ezra Klein says he lets all calls go to voicemail, lest he waste his day confirming that—yes—the email arrived. Ivan Oransky, the executive editor of Reuters Health, published a list of more than 20 snarky responses reporters could use when they get those phone calls. (Hanging up and putting the call on indefinite hold were two popular tactics.)

Despite the near-universal condemnation, the calls keep coming.

Sometimes it’s inexperience on the part of the PR pro. But more often it’s pressure to get a response—any response—to satisfy a boss or client, or that blank spot next to a reporter’s name on a media list, trading lasting damage for a small bit of certainty.

But if calls are off-limits and reporters won’t respond to an email pitch, what’s a PR pro to do?

I have three suggestions:

1. Email again. Nate Hindman, the Huffington Post’s business editor—who is also in the explicitly anti-phone camp—doesn’t have any problem with a second email. A gentle note of reminder is usually far more appreciated than a ringing phone.

2. Try an end run. If one reporter has gone dark, there may be another reporter (or producer, editor or freelancer) who may be more engaged. Just be transparent about the previous pitch. No reporter wants to think you’re going over his head, so explain yourself.

3. Buttonhole the reporter. If the pitch is really important and the reporter hasn’t responded, try to nab him in person. Grab him for coffee. Check in with him at a conference. If you don’t have a strong enough relationship to schedule a coffee, then the problem isn’t with the pitch. It’s with the relationship.

At the end of the day, a reporter who ignores a pitch is often signaling that not only is she not going to write the story, she is not even going to consider it. A pitch with a high rate of non-responders may be fundamentally flawed, regardless of whether it’s delivered by email, phone or carrier pigeon.

Rather than take reporters’ radio silence as a reason to hit the phones (and damage relationships), it’s worth it to look inward first: Is the pitch brief? Did you target it to the writer’s area of interest? Did you establish a relationship with the reporter?

If you can’t answer those questions, you’re just phoning it in. Don’t compound the damage by literally picking up the phone.

Brian Reid is a director at W2O Group. His past lives have included positions as a Bloomberg reporter, a Washington Post blogger, an NIH writer and a freelance journalist. A version of this article originally appeared on PR Breakfast Club.

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Topics: PR


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