Many aspects of my Editor In Chief role at Qwoted allow me to pass on the best of what others taught me. And while it may not seem a journalist would have much use for—let alone much good to say about—public relations people, my career has taken a contrarian path. First, great PR people taught me how it works in real time through their deft pitching. Second, smart journalists showed me how to screen the wannabes from the pros. And finally, I’m a gatekeeper whether PRs like it or not: Any journalist is. Get through to me, cut through the static of my stressful days, and chances are that you’ve picked up something for your playbook.
Much of what follows builds on my first Qwoted webinar, Lou’s Views – The Four P’s of PR. I highly recommend checking it out if you missed it, and not because it’s my webinar. In fact it’s not my webinar in a strong sense, as the strategies therein have been road tested multiple times. In the meantime, I invite my homies in the PR world to embrace these directives as ways to get that audience for your pitch and ultimately, begin a process of relationship building. Don’t worry about the journalists who slam the door shut on you or ghost you time and again; that’s throwing good time and energy after bad. Why not give these suggestions a spin instead?
Wherever possible, meet in person–especially now
Even though more than 100 million Americans have now been vaccinated against COVID-19, the vestiges of being chained to the home office desk remain for many media professionals, PRs and journos alike. People in both camps are dying to get out. Don’t wait for Joseph Pulitzer to ride down from heaven on a Harley and hold up a sign saying, “Safe to go out now!” Instead, pick up the phone, or send an email with the words “coffee” or “lunch” in the subject line. You’d be surprised. Often the crustiest of writers are first to dive at free food, as Mark Heertsgaard documented in his wonderful 1988 tome “On Bended Knee.” It recounts how the Reagan Administration tamed the media by, among other things, plying reporters with lots of free, high-quality grub.
Your goal here, of course, should not be to seduce a reporter with all-you-can-eat waffles. But in my own career, I’d surmise that the PR person who got me out of the building, away from that infernal desk, bonded much faster with me than some presence I knew only through an email signature. By the way: Always pick up the tab.
Study and know the reporter’s work
Even if you’re issuing blanket press releases, beware mismatching reporters and their beats with your pitch. I still routinely get story pitches for everything from Florida condo sales to butt lifts–and while those beats may overlap, I’ve never come close to covering either. You can do much better.
Pick and choose your reporters well, and here’s a thought: Learn something about their recent work, and reflect that knowledge and admiration in the first paragraph of your pitch. Reporters, even the most self-assured and secure, almost never get as much praise or attention as they deserve. If using email, put their name in the subject line: No one ignores their own name, which Dale Carnegie once called “the sweetest sound in any language.” Also, you may want to put a teaser in the subject line, such as “question?” or “Your recent Facebook post.” It’s hard, even on a day of pile-driver deadlines, to hit the delete button on an email like that.
Use swag! But not as a bribe…
It’s amazing that I don’t receive nearly as much swag as I did during my Chicago Tribune days. The most memorable item was a six-foot-tall cardboard cutout of a gorilla, which I kept in my cube until my deskmates’ ridicule and cries of mutiny forced me to hit the loading dock Dumpster.
Ah yes, I remember. After years. So will the nearest reporter, and you don’t need a stiff paper primate to do your grunt work. Remember that the idea of swag–whether it’s Belgian chocolate wrapped in your company’s logo, a stuffie, a $5 Starbucks gift card, whatever you’re sending–is to create a memory device. Sticking out means doing what other PRs don’t. It means getting noticed. It serves as a reference point for future conversations you may initiate.
On one occasion, a PR person actually sent me a First Act guitar in the mail. This actually threatened to get me in some trouble at work, as Chicago Tribune ethics policies strictly prohibited accepting anything more expensive than a keychain. But what a great memory device. And when my boss, a guitarist himself, chose to look the other way, then … rock on.
Jump on source requests—but keep your promises, no matter what
I’ve watched some PRs go from my A-list to near-blacklist, owing to a rapid, dismissive change of horses in midstream. It’s happened more than a few times. I send a source request. The PR gets back to me tout suite. Questions are sent. Replies promised on deadline. And then? “I’m sorry, Mr. Busy is on his way out of town for vacation. But thanks for the opportunity.” Great. Now I’m scrambling with one day left until deadline.
No matter how many times I repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat here that this constitutes poor form, PRs will still do it. And if you’ve done it to me and you’re reading this, you’ll now know why I don’t seek you out for help with a story and likely never will. Your client dropping the ball, or you dropping the ball, is not the reporter’s problem. But some of the smartest PRs I’ve ever worked with, when caught in this situation, found me another source to interview–even when they didn’t represent the person in question. Empathy. Lack of excuses. Selflessness. What Golden Rule concepts!
The passion principle: Bond on a non-work level
In this age of LinkedIn, Facebook and search engine tentacles, finding out a person’s passions isn’t as hard as it sounds. And a person’s passions are the side door around the gate. For example, it doesn’t take all that much work to find out that I’m mad about Rickenbacker guitars, Vox amplifiers and guitar effects pedals. OK, so you don’t speak that language. But you can Google or use Duck Duck Go, right? Send me a link to a really cool article on The Beatles’ studio techniques. Or a picture of you holding your 12-string electric axe. I can 100 percent guarantee that if I open your email, I won’t ignore it. Not a chance.
Given a 15-minute interview with Jay Leno some years back–a very hard feat to pull off–I indulged his passion for cars to the point where after 45 minutes, he wasn’t about to hang up. Knowing a person’s passion–and surprise! It’s often not work–will get you to a place of bonding very quickly even as you get ready to transact business. It’s why corporate types go golfing.
In sum: People, not just pitches
I would never downplay the importance of a PR person “making the sale.” But my father, master salesman that he was, knew the value of creating a pipeline where he could go time and again. All this rested on his relationships, sometimes to improbable extremes. One procurement specialist was lonely, and my father’s calls to him consisted of little more than warm conversation, encouragement and the requisite lighting order. When this man retired, he was found to have boxes of unused light bulbs in his corner of the warehouse. Boxes and boxes and boxes. Holy illumination!
The lesson here is that some reporters will take your pitches simply because they feel a connection. Or even pass some pitches on for you, without you even having to ask. Anything worth accomplishing, and accomplishing well, depends on enlisting the aid of trusted colleagues. And if you’re fortunate, you may just find that the gatekeeper grows in time to help you take down more gates than just her own–simply through a little something called word of mouth.
Now there’s the best PR of all.
February 14, 2023