If you’re involved with any aspect of public relations, you know that contacting journalists can be daunting.
How do you get their attention? How should you handle an exclusive? Should you call in the morning or afternoon? Should you contact a reporter or editor? How do you get them to write about your wonderfully-efficient environmentally-friendly office?
The other day, I discussed this issue with my pal and former colleague, Rachel Tobin, who covers commercial real estate for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Here are some of her friendly tips:
Leave your phone number twice. Tobin, like many reporters, receives scores of tips and pitches every day. Make hers and all reporters’ lives easier by leaving your contact info at the beginning of your voicemail and at the end. She finds it particularly annoying to listen through a lengthy voicemail only to have to listen to it again to hear the number. She also recommends making sure your email system is set to show your contact info on every message. This is plain good advice for all business communications.
Write a compelling subject in the email. Seriously–they get pitched every day, so write your news as succinctly as possible in the title. “Unless I already know you, I’m probably not going to open an email that just says ‘press release,’ Tobin says. “It’s amazing how many people do this. It’s the biggest rookie mistake in my opinion.”
Paste and attach your release. Tobin recommends pasting it on the bottom and attaching it. I would also recommend summarizing the news–targeting it–for the reporter in your lead sentence.
Know the best time to call. That’s usually in the morning. Deadlines are often at the end of the day and reporters are busy fielding calls related to stories and making appropriate edits. Although the affable Tobin wouldn’t likely yell at you if you bothered her with a bad pitch 30 minutes before deadline, I’ve worked with plenty of reporters who would. In Tobin’s case, anytime after 3 is not a great time to call, especially on Wednesdays when Sunday stories are due, she says.
Don’t go over their heads. If you have a story you think is newsworthy for someone’s beat, don’t pitch the editor on getting the reporter to cover it. I despised that practice when I was a reporter. Tobin dislikes it too. Even if a reporter happens to make an error on a story, contact him or her first, she says.
Follow reporters on social sites. Some people only let personal friends on Facebook, others invite anyone. Today, most reporters have Twitter accounts, LinkedIn profiles and more. This will not only help you keep track of recent stories but will give you an easier way to contact them. P.S., Tobin asked me to include a contact link to the AJC editorial staff, which is a bit hard to find, even harder to find on other outlets’ sites, so here it is. “We want you to follow us,” she says. “We’re using social media a lot. I really hope my sources would follow me.”
Watch overly-creative pitches. The best PR people, she says, are creative. But she also dislikes “gidgets and gadgets” to get her attention. I don’t have specific advice on this one; just realize their job is to find newsworthy stories and that they’re often pressed for time to do so, receive tons of pitches, and are desensitized to gimmicks.
Write good press releases. I’m so glad she brought this one up. So many press releases I read are awful. Just awful. Often, she has to do basic fact-finding on news in press releases–simple stuff like sale price, who the previous owner of a building was, and square footage. “Most press releases are so badly written, they’re a waste of time,” Tobin says. “Some just make PR people look bad.”
Know what an exclusive is. She says an exclusive is not first dibs on useless news or news that’s been reported elsewhere. “Most PR people who pitch us on exclusives aren’t giving us real news,” Tobin says. “It has to be interesting. Also make sure it’s really an exclusive before you pitch it as such. Even if we’re the first ‘mainstream’ pub to get it, and a trade got it first, it’s not a clean kill.”
Know what news is. In a previous post, I offer tips on pitching reporters and lament some of the bad pitches I received, including one on how some company installed green toilets. Well, green buildings aren’t that exciting either.
“In this day and age of real estate, the fact that you want to make your building green is not interesting,” Tobin says. ”It’s fluff and just trying to make your company feel good. In addition, we’re not interested in anything ‘in the weeds.’ We’re a general-interest newspaper. We aren’t going to write about the intricacies of real estate law.”