Hack to Flack is a monthly column by Lindsay Goldwert, a senior program executive at Hotwire, a global tech PR firm. Before she leapt to the dark side, Lindsay worked at the New York Daily News, ABCNews.com, CBSNews.com, CourtTV, Glamour and Redbook.
If there’s any profession that deserves a little TLC this month, it’s the print and online news business. Pink slips flew at the New York Daily News, buyouts reigned at the Post and the Village Voice imploded. The DOJ is breathing down the AP’s neck. Rumors are flying about layoffs at ESPN. I doubt there’s more than handful of newsrooms in the country where reporters and editors feel confident that their jobs, as they know them, will be there in 2014.
There’s been more than a few things written about how the PR industry needs to change in the face of the shrinking newsroom. But in a field that’s supposed to be built on “relationships,” I haven’t seen much empathy for the laid-off journalists. Strange, since we rely on their news judgment, good moods and spare moments to consider our stories and ideas for publication.
Consider what journalists do: They make it known that they’re interested in hearing about, say, new fitness apps. Then they get a deluge of emails from PR people who pitch them everything from fitness water, to fitness DVDs, to fitness instructors. “Maybe for a future story,” we say. That’s like you emailing your friends seeking a good housepainter and getting hundreds of responses for floor guys, electricians, roofers and custom closet makers “just in case.” That’s not good work — that’s telemarketing.
We all talk about “cutting through the noise.” Hail Mary pitches that only push your client’s agenda and don’t propose any real value to a reporter or editor are noise.
Here are some ways to make lives easier for journalists that can only benefit you and your clients in the end:
- Update your media list every month: If you’re working off a media list that someone has just passed you without doing any research, you’re already in trouble. There are so many exits and transitions in the newsroom these days, you need to be on your game. If you’re not following the careers of the people you’re pitching as though they’re as important as your clients, then you’re just emailing dead addresses or worse, people’s old beats. Very annoying.
- Don’t send mass-emails: Don’t do it. Pick a handful of people and tailor your pitches to them. Journalism is about exclusives — no one wants the same crap you sent everyone else. If you have to send it to 500 people in order to get three hits, you’re doing it wrong. If you have investment news that you really want everyone to know about it, fine. Sometimes journalists use the subject lines of their emails as a sort of news ticker. In many cases, it’s enough that they’ve seen it. And if it’s a good story and they missed it the first time, the next time your client is in the news, they’ll get back to you.
- Don’t be a phony: “I loved that piece you wrote about transvaginal mesh lawsuits!” Really? You loved it? A good pitch does not require false flattery. If you’re genuinely a fan and read a journalist’s work for your own interest, as well as for work, drop them a line and tell them, without pitching them. Or follow them on Twitter. Think about how annoying it would be if you kept getting sugary-sweet pitches from third-party vendors who really just wanted something from you. You’d press delete, right?
- Don’t try to convince: “But this would be such a great story for you!” Honestly, it’s probably not. I’m sure I missed some decent pitches when I was working in the newsroom, but none come to mind. It would be nice if a journalist could take five minutes to contemplate the value of your pitch in a quiet space over a glass of iced tea — If he didn’t just get 850 other pitches and his editors weren’t screaming to get cracking on the next story that’s trending on Twitter. “I know you’ll want to share this important story with your readers.” Yikes. Read your emails out loud and think about how you’d feel if someone cold-emailed it to you.
- If you’re a little baffled, don’t feel so bad. There are countless panel discussions going on every week where journalists and editors would be glad to explain the changing landscape to you. What you hear will be sobering, but it will make you a better PR person, I promise. Still confused? Call one or two journalists you’re friendly with and ask if he or she would consider stopping by your office to do an hour-long Q & A. Most of them could probably use the money.