A Young Pro’s Take: Media Relations and the New PR Blacklists

As a new—brand new!—PR professional, this tug-of-war between public relations practitioners and the media is exhausting. For those of you who don’t know about this already, another public outing of PR agencies that apparently spam bloggers and journalists has been created. Coming only a couple of months after Chris Anderson’s infamous blacklist, this shows that PR pros haven’t learned their lesson yet. But what exactly is the lesson that needs to be learned when it comes to media relations?

After reading the slew of posts covering this topic that popped up on the blogosphere yesterday, I think I’ve narrowed it down to a couple of core issues:

  • That’s not how I want to be contacted. These PR pros pitched the blogger at her personal e-mail address, when she clearly said this is not how she wanted to be contacted. This should be the first step in media relations—if you are trying to build a relationship with someone, you should respect their requests. All relationships are built on trust and respect, right?

**UPDATE: In this particular instance, Cision listed the blogger’s personal e-mail address as her main form of contact. Clearly a mistake on this company’s part, which might account for the heavy influx of pitches sent to this address. I’m interested to see how Cision handles this specific case. I am not making excuses as I still think it’s important for PR pros to monitor their media lists, making sure that they are up-to-date and correct.

  • 587 new e-mails…Bah humbug. Bulk pitching is, apparently, the devil. Bulk pitching equals laziness. It shows that the PR professional didn’t take the time to read the journalist’s past work, comment or engage in the material, and decided to send out mass pitch e-mails instead. Brian Solis’ post broke down e-mail pitches into three categories: spam, bacn, and tofu. The varying levels of processed (eh, or fake) meat depend on the level of connection the pitcher made with the journalist. I won’t go into too much detail because I really want you to click on the link and read the post for yourself—the post and the comments make for an interesting read. The point is that you have to know who you are pitching. Todd Defren at Shift Communications posted a terrific guideline to blogger relations and how to build these relationships before you pitch. He makes his employees laminate it and stick it on their desks—I’ll be doing it, too.
  • But I write about technology, not pet care. Another problem is that the journalist never writes about what we are pitching. This is the issue I have the most difficulty understanding, because it seems like common sense that you would only pitch those writers who have an interest in your client or product. I find it hard to believe that every agency listed on that wiki pitched an unrelated topic, which makes me wonder how broad is too broad? If you cover technology, and my client is releasing a new product related to Web development, shouldn’t I pitch you? Maybe I’m over thinking the whole process, but this is where my knowledge of media relations grows thin. How can I ensure that my message is wanted without being a mind reader?
  • What do you expect? I don’t know what I’m doing! Jeremy Pepper thinks the main issue is that PR pros aren’t being properly trained when it comes to media relations. While I can’t speak from the professional side, I can agree with him from the academic side. As a recent grad, I can tell you that I have had minimal exposure to pitching the media. This is, obviously, very difficult to do in the classroom setting, and most of my internships would let me pitch only when everyone else was swamped with bigger clients. For many of my peers, pitching is the thing we know the least about after graduation, which means it’s the area we need the most training in when we enter the workforce. What do we need to know? How do bloggers and journalists want to be pitched? Better yet, professionals, what are your media relations training programs like in this PR 2.0 world?

Back when I was a baby blogger, I wrote about this topic. I asked how to be better, and I got very few responses. So here I am, a PR professional, asking (again) what I can do to help make the relationship between PR and the media more beneficial for both sides. What’s the lesson that needs to be learned?

Because, personally, I want to stop this tug-o-war. My hands are getting blisters.

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24 thoughts on “A Young Pro’s Take: Media Relations and the New PR Blacklists

  1. Great post! Too many PR professionals ARE spamming journalists and bloggers alike, causing them to be distrustful and making the whole contact, pitch, and publish process more of a headache than it has to be.

    This is my first time to your site, even though I see you on Twitter all the time. I’ll be visiting again. Well done.

  2. I just learned that Cision/MediaMap, the dbase most PR pros use for finding media contact #s, lists Gina’s personal email address (rather than “tips@lifehacker.com”) … In this case, at least, the PR industry may have been betrayed by one of our vendors, who got sloppy on this one.

  3. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you Todd!!! That’s the missing element that nobody (until you just now) has brought to light. Cision (aka Bacon’s aka MediaMap…talk about a branding problem among many problems that they have) is part of this problem. I, too, looked up Gina today and did a screen grab showing her personal email listed as the one to pitch to and not the tips@ address. I was thinking about blogging about this (still might) because it’s part of the problem, too.

  4. @daniel Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you’ll find more enjoyable posts here in the future.

    @Todd Thanks for that new piece of information! That makes the situation even more interesting. I wonder what Cision will do to correct this situation? I feel it is the company’s responsibility to contact Gina and tell her that it had the wrong address listed, and that this was the reason she was contacted the wrong way. I don’t know if it will rectify the situation, but it is the right (and transparent) thing to do.

    @Miiko I hope you do blog about this issue– I’d love to see that conversation started. Also, I tried changing your comment, but WordPress doesn’t like me today and keeps changing it back. I’ll work on it, promise.

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  6. Since I never took a PR class in school – and just wrote for the newspaper in college – I have no idea what they teach in classes.

    But, as a reporter/columnist at the paper, I was calling up companies to get information for my stories. And, it wasn’t hard for me – it’s just calling up someone.

    I would think that they are teaching how to write pitch letters, at the least. And, while that might be a dying art, the pitch letter should be short and to the point, and a teaser to get more information.

    As for phone pitching, well, short quick and to the point – and expect rudeness and to be hung up on. It’s just part of the game.

    Hope this helps somewhat!

  7. @Jeremy I appreciate your insight and advice on pitching. While I did write one or two pitch letters in school, I didn’t get a lot of practice, and I think that’s what is the most intimidating for young pros and students– we know that practice and experience will make us more proficient at media relations, but it seems that there isn’t much room for error these days.

    @Jason Thanks, and I’ll be sure to check it out.

  8. I never took a PR class in college, but I wanted to share this strategy that has worked well for me in my first year in PR. It’s nothing unbelievably creative but it’s helpful for those of us just starting out, and works especially well with social media.

    Identify 5-7 publications that are relevant to your client. Who are the influencers in the sphere? (My bosses are always touting the “influencer” title, whether they write for the NYT or a personal blog.) Then, follow and establish contact with each, even with a “I read your [article title]” or a blog comment. Then show them how your client is of interest to their readers. After 60 or 90 days, asses how you did with each.

    It’s a good way to take on a manageable number of publications and practice specific relationship building, and hopefully get a good ROI for your time when you compare it to pitching anyone under the sun who might cover the topic. Clients will probably always want their press releases sent to everyone you’ve ever e-mailed, but with a decent conversation already going, it’s much easier to quickly send and move onto more relevant topics.

    PS First time on your blog, but I am going to keep following it.

  9. @Greg Interesting strategy, and one that will surely help PR pros engage in conversations that will help build strong relationships with members of the media. I’m glad to have another reader, too!

  10. Meg, there’s never been room for error – what really bothers me is that the sense of ownership and responsibility is gone.

    When I started out in PR, if I fucked up (excuse the language, but that’s what it is), I took responsibility with my boss. I didn’t pass the buck to the intern or someone else on the team: the project was in my court, and it was my responsibility.

    And, the good thing is is that my boss had my back. Always. He blamed up, and praised down, so I was getting phone calls/emails from the client thanking me for this or that.

    That’s a rarity, though, from that time and even moreso now.

    What I’m reading right now? It’s not my fault. It’s someone else’s fault. It’s Cision’s fault. Well, how about this: it’s my fault because at the end of the day, I report into the clients. Take ownership.

    It’s stuff like this that will cause me to lose hair. And, that’s just unacceptable (the hair loss, of course. I have great hair).

  11. @Jeremy I agree– I think the personal responsibility might be lacking. One of my internships used Cision (then called Bacon’s) and they always had me double check the media lists provided. Back then, I thought this was busywork, but now I see the importance in verifying contact numbers and e-mail addresses. Your comments here and on other posts have reiterated the importance in responsible behavior both before AND after pitching. And, hopefully, if more people take the time to be responsible for their actions, you can keep your hair.

  12. Meg,

    Loved the post.

    There doesn’t seem to be an exact science to pitching, but as a relatively new PR professional myself, I try to focus on positioning myself as a partner… not a maverick.

    Keep up the great work!

  13. Nice Blog.This is a really interesting discussion, and I especially like Jeremy’s comment that people aren’t taking responsibility which I think is the big problem here. Mass pitching anyone is sloppy work and bad practice, if for no other reason than it doesn’t work. Granted I’m no expert, but I’ve been doing this for 5 years and I can’t remember a single response that I’ve ever gotten from a mass email (which is why I quickly figured out it wasn’t worth it).

    In addition to being ineffective, ‘mass pitching’ isn’t really pitching at all. If you don’t have a good friend that’s a journalist, find one, and take a look at their inbox. It’s a disaster, and any decent journalist or blogger will get more random , untargeted pitches than you can imagine.

    Remember, journalists aren’t shills for your clients. If you want them to look at your pitches, offer them something useful in a polite way that will make good copy. Mass emails are never useful and there’s nothing more dangerous than someone with no training, and email account from your group and a bacon’s login.

  14. I’d also add…uhmm, uhmm (clearing voice) I’d add pitch news. I find journalist really appreciate getting pitched real news.

  15. @Brandon Good point– realizing that you are a partner in the business endeavor will help. Not only will you be more comfortable, but you won’t come off as pretentious.

    @Jeremy You’re right, I should probably rename this post “How PR spam is affecting Jeremy’s stylish coif”…;)

    @EmilyD This seems to be the key: personalizing your pitches and staying away from mass e-mails.

  16. Echoing what others have said, great post. More media relations training is imperative, both in academic and professional settings.

    I’m so glad to see that other recent grads are critically thinking about why these tattered relationships exist and how we can improve them, especially because we are often the ones responsible/blamed for PR spam.

    On a more positive note, we have the power to change this, because we’re the ones with fresh perspectives and years ahead of us.

  17. This is really informative. As a newcomer to exploring how PR works it’s great to see a list of errors. It does serve to add a note of caution to your approach.

  18. Loved your post Meg. As a very very new PR professional, I was – well still am – apprehensive about pitching the media. It’s not because I’m afraid of the rejection (I was a telemarketer for a while so I am not unfamiliar with hang-ups), but it’s because, like you, I don’t think I got enough training on how to do it.

    We were taught very briefly how to write a pitch letter in school. But my limited experience has taught me that most times, it’s your conversation with the journalist that gets you the coverage.

    For something that is still such a big part of pr, I think media pitching, and media relations in general should get a lot more focus in PR programs

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  21. Loved this Meg. IMHO, not enough blame goes to PR supervisors who pressure underlings to e-mail and phone 100 reporters for every list, now matter how big or small. Rather than setting expectations for clients, and taking the time to teach effective PR practices, instead they set up staff for failure by insisting on shotgun approaches and then dress you down for not getting 100 hits about the latest joint marketing agreement announcement. Forced between annoying a reporter or getting beaten up at a staff meeting … well … Quality starts at the top and to me that means bad managers, and out of touch people at the top.

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