Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why I write about terrible PR pitches

I've been a journalist for more than 16 years. So I've experienced my share of PR pitches. There have been, as much as I hate to admit it, some really good, useful PR pitches. These have come from PR professionals who understand news, know what makes a compelling story and who understand the company they represent and the products that company produces. They also understand what my paper does, who our audience is and where our market is.

Then there are the majority of PR professionals: like the woman who recently pitched me on a story on how interesting it was that their no-name startup had decied to locate in GASP! GET this! The same city where a bajillion other startups have located over the last 30 years! OMG! In other news from this firm: The sun will come up tomorrow! Can I set you up with an invterview with one of our experts to discuss this?

This woman is, unfortunately, not alone. I have to say, the large majority of PR pitches I receive are pretty bad. Terrible even.

Rather than do what us journalists are compelled to do (make fun of PR people behind their backs), I've decided to give constructive criticism to the PR universe regarding pitches I actually get every day.

So here's the first one:

I got a call today.

"Sharon?" the caller asked.

"No." I said.

"Oh, well who's this?"

I reluctantly said my name, knowing it wasn't going to be good.

"Well great. I've got a pitch about an accounting firm in Southern California expanding. I'm going to send it right over. What's your e-mail address?"

OK, so, a couple of things. Have you ever read my paper? Do you know what I do? Do you know that regional business journals only cover their specific region? And have you ever read any business journal? Because if so, you'd know that our e-mail addresses are listed in every story we do. Right under our NAMES. So if you read the paper, you'd know my name and what I cover: My beats are listed at the END of every story. And you wouldn't have to ask me for my e-mail address. You could just send your out-of-region, never-going-to-make-it-into-my-paper pitch and stop wasting my time.

Or just Google my name. And add the word "email." It comes right up.

Caveat: I got five calls today asking for my e-mail address.

Lesson for today: Find a reporter's e-mail on your own. If you can't do that, well then your problems are too big for me to solve.

This PR person is 'Wrong on all counts!'

Here's the first paragraph of a PR pitch I got the other day:

"Financial institutions are under a misunderstanding that only consumers are at risk and the Red Flags Rule only applies to consumers. Wrong on both counts!"

Yikes! This sentence is awful. Vague. And sites a "Rule" with which I am not familiar.

In short, this sentence did not have me at hello.

I receive more than 500 e-mails a day. I don't have time to wade through this pitch to find out what it's about and if it's relevant.

Secondly, I don't know what the Red Flag Rule is and I don't care because I don't write about "rules" — but I might write about the way a rule affects businesses that I cover.

The failure to establish early on what the "risk" is and what the "Red Flag Rule" is, makes me laugh and laugh when I read the second sentence in this pitch: "Wrong on both counts!"

I can appreciate the author's attempt to be catchy. But the first sentence is so poorly constructed that the catchy kicker — "Wrong on both counts!" — just doesn't make sense. 

Terrible Pitch Fix:

 "Banks face fines that could total thousands of dollars if they don't comply with a little-known rule that many believe doesn't apply to them  — and that may make their customers vulnerable to (I'm just guessing here) identity theft.

Terrible Pitch lesson: When crafting a lead on a pitch, ask yourself: "How does this affect the audience of the reporter/publication I'm targeting?" Include the potential impact to that audience in the first line.

Worst first sentence ever?

"For many people, negotiating at a car dealership is right up there with dental surgery in terms of things they'd like to do. Even if they don't mind the process, some people just don't have the time. Here's one example."

OK. Stop right there. I'm already out. I don't cover cars or dental surgery. It's unlikely this pitch will relate to businesses that I do cover. And the lead-up is way too long (not to mention terrible) without being clever.

Just for kicks, though it still wouldn't help this pitch, here's a better way to write the first two badly written sentences.

Pitch Fix:

Most people would rather suffer through a root canal than haggle with a car salesman. At least a root canal is quick.

Grammar fail

Put aside for a moment any frustration you feel about the irrelevance of this PR pitch to a Bay Area business reporter so that you can focus all your angry energy on the hideous grammar contained herein. I don't care if you're a non-profit, or a volunteer campaign that is short on funds. At least get a volunteer who's fluent in the English language to write your press releases (if, of course, your intended audience is English-speaking) if you want to be taken seriously.

Pitch Fix:

The Twitter approach to PR pitching

The New York Times Columnist David Pogue had the world's greatest idea today: 300-character PR pitches. Pogue's a tech columnist and came up with the idea so he can at least mention some more of the millions of technologies he gets pitched about, even if he doesn't review the technology.

But I think it's a great rule of thumb for PR people everywhere. Reporters are inundated with pitches. Almost all are way too long and I delete them before I read the first paragraph.

I had 880 unread emails in my inbox this morning. About 870 of them were totally worthless - full of jargon, not relevant, or took too long to get to the point to bother with. Of the small percentage of pitches I thought might be relevant,  I responded to one saying I'd like an interview, flagged two for later review, and I responded to four by saying: "Where is this company based?"

And before you go getting all smug: No, I'm not going to Google it. I have 880 emails to check.

If you can't tell me what your company does and why I should write about it in 300 characters or less, then chances are, that's not a pitch I'm going to read. I don't have time to dig through each pitch and determine how relevant it is, or if there truly is news. What would be helpful would be to put the news right up there in the first sentence - and, earth shaker here: What if that first sentence was the only sentence?

Here's what I, a regional business reporter, want to see in every pitch:

What company are you pitching? Where is the company headquartered? What is the news (growing, closing, hiring, new strategy, new management)?

If it's something that fits my criteria, I'll write about it. So save yourself the trouble of crafting a long, burdensome pitch that I'll never read. I truly believe all of this can be completed in 300 character or less.

Pitch Problem: Most PR pitches are WAY TOO LONG.

Pitch Fix: Scale pitches back to only the key information. Try making a pitch in 300 words or fewer.

A hypothetical template:

(City)-based (Company name) is (news), on (date).

Hypothetical Examples:

Palo Alto-based Tesla Motors is launching its model S sedan, the first sedan for the electric vehicle maker, July 1.  >>>>  24 words, 136 characters

San Francisco-based game company Zynga is announcing new partners and that it's opening up its platform to 3rd-party developers at an event July 1. Will you attend?  >>>>> 27 words, 139 characters

Embargoes: The first of many rants

I've been calling a certain stealthy startup company for months, asking to talk to the CEO, asking for access so I could do an in-depth story. The company had limited — and extremely technical — information on its website. Meanwhile, financial filings kept popping up showing that this company had raised more than $100 million dollars.

Finally, I got a call from a PR firm who scheduled an interview with the CEO if I agreed to embargo that interview until Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. I RELUCTANTLY agreed because I knew the other reporters I compete with would also agree and I didn't want to miss the opportunity.

But the day before my interview, I attended an event with 300 or so members of the public, where the company's lead investor stood on stage and gave away a few choice details about what the stealth company was planning — noting that the company would be "officially launched" the following week.

As a journalist, it is my ethical responsibility to report the news — and this was news. It's also what my bosses pay me to do.

The embargo I agreed to only bound me to not report what the CEO told me until a certain date. I hadn't talked to him yet, so there was no breach of that embargo when my story came out the day before our scheduled interview.

Of course, I never got my interview.

The PR people called, grilling me about how I got that news.

Then they emailed me that night saying the following:
As a matter of formality, I do have to ask if you can guarantee that you'll hold the embargo around any information you get from [CEO] tomorrow. We would like to keep all information about [company]  embargoed until February 7th at 4:30pm PST. Can you confirm that you will not print any additional coverage on [company] until then?
This last request, that I not publish any news about a company, regardless of where I heard it, is deeply offensive to me and to my profession. I did not agree to that embargo. And sure enough I got another email the next morning:

I'm sorry for the last minute notice, but [CEO] had some last minute scheduling conflicts and won't be available for the interview today. I'll get back to you about rescheduling when I have more info on his updated schedule.
I emailed the firm saying I hope it had nothing to do with the fact that I reported news made available in a public setting. They assured me that, no no, that had nothing to do with it.

But then they never did reschedule my interview.instead, after the embargo, and after I requested an explanation for why my interview wasn't rescheduled I got a note. The PR firm said they tried but the CEO was busy - though not too busy to give interviews with at LEAST a dozen other reporters - and added this.

Also, given the sensitive timing of your last piece it was very difficult to get them to prioritize this interview. We did try our best to get you in.

What I want to tell this person is that as a public relations specialist, it should be her job to explain to a CEO why it might be good to have relationships with good, ethical, accurate reporters who don't wait for news to be spoon-fed to them. I want her to defend the free press while noting that its the good and fair journalists who have the largest following among rational and interested people - people who value the objectivity lacking in so many media outlets today. I rationally do not expect this. 

Instead, I have to feel good that I did my job well, then stood my ground, even if it meant getting blacklisted by this company. 

But I don't think I'll be agreeing to any more embargoes. 

Pitch Fix: Telling reporters they can't write ANYTHING about your client is overstepping the intent of the embargo, and no self-respecting reporter would agree to that. Don't do it.

Five (more) tips to writing the perfect PR pitch

I read the post "10 Tips to write the perfect pitch" on, a PR resource blog and a twitter follower (@asked me what I thought.

The article does offer good tips. Mostly useful. And I don't disagree with any of them.

However, I'd like to offer some more tips to writing the perfect pitch to add to the list.

1. Be brief
I will probably say this 1,000 times on this blog. I get 1000+ emails a week. I do not read long emails. The shorter and more to the point your pitch, the MORE LIKELY I AM to do a story on your pitch.

2. Put an action item close to the top
Tell me what you want me to do up front. Make sure it is a clear action item. "Can I connect you to the CEO this week?" "Will you post this news on your blog?" "Is this a story you want to write for this week's paper?" are good examples.

3. Pitch to the relevant reporter
Make sure what your pitching me is what I do. If you're pitching a restaurant, pitch it to the restaurants reporter. If you don't know who the restaurant reporter is, look up the paper online and search for restaurant stories. Send it to the reporter that wrote the most, or the most recent restaurant stories. Dont just send your pitch to EVERY reporter you can find. Reporters hate that. We talk about it. We all get together and delete those pitches simultaneously.

4. Pitch the relevant geography
The large majority of newspapers, magazines and blogs cover specific geographies. The state of California, or more likely, a region in California that includes specific counties. Find out what those counties are. If you don't know, and you have a relationship with a reporter, ask that reporter to tell you what counties he or she covers. Don't send a Los Angeles reporter a story about a Virginia company with no connection to Los Angeles. I get hundreds of these displaced pitches a week and I block the sender from my email.

5. Pitch stories consistent with what that media outlet does
When pitching a business journal, pitch stories on companies, in that journal's coverage area, that have legitimate news (growth, new C-level executives, new funding). If you're pitching a daily newspaper, pitch stories that have large community impact, or are trends those communities will particularly care about. Make sure to pitch for the appropriate section. If you pitch bloggers, pitch stories that exactly target their niche and are appropriate for their target readership. READ articles of the media you are pitching BEFORE sending your pitch so you know what kinds of stories they run and can make sure your pitch is consistent.

I care less about spelling mistakes, emoticons, and exclamation points than I do about the content of the pitch. Yes, if you include those things, I might make fun of you and share them with my colleagues.  But all is forgiven if you make my job easier. You do that by writing clear, relevant pitches that contain real news. If you do that, You will soon gain something you have always wanted: Coverage.