What All PR People Should Know About Journalists

There was a movie released several years ago where Mel Gibson played a character that was struck by lightning and all of a sudden was able to hear women's thoughts. His character was an ad agency executive (the unfortunate default Hollywood stereotype of choice to signify that he was a bit of an ass), and with his new power he uncovered many truths about women he would never have otherwise known. What does this have to do with PR you ask? Over the past several months, I've had the opportunity to attend several events registered as a member of the media as a result of my blogging and contributions to online publications. Being part of the media at these events, and having my blog has given me the chance to see hundreds of pitches and experience PR as a "target."

In those times, I've started to realize many things about the world of public relations that most journalists know and many PR professionals are blissfully unaware of. Though I typically describe myself first as a marketer and second as working in a large PR agency … this education has been invaluable for me to understand the world of PR and how to work with my teammates better, as well as how to be more effective in a PR environment. Here are a few of the lessons I've learned that I'd like to share:

  1. Your BS is obvious. Many journalists would describe their roles are professional truth-seekers. In this capacity, they are naturally skeptical and this combination means that their bullsh*t meters are higher than most. So don't bother with the press releases about hiring your new VP of Sales that no one has ever heard of. Not only don't they care, they can smell it coming from a mile away.
  2. Timing trumps all. Journalists work with tight and sometimes unreasonable deadlines. As a result, they may not care about what you're pitching until they are right in the middle of it. Then they care a lot. What this means is that sometimes you need to focus less on what your message is, and more on when you deliver it. The good news is that as more journalists use tools like Twitter or Facebook to update their status, it is easier to know when is a good time to connect with them and when you might want to hold off on sending that email.
  3. Reputation matters. Delivering the right source for a story or failing to deliver is something that members of the press will usually remember. Having interviews fall through at the last minute can cause big problems for journalists on tight deadlines, so you need to manage your reputation and relationships extremely well. Burn a reporter once and you'll be fighting an uphill battle the next time. Have it happen twice and you may as well give up any hope of placing a future story.
  4. Features are not as important as an angle. This may seem obvious, but it's amazing how many pitches focus on all the great features of a new product or service. Or all the things it can do for its customers. Journalists are trying to build a story. So give them one to report about your product instead of just offering the facts. This often means giving context to those features and sharing the backstory behind them.
  5. Speed and contactability can make the difference. Another thing that social media tools can offer you is the ability to be "always on" for people to connect with you. Sometimes that's not a good thing and unplugging is a necessity for all of us … but giving journalists multiple ways to contact you and being available when they need a question answered is critical to getting your story included.
  6. Peer pitching works. It is much easier to "pitch" a story if a member of the media could consider you a peer instead of a hired flack selling a story. I have often called this concept "circular media" – the idea that each of us can be part of the media for the content we create, and it is easier to relate to one another on this level. Not only is this good for relationships, but it also helps you to sympathize with journalists if you yourself are on the receiving end of more than a few clueless pitches.

Update - Read a post from the opposite point of view … What Journalists Should Know About PR People

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