What should PR pros expect from journalists?

Phone screen, email notificiation at 20 unread

In our industry, we don’t have to go far to hear how bad we are at our jobs.

We have our own hashtag (#prfail), and journalists routinely skewer our pitches or methods on Twitter or Instagram. And many times, we deserve it.  

A couple of weeks ago, Chris Stokel-Walker, a journalist who writes for the BBC and New York Times, screen-grabbed a request from a PR professional requesting a response back to his pitch as a “professional courtesy.” He wrote: “PRs: don’t do this. I owe you nothing when you send me unsolicited pitches for your podunk clients and add to my 180,120 unread emails.” Or in the immortal words of Judge Smails of “Caddyshack” fame, “You’ll get nothing and like it.”

Chris is right. We’re not entitled to anything. Which is hard.

Most of us who work in media relations, contrary to what many journalists think, really work hard to take the time to do things right: Research the outlet, search for the right reporter or editor, write clear and concise pitches and try to present an expert, story idea or angle that might appeal to the outlet’s audience, to name a few.

Yet, there still are plenty of PR pros who get under journalists’ skins by emailing the entire newsroom, following up by phone 10 minutes after sending a pitch, being careless or simply just making an innocent mistake. (We all make them…even journalists, who call me by my last name more than 10% of the time in return emails.)

While we cherish feedback – good or bad, as it helps us inform our clients or reassess our strategy – we aren’t entitled to it.

Here are a few things public relations professionals should remind themselves:

  • No matter how perfect our research and pitch are, there are some journalists who seldom, if ever, are going to respond just out of principle. Their story ideas don’t come from a pitch. If they need to work with a PR professional, they’ll make the ask, not the other way around.
  • We’re fighting each other for attention. Reporters and editors are getting hundreds of pitches each and every day. I’m not sure of the number of PR pitches among Chris’ 180K emails above, but we’re probably guilty of a lot of them. Smaller newsrooms due to cuts in the media industry only exacerbate the fact that there are more of us than them.
  • We don’t, as an industry, do enough homework. We pitch anyone and everyone instead of pitching the right one. We don’t ask, “Am I wasting this contact’s time with this?” enough. Simply put, are we pitching the right person, which we should be asking every time since it only helps our clients. Still too many in our industry fire off emails to see if something sticks, only to have journalists routinely tweet about getting offered a story that is 10 miles from their beat.

So what should we expect?

Expect that if our idea is good enough or timely enough to stand out, they’ll respond. Expect that we might have to knock on several journalists’ inboxes if the first one doesn’t answer. Expect that if we take a little more time to research, we might get a better response. Expect that if we ask more questions, whether it be of journalists we already have solid relationships or someone we’re contacting for the first time, we might find the right contact.

Rejection is hard. Silence is even harder.

But we knew that when we signed up for this.

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Sean Ryan

A former print journalist, Sean joined The Hodges Partnership in 2003 and leads Hodges’ media relations team. He manages media relations strategy and helps place client subject matter experts on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and more. Sean regularly helps place op-eds in top-tier papers like the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today.

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