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Beware the dangers of name-dropping when pitching top-tier journalists

by | Jan 12, 2016 | Journalism, Media Relations, Pitching Tips

Journalists, especially at the A-list outlets, are a competitive bunch. They live for the scoop, the exclusive, or at a minimum, the unique angle on a widely reported story. Based on feedback we’ve heard from journalists, this point seems to be lost by a certain segment of PR pros, who sometimes try to use coverage in one top-tier outlet as a way to get ink in others.

The faux pas takes two forms. The most egregious is when you pitch a reporter at, say The New York Times, and suggest that he or she cover your client because they just got a great write-up in The Wall Street Journal (yes, it really does happen).

Slightly less irksome is pointing out that The Wall Street Journal just covered XYZ trend, which means you should cover it too, and hey, we have a client who can speak to the topic. You get extra demerits if the reporter you’re pitching has already written about the trend. Not only are you touting the competition — you’re also demonstrating ignorance of the scribe’s previous work.

Amazingly enough, the outlet that ran the original story may get pitches like this. A few years ago, a Wall Street Journal editor described the following scenario: A PR pro pitches a compelling story tied to a trend that hasn’t been covered before, perhaps with an articulate high-level executive who can discuss the topic. “What then happens is we are ahead of the pack in terms of documenting one of these phenomena,” she said. But then “I get emailed for six months afterwards from PR people who are generally offering a link to my own story, and volunteering one of their clients to talk about this emerging trend as documented in The Wall Street Journal. Which is great, but I hit the ‘delete’ button real fast.”

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Maybe there are some journalists who will be impressed that your client or trend got coverage in one of the top outlets, perhaps a blogger or a reporter at a small local newspaper or a B2B publication. But unless the story is so big that it can’t be ignored, the more likely outcome is that you’ve given journalists a great reason not to cover it.

You might actually have better luck going in the other direction: It’s often the trade publications that are first to identify trends in their industry, because they tend to be closer to the action and are often more knowledgeable about the issues. And yet the story is still fresh in the world at large where the mass outlets roam, as long as the topic rises to a suitable level of interest.

And don’t assume that the competitive fires burn only at the mass-market outlets. Yes, the reporters at The Times and The Journal probably have outsized competitive streaks, but in every major industry and every local market you’ll find journalists striving to beat their rivals to the story. For years, reporters at the regional business weeklies told us that they were less likely to cover a company story when it appeared in the local daily, for the simple reason that it would be stale when the weekly edition appeared. That’s less of a factor now, because the business papers now cover daily news on their websites. But do they still see the dailies as competitors? Absolutely.

So if The Wall Street Journal or New York Times covers your client, break out the champagne and celebrate. But don’t assume that you have a new media-relations arrow in your quiver, because you’re just as likely to shoot yourself in the foot.

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Steve Beale
Stephen Beale is the editor of Bulldog Reporter’s Inside Health Media, a publication for PR people in health and medicine. He covers media news and interviews health journalists about their preferences for dealing with PR people. Based in the San Francisco area, he previously worked as a technology journalist.

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