I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years, and I’ve also interviewed hundreds of other journalists about their preferences for dealing with PR professionals. So I think I can say this with some authority: If you want to grab our attention, forget the fancy language and the superlatives about your client’s products or services. Instead, the key is to research the journalists you want to reach and tailor your message not only to their beats, but also to the interests of their audiences.
It seems so simple, we often refer to it as “PR 101.” Yet too many PR pros have missed the lesson. Here are four typical mistakes PR professionals will make:
- Pitching the wrong journalist: I write about health media for an audience of PR professionals. But since I’m tagged in media directories as a health journalist, I often get pitches touting the latest miracle drug or weight-loss program, or offering a celebrity plastic surgeon willing to talk about a new “nip and tuck” procedure.
- Focusing on geography: I write for a North American audience, but I happen to reside in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since I’m tagged as a Bay Area journalist, I’ll get pitches about local real estate deals or town hall meetings. Conversely, many journalists who write for regional audiences complain about getting pitches with no discernable local angle.
- Pitching the wrong publication: Let’s consider a popular newsstand publication like Family Circle. This magazine isn’t just about families: It’s for families with teens and tweens. If your client is a pediatrician who has valuable advice for kids between 7 and 17, this is the outlet you want to pitch; identify the health editors and you’re good to go. But if your pitch involves baby or toddler gear, it’s best to steer your efforts elsewhere.
- Impersonally personalizing pitches: The email may include my name and inform me that my readers are sure to be interested in the agency’s client, but I read further and it’s clear the sender has no clue about what I do or the audience I write for. In many ways, that’s even worse than a mass-mailing.
Yes, it takes additional effort, but a tailored pitch always wins, even if it’s just a brief note on top of a press release. (It works even better if you have an existing relationship with the journalist, but that’s a topic for a different article.)
As for the pitch itself, here are some points to keep in mind:
Craft a descriptive subject line. Some journalists receive hundreds of pitches each day, and won’t even open your email if the subject line is vague or seems to be off-target. A good approach is to write it like a headline. If the journalist serves a regional audience, make the local angle clear (“Boston hospital hires new CEO”). And avoid putting “Re:” in the subject line to make it appear that you’re replying to a previous message; conning journalists with this all-too-common tactic hurts your credibility.
Get to the point. Or to put it another way, don’t bury the lead. If you don’t grab the journalist’s interest in the first paragraph, it’s unlikely that they’ll read further. Give them the “who, what, when and where.” As succinctly as possible, explain why the journalist’s audience should care.
Avoid unnecessary attachments. One common complaint from journalists is getting press releases as attachments rather than being in the body of the email. Large file attachments can prevent your email from getting through at all.
Hone your vocabulary. Certain words and phrases that commonly appear in press releases are guaranteed turn-offs among journalists. My personal pet peeve: the use of “solution” as a synonym for “product” or “service.” Tom Gable of Gable PR has pointed to other terms you should avoid. Some vocabulary “blacklists” are industry-specific.
Proofread your work. Misspellings and grammatical errors cast you (and your clients) in a negative light and make it less likely that the journalist will take you seriously. Even worse is misspelling the journalist’s name. Your word processor’s grammar- and spell-checker will catch the most egregious mistakes, but you still need a second pair of human eyes.