A Flack and a Hack Walk Into a Bar (or what is the worst thing a PR person can do when pitching a story?)

Sticks and stones will break my bones, but seeing a Facebook post with the words “PR” and “crap” in the same sentence got my attention.

Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere are rife with journalist-driven derision against “PR hacks.” Sure, some of it is gratuitous snark, but some of it is valid. If we don’t want to be that caller ID number that sends eyes rolling and fingers leaping to the “Ignore” button, we need to pay some attention to reporters’ concerns.

So, I sent emails to a number of friends who are still employed as journalists, for both local and national news outlets. I asked them to answer two questions:

  • What is the worst thing a PR person can do when pitching a story?
  • What is the best thing a PR person can do when pitching a story?

The answers were not black and white, which is also important to understand because, “do this, this, and this,” is no more a guarantee for success than, “if you do that or that” means certain failure.

A consistent answer across the board (because several were inclined to list many “worst things”) was PR people who just don’t know what that reporter really covers. “Yes, I write about education,” wrote one friend, “but I write about higher education. Don’t send me pitches about pre-k policy.”

One reporter said most frustrating is when, as happened recently, he gets pitched a story for a source who is later unavailable or unwilling to comment. “Nobody wants to waste time and they wasted mine.”

“I hate pitches that are so blatantly commercial,” said another reporter. “I get it. Your client wants free publicity about their product. Fine, but that can’t be the pitch. Tell me why it’s innovative, why it’s going to change the industry, or why it’s benefiting society, or creating jobs where there were none. Give me something other than, ‘this is our product and we think people would love a feature on this.’ That will get you nuuuthing.”

(Pitches like that have the ring of a PR professional not standing up to the client who is pushing such a pitch. Subject of future blog, I think!)

Okay, so is there anything we do right?

One reporter at a national publication told me, “The best flacks know what they know and know why it’s valuable” to him and to his beat. (No, I don’t take offense at the word “flack,” because I frequently call him a “hack.” Besides, you’ll recall I also let “bossy” slide.) He added that the better PR people acknowledge when there’s bad news and own it. They understand “getting ahead and explaining something before the chaos.”

Several reporters, local and national, said they appreciate documentation and any corroborating evidence or voices. (Third-party validation, in PR parlance.) Reporters are busy. The good ones will do their own research to corroborate what you give them, but handing over valid documentation saves a little time, gives you credibility—and maybe engenders some good will.

What do we get the most credit for? “PR people who take the time to read (or watch) my stories, who know and understand what I do, always get my attention. I may not always do the story, but I’ll listen to what they’re pitching because their pitches are usually germane to what I do.”

Get to know reporters and their work. Relationships are key to getting someone to listen to what you have to say. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if a flack and a hack walked into a bar…

Next week? I ask other PR professionals a couple of questions about reporters.

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