Capitol Communicator sponsor Van Eperen recently asked one of the agency’s national media contacts for advice on how to maintain a PR-producer relationship in the digital age. No news here: spray-and-pray media relations doesn’t work.
By Will Whitson
A fair warning to anyone who gets anxiety from a cluttered inbox, I currently have anywhere between 15-20 thousand unread emails waiting on me when I get into work. Cleaning out my inbox feels like an exercise in futility, since every time I get it down to a manageable number it will be flooded with messages within a day or two. Most of those thousands of emails are PR pitches, and almost all of them are unread (my apologies to the flacks in PR world who rely as heavily on pitching, booking and deadlines as we do). Why do so many of those emails sit in my inbox gathering e-dust? Here are five potential reasons why you shouldn’t expect a return call from me:
1.) I don’t know you
In this modern age of questionable phishing emails and random LinkedIn add requests, a little personal touch goes a long way. Of course, it isn’t easy to reach beyond cyberspace and make a personal introduction, but that’s exactly why I’m going to be a lot more likely to respond to your pitch if we’ve met before. Of the four or five communications directors/ PR professionals who have set up coffee, lunch or happy hours with me or my colleagues, I’ve used their guests on my show at least once or twice (but usually a whole lot more).
Why is meeting in person so important? For starters, I now have a face to put with the name. If I suddenly start getting pitches from some email address I’ve never seen before, I’m going to be a little hesitant to respond. Who are you? How’d you get my email address? The likely answer is Cision or some similar service, but it’s still a little off putting to start getting spammed by a person you don’t know.
Also, if we’ve had time to talk one-on-one, then you know what my show is looking for and I know what experts are in your stable. If there’s suddenly a high-speed llama chase down Connecticut Avenue, and I remember you telling me over beers about the former Bush Administration Llama Czar that you represent, I’m pulling your number out of my Rolodex and punching in numbers so fast my iPhone screen will crack.
And speaking of what my show is looking for…
2.) You clearly don’t watch my show
I produce a weekly two-hour, hard news program analyzing the big stories of the week and looking ahead to what will likely be big issues on Monday or Tuesday. I’m based out of Washington, so if a story doesn’t have the words Trump, Russia, Supreme Court, tariffs or North Korea in it, its chances of making it on air were modest at best. So, when I get emails pitching the Oak Ridge Boys’ new single, a local restaurant chain offering up a BOGO deal or a doctor proposing the idea of giving sex robots to people with pornography addictions (yes, those are all real pitches), I’m going to pass right over them.
I’ve only got so much time to fill each week with content that both fits my show’s profile and engages viewers. Pitches that come from someone who is clearly just throwing my email address into a growing pile of other producers and hitting “send” without seeing what kind of show I put together is just clogging up my inbox. And just like how I’ll remember the PR folks I’ve met in person, I’ll start associating that email address with bad pitches.
Now, I don’t expect you to sit down and watch my show, especially because it runs at peak brunch hours. But it helps to know what I’m looking for and when it comes on. Getting pitched a guest to “come on the show today” when there is no show is not helpful.
3.) You’re sending everyone the same email
I was sitting at my desk one afternoon when a colleague started chuckling about a terrible PR pitch she’d just received. It had nothing to do with her show, and the person pitching the email had clearly just filled in a blank with her first name and her show in the introductory paragraph. Not five minutes later, I received the exact same email.
Aside from the pitch also having nothing to do with my show, it now reeked of desperation for earned media. This person was using the spaghetti method of pitching: throwing a form email at a wall of news producers and seeing who it sticks to (narrator: it stuck to no one).
In this case, less is more (think Jerry Maguire: fewer clients, less money). News producers sit near one another, so odds are very good we’re going to know if we’re all getting the same pitch. Granted, this is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes you’ve got to send out a massive email blast, especially during breaking news. There have been times I’ve gone down the entire list of Senate communications contacts with a form email. But, just like the oils, fats and sweets at the top of that food pyramid in every school cafeteria in America, blast emails should be used sparingly.
4.) Your pitch is just bad
There’s no set formula for a bad PR pitch, but to steal a line from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. Some of the pitches I’ve mentioned above definitely count, but that’s just scratching the surface. The ones that I find most egregious are the pitches that tell me absolutely nothing.
“Are you interested in having (insert random name here) on your show this weekend?” That’s the whole pitch, and I get at least one like this weekly. It doesn’t even follow that golden journalistic rule of the 5 W’s: who this person is (besides a name), what subject matter they’re being pitched about, why I want said mystery person on my show, where they’re located and when they’re available. If I’m getting a one-line pitch like this from someone I don’t know, you can bet my answer is going to be a resounding “no.”
5.) It’s just bad timing
You can have a great story, with a great angle. It could have fantastic imagery, an amazing guest and a plug to pull at viewers’ heart strings. But it may just fall on the absolute worst day to do it. You could schedule your event, launch or media availability months ahead of time, only to have Kim Jong Un launch a missile that spells out “Found: Clinton’s Email Server” the day before, and suddenly all that earned media you have lined up vanishes in an instant.
Some of my favorite pitches have never made it to air simply because in this breakneck paced world of 24/7 news, it’s almost a guarantee that something big and important is going to break right before your own event. Luckily, there’s always next week.
Will Whitson is a producer for Fox News weekend broadcasts.