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Dos and Don’ts: 11 Tips for Pitching and Dealing With Journalists

Nothing good will ever come from lying to journalists. Some of us keep grudges for years.

A PR guy earlier this year contacted me via email and tried to slip one past me. It started out with a poor email pitch. The message didn’t make any sense. The press release was confusing. And the date of the announcement changed. It didn’t feel right.

The topic was also of marginal interest. When I wrote that we weren’t interested, he responded with a final attempt, and he pitched something new when he said his client operated one of the largest syndicates on AngelList.

Bullshit! And I called him out on it.

I wrote: “I have no idea what you’re talking about. He [your client] does not have one of the largest syndicates on AngelList. I just did an AngelList post and he was not one of the top 5.”

He apologized for “drinking the Kool-Aide.” A weak excuse since he knew he was lying. And, yes, he misspelled “Kool-Aid.”

I don’t like PR people like that. I will never accept a pitch or respond to an email from him again. Promise!

I normally get along with PR people. I used to cover the marketing beat. And I often have practical advice when I meet with PR and marketing folks, whether they’re newbies or old pros. I’ve regularly toured PR firms in San Francisco for the last several years. And I’m often asked a lot of the same questions about how best to pitch journalists. This happened again in April when I was on a panel for NVCA’s StratCom meeting.

It’s time I organize my answers.

Here then are a dozen Dos and Don’ts, ranging from how to properly use email and social media to what’s the most helpful thing you can do for a journalist.

#1. Don’t be a jerk!

Sometimes this comes out stronger, such as Don’t be a dick! Or Don’t be an asshole! This is top of the list because how I live my life and interact with people matters most. We all have jobs to do. Let’s be professional. I respect you and your job. So respect me and my work. Don’t lie to me like the guy above. And if we don’t sync up this time and work together, no hard feelings. Let’s try again next time.

#2. Do know your audience.

The second most important advice I can give PR people is know who you’re pitching. I ask myself all the time when covering stories and editing, “What would my readers want to know?” PR people should do the same and know the journos they’re speaking to. Still, I routinely receive nonsense pitches. I barely have enough time to delete them much less respond. In 2013, when Angelina Jolie opted to have a double mastectomy, I got not one but two “healthcare” pitches from different agencies telling me they have a story idea and a resource available. Honestly, I wonder if the misguided pitches come in just so journalists will share them under #badPR. C’mon! I have a public profile. It takes less than 5 minutes online to find out what our publications cover and our beats.

#3. Don’t be a hasty pasty.

A PR friend coined the term “hasty pasty” when I showed her some of the pitches that are emailed to me. In one instance, a PR person correctly addressed my email, but she put the name of another reporter, from a competing publication, at the top of the message. The formatting of the text was messy, too. It was clear she hastily copied and pasted names and factoids about her client and emailed the messages to multiple journalists. In another hasty pasty example, the PR person included my email address along with two other journalists in the same email pitch. To three journalists at once! That doesn’t benefit anyone. Take your time when emailing and don’t hastily paste text.

#4. Do learn brevity when using email.

We’re living in a world of “conversation overload,” as Tom Foremski points out. Like him, I am resigned to the fact that there is a lot of information online that I want, and as a result I get a few hundred emails a day. Every journalist, in fact, receives hundreds of messages a day. So why would you write longer than three or four sentences in an initial email? Keep your pitches short. Keep the line in the subject box succinct. And don’t include background info. If we want more, we’ll ask for it. Hit me with your best shot in a couple of lines, and we’ll go from there.

#5. Do learn how to spell names.

My first name Alastair is not written like how I pronounce it. I get that. Lots of people want to write “Alistair.” Heck, I once was addressed as “Allison” in an email. And a few people insist on inserting a “c” in my last name or changing it to the name of a James Bond villain. There is a lot of email etiquette advice I want to share, but, basically, I urge you to pay attention when communicating electronically. Take a moment when writing someone’s name to make sure you have it right. Misspelling my name says you don’t know who I am and you probably know less about our publications and what we cover.

#6. Do learn how to use social media.

Journalists and tech bloggers spend a lot of time in audience development, driving readers to our sites, generating discussions about our stories. That is primarily done on Twitter, but also LinkedIn, Facebook and other video and social media sites. So it begs the question, if you’re in PR, particularly tech PR, and you communicate with journalists, why aren’t you active on Twitter? Why aren’t you experimenting with Meerkat or Periscope? If I was in PR, I’d connect with and friend request every journalist I know and keep them in a separate media list. There’s no excuse to not update your accounts, at least on Twitter and LinkedIn.

#7. Do tweet and re-post stories from journalists.

It’s a cluttered Internet out there, and we live in a distracted mobile world, so the more our stories are shared and viewed, the happier we are. And yet many PR people don’t share my stories, even after pitching me. Sometimes, I will hear repeatedly from PR contacts in the run up to the embargo times. And then after the news comes out, nothing. I’m not asking PR people to purchase anything. I’d just like them to engage with us! Comment on our coverage. Share and like what we’re posting, especially if you’re pitching us.

#8. Do be careful when pitching via a social network.

I have an Instagram account with some PR followers. Thankfully, when I post kitty pics, none of them ask me to cover their clients. That’s not the place for it. However, I once got pitched via Foursquare. True story. I checked in on 4Sq (this is before Swarm) and a PR person commented and asked if I would cover something. Some social media sites lend themselves to a journo/PR conversation, such as LinkedIn and Twitter. And I’m ok with private messaging, via a DM on Twitter or an IM on Facebook. If you want to comment on my lunch check-in or the #sunset photo I snapped, that’s great. But there’s nothing professional in making public pitches on social media posts.

#9. Don’t offer to buy me lunch.

I side with Mark Suster, who advises coffee meetings over meals. He blogged: Never Ask a Busy Person to Lunch: Here’s Why. If we’re friends, I would love to grab a bite with you. But lunch meetings are the worst. First off, I’m a vegan (which you should know if you follow me online), so finding the right place to break bread can be tough. Lunches are also a huge time commitment, especially when a journalist is on deadline. Which is all the time! Instead, ask to go on a power walk. Suggest a Happy Hour meetup or Buy me a coffee. Coffees are relatively quick and several can be scheduled in one day. I know one VC who says he will have 20 cups of Joe over meetings in a day. To that, I say “Yes!”

#10. Do make it easy on us.

I live by my iPhone. It has my schedule, contact numbers and Siri will give me directions when I ask. Once, a PR connection of mine wanted me to attend an event at a company location about 20 miles away from where I live, across the Dumbarton Bridge. I said no, but she continued to ask. After some back-and-forth, I relented. And I asked her in an email to send me a calendar invite. She didn’t. And I never went to that event. Offer to send calendar invites and reminders. Make it easy on reporters.

#11. Do say thanks.

When all is said and done, say thanks. I have one PR friend who said she thinks it’s inappropriate for PR people to say thanks to journalists. She says it crosses a line. I agree that’s true for hard-hitting stories or something that is investigative in-nature. But for feature stories, interviews, Q&As, posting embargoed releases and the like, send an email to a reporter with a quick note of thanks. You will earn some brownie points if you reference the reporter’s story. Tweeting or re-posting a story is good, too. But saying thanks in an email is the grown-up, professional thing to do.

And I promise to say you’re welcome!