Stop Complaining about Your PR Firm. Here’s How the Media Works

Startups need to stop blaming publicists and journalists for their lack of press and learn how the media works. Here’s a peek behind the curtain.

“Journalists are biased.” “Our PR firm just doesn’t ‘get’ our message.” “We need at least one media hit a week.” Oh, and my personal favorite: “Can we review and edit quotes before the piece is published?”

As a journalist who writes about pretty much everything for pretty much everyone (most recently The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Smithsonian Magazine), all of the above are things I hear on a pretty regular basis.

They’re also indicative of a rather significant misunderstanding of how the media works. That’s largely because both people who work in the media and the PR industry as a whole sort of like to keep it that way, in spite of the fact that they also like to complain about how no one else gets it. Members of the media have had just about everything stripped of us in the last decade—salary, job security, respect—but the one thing we have left is the cloak of mystery surrounding what we do, and so we tend to cling to it. Hey, I may get paid shit, but when I sit next to people on planes and they ask me what I do, that question always leads to several more because at least what I do is interesting and that counts for something, right? Right?

Publicists have an even clearer cut reason for keeping their knowledge of the media to themselves: It’s the product they’re selling. If you know how things work, the thinking goes, what do you need them for? You can just craft your own media strategy and hire a few interns to execute it for you. Unfortunately, that logic keeps publicists from educating their clients, which only makes their job—and mine—harder.

And I’m tired of it. So here are a few things you should, and may not, know about the media. Things that will hopefully help you figure out how to deal with us (and maybe your PR firm) better.

  1. Editors are important. Freelancers are your best friend. Okay yes, I say this as a freelancer, but hear me out. I’ve been on staff at various publications, too, and here’s how it works: If you’re on staff and you find a cool product or company to write about, you write about it once. Maaaaybe you include it in a roundup a year later. And that’s it. As a freelancer, if I think a topic is interesting, I look for every possible angle on it and try to sell as many variations of that story as possible. I make more money that way, see? And I maximize the investment of my time. So yes, build relationships with editors. But also learn which freelancers cover your space and get to know them. They will likely appreciate your effort, and if they’re interested in what you’re doing, they’ll get you many more hits than an editor ever could.
  2. The most important PR move you can make is to build and maintain relationships, and be patient. In his “I Fired My Startup’s PR Firm” post, Web Smith got a fair amount right, but he got a few big things wrong, too. You should not, for example, fire your agency just because they’ve been in business for 25 years. If they’re any good, that means they’ve built some incredible relationships and it does not have to mean at all that they’re dinosaurs with no understanding of social media or content strategy. I’m not saying that there aren’t dinosaurs out there—there certainly are—just that having been in business for awhile is not the #1 indication that your publicist doesn’t know what they’re doing. Here’s another thing: Sometimes when I meet with a company about what they’re doing, I don’t write a story right away. Maybe their product doesn’t actually exist yet. Maybe I’m waiting for a newsy hook to peg it to. You know what I hate? When the publicist sends me three emails a week to find out when I’m writing the story. You know why the publicist does that? Because his or her client is sending equally as many emails. Back off, people. Take a breath. Did I say I was writing a story? Then I am. You want to check in once in awhile, great, that’s perfectly acceptable in a human relationship. You want to harass me? Go work for a collection agency.
  3. Your story is boring until proven otherwise. Hat tip to my writer friend Lora Kolodny for the perfect phrasing there, but every journalist I know feels the same way. No one is biased against you. We don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or how you got funding or whether your product targets tweens or grandmas. We care about whether your story is interesting. To put a finer point on it, we care about whether your story is interesting to us. And by that I don’t mean “to us, the liberal media.” I mean figure out what I actually write about and how, and pitch me something that fits. That means, I write for the WSJ’s small business section, so don’t pitch me your Walmart story. It means, I’ve covered cleantech for years, so don’t come to me with your “we just put solar panels on the roof of our headquarters” story.
  4. Keep it short, I’m busy. Reporters now have to produce three times as much content in half the time and for half the pay. That means I am not going to have multiple conversations with you about a story I’m working on. I am not going to come to your offices for an afternoon. I’m probably not going to tour your factory unless it’s REALLY interesting and is going to turn into three more stories for me. I’m also not going to read your looong email.
  5. Pitch me like I pitch my editors. Contrary to popular belief, journalists—and yes, even bloggers—don’t get to just write about whatever tickles their fancy. We generally have to sell our editors on the idea, even if we’ve got a regular gig going. When I’m pitching a new editor, here’s what I do: First, I read the last few months of content for the particular section I’m going to pitch. I do this both to make sure they haven’t recently run something similar and to get a feel for what they cover and how they cover it. Then I compose no more than two paragraphs that summarize the idea, why it’s perfect for the publication and why now is the perfect time to cover it. Get a writer you know to send you a few of their successful pitches. This is what your PR pitches should look like—not exactly, of course, but pretty close.
  6. Stop worshipping at the altar of print media. For whatever reason, people still think of print coverage as the ultimate feather in their cap. In fact, a lot of journalists have the same bias. Writer friends of mine will routinely ask each other “Oh was that for print, or online?” Also print media pays more—usually a lot more—than online, which is strange because it costs more to make and has fewer readers, but hey, I didn’t make the system I just work in it. At any rate, for a company, I’d say hands-down you’re getting more out of an online hit than a print piece. So stop riding your publicist’s ass about not getting you in the print edition of TIME and thank her or him for the mentions in various blogs. You may not get a photo of yourself in TIME to frame for your office, but chances are those blog posts will be read more and pay back more over time than that one print hit will.
  7. The press release is dead, please stop trying to revive it. If I get nothing out of this post but a few fewer press releases, my time will have been well spent. No one in the media reads press releases. Not a single person, I promise you. For some reason, companies still ask for them, publicists still write them, the wires still publish them—this whole completely unnecessary and ineffective ecosystem still exists. Stop it. Please. The only time I ever, ever hear a media person mention a press release is to mock it.
  8. Figure out what you do and don’t want to say before the interview—there’s no changing your tune after the fact. About once a week these days I have someone ask me if they can change their quote. Not to address a factual error, but to sound differently or introduce some piece of information they forgot to include in the interview. The answer will always be no and the question will win you a spot on most journalists’ black lists, so stop asking it.
  9. Brave the occasional conversation without your publicist in tow. I recently wrote a story that entailed several months of research and multiple conversations with one company in particular. The first three times I spoke with my contact at the company, he was on his own and the conversations were great. He was honest, interesting and engaged in the dialogue. I got all of that story’s best quotes from those conversations. The fourth and final time, the company’s PR person was on the line and I got the distinct sense she’d caught wind of him speaking to me unattended and didn’t like it one bit. That will go down as one of the worst interviews I’ve ever done. So. Boring. A complete waste of time. My previously chatty, casual source was so worried about stepping afoul of the PR rules that he said nothing remotely interesting. So look, I get that everyone’s worried about saying the wrong thing or being misquoted, or making sure the journalist understands what you’re saying and that you don’t forget to include anything. But once in awhile, brave a real conversation. It will usually pay off.

I could go on and on, but this is a good start. Just remember that “the media” is really just a bunch of people, and we’re actually fairly approachable. Next time you meet a journalist, ask them about their job. They’d be only too happy to tell you, trust me. And before you decide to fire your PR firm because they haven’t gotten you press this week, think about whether you did anything press-worthy.

Due to the overwhelmingly positive response to this post, I’ve compiled many many more dos and don’ts, as well as advice on finding and contacting writers and editors, and several real, deconstructed pitches, here.

Published in Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking