Shhhh: Here’s the Real Reason That Reporter Won’t Answer Your Phone Call
By Sarah Larson
Like most public relations agencies, Furia Rubel subscribes to media database services, and we have tried a handful of them over the years. Most are laughably outdated, in an industry that changes rapidly, or inexplicably incorrect, a point that was driven home to me on two recent occasions.
The first time I realized just how out of date most databases are was when a media contact list for a particular pitch for a health and science client included – drum roll please – myself, in my previous role as editor of a digital news organization. The second occasion occurred when I noticed that the database listing for a former colleague, who is a sportswriter in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, said that he covers pigeon racing. Um…not so much. (Note to self: what reporter does cover pigeon racing as a regular beat?)
Media databases do have some value, particularly for researching regional or international media outlets. However, they should be a communications professional’s first, not the only, stop in their media pitching research, because contact information alone will not get you past the first gauntlet: actually getting in touch with that journalist.
Nearly every listing for every journalist in these third-party media databases includes the journalist’s “preferred” method of contact, as reported to the database company. And there’s a reason that nearly every journalist claims to prefer to be reached by email. Why is that?
Because she doesn’t like you.
More accurately, she probably sees most PR people as annoyances. If they’re being honest, most reporters will tell you that they’ve had dozens or hundreds of negative encounters over the years with PR people who have no idea how the news is actually reported. If you are a random PR person calling a reporter to whom you have never spoken, 9 out of 10 times, that phone call will kick over to voicemail. Why? That reporter doesn’t know you, she doesn’t know why you’re calling, and she’s busy. She doesn’t want to spend three minutes on the phone listening to a pointless pitch when she can scan and disregard an irrelevant email in a matter of seconds.
That is because journalists today are not just busy. They are overworked, in an industry that is frustrating and struggling and so very important, all at the same time, an industry where journalists are expected to do more and more with less and less with each passing month and with each subsequent layoff, buyout, and acquisition.
In this environment, triage kicks in. You answer only the calls that you know for certain will not waste your time. You cover only the stories in which a clear and direct contact to your beat, your coverage area, and your organization’s mission is immediately obvious.
So what does this mean for PR professionals and the clients we represent? Should we not even bother to try to pitch story ideas to journalists? Should we meekly email every story pitch one time, as directed, and slink away?
No, of course not. It just means PR pros have to be better.
You must get to know the reporters that cover the industry or geographic area in which your clients operate. One way to glean great insight is to follow them on social media, read their posts, review their writing style and get a sense of their schedules and deadlines.
Just this week, a Philadelphia social scene reporter publicly chastised a PR person for emailing him four times in two weeks asking if he would post her client’s event on his blog. He said, and I paraphrase, if she would have looked at my blog, she would have seen that I’ve been so busy that I haven’t posted to it in weeks. And if she looked at my Facebook feed, she would have seen that I’ve been busy covering events just about every night. Now’s, she’s blacklisted.
To be effective, a PR pro must research the journalist and outlet as they operate now, not according to what a database says they do. You need to be sensitive to their schedules. If they are in the middle of a months-long investigation or on a three-week stint of working night events or meetings, your feature story pitch likely will be more successful if you wait another week. To make those judgment calls, you must know what an individual journalist covers and what they don’t, and understand why they make those decisions. That way, you can anticipate their objections and address them head-on by demonstrating your story’s clear value to the journalist immediately.
That means you must fine-tune the actual pitches to be brief and attention-getting. A story pitch should include enough information to demonstrate the clear connection to that reporter’s beat or the outlet’s coverage area and focus, but should be short enough for a busy journalist to digest on the fly.
It also definitely should not include all the information that you have to share about the topic. Journalists are curious beasts; they want to learn and they want to discover information. The purpose of the pitch is to get them interested enough in the story idea to want to learn more. Then you can get them on the phone or set up an in-person meeting to discuss the story further. That approach is far more likely to lead to a published or produced story that is relevant and interesting to all parties – the PR pro, the client, the journalist, and the audience.
Once you’ve demonstrated to a journalist that you understand what kind of stories they are interested in, they are far more likely to take a phone call from you the next time. Because now, she knows you and she knows that you wouldn’t call her and waste her precious time. And that is a relationship you won’t find in any database.