Can’t Pitch This: Reporters Dish on the 5 PR Mistakes You’re Probably Making

A surefire way to make sure your business doesn’t make headlines is to annoy the crap out of journalists. Don’t just take it from me—although I am a former journalist with an advanced degree in the subject. I talked to a few reporters recently who explained their pet peeves when it comes to PR pitches that truly belong in the trash bin, not their inboxes. If you make these amateur mistakes, you (and your business) will become the butt of newsroom jokes. Blunt? Yep, but so are journalists.

Take Kate Talerico, a Brown-educated crackerjack reporter who covers growth for my hometown newspaper, The Idaho Statesman. In an era where PR people outnumber journalists by at least six to one, Kate says: “None of us have any time at all to report on anything, so if you’re going to send something, make it worth my time or I probably will start to ignore your pitches.”

Molly Priddy is a Minnesota-based writer for a number of national publications, including Vice, The Guardian, and Autostraddle. (She’s also got a fantastic Twitter account.) She loathes pitches that include a long, deeply thought out message and mess up the greeting by misspelling her name or worse yet, actually say: “Dear [Put Name Here]”.

“It just reinforces that this pitch wasn’t specifically considered for our publication,” says Molly. “We already know that’s often how it works, but when it’s that obvious, it just ends up as newsroom fodder.”

This should be obvious, but at the end of the day, journalists want—and need—information.

“Give them the who, what, when, where, and why in easy-to-see places, don’t make them guess,” says Molly. Reporter, Keila Szpaller weighed in, “Sometimes, news releases include contacts who have no idea they’re even listed. That’s not helpful.”

If you aren’t hearing back, it may be time to pick up the phone, particularly if it’s a local or regional outlet. Kate is among the few Millennials I know (journalists or otherwise) who don’t hate receiving phone calls. While many journalists (especially national ones, in my experience) prefer email pitches, Kate says: “If you want your pitch to stand out, give me a call. You’ll need to tell me why the story is newsworthy and why now. If you can point out a key tension in your story, or something in it that speaks to a broader national or cultural issue, even better.”

So before you send that next pitch, make sure it adheres to the following standards:

    1. It’s aimed at a specific reporter. You are pitching an actual person who covers your actual beat. Don’t do what Molly hates and make it obvious you are applying the dreaded “spray and pray” approach. A city editor at a mid-sized daily paper put it this way: “I disregard any publicist offering up an expert to talk about something that has nothing to do with my beat or community. It’s not even a pitch, it’s lazy.” #preach
    2. The right timing. Don’t be too early or too late. If the publication has an editorial calendar, use that as your guide. 
    3. It’s newsworthy. When writing a pitch, you want to think in terms of headlines. What’s going to grab the attention of the reader? What’s going to actually make someone care about this news other than the business stakeholders? If you can answer those questions with unique attention-grabbing angle, your pitch is likely to read. But just to be sure, check out my blog Five Signs Your Press Release Isn’t News.
    4. Contextualize. Does your news fit into a local or better yet national, trend? Spell it out for the journalist. “We aren’t going to cover something that has zero relevance to our community,” said the city editor at a mid-sized daily paper. “Show me the connection to the city, community or state our readers live and work in. And give us good contact information of people willing and able to talk on the record about the subject.”
    5. Keep it short. Press releases are great for reference but rarely pique a journalist’s interest on their own, especially if they are long. Hone your pitch and you are more likely to get a reply.

And when in doubt, send an MC Hammer meme along with your pitch. (Oh wait, ignore that one! Can’t pitch this. Cue the music.)