Around Christmas time, I helped a friend who is a columnist for a well-known national magazine cull through a large volume of pitches he was getting from a request for information that he’d posted on HARO (Peter Shankman’s great Help a Reporter Out service that matches sources with writers looking for experts).
It’s possible that the task of culling through HARO looking for media opportunities the week before Christmas fell to the most junior staffer in the shop. But don’t they teach the basics of PR pitching in college anymore? I work with an undergraduate marketing intern who knows better than to pull the boneheaded mistakes those so-called professionals pulled.
Here are the five worst mistakes I saw in that collection of about 200 pitches, and I saw them over and over again in the few days I monitored them for my friend.
If you’re lucky, making any one of these rookie mistakes will earn you a one-way trip to the trashcan in anyone’s email folder. If you’re unlucky, you’ll find yourself and your pitch the subject of somebody’s blog post, viral tweet, or column. And that’s not good — future PR career prospects aren’t very good if the first search engine result on your name is a public scolding from a famous journalist.
PR Pitch Mistake #1: The annoying tease.
I learned to hate vague teaser pitches that include some variant on the phrase, “my client can discuss (what you’re writing about). I think you’ll be surprised as his take on the subject. How about 2 p.m. on Monday for an interview?” The assumption is that the client is so famous (usually a legend in their own minds promoted with phrases like, “Jane is a recognized expert who’s appeared on (a cable TV show I don’t watch).”
The published request they were responding to was for specific examples of companies that had implemented a specific process, with four questions about the process that he asked submitters to answer. About two-thirds of the responses we got were written by PR people who must have been either too lazy or too uninformed to answer the questions, because nothing in the pitch they sent even vaguely resembled the information he asked about.
A variation on this is a teaser pitch that reads like the TV Guide listing for a whodunit. One of the pitches we got talked about how “one lone champion of the process” had “saved the company millions and turned around a division” by “braving the waters of change”. And then it just stopped.
It didn’t tell me who this brave soul was, or what they wanted us to do about him. Were they pitching an interview? Suggesting we use what they sent as a featured part of the column? And it didn’t answer any of the questions except in the request for information in the vaguest terms.
While it’s true that you do need to sell the story, but most journalists and bloggers are too busy, and too savvy to get roped in with this kind of blatant nonsense. Tell them your story, tell them why they should care, and tell what you’re offering (an interview, a guest post, a product for review). Or don’t waste your time or theirs.
PR Pitch Mistake #2: Not Hiding Your Mistakes.
You absolutly should revise and rewrite your pitch, and route it for comments from your co-workers, client or supervisor. But don’t send your query in the form of a Microsoft Word or Google document that’s filled with edits and comments from the approval process. Who doesn’t know how to cut and paste copy into Notepad, or turn it into a PDF, in order to strip out the comments and corrections? And what journalist or blogger doesn’t know how to turn “final” copy into “final showing mark-up”? Here are four actual comments I saw in pitches from huge PR firms:
- “Be careful with this guy. Pitch him, but he doesn’t like it when you waste his time.” Good advice – too bad the account executive didn’t follow it, because the pitch she sent was so far off target that he’d never have seen it except for that first comment. Oh, yes, and one from the client that read: “Well, I’d rather have this story in (competing publication), but if (the publication they were pitching) is the best you can do, then pitch writer #1– and pitch the same story to writer #2 (another columnist with the same publication), too. He’s easier to work with than writer #1.”
- “Be sure you brief Ms. Client if he bites on this pitch – she’s not really an expert, and we don’t want her looking stupid if you land the interview.” Again, good advice. But why tell me in the notes/comments/strikethroughs that the “expert” you’re pitching isn’t really an expert?
- “Omit the answer to his second question. We don’t believe in that, and we didn’t use it in this project.” (His second question asked them what measurement criteria they had used to measure the success of the project.)
PR Pitch Mistake #3: Throwing Spaghetti at the Wall.
Don’t pitch every single client to a single HARO inquiry. One large NYC firm sent virtually identical pitch letters on behalf of 19 different clients. It wasn’t that the pitch was bad. In fact, it hit almost every one of my friend’s bullet points dead on. But how is it possible that 19 different clients all had exactly the same experience with the same management process? And how is it possible for one account executive to effectively represent 19 clients anyway?
Broadcasting to the world that you work at a sweatshop that sends boilerplate pitches with no research or personalization is the PR equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see how much sticks. Sure, some of it will. But it won’t be long before your kitchen (and your client relationships) are a sticky mess.
PR Pitch Mistake #4: Making Your Client Look Stupid.
Whatever you do, don’t fail to tell your client what you pitched so that they come across as more clueless than a political candidate caught off guard in a debate.
Of all of the mistakes I ran into, this one struck me as the most idiotic. One of the best pitches we got – one that was forwarded straight to my friend because I knew it was just what he was looking for – got him really excited. He was on the East Coast when he got it…and the executive being pitched was on the West Coast. The client’s contact information – including his cell phone number – were right there in the pitch. So my friend called, and reached the executive on the first ring. Then the client demonstrated in about 2 minutes flat that he had no knowledge at all of the “successful project” attributed to him, and no idea why my friend was calling.
I thought that this must surely be an isolated case where someone made a mistake. They meant to tell us to call executive B, who had spearheaded the project, and put in the name of executive A, who had just returned from six months in Borneo, instead. A dozen different journalists assure me that it happens at least once a week. They get a pitch or a suggestion for an interview, it sounds perfect, and they call the contact only to find out that the person has absolutely no idea why they’re calling.
Whatever happened to screening media calls through a PR person, so that the executive can be briefed before the phone rings? Is protecting your client from themselves really so hard?
PR Pitch Mistake #5: Failure to Read.
Although the name of the publication was mentioned in the HARO query, I can’t tell you how many “PR Pros” failed to read the query they were responding to — or the publication where the columnist worked. The magazine my friend writes for is a business and finance magazine read by business executives and people with a high net worth. It covers a pretty wide range of topics — but parenting, religion, pop psychology, and money-saving ideas for families aren’t on the list. And neither are dozens of other topics that got pitched in response to a very specific query.
Walt Mossberg, the personal technology columnist at The Wall Street Journal, used to publish a list of do’s and don’ts for PR people who wanted to pitch him. His very first rule, as I recall, was not wasting his time by pitching stuff he doesn’t cover. When I ran a high-tech PR firm, I booked an appointment with Walt for a client who had two products — an enterprise product that was of zero interest for the “personal” technology column, and a personal product that I thought Walt might like. The client started out with a long rambling presentation about the enterprise product….and Walt walked out 5 minutes in, leaving the client to wonder if he should just pack up and leave, or wait for Mr. Mossberg to return. Eventually an assistant ushered him out.
The briefing book that the client had in his hand before he walked into the meeting said in large, bold letters, “DO NOT PITCH ENTERPRISE PRODUCTS. Start on Slide #10, and focus on the consumer product. Walt Mossberg’s Personal Technology column covers consumer and personal use products only — don’t mention the enterprise product except in the wrap-up, when it’s ok to say, ‘And we also have a line of enterprise products.’ ”
The client hadn’t read the briefing book — and the account executive who briefed him before the appointment hadn’t made the point forcefully enough. The client got embarrassed, and we got fired. I was just grateful that losing a client was the worst thing that happened. It could have been much worse if we’d wound up as an object lesson in one of Walt’s periodic updates to his guidelines for PR people. Don’t make this mistake even if you’re not pitching a top-tier journalist. If you haven’t read the magazine or the blog, don’t write the pitch. It’s really that simple.