PR rep advice

This is a tired theme but I’ve gotten enough requests from public relations reps and some friends for feedback on how to pitch stories that I’m publishing the braindump below, basically so I can just forward this link in the future. I had started tracking tips in a Google Doc some time ago, so here they are. My take will be different than other journalists, but not that different.

But tl;dr –> Act like a human.


When not writing, journalists spend the day reading news (and tweets). Good stories have concise, informative leads….

So kill the long business/market summary to start an email. “In today’s bustling enterprise technology market of Fortune 100 companies that are competing in today’s competitive, bustling enterprise technology market…” No offense but, no shit. This is what I cover. I wouldn’t invite you to lunch and open the conversation “In today’s world of hunger, vast culinary options and socioeconomic nutrition dilemmas…” Get to the point.

Kill the qualifiers. “It won’t come as a surprise to you that…” WAIT! Stop there. If this is the case, then why are you telling me?

Kill the eager-reader facade. “I just read your excellent article entitled

‘I Obviously Didn’t Read Your Article But Instead Cut And Pasted The Headline And Forgot to Kill The Formatting’

and thought it was spot on. If you would like to…” It’s fake. And nothing kills human interactions faster than being fake. It’s clear that a lot of PR pitches are rooted in Solution Selling, where you “establish rapport” — i.e. suck up and pretend like you’re friends — to start the pitch. Just stop. Again, get to the point.

Kill the friendly intro with references to my personal interests. “As someone that also appreciates a good microbrew, I want to offer you a great opportunity…” In a different context this is called stalking. Nothing personal, but we’re not friends. And, I think you know that and don’t enjoy feeling creepy anyway. You know what I’m going to say here.

Ultimately, we’re engaged in a business transaction. We both understand the currency: dissemination of information. Save the friendly stuff for when we bump into each other at a conference. Email doesn’t lend itself to human interaction. Don’t force it.

Just. Get. To. The. Point.

The Pitch

For PR bosses that instruct their reps to barrel over journalists with an unceasing pitch over the phone where we can’t get a word in whatsoever and the idea seems to be that you’ll get us to write the story by simply battering our brains with senseless drivel as we try to ask a question or tell you we’re busy but we just want to hang up the phone……you’re an asshole.

Lose the exclamation points, caps, bold, italic and anything else that an insane ex would use when threatening to kill your dog. No journalist has ever said, “Strong text?! Exclamation points?! I must get to the bottom of this!!”

Lose the meaningless adjectives. You know the ones I’m talking about. “Disruptive” and “market leading” on down. “Our strategy is simple and powerful.” No it’s not, it’s contextless. Speak plainly.

Anything over a few sentences is annoying. Shakespeare would have been a great PR rep: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” This is all you have to do: Figure out how you’d make your email into a tweet. Then copy and paste into an email. Press send. That’s it. And all the background information? Attach it to the email. I’ll know whether I’m writing on your topic from the 140 characters. No one will read an email that looks like it needs a table of contents.

A public shaming example (this is a real email pitch)

Hi Caleb,

A Silicon Valley company will be making a significant announcement on November 11 that could greatly reduce the threat of gun violence in schools and help prevent tragedies to the extent of what we have unfortunately seen at Sandy Hook and Columbine. I’d like to talk with you about possibility of an education news story that demonstrates how students can be protected from real-time gunfire and authorities can apprehend shooters before innocent lives are lost. SST, Inc., the Silicon Valley company behind this new technology, will be holding a compelling and visual media demonstration on November 6 and 7.

[Exhausted yet? There’s more!]

The November 11 announcement centers on a new technology, SiteSecure, which detects, locates and automatically alerts law enforcement within seconds of a gunshot being fired within a school. It then provides a digital map of the school’s physical interior layout and a pinpoint location of where the gun was fired and the exact, current physical location of the shooter. Police dispatched to the scene will have real-time mapping on their patrol car’s computer screen so they will know before they arrive how to approach the situation and the shooter. Most importantly, SiteSecure saves time which, in turn, can save lives. It reduces the time required to get law enforcement to the scene and the dangerous and often confusing period of time required to physically locate shooters while shots are being fired.

[Journalists get these sorts of screeds all day.]

SST, Inc. has already been successful in reducing gun violence in cities across the country – San Francisco and other cities around the bay – with their gunshot detection and analysis solution, ShotSpotter, and they are proud to be offering a similar type of technology for schools. Would you be interested seeing SiteSecure in action and talking to SST’s CEO, Ralph Clark, the week of November 4th about its ramifications? I will give you a follow up call to discuss this story idea in detail and see how we might be able to work together.

Thank you,

Here’s the thing: This is obviously really important technology. But the rep could have just said “Tomorrow security company SST is demoing new technology that alerts police with a map of the area when it detects gunfire in a school. Want an invite?” All that other stuff in the email is obvious. Seriously, re-read it. Yes that sentence loses some flash, but those are extra details you provide later.

Don’t just throw up everywhere. That’s gross.

Other stuff

Don’t explain the importance of your pitch after making it. Again, we cover this space. We get it. I wouldn’t have to say, “The sky is raining hot lava and this is important because human kind does not have the proper umbrellas…” When you keep talking, we are not thinking. And you want us thinking — that’s where stories come from.

I know you need to “control the message” or whatever but just deliver the news and let it marinade in our minds. We know how to tune out message control — in fact a lot of journalists will quietly say “Okay, that’s definitely not how I’m writing about this” when they hear message control, out of spite. Just let us get to shaping our story. There is a rule in writing: Trust your reader. Trust your journalist.

Do not give user stats in a vacuum. I don’t know what 100 bajillion this or that means if it’s not relative to something else.

If you get us on the phone and the extent of our communication has been me not responding to your emails, please don’t say “Hey, it’s X” as if we’re friends. Just like I am one of many journalists bothering sources, you are one of many PR reps bothering me. This isn’t personal. It’s just how this game works. Be clear who you are.

Defer to subject matter experts — quickly. We know that you are the Emissary of Initial Information. Don’t waste time stumbling over catchy marketing phrases and tough technical terms. It just hurts the situation. Just say the most confident answer in the world: “I don’t know.” And connect us with the expert.

So basically, in sum, if you want to forget all this advice and have one little take-away to chirp in the back of your mind as you craft pitches: just communicate like a human being. No more, no less. Just communicate like a human being.

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