PR rep advice

January 23, 2014

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.

Response to the backlash on my #SFBatKid tweets

November 15, 2013

Earlier today, in succession, I wrote the following three tweets:

1) I’ll say it: All this time and money for #SFBatKid should be spent on other people with terrible diseases. We look ridiculous, San Francisco.

2) This city is ravaged by disease and drug abuse and we’ve got the SFPD and FD sidelined so one kid can drive a Lamborghini around.

3) I hope he lives a beautiful life but this just seems like an ostentatious display of myopia about this city’s real problems.

And then mostly because only the second one was retweeted a lot, a backlash from users on Twitter ensued.

The usual mechanics of this situation are that I delete the tweets, tell you about how my mom had cancer but that’s no excuse — I should have known better — and then apologize and everyone who got upset feels like they’ve done their good deed for the day.

I am only sorry that I used Twitter. Cancer, public policy and philanthropy are too complicated and sensitive a topic for 140 characters and that was a mistake.

But I stand by the essence of the three statements. Does this mean I am “hating” on a kid with cancer? Does this mean I think he doesn’t deserve attention and affection? Does this mean I think we can’t have fun?

Can you honestly read those tweets together and draw any of those conclusions?

A five year old with leukemia absolutely deserves every bit of love possible. But this is a question of proportionality. “So what?” people say. “It’s just one day.” Well, if it’s just one day why not take all the police, fire department, public workers and onlookers that showed up for BatKid to San Francisco hospitals and tell ALL the kids in the cancer ward that they’re superheros.

(Nevermind the parents that have to explain to their kids fighting cancer why they can’t be Batman today.)

I hope — really truly hope — that today resulted in an uptick in funding for cancer research. There is research that shows single stories, rather multiple cases or statistics, are the most powerful when soliciting donations.

But “awareness” is often cover for “not really doing anything.” These sorts of events just have an unshakable whiff of healthy people acting like “help” means tweeting out a cute picture and a hashtag. For everyone that called me an asshole, shitbag or (my favorite) “living proof that a fetus can dodge a coat hanger for 9 months and survive” I do hope you redirected some of that energy toward your checkbook.

And the point I was making in those tweets should not need explaining. San Francisco has a terrible layer of poverty and sickness — from both drugs and disease — which we tuck in alleys, vacant storefronts and the area between Geary, Market and Van Ness. It’s almost trite to bring it up anymore and that’s sad. But it ain’t going away.

If we’re all going to get excited and set aside a day in the life of an entire city for those in need — and we absolutely should do this more — why not make it for more than just one person?

The Taxonomy of Internet Trolls

September 20, 2013

Are you a comment troll, one of those mythical creatures that pollute the comments sections of Internet articles and cause normal people to say “Honestly, who are these weirdos in real life?”

Probably not. After all, you’ve read this far. Likely, you are one of these rarer creatures in the family constructuvus:

commentus reasonablus [Threatened species]
You added something simple, kind or balanced to the discussion. Thank you. Seriously.

commentus perspectivus [Vulnerable]
Your great insight was not covered in the article. Thank you. Seriously.

commentus intelligentus [Endangered]
You should have probably written the article. Thank you for your comment. Seriously, the author should mention your comment in a tweet right now. Thank you.

But in case your commenting does not fall into one of the above, here is a zoological categorization of the family trollus, done in such a profoundly accurate way that no one could have a viscous opinion to go on about or….

typous obsessus
Look at you, you found a mispelled word. Rather than noting it quickly in the comments, a great deal of scorn is certainly in order for the author. Not to mention, could you provide a condescending explanation of the rules of grammar? After all, until now, the author had simply gotten lucky the 309,458 times they were faced with the decision between “its” and “it’s”. Oh, and you know what, while we’re here, we’d love to hear why this typo is the harbinger of media’s downfall.

detaila obsessa
The article was 2,000 words but you have found a detail at word 1,293 that you believe is, not incorrect, but just off per your perception of the world. You should really focus on this, and use it as a reason why the other 1,985 words of this article are void of meaning.

argumentus irrelevantus
Even though the article you just read was about crab fishing, we would surely like to hear your thoughts on Obama ruining America. When pulling up to a toll booth, you must surely also lecture the attendant on healthcare costs. Or when you order a smoothie you must teach the person at the register why we should intervene in the Middle East.

quipa redundus
Oh you have an original, profound thought you’d like to share in the comments? I wish the author of the post had thought of that same original, profound thought and written about it right there in paragraphs eight and nine and then referenced it again in paragraph fourteen. Please go on. No, the author didn’t say exactly what you’re saying at all. Seriously. Go on.

juvenilus anoni
Uh oh. Looks like someone left the back gate open at 4chan. Yes, please tell us about the lulz, how you’ll never forget and, of course, casually call people intense homophobic slurs. We’ll wait until you’re done. Go on. Get it all out.

bigotus subtlus
Mmmmmm, yes, we see that you’ve used strategic pronouns, quotation marks and winky smiley faces when speaking about minorities. Did you high-five yourself after you typed these clever things in your cave underneath a collapsed bridge? I hope so.

bigotus overtus
Enjoy hell.

conspiratus theororus
The articles mentions a company, organization or government body with actions that trouble you. No no no, your accusations don’t seem insane or disconnected from real life. Go on.

attackus authora
Seems you are quite the Internet sleuth. You’ve found the author’s LinkedIn profile or a picture of them on the Internet. Now you’ve entwined your detective work with the author’s arguments to reach an unassailable conclusion as to why the author wrote the piece in the first place. The world is so easy.

attackus commenteris
Oh my, you disagree with another random commenter you’ve never met and now you’ve surmised a great deal of information about their life simply based on the 48 words of their comment. You should keep talking. There is no chance you’re way off base. And you have surely moved the discussion forward. No, continue.

dismissis instantus
Ah yes, you read the headline and decided that the mere 500 words that follow were not worth your time. And now you’d like to tell us. The world needs more sensible folks like you.

dismissis tl;drus
Oh dear… the article contained too many words. Next time the author will dumb down the subject. But in the meantime, can you let everyone know you have the focusing ability of a goldfish by leaving “tl;dr” in the comments? Thanks.

dismissis brevus
You did not like this story. And by simply saying “This is dumb” in the comments you’ve not only explained why you hold such a nuanced opinions, but elevated the discussion well past being dumb at all.

articlus scornicus
You just can’t believe this article exists. Considering how much you paid to read it, you should demand a refund. In fact, this article was such a waste of time, you didn’t see the irony in wasting more time by writing in the comments that it was a waste of time.

listiclus dismissicus
Oh no. That random Internet list about the unimportant things didn’t have the one other thing. Well, you’d better sound off about it. Because there’s nothing publications and random bloggers hate more than people generating buzz around their controversial articles and sharing them around the Internet.

If Evgeny Morozov worked in a hospital

April 18, 2013

[Setting: A meeting room at a hospital where a bunch of doctors and tech critic Evgeny Morozov are trying to make sense of a patient who’s come in with an unknown condition.]

Doctor: We’re not entirely sure what’s going on here. We can find major systemic issues — concentrated in the sensory and immune systems — but we’re not entirely sure how they’ll manifest themselves. For as long as I’ve worked in medicine, I’d say this will certainly be the most interesting patient we have ever seen.

Evgeny Morozov: A “PATIENT,” you idiot?! How self-absorbed can you be to use such a simple term? The “patient”, as you call him, is a complicated organism made up of hundreds of bones, millions of nerves, billions of cells and trillions of proteins and sugars.

Doctor: Yes. I know. We simply use that term to discuss the situation more efficiently. This patient, if you’ll pardon the term, has exhibited amazing improvements in some biological functions and then some very concerning regressions in others. We’re just trying to get a handle on the problems.

Evgeny Morozov: “PROBLEMS,” you idiot?! Sounds more like you’re hunting around his body with a hammer, looking for nails. Or —  a way to make a buck.

Doctor: The patient came to us. He was asking questions about his rapidly changing health. We’re trying to answer them. For instance, while his vision and memory has vastly improved, his ability to listen has greatly declined. We want to understand if things will stay that way or if his hearing may once again return to normal. If not, however, we will need to figure out the best treatment. We just don’t know what it is.

Evgeny Morozov: “TREATMENT,” you idiot?! You think that just because you have identified a so-called problem, we need to have a treatment for it? Maybe it’s okay that he doesn’t hear as well now.

Doctor: Well, some people enjoy listening. We’re also fascinated by the sight and memory improvements. Even if his hearing doesn’t come back, his life could have taken some kind of turn for the better.

Evgeny Morozov: “BETTER,” you idiot?! What does that word even mean? How disingenuous and harmful to make a diagnosis like that — when you don’t even know all the consequences of having better sight and memory.

Doctor: None of us, and no good scientist, would say he “knows.” We’ve done an array of tests — genetics, hormones, blood-sugar, white blood cell counts — and scans — CT, MRI, X-ray — as much as we can do, and have a better sense of what we think will happen. The purpose of this meeting is to start getting a better handle on that answer by parsing through all that data.

Evgeny Morozov: “DATA,” you idiot?! Now, you’re not only hunting for a problem with a hammer, you’re building new hammers! How can you know this “data” will be helpful to your “treatment?” How can you put all your faith in such flimflamery? You purport to be a doctor and yet you make your diagnosis based on all sorts of unproven theories.

Doctor: We acknowledge that this is an entirely new case. We’re simply using the best tools at our disposal.

Evgeny Morozov: “TOOLS,” you idiot?! Sounds more like you’re putting faith in cheap buzzwords.

Doctor: We’re just trying to have a discussion about the patient. What exactly is your diagnosis?

Evgeny Morozov: …stop solutionism.

Become Simple Minded About Gun Control

December 20, 2012

This country is filled with insanely complicated issues: taxes, healthcare, defense, trade, climate change, etc. All of them deserve lots and lots of discussion and data because there is no “right” answer on how best to move forward.

A couple issues, however, don’t deserve such treatment. To me, that list consists of gay rights and creationism’s place in our education system. These are not complicated debates. There is nothing to “hear out” or “considerations to make”. Anyone who believes gays don’t deserve the same rights as other humans or believes that a supernatural being created the world 6,000 years ago is just wrong. Like, it really is that simple. They are wrong.

The gun control debate is not as open-and-shut as gay rights and creationism — but it is close. Plenty of folks, including myself, enjoy an afternoon on the shooting range. Others love and, in some cases, depend on hunting. Guns do save lives each year. Even though, in 2009, there were 31 murders that used a gun daily — or, “a Sandy Hook” each day — people do protect their homes and families with guns. Though how often this occurs or actually incited increased violence is not known. (There are a handful of studies on the subject that draw different conclusions.)

But otherwise, we allow people to buy a machine whose only purpose is to kill. Guns don’t do other things. They are made to kill. Bombs are a type of “arms”; wouldn’t it be insane if someone defended their legality?

Gun control advocates should take a page out of the playbook of gun control opponents: simple dogma.

Reset the range of discussion for Biden’s commission. Adam Lanza used two handguns to kill those children and the most promising discussion out of Washington, so far, is a vague reference to banning military grade assault rifles and large bullet holders.

Counter “Don’t take my guns” with “Take all the guns.”


That simple.

Start with that. All of them. The solution will end up somewhere in the middle.* But start with the hardline. And reset that middle of the political negotiations. Be a “gun control extremist”. Entertaining the non sequiturs and nonsense, or spinning wheels trying to vet every bit of nuance to the debate, as we’ve learned, means nothing impactful will ever happen.

It’s not as if the talking points have any mileage or relevancy.

“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” By this logic, arsenic and the atomic bomb should be legal too.

“Why aren’t we talking about banning cars, knives and baseball bats?” Cars, knives and baseball bats have other purposes than killing. Guns don’t.

“We don’t know that tighter gun laws will reduce violence!” They have in Great Britain, Japan, Australia, Finland, Spain, Germany and Canada. Let’s take a chance.

“Drugs are illegal and people still do drugs!” By that logic we should not have laws against murder.

“Just arm the teachers!” This only treats a symptom of the–OhMyGodICantFinishMySentenceYouAreFuckingInsane

“We need better mental health programs and regulation of violent video games!” Agreed. But that’s called changing the subject.

“We need to be able to defend ourselves from the government!” The Pentagon spent 664.84 billion dollars in 2011. But seriously, tell me about your assault rifles.

“Firearm deaths are WAY far down the list of causes of death in America!” So is breast cancer. Should we stop searching for a cure?

“But…it’s in the Constitution!” So was slavery.

“Legislation won’t solve the root of the problem!” When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill, it’s not as if suddenly there were no racists. But 50 years later we have a black president. Laws don’t change societies, they shape them. Maybe in another 50, after effective gun legislation, we go 12 months without a school shooting.



(*Say, one single shot rifle allowed per American after a 30 day wait period and background check. Hunters and home defenders keep on keepin’ on.)

Actually, We Should Be Pissed Obama Cried

December 14, 2012

When I watched President Obama talk about the Connecticut elementary school massacre, I posted to Facebook “Obama is crying at the press conference.”

I wrote it because I was startled to see a president cry. I had never heard of that happening, in history.

But, upon a little reflection, his tears and the rest of his words during the press conference today were actually disappointing — and maybe even infuriating. Because they distracted an opportunity to make a change. I wanted him to be a fucking leader.

The nation is supposed to mourn. The president is supposed to act.

We’d like to say today’s political silence is “for respect”. But respect for who?

The children? They can’t hear you.

The families? They’re not paying attention to you.

Silence starts to look like convenient cover for not dealing with the problem. The best measure of respect for those slain children and their families is doing everything to prevent this from happening again. And that includes starting the conversation while you can still taste the tears.

That is what addressing the nation is for. The president is talking to millions of sad and angry Americans. We elect him to channel those emotions — not mimic them. And he knows that, at least within his party, he has a mandate to change this country’s gun laws.

Condolences and tears — while 100% appropriate — only address the disease’s symptoms. That is not why we voted for him. The great psychology question “Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” is at play here. The president should be smarter than us, more worldly, calmer, able to talk circles around us — and stronger, emotionally.

That we can’t remember seeing a president cry is not necessarily a historical precedent to celebrate. Thinking back to our stalwart leaders — from Lincoln, to FDR, to Kennedy — it’s just not presidential. Leaders are rocks. There is absolutely nothing wrong with crying, but there’s a time and place for it. (No doubt all of them, rightfully, had very tender moments out of the public eye.)

Imagine if President Obama steps to that pulpit, offers his condolences (which he did) — but then looks into the camera and says that he’s sending a bill to Congress next week. It will clamp down on fire arms. He doesn’t have to mention anything about parties or politics. The bill is about keeping American’s safe. No more looking over our shoulders in malls and schools.

He honors the dead by trying to prevent more of them.

If he does that, will anything happen? Who knows. Does he give up any precious “political capital”? No — the Right already hates him and he’s talking to a bereaved nation. Does it do much needed damage to the NRA and the psychotic gun lobby, and shift the debate in the correct direction? Absolutely.

But now, we’re staring at the prospect of another terrible tragedy passing without action. We’ll sign online petitions; next week, we’ll read profiles on the killer and the victims; we’ll hug our family a little tighter over the holidays. Then we’ll be into the new year and this terrible thing will be one more point on the line. Columbine seems so long ago.

Like most of us today, I let tears flow — in public.

But the president doesn’t get to. Until later, when he closes the door to his bedroom and collapses in Michelle’s arms.

Let’s hope for that fucking leader next week.

The Problem With Broad Editorials That Everyone Reads

July 16, 2012

As it is known to do, the New Yorks Times recently published an eloquent opinion piece. The topic was “the busy trap”. Those who run around lamenting (bragging) how much they have to do in their cluttered little days, the argument went, are more often than not just dealing with self-imposed schedules and would do themselves a favor if they recognized this and shut up about it and took the proper steps to create some Me Time.

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” writes Tim Kreider. (He, of course, makes an exception for people with three jobs fighting to make ends meet.)

This is the hammer meeting the nail and categorizing busyness as “a hedge against emptiness” no doubt gave a lot of folks a big fat pause and will make them hesitate before lamenting (bragging) in the future — and perhaps drop a few items from their schedule. It’s a point that probably resonated most on the coasts (and with Times readers) and, predictably, the piece caught fire on the wires, clogging Facebook, Twitter and inboxes, along with drawing hundreds comments on the article itself.

But in a lot of ways, I think that this actually doesn’t foster a healthy discussion, but hijacks it. The opinion pieces that go viral across the demographic matrix, as this piece did, cover the ideas everyone already ponders or discusses. They examine the obvious gears of society. It’s not like he made an argument on the nuances of the capital gains tax. He talked about work-life balance. Fairness, internet addiction, acknowledging death, cell phone etiquette, the beauty of life, all resonate for obvious reasons. When a writer finds the words (and soapbox) we’d always wanted, we want to propagate the message because we feel like we own a little part of the piece. Language — not recognition — had limited our expression and now someone unchained those words.

But how hard is it to see that someone’s — or your own — stress and “busyness” is self-induced? It’s an important topic, but what did we actually learn? Nothing new came to the table. Kreider argues something that any hard-working person knows and feels. He just does so extremely well and under the banner of the New York Times. So we read it and say, “Yes! Thank you, Grey Lady! To the Facebook-mobile!”

The greatest influence on someone is their peers. People change because of a friend’s advice or behavior. But when someone does not want to change their ways — as most of are wont to do — they’ll look for a loophole. And here’s the catch. With other op-eds with embedded personal advice, the next time you point out to a friend that their suffocating schedule is self-imposed, they’ll just roll their eyes and give a retort all too familiar with Times readers:

“Yeah, I read that article too.”

And the discussion ends. Your opinion has been sourced. Because its followed with an implicit,

“So be quiet. It’s not your opinion you’re preaching, it’s some other dude’s (– and I’m going to keep right on with my busy schedule).”