To get it right, don't get it wrong

Some months ago I whipped out a little screed called #prdonewrong where I griped about how badly some PR agencies and developers handle the press. I used that screed as the basis for a talk I gave at the most recent Renaissance conference in San Francisco. As a result some people have passed around a link to the original #prdonewrong.

And that led me to wonder if perhaps I could refine the screed based on second thoughts that resulted from the talk.

Ah, the circle of life. 

So, let’s give it another go, this time based on the talk, which is broken down into a series of Dos and Don’ts. I led off this talk by clearly stating that I am PR's worst nightmare—the cynical journalist who has seen every variety of pitch imaginable. So, it might make you feel the tiniest bit better knowing that I'm a worst-case recipient. On the other hand, if you can pitch me (and those like me) successfully, there's nothing you can't do. 


Decide who you’re going to pitch

Where would you like information about your product or service to appear? “Everywhere” is too broad an answer. “Only in the New York Times” is too narrow. Pick your five dream outlets and think long and hard about whether your work is a good fit for them. There is zero chance that your iOS utility for alphabetizing email is going to appeal to the Wall Street Journal or an Android game is going to get much play at Daring Fireball. So don’t waste your time.

Once you’ve narrowed your targets, dig into each site or publication and learn who is the appropriate person to pitch. That person is unlikely the woman who runs the site or the reviews editor. What you’re after is the person who’s covered products that are similar to yours. For instance, as a musician I care about music products and so would be the right guy to pitch for that kind of thing. On the other hand I’m snarky about the value of social networking and so a product that falls into that category would be wasted on me.

Demonstrate that you know what I do

In the real estate business the overriding rule is “location, location, location,” In the pitch-to-press business it’s “homework, homework, homework.” You now know who you want to pitch. Now learn everything you can about what that person is currently covering and has covered in the past. Questions to ask yourself:

  • How often do they cover new products?
  • They wrote about this kind of product five years ago but haven’t touched the category since then. Are they still the right target?
  • What kind of bias do they have (and does my product play to it)?
  • Is their opinion worth a damn? (Do they appear to be respected by readers and other members of the press?)

The advantage of being familiar with someone’s background is that you can better personalize your pitch as in “Hey, I see that you have an interest in Zombie-themed diet apps. Because you do, we think you’ll love our ‘50 Top Slow Cooker Brains and Entrails Recipepalooza.’”

The risk you take in not doing your homework is that your pitch will hit the wrong person and any future pitch you make will be automatically deleted before that person sees it.

Wait, what!?

I don’t wish to complain about a job I love, but here’s the truth of it. I receive dozens of pitches a day. If I receive a pitch that is outside my area of interest, I select your message and press Shift-Command-\, which does the following:

  1. Adds you to my list of contacts.
  2. Tags that contact as “Marketing Junk”
  3. Moves your pitch to a “Marketing Junk” folder that I may scan once a month.
  4. Adds your name to a rule that moves any subsequent messages from you to this same folder.

In short: You’ve got one shot, use it wisely. 

It’s not personal. It’s just that I need a way to easily separate those pitches that are appropriate from those that are junk. Send me one of the latter and I know you haven’t done your homework and will likely continue to waste my time. On the other hand, if you’ve done your very best and your product or service could appeal to me, I’ll likely keep your pitch around. It doesn’t mean I’ll cover it, but at least you haven’t been relegated to purgatory.

Present well

I mentioned this in #prdonewrong, but mostly in terms of phone manner. As I said there, if we speak on the phone (and I’ll tell you later why that should rarely happen), be sure that you A) Know your stuff, B) Have your pitch organized well so that it’s short and to the point, C) Are ready to follow up with any information or assets I need, D) Don’t sound like a kid, E) Accept my rejection graciously.

Be realistic

Another point from the previous piece that could use some further explanation.

I get that you’re enthusiastic about whatever it is you’re pitching. But don’t lie to me. The second I see the words “disruptive,” “game changer,” or “revolutionary” in a pitch I toss it. As a guy who believes Apple has truly innovated three times in 12 years, I’m simply not going to buy that your iOS twitch game is going to have any significant impact on my life. Tell me I’ll be amused, tell me that I might learn something, but don’t tell me that you’re going to conquer an industry.

Similarly, be realistic about timelines. A PR rep once pitched me on a photo service that was two months away from launch. She gave me specific dates when each goal would be met—down to the date and time of App Store release. 

If you’ve read some of the other stuff I’ve written here you know that I’ve worked as a musician in the past. And some of that work was as a leader of a wedding band. If someone from the wedding party handed me a plan that ticked off events to the minute—Dinner at 5:35, First Dance, 6:08, Tossing of the Shrubbery at 7:17—I knew they were either waaaay too controlling or they hadn’t a clue how to run a wedding.

Same idea here. I understand there are variables—the code may not be done in time, Apple or Google has changed something in the OS that affects your app, your app has been held up by Apple because you failed to dot a single I…. Far better that you tell me your intention—”We hope to get this out sometime in October or November”—so that I know that you have realistic expectations rather than try to show your professionalism by being clueless about production and release schedules.


Call me

Like many members of the press, I spend much of my day writing and looking at words. And to do that I have to concentrate. When your unsolicited call interrupts that concentration, don’t expect me to be grateful or welcoming. In truth—like many of my colleagues—I simply mute my phone’s ringer. If the phone lights up and I don’t see a number I recognize, I let the call go to voicemail.

If you’re a developer I doubt very much if you’d appreciate someone knocking on your door when you’re wrapped up in a particularly perplexing bit of coding. Same idea.

Pitch me over Twitter/LinkedIn/Facebook

Inhuman though we may seem, we press types have lives outside our work. And some of us consider social networking sites an extension of our personal, rather than work, lives. I’m aware of press folk who will report people pitching over Twitter for spam. If I receive a LinkedIn invitation and I’ve never actually worked with you, it goes into the bin. And if I still belonged to Facebook I’d find some way to get my own back there as well. Despite what your monthly How To Pitch The Press newsletter tells you, no one likes these kinds of advances.

“Circle back”

Speaking of that HTPTP newsletter, I don’t know who thought up the “I’m just circling back to see if…” technique where you send me an inappropriate pitch that I ignore and then I hear from you again three days later offering me the same thing that interests just as not-at-all, but know this: It’s terrible advice.

If you circle back for any reason I apply a special filter to your email address—one that deletes any future messages. In the case of a couple of PR agencies that are particularly aggressive, I’ve applied this filter to their entire email domain in addition to asking that they take me off their list. (And, in the case of one agency, publicly shamed them—and cost them at least two clients—when they continued to send me pitches.)

The first uninteresting pitch convinced me that you haven’t done your homework. The follow-up tells me that you’re additionally an annoyance.

Pay for reviews

If you are ever approached about paying for a product review, run away. Outlets that offer such reviews are contemptible. 

Offer incentives for reviews

Any good journalists (and these are the people you want writing about your stuff) will reject, out of hand, any hint that you’d be willing to advertise with their site/publication in exchange for a review. 

Employ clueless PR firms

And finally, if you’re going to use a PR agency, be very selective about it. If such an agency tells you that they’ll get your pitch to 10,000 journalists, you’re basically hiring a team of spammers. They haven’t done their homework and they’re not selectively targeting. This results in thousands of pitches that will never be read and the likelihood that countless outlets will ignore anything you pitch in the future.

If a PR firm is aggressive with you to sign up for additional services that will somehow increase the visibility of your work you have a pretty good clue that they’re just as aggressive with the press. That kind of aggressiveness pisses us off. And that reflects badly on whatever it is you’re trying to sell.

I’ve dealt with marketers and PR people for years and I can name just three whose pitches I will always read. And I will because they’ve proven that they know what I’m interested in and why it will be important for my readers. I imagine that when acquiring new clients their pitch to you would go something like this:

“We won’t send your pitch to 10,000 addresses. Instead, our list of press contacts is broken down into the handful that matter for your product. If your product isn’t a perfect fit for these people, they won’t hear from us. And if your work isn’t up to their standards, we won’t pitch it until it is.”

I know. Harsh. But that’s reality. Pitching a product is really hard. Hard becomes impossible when you pitch poorly.