Now, let’s talk about where the rubber meets the road: engaging editors to cover your story.
Since I have been an editor for going on 30 years, I could offer some sound advice.
However, any good journalist-turned-columnist knows a single-source story is going to get rejected by their editor.
Instead, I wanted to get the scoop from business and tech editors who are fielding press releases and story pitches from companies like yours every day.
I tapped into my J-school network at the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and the membership of the AZ Tech Writers, which graciously invited me to join their networking group, to find reporters and editors with long and varied experience with newspapers, magazines and online blogs covering business and technology.
Karina Bland, an award-winning reporter and columnist for The Arizona Republic, AZcentral.com and USA Today Network. Bland has been a journalist for 30 years, covering everything from the police beat and city politics to child welfare and family issues. She also writes a popular Sunday column, “My So-Called Midlife.” Bland graduated from Arizona State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism in 1987 and a master's degree in communication in 1997.
Shay Moser, managing editor for the W.P. Carey School of Business alumni magazine, Research & Ideas website as well as the Department of Information Systems blog, KnowIT. Moser has been a journalist for more than 15 years. Interestingly, one of her previous roles was editor-in-chief of Technically, Insight’s digital magazine; and managing editor of Learn, Insight's client-facing information portal at www.insight.com.
Alan Zeichick, principal analyst with Camden Associates, is a computer scientist and former mainframe software developer, who has worked as a technology journalist and analyst for more than 30 years. He is well known throughout the IT industry for his insights into emerging technology and currently writes for publications, such as Network World, ARS Technica, HP Enterprise Insights, ITSP Magazine and Pipeline Magazine. He is the ringleader for the AZ Tech Writers networking group and also writes his own blog, Z Trek.
I asked these veteran editors what they think about interfacing with business executives and/or their PR representatives in various ways – from press releases to pitches to interviews.
The results are a set of guidelines on what to do and, more importantly, what NOT to do when interfacing with media.
If you’re new to media relations, this advice will start you off on the right track.
Even if you’ve been around the press pool a lap or two, you may learn something new.
When you receive a press release, what makes you most likely to follow up?
Bland: I’m most likely to follow up on a press release that is interesting, well written and relevant to what I do.
Moser: I follow up if the title is relevant and explains what readers get in a catchy way; the subhead gives even more applicable details of what’s in the body of the press release; it's well-written, appropriate and targets my readers, offering a news angle that’s important to them at the time.
It’s a bonus if the press release is exceptionally written — enough to use all or most of it as is.
Zeichick: If it is very relevant, addressed to me by name (and not via mail merge) and very detailed – and also timely.
What makes you skip a press release and go to the next one?
Bland: I don’t even open the majority of press releases emailed to me.
I determine if they are interesting or relevant based on the subject line.
Moser: I pass on the press release if I don’t know at first glance what’s in it for my readers; ditto for the subhead.
If the content is irrelevant to my readers and doesn’t show a news angle they’d care about, then it doesn’t make sense to pick it up.
Also, if it’s only about the company and doesn’t offer why readers should care, then I pass it up.
Zeichick: If it’s a generic bcc; if the press release date is more than a couple of days in the past (that happens a lot); if it teases and wants me to schedule an interview to find out if it’s relevant (I won’t); and of course, if it’s clearly not relevant.
When a company executive pitches you a story, what makes you take notice?
Bland: It has to be a good story – that’s the bottom line.
It has to be interesting and relevant. And real.
Moser: I take notice when an executive pitches a story about what’s behind the brand, i.e., what’s the meaning of the company, who do they impact with its products and services (how, why, when, where), what is it about the employees that makes the company successful, how do the employees' values align with the company and how do their jobs show it in what they do.
Zeichick: If it’s relevant tech, if it fits what I do (i.e., I write about products and technology and trends; I don’t cover funding, M&A and customer wins), if it appears to be news, the word “exclusive.”
If you are truly offering an exclusive, make sure it’s super-relevant and don’t make it look like you are offering an exclusive to everyone who responds to a generic pitch.
What makes you pass on a story pitch?
Bland: If you’re bored pitching it, I’ll be bored listening to your pitch.
Even if a story is not relevant to what I do, if it is a really good story, and you convince me of that, I’ll get you to someone who may be interested.
Moser: I pass on a story pitch if it’s all about the company and its products and services and the executive doesn’t explain why my readers should care.
Zeichick: If it appears to have been already covered.
Links to other stories that have covered this makes me press the “delete” key.
Why do I want to be second to my competitor who already got an exclusive?
Vagueness and lack of a news hook [also are reasons I’ll pass].
When you are reporting on a story, what are you looking for in a source?
Bland: Someone who knows what he or she is talking about – someone real, meaning they talk from experience, not from theory.
Moser: I’m looking for a source that has hands-on experience with the company and its products and services.
Zeichick: Technical relevance.
I want to talk to technical experts, not marketing people.
If the source doesn’t understand the technology better than me, please go away.
What aren’t you looking for in a source but sometimes get anyway?
Bland: A babysitter. Someone who wants to monitor all interviews and hovers.
Someone who tries to control the story.
Moser: I’m not looking for the executive or company expert because they’re biased.
I’d rather talk to the source with hands-on experience or the entry-level employee on the front lines working with the customers and who hears what they like, don’t like, need, etc.
Zeichick: Marketing people and so-called “analysts” that parrot what their client wants them to say.
What do you wish business executives and/or their PR representatives knew about your job?
Bland: I’m busy, but I will drop everything for a really good story.
It has to have relevance, and it has to include real people.
Moser: That I can’t include every business and product and service.
I can only include those with which my readers connect.
It’s not personal toward their company or offerings, it’s that I have to look out for what my readers want.
Plus, I’m too busy to dig up why their company and offerings are relevant to my readers, so a well-written, timely press release that shows why my readers should care makes it easy for me to realize we need to share this for their benefit.
Zeichick: That I don’t work for them – it’s not my job to write stories that help their bottom line. It’s my job to educate, inform and entertain readers.
Just because I wrote about something once (or recently covered your competitors) doesn’t mean that I’m going to do another story on that space any time soon.
Also, unless I’m writing for my own blog, I only write about what editors pay me to write, which means that I have to feel strongly enough about what you’re doing to pitch an editor – and that takes time, so make me care.
I love it when business executives and/or their PR reps …
Bland: …write really short pitches that contain all the necessary information.
Listen to my questions and answer them.
If they don’t know the answer, they find someone who does.
Get me to the experts. Get me real people.
Follow through on promises.
Moser: ... call first to let me know they’re sending a press release and what it’s about (i.e., a verbal pitch), then they send it over immediately.
This way I’m looking out for it if it’s relevant.
Plus, it sets up our relationship for follow-up questions, more information, etc.
I also love it when they pitch to me as if I’m exclusive, such as “your readers do this and like that, and this would be a good way to help them with X."
Zeichick: … give me early warning of something interesting.
Editor’s Note: Take care to find out the contact preferences of editors you are pitching; most media guides will tell you if they prefer phone, email or social communications.
Also, if you give an advance on a story, make sure the reporter will agree to the embargo.
Not all of them will and the news will go out on their timeline, before you’re ready to announce.
I hate it when they …
Bland: … try to tell me how I should do a story.
Moser: … don’t do their homework first on what the (target publications) cover, and pitch something irrelevant.
Zeichick: … harass me when I don’t answer – if I don’t answer, that means “no.”
I am not going to take the time to decline PR pitches, and then start debating why I don’t want to cover it.
Sorry, it’s not up for discussion.
Henderson (chiming in): … ask to review the story for before publication.
The answer is, absolutely not!
It would make my job easier if …
Moser: … press releases were well written from title to ending.
Zeichick: … PR people put all the relevant information into their pitches.
It makes my job harder when …
Moser: … PR people don’t make the connection for me about how the company/product/service can help my readers.
Zeichick: … PR people “tease” and want me to call them or set up an interview to find out what the heck is being announced on Tuesday.
Sorry, I’m too busy to go fishing.
Any parting advice?
Moser: Know the (target publication) and its regular features and columns.
Then when you pitch a story, tie your company/product/service to how it could be used in the column or feature.
Zeichick: I have no shortage of things to write about for my blog, and no shortage of ideas to pitch to editors. I’m also not the PR person’s “buddy” who is going to give a favor. So don’t waste my time, and yours, unless you’ve got something good. And if I don’t bite, don’t take it personally.
Khali Henderson is senior partner at BuzzTheory Strategies, a marketing consulting firm specializing in the channel.