Straight from the Horse’s Mouth: How to Avoid Becoming a #PRFail

Lauren Wood // Sep 13 // Insights

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An interview with Chicago freelance reporter Matt Lindner

The public relations field is expected to grow 23 percent from 2010 to 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while jobs for reporters will decrease by six percent. Despite newsrooms getting smaller, the PR field is booming. That means more publicists competing for fewer reporters’ attention.

Reporters get inundated with PR pitches, and if the Bad Pitch Blog, Gawker's PR Dummies series and Twitter mock accounts are any indication, a lot of PR people are doing a very poor job.

For more insight on what PR folks do wrong (and right!), I reached out to reporter Matt Lindner. He is a Chicago-based freelance writer for Red Eye and the Chicago Sun-Times, and he unabashedly tweets about PR catastrophes he is subjected to almost daily.

He was kind enough to answer my questions via email and had some insightful things to say about what he loves and hates, as well as how social media has rocked his reporting world.

LFW: On Twitter, you post some pretty epic rants about PR misdeeds. Can you share an example of one of the worst PR fails you’ve encountered?

ML: I get pitched ridiculous things that are far outside the scope of my coverage areas all the time. The two most blatant errors that stand out to me though are the time a publicist pitched me a self-serving survey suggesting that something like 75% of all kids didn't want to play youth sports because their parents were too negative. I deleted the initial pitch and then three days later got another pitch from the same publicist claiming that 80% of all kids didn't want to play youth sports for that same reason ... essentially fudging the numbers in an effort to get my attention. When I called him out on it, he wasn't able to explain himself. Needless to say, pitches from that particular agency now automatically go into my spam filter. I'm not the brightest bulb in the shed but don't blatantly lie to me in an effort to further your clients' or your own agenda and expect me not to notice.

The second was a pitch I got from a publicist who actually wound up becoming a friend later on. She had pitched me a story about this great Chicago small business that was creating unique, environmentally-friendly products, something that was of interest to me since I write for a paper (RedEye) that has a hyper-local Chicago focus. After my editor had approved the idea, I sent her an e-mail asking her to coordinate an interview, offering to meet the guy at his studio. When I asked her where in Chicago -- thinking she meant in city limits -- she told me Joliet, which is a suburb about 50 miles outside city limits. This changed things completely from our perspective in terms of our level of interest.

LFW: Overall, what do you think PR people are doing wrong these days?

ML: Wow, that is a loaded question. I'd say the biggest thing is that PR people aren't pitching stuff that people who read our publications would actually want to read. 99.99% of the pitches I get on a daily basis serve no interest but that of the brand. I really don't care where your client has been featured in the past nor do I need 1,000 words on how great they are. I get 30-50 of these pitches per day on top of working a full-time job, and I'm not going to read it. Get to the point. Tell me what it is and why I care and save yourself some time generating copy that your target audience isn't going to read.

A lot of publicists that I deal with don't take the time to read my stories or the publications I write for. I once had a firm pitch me and, after I sent a "thanks but no thanks" response, e-mail me back and say, "after reading your stuff, we realize this kind of a pitch wasn't germane to what you normally write about." It's a small thing but that drove me nuts because it felt like that person/agency wasted my time.

LFW: It seems like you get a ton of bad email pitches. There have been stories recently (see WSJ) that sometimes picking up the phone is better. Do you find it helpful or annoying to be contacted via phone?

ML: Every reporter has their own preference when it comes to taking phone calls. I have a full-time, non-writing job so I explicitly state that I do not take publicist phone calls. I just don't have time during the day and, generally, unless I'm comatose, I'll respond to your e-mail within five minutes of receiving it if I'm interested. I have had publicists attempt to call newsrooms trying to reach me in the past, and I've had a handful call my cell phone unannounced as well, creating awkward situations each time it's happened.

LFW: How has social media impacted your job as a reporter? Do you get pitched via Twitter and other social channels, and if so, what are your thoughts on this?

ML: Social media has completely changed the game when it comes to reporting and pitching. I find roughly 65-70% of my story ideas via social media by staying plugged in to what my audience is saying and what key influencers are talking about. Social media has helped writers to expand their audience and enabled publicists to create more meaningful relationships with reporters than they have in the past. I've developed stronger sources, a broader audience, and numerous opportunities through my feed that wouldn't have been available as recently as 3-4 years ago. Think of it this way -- Facebook is everybody you know but wish you didn't, Twitter is everybody you don't know but wish you did. I don't get why anyone who works in the media has dual Twitter pages for that reason -- one personal, one professional. If you've followed me long enough, you know that I put it all out there because I've got nothing to hide and I want people to feel like they know me.

That being said, I don't get pitched directly via Twitter and I'd almost rather keep it that way. Someone's Twitter feed is a great indicator of what their interests and style are, two things that can help when it comes to developing a pitch and campaign. I'm always willing to engage people in conversations via my account but if I look on someone's feed and see they've publicly pitched 30 reporters the same story in the same tweet, it's an instant turnoff. Take the time to build those relationships and the payoff will come in the form of the marquee placements you've been seeking.

LFW: You must have (hopefully) encountered some PR people that have been helpful. What are the good PR people doing right?

ML: Despite what my Twitter feed might indicate, I do work with more good media relations professionals than bad. The good ones get me the interviews I need when I need them, don't attempt to stage manage the process, and don't waste my time when they have an idea that they think would be a good fit for a publication I'm writing for. Motion PR in Chicago is one of my favorite agencies to work with for that reason -- they facilitate the process instead of obfuscating things. It's a simple concept -- make someone's life easier and they'll be much more inclined to work with you again in the future.

Good PR people don't ask to see a story before it runs or get a list of questions before I conduct an interview (spoiler alert: you will never ever ever ever ever get either so do not bother asking), pitch topical stories that are relevant to my audience, and don't attempt to control when a story is going to run. I don't care if you've got something to promote, I'm on deadline and need to get things done as soon as possible.

LFW: As a freelancer, you also likely pitch yourself and your story ideas to your editors. Have you become better at pitching yourself after seeing what works and what doesn’t with PR? What have you learned?

ML: I have to pitch myself all the time. In terms of what I've learned, I pitch my editors the same way that I want to be pitched. Live by the rule of the Outlook window -- if your pitch won't fit in one, chances are it's too long. That's the rule for me when it comes to pitching stories to my current editors and when pitching myself to editors at other publications that I want to write for.

LFW: If you could give PR people one takeaway from reading this interview, one thing they must do better to stay off your Twitter feed, what would it be?

ML: Be concise, be personable and don't pander. And don't ever use the phrase "I think a story about ___ is in order."

To follow Matt Lindner, visit www.twitter.com/mattlindner.

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