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Sunday, July 20, 2014

How to Get Journalists to Listen: A Guide for the Public Relations Industry

Let me start by addressing my fellow journalists:

My colleagues always ask me why I’m so polite to people on the phone. Whether it’s someone cold calling from a bank trying to sell me a credit card or, more often than not at a business magazine, a PR person pitching their company, I try not to be an asshole. This surprises the people who sit near me. I say sir or ma’am. I speak in a soft voice. I try to be helpful even when I’m busy. Maybe it’s because I’m still new to all this. Being polite costs NOTHING. It’s really the least you can do. The person calling you is just doing their job. As someone in the media, it’s your job to listen. One should always be skeptical, but that doesn’t mean you have a right to talk down to a young lady who is just doing her job. You are the tenth person she is calling today – please don’t think you’re special. If you are rude, you will blend into stereotype of the dismissive journalist who has better things to do (ie. Watching stuff on Youtube). If you’re nice, she will remember you. She will not bother you if you explain why you’re not interested in the piece. Who knows, you may just make a friend that could help you out down the line. Being polite will earn you a genuine thank you. What could be better than that?

Now to the men and women of Public Relations.

Please first understand that most journalists, especially business journalists, have a rather large chip on their shoulder. They meet and write about fabulously successful people and think they’re better than you because they know something about oil subsidies and ‘innovation’. The truth is, you probably work less and get paid more than the journalist who is shouting down the other end of the call or making disparaging remarks about you behind your back. Journalists are not paid very well, so acting like they are smart and influential is what makes them feel powerful. Humour them. If the vast majority of journalists were actually as smart as the millionaires and rock stars they write about, they probably wouldn’t be journalists.

Still, journalists and PR people need each other and if we work together, we can give readers a fair deal. Not every article need be a Tehelka sting operation. At the same time, there’s nothing more boring to a reader than a puff piece. There’s a middle ground, where if an idea is presented properly by a PR agency, a journalist can pick out an interesting narrative and tell a story that sparks a debate or sheds light on some good work being done. The reader gets some new insight, the agency gets paid, the company gets publicity, the journalist gets some free drinks at an event and everyone’s happy.

Here’s how you get the journalist to listen to your pitch.

Read the magazine! Read the last three issues of the publication you’re calling. Try to figure out what their angle is. Do they carry press releases? No? Then why send them press releases and ask them to publish them? That’s your job! Have they ever published a story about a tie-up? No one cares that a company has partnered with another to host a conference on industrial design innovation. What we care about are results. Tangible outcomes are more interesting than the potential for something to happen. Readers don’t have time to go through what your client is planning on doing. Unless you’re Google and you’re tying up with the US government, it’s not really a story.

Most of the answers to your questions are inside the magazine. For God’s sake, don’t call and ask who the editor of the magazine is! It’s on page 2, along with his photo and email ID. Am I seriously going to tell you my designation over the phone? Would you mind telling me yours while we’re at it? All our designations are on page 3. Do you want to speak to someone in the Delhi office? Why not look for the contact number on page 4? Do you want to know who covers specific beats? Why not have a quick look at the names on the by-lines? There’s a lot of information in a magazine if you take an hour to go through it carefully.

Don’t make claims in your pitch that you can’t back up. “xyz.com is one of the biggest ecommerce platforms in India!” Really? Bigger than the Indian Railways? Wow. How come we’ve never heard of you before? What does that even mean? A good journalist will have some tough follow up questions, an irritated one will really let you have it. Don’t come back with “the company doesn’t share revenue/market share data”. Whether its business journalism or some other form of journalism, no good writer is going to get inspired without some hard evidence.

My suggestion - for whatever it’s worth - is for PR agencies to focus on specific sectors and really be in touch with what’s happening in their clients’ space. No journalist is going to write a story that’s already been done in a rival publication less than a year ago. What you can do instead is explain to the journalist that there is another angle that hasn’t been covered. This requires you to be somewhat of an expert yourself – and I see nothing wrong with this. I am not necessarily going to write about a restaurant chain that has opened a new joint in Mumbai. It’s already been reviewed by every food critic in town. I may however be interested in a larger trend, of which the restaurant is a part. Is it the 3rd recent non vegetarian place to open in a previously conservative vegetarian neighbourhood? Is it the first gourmet take on a traditional cuisine? Has the chef given up a big gig elsewhere to fulfill his dream here? Why? Has the chain failed elsewhere – why do the owners think it will succeed this time round? I can’t guarantee I’d do a story, but I’d certainly want to meet the folks. Ask yourself: how would this story be relevant to readers of an international magazine? Or is it actually more in line with what a daily city newspaper would do? If so, why are we wasting each other’s time?

If the journalist hasn’t responded to your email, there’s probably a reason why. I don’t like getting calls from people when I’m in the middle of writing. I always like to be ready for a call, so I can be prepared and be focused on the issue I’m dealing with. If I haven’t responded to your email about a Danish lumberjack who is launching a new line of innerwear in India, do you think I’m interested in doing a story? Surely I would have called you? I understand that you need to follow up – but you can do that with a personalised email.

“Hi Shravan, didn’t hear from you about the Anders the Danish underwear hunk – I take it you won’t be interested in meeting him and testing out his snug-fit boxers? Do let me know. Thanks.”

I would definitely answer this with “Hi _____. Unfortunately I’m not available be able to meet him. Regards.” And then you'd have your closure. 

The best PR people I’ve met really know their space, not just their clients. They will send you an event invite because they’ve read your previous work. They know what you’re interested in. All our writing is on the web anyway. Just as I do my homework before I go to meet someone, so a PR person should do their homework before they call a journalist. Don’t send out a list of your clients. No one is going to go through it. A journalist already has a pretty good idea of what he’s comfortable writing about and of who he’d like to meet. I love sports – Google my name and it becomes pretty obvious. I’m always happy to meet people doing interesting work around sports. A new story has to be something I know about, in a space I have covered before, but it can’t be an idea I’ve already written about. There are a million people running sports academies. I’m not going to write about yours unless you tell me it’s different/better/interesting and I can see it for myself.

One thing which annoys me is when you get an email pitch about someone which already includes tentative talking points. Mr _____ would be happy talking about a, b and c. Fine. But why then would you email me asking me to send questions of my own? You have invited me. I just want to meet the guy and figure out what he’s doing. One of the funniest meetings I’ve had was with a mid level manager at an international bank with a small India office. I suffered the aforementioned talking points/questions irritation and sent my questions in anyway. The PR people came late. I say people because for some reason there were two of them. When they finally arrived to escort me inside the office, there was another Corp Comm person there. So five people crammed into the manager’s tiny office and only two of us talked for 45 minutes. It was quite surreal – even worse than when a PR person silently listens in on a conference call and you only realise she was there all along at the end when she says bye.

The best PR person I’ve worked with was in the music industry. She had read my stories. She sent me a polite SMS asking when we could chat. She pitched her story in such a way that I really felt bad having to say no to her. I really couldn’t attend the event because I had a prior engagement. But I sent her message to a colleague and he went. You have no idea how many event invites we get – we could spend our entire week at hotels and conference centres, eating bad banquet food and trading pre-printed name-tags. My office is at Matunga. I am probably not going to come for a 4pm event at Andheri East that has nothing to do with what I cover. It’s just a waste of time to even send me the email. It will get deleted in less than 5 seconds and that’s the harsh reality.

“Hey Shravan, I read your piece on ______. I’m handling PR for someone who is doing similar work with a different twist, but has been hugely successful nonetheless. Their details are attached, if you’re interested. They haven’t really been written about recently. Let me know if you’d like to meet over a coffee next week.”

Now that’s something I’d listen to.