A while back I interviewed for a job that was more heavily entrenched in public relations (PR) than I was accustomed to. The interviewer, a long-time media relations veteran and communications expert, asked me what my philosophy was about working with the press. I stumbled a little, not just because it was one of those awkward phone interviews, but because I didn't really have a philosophy when it came to PR work. I knew I could handle writing press releases and communicating that kind of information, but aside from that I drew a big fat blank.
This woman was magnanimous about the situation and countered my fumbling with her own philosophy—one that I will never forget, even though I didn't get the job (any surprise there?). "My philosophy about press relations is simple," she said, "Don't be a pest." She then went on to explain that PR people often forget to focus on the relations part of media/press/public/external relations. They are business relationships just like any other, and should be built upon knowledge, familiarity, and trust.
Here are some points I've gleaned in the last several years that I've worked along-side some fantastic PR people. This is not in the least comprehensive, but they represent what I feel to be some of the most important. If you have other thoughts, I'd love to hear them in the comments below.
Do Your Research
Know who you're approaching with press releases. Does this person even write about your field? What have they said about it in the past? What's their journalistic style? Doing some background work ahead of time is well worth your while. And if you don't know who to contact, call the publication or email the site through their contact form and ask.
Hello! I'm about to [insert generic reference to what you're about to do] and want to make sure I send the press release to the appropriate person. Can you let me know who is the best person to contact about [short description of what you're about to do]? What is the best way to send them the information?
As someone who monitors a couple different email buckets (generic emails that are used to send this type of information), I cannot emphasize enough how annoying it is to have people automatically add those addresses to their mailing list. The same goes for auto-adding members of the media to your PR list. Don't do it, and not just because it's against the law! They need to give you their permission first, and there are a couple ways that you can obtain it.
- Send them an email personally or call them and ask. Know their name. Be courteous. Let them know what type of field you're in and how often you anticipate communicating with them. Then ask if you can add them to your mailing list or if there's another email address that should be added.
- If you meet someone in person, ask for their card. As they hand it to you, ask them if you can add them to your mailing list for future updates. You can even prime them a little with a tidbit of upcoming news if you know of something. If they say yes, put a little checkmark on their business card so you remember when you get home or back to the office.
Make it Interesting
The last thing a journalist or writer wants to read is another boring press release. Keep it short and to the point, use language that is engaging and unassuming (no guarantees that they'll LOVE your widget), and give them some great pullquotes. In fact, write the story for them as much as you can. The more work you do for them in advance, the easier it is for them to write about you.
You should always have someone else take a look at your press release not just to proofread it, but also to check for jargon, confusing language, and clarity of purpose. Then include a link to more information on your website and most important of all, how to contact you for more. [see also: PR Pointers from Grist down below]
Make it Personal
Obviously if you're just starting out, you're not going to know anyone. But as you gain experience and start meeting people, you'll be able to put faces (or at least voices) to names, as well as writing styles, pet topics, and more. Pay attention to what that person is writing, even if they don't bit on a lead you sent them. If you see a glowing review or a great article, do some backwards digging and find the press release that inspired them to write about it.
If you can meet them face to face or have occasional phone conversations, you can start to build rapport. The more familiar they are with your business and what you do, the more they will understand each time you send out a press release. Keep track of who you talk to and about what. If you need assistance, there are plenty of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems out there of all sizes and capabilities to track your contacts and conversations.
Don't take it personally if they ignore or reject your pitch! Journalists and bloggers are busy, busy people who get flooded every day with all kinds of crap. You don't know that they've shredded your info and sworn you off forever. It's more likely that they've flagged you to check in on later, subscribed to your blog, or filed you in the back of their mind.
You are Your Own Best Journalist
If you aren't getting the press you think you deserve, then start giving it to yourself. You are the best qualified to write about your work, and sometimes that background and depth of content is what a journalist could pull from when they do decide to write.
Is your website absolutely up to date (this means your About Me page, too)? Do you have a blog? Is your SEO working in your favor? By keeping your content rich and fresh you'll be better prepared when the press come knocking. You'll have trained yourself to talk about yourself (which is a whole other subject entirely).
Do you have a great new product? Are you putting on a killer event? Write about it! Tell your audience why it's significant and different. Filling out your own content not only enriches your website and helps your SEO, it shows that you care about what you do and are knowledgable about your subject matter.
A journalist from Grist takes his rant about PR no-nos public, and to our benefit in PR pointers: How to get me to pay attention to your pitch.
Seth Godin talks about all the things you should consider before sending an email in Email Checklist. Not just good for PR, but good for business relationships, too!
PR isn't rocket science. If you do your research, get permission, keep it relevant, keep it interesting, and keep it personal, and do your part to do your own journalism, you'll be leaps and bounds beyond the eager young minds fresh out of communications school. Keep it real. But above all, remember:
Don't be a pest!