5 mistakes PR pros make when pitching journalists

Guest post by Carly Weeks, health reporter with The Globe and Mail.

If you were applying for a job and spelled the contact person's name incorrectly, inserted the wrong organization name in the cover letter or didn't have any of the qualifications specified in the job posting, you probably wouldn't be surprised if you didn't get called for an interview.

Why, then, are so many PR people shocked when they make the same types of mistakes in their pitches to journalists and they fail to generate interest or media coverage?

Let me preface this by saying there are plenty of accomplished, professional and well-organized PR professionals who deliver great ideas and understand the needs and deadlines of journalists. 

But all too often, the pitches I receive from PR shops are misguided, inappropriate...even non-sensical. And as someone who receives hundreds of e-mails each week that are competing for my attention, I can tell you that the pitches that make these common (but easily preventable) mistakes are the ones that get me to hit 'delete'. 

To avoid becoming a trash bin casualty, here are five of the most irritating mistakes PR professionals make when pitching journalists -- and how to avoid them:

1. Not having a clue who I am, where I work or what I write about: It's a rule so fundamental it should go without saying. Yet, every day, my inbox is cluttered with pitches from PR professionals who call me by the wrong name, don't understand what publication I work for or are not familiar with the subject matter I write about. To be honest, getting my name wrong isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. It does, however, let me know that the PR person isn't very detail-oriented and that they like to 'copy and paste' a lot. But if the pitch is worth pursuing, I'll go after it despite those unprofessional mistakes. I feel a lot less generous toward PR pros who pitch me on subject areas that I have not, and likely will never, write about. Gee...wouldn't it be great if there was some kind of public forum where PR people could view examples of journalists' work to help get a better understanding of how their pitches should be directed? 

Solution: Do your homework. If I'm a health writer, don't send me a breathless news release about the hottest trends in summer beach bags (yes, a real example). I'm guessing that if you focus more on the details and honing in on the right journalist, your pitching success rate has only one place to go: Up.

2. Inbox and phone bombing: Does it seem like a good use of time to phone a journalist 30 seconds after e-mailing a news release to see if he or she received it? Apparently it does, because it happens all the time. I have news for you: E-mail is an amazing tool that delivers messages to recipients; no follow-up is required. If I am interested in pursuing a pitch, you will be hearing from me. 

Solution: Even if you're convinced your pitch is the biggest news story of the year, be respectful of schedules and deadlines. A polite follow-up e-mail could send the message that you're eagerly awaiting a response, but quite often, the best course of action is to make your pitch the best you possibly can and wait to see who picks up on it.

3. Assuming we're best friends: I once had a PR executive write me a frantic e-mail saying she had a meeting with clients the next day and desperately needed to know what it would take to convince me to write about yogurt. I've never met the woman and was utterly confused by the request. To this day, I can't help but feel a measure of skepticism anytime she sends me a pitch. I have many friends in the PR industry and think it's great when any working relationship can be injected wtih friendly banter. But that doesn't mean PR executives should let their professional guard down. My closest friends in the PR industry are all business when it comes to doing their jobs and, when necessary, providing me with what I need to do my job.

Solution: Maintain a level of professionalism, courtesy and respect with journalists, the same way you would with colleagues.

4. Failing to deliver the goods: You know what's fun? Following up on a PR pitch shortly after it's sent, only to be told the spokesperson is out of the country until next week. "Surely, this has never happened," you might be thinking. But it does. More often than you might think.

Solution: If you are going to go to the trouble to write up a press release and flag it to journalists, it only makes sense to make sure follow-through is possible.

5. Getting angry: So your pitch was successful! You go to check out the story to see the results of your hard work in the media... Only, you're surprised by what you see. The journalist took the story in a different direction, one that doesn't highlight your organization properly or portray it in the best light. What to do?

a.) Call the journalist and complain

b.) Write a nasty e-mail to all of the editors who work for the media organization, complete with colourful descriptions of the journalist in question

c.) A combination of a.) and b.) 

d.) None of the above

If you've answered a.), b.) or c.), I have some news for you: Probably not the best long-term approach. Sure, it might seem like a good idea at the time, but it could also damage working relationships and it likely won't do your organization any favours. There are several notable exceptions, of course, such as when legitimate errors are included in a story. Many journalists may also be happy to take a few minutes for a post-mortem and talk about why the story went in a particular direction. But the media is a dynamic beast; you take a risk when pitching stories and connecting with journalists. If you want 100% control over your content, call the advertising department. 

Solution: The best thing you can do is to know your messages and prepare your spokespeople. As a journalist, I'm going to do the job the best I can, but that doesn't mean I'm going to use your carefully-crafted messages verbatim or frame the story exactly the way you'd like. Journalists are tasked with presenting the most compelling stories to our audiences, not simply to portray your organization the way you want.

To the reporters out there. Is there anything you would add to this list? Or to the PR folks, is there anything about journalists that drives you crazy?