Each month we have been reaching out to journalists and media professionals to chat with them about their experiences in the industry. For this month’s ‘Questions for Journalists’ we spoke with Jeff Vance, journalist and content-marketing consultant who writes for Wired, Forbes, Network World, CIO, Datamation, and Startups50.com.
What does an ideal pitch look like?
I’ve stopped reading unsolicited pitches. They still show up in my inbox and probably always will, but there is simply no way to keep up with the nonstop flood – especially since reading them just piles up the non-billable hours. And the signal-to-noise ratio in unsolicited pitches is pretty close to zero.
Better to just ignore them.
Here’s the thing: pitch quality has been degrading, badly, for years. I started covering tech trends in 1999, and the quality of the pitches I’ve seen in the intervening years has been steadily dropping.
There are a number of reasons, but one major overlooked culprit is the media itself. All of the media consolidation, the gutting of newsrooms, the loss of institutional knowledge, the listcicles, the focus on traffic above all else, the click-bait Upworthy-style dreck – all of the things that are eroding good journalism are also chipping away at PR best practices.
In that environment, most pitches fail, and you never know why, so the only logical thing to do is to shotgun out your pitches. It’s not a winning strategy, but there’s a logic to it. I get it.
Journalism is in a state of disarray, and so PR, which has its own set of issues, is trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with the media, and vice versa. My response to all of this is to set up clear boundaries. You can still send me unsolicited pitches, but the vast majority will just end up in my junk folder and stay there.
However, in the age of automation and AI, it’s possible to start experimenting with alternatives.
My first experiment, my Story Source Newsletter, was my reaction to the problems I had with HARO, ProfNet, and other similar services. Why let HARO dictate the process for me when I can better tailor it to my needs and the needs of my editors? Now, through Story Source, I exclusively announce my upcoming stories there, and I tell you exactly how to pitch me. I spell out what I want, whom I want to talk to (vendors, end users, thought leaders, etc.), and what to put in the subject line to get past my filters.
For my site Startup50, I have a slightly different process in place. I have a Recommend a Startup form, and you absolutely must fill that out before I’ll even glance at your startup.
What I’m trying to do is to disrupt a broken system, and one way to do that is to push the people trying to get coverage into better communications methods. I’m not trying to make life difficult for PR pros, and I’m not making you jump through hoops for the hell of it. Rather, I’m asking: Can you follow directions? Can I count on you to deliver what you say you will? Are you able to separate the substance of your client’s value proposition out from their self-serving spin? Are you invested enough in getting coverage from me to fill out the form thoughtfully, or do you just cut and paste boilerplate?
What advice would you give to PR professionals about working with journalists?
Help first, pitch second.
I really don’t care about your “cutting-edge,” “groundbreaking,” or “revolutionary” story idea because I get that pitch all the time, and 99% fail to deliver.
You know what I do notice, though? I notice when people are invested in my success. I notice when PR pros retweet my tweets. I notice when they comment on my stories. I notice when they share my stories through their own networks.
Learn the rule of reciprocity. It’s your friend. The rule of reciprocity says that if I do you a favor, you’ll be compelled to do a favor for me in return. This is why so many direct mail campaigns include some sort of gift, whether it’s address labels or a dollar bill or a desk calendar. This is why grocery stores have free sample tables. It’s why magazines run forced free trials.
The idea is to set the rule of reciprocity in motion because we humans are social creatures who are hard-wired to return favors.
Filling my inbox up with unsolicited pitches is not doing me any favors. In fact, it’s hitting the wrong triggers because it’s an unwanted interruption, especially when you follow-up with whiny “did you get my email” messages. Journalists don’t have time to respond to even a tenth of the pitches we get.
So, target first. Help first. Pitch later.
Even then, however, 9 times out of 10 you’re still going to have to jump through my hoops – and you should want to. You could put together a great pitch on, I don’t know, let’s say Big Data, a topic I cover often, and if I don’t have a relevant assignment in hand, you’re just wasting your time.
How do you think journalism will evolve in the next 5 or 10 years, and what does PR need to know about that evolution?
I think in coming years you’ll see many more journalists bucking the conventional way of doing things. You’re already seeing this, whether it’s something like Vice, the Intercept, WikiLeaks, the much-maligned Upworthy, the explosion of podcasts, or what I’m doing. It’s getting easier for an independent to tap into tech tools and other resources that not so long ago, you’d only have access to in a much larger organization. Add in outsourcing and automation, and you’re going to see accelerating change.
Due to all of the downward pressures on journalists, the ones who are going to survive will have to become way more efficient and innovative.
For PR to keep up with shifting media trends, PR will need to stay on top of how journalists’ working habits are changing, how journalists interact on social media, how they promote their own stories, how they engage with their own audiences, etc.
PR should probably hire in-house anthropologists to study the behaviors of the media. And I’m only half-joking about that. This root cause of so many failing pitches is that they focus on pleasing the wrong audience. When you pitch me your audience is me first. If you’re trying to make your client happy rather than me, your pitch probably sucks. You need to bring your client’s expectations and my needs as a journalist into alignment. And you should also remember that my audience is my editor, and my editor’s audience is the publication’s readers.
If you can’t figure out how to position your pitch to serve that extended chain of audiences, you’ll fail.
I understand that you have pressures from your clients, often unreasonable and unrealistic pressures, but that’s your problem, not mine, and you can’t outsource it to me. I won’t let you. You need to work to train your clients to tell better stories and to line up the evidence to back those stories up.
That’s what journalists want, after all: good stories. That hasn’t changed.
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