Won't anyone think of the phone calls?

31 October 2007

Chris Anderson's decision to post online the email addresses of PRs who decided that the editor-of-chief of a heavily staffed magazine was the obvious place to start with getting a launch covered made sure his anguish got noticed. It drew someone else who revealed that they have started to quietly blacklist PR emails. There could be a lot more of those people.

In the distance, a low rumble accompanies the law of unintended consequences grinding into action.

Here is the problem. People who think bypassing section editors to pitch the editor-in-chief of any book using his or her named email address aren't suddenly going to get a clue because their own email addresses are now online ready for any passing spam harvester. However, what they will be aware of is a large number of messages underneath the original post saying: "Pick up the phone, build a relationship."

What they will understand is the first bit: "Pick up the phone..." I can say with certainty that a dull, misdirected pitch delivered by email is ten times worse delivered by phone. Emails are easy to kill. Phone calls are another matter.

My opinion may differ radically from that of other hacks - a lot will depend on areas of coverage - but the last thing I want is someone ringing me up to "build a relationship" before they actually have anything to sell. I'm much more interested in seeing how people deliver straightaway. Yes, this can mean missing out on some tips, but there just isn't the time available now to get to know every single PR I might encounter. The good news is that you can often tell how well people will deliver from the emails they send you.

Put it this way, if PRs send you releases as Word documents with massive attached pictures and kick off the email with a phrase like "Please quote reference number 3664 when inquiring about this release" (I'm not kidding), these people will be useless when asked for anything that isn't attached to that email.

In the case of a pitch, if it kicks off with "Have you heard about...?" the chances are that it's a candidate for the round filing cabinet.

Before anyone rushes off to alter the phrasing on their gestating pitch, think about what the rest of the message might contain. The chances are that if I have heard about whatever it is, I'm not going to be surprised. No surprise equals no news. And if I haven't heard about it, but someone is asking whether I might have, then it can't be news because clearly other people have heard about it. The tone of the pitch is a clear signal that the writer of that email is not going to be on top of the subject they are trying to pitch - they are writing to me because they just heard about it and think everyone else is at the same point.

Now, consider what journalists are saying when they say they are happy to blacklist. In the past, you would be loathe to do that even for the worst PRs, just in case they do manage to teach a horse to sing. Not anymore. Ignoring the torrent of stuff pouring out of the PR firehose is now a worthwhile strategy for magazines. Unless you are covering product launches heavily, the bulk of unsolicited pitches are worse than useless as they take time to process. Blacklisting the worst can liberate some time and let you focus on attention on those that will provide a return. For my part, I finally stopped fishing releases caught in the Entourage spam filter a few months back.

But, really, even when you're getting 300 of these a day, it's better than getting that many phone calls*. Making email more unreliable from the perspective of the PR is only going to make an editor's life worse. We've only just weaned most PRs off the habit of ringing up to ask "did you get our press release". Blacklists will only bring those people back. But the appearance of the blacklist is perhaps the strongest indicator we have that conventional press relations just died.

* All things are relative. I have the luxury of managing my own email, which allows me to have a 2GB-plus database. People working in offices often have much smaller limits to deal with. Having to go through their inbox frequently to stop Exchange backing up is enough to send you over the edge. The phone might be preferable.

10 Comments

Chris,
This is a very good point as many reporters/editors have notes on their site saying 'don't call, use email.'

It used to be, you had a good idea of deadlines based on the type of publication, ie you knew when not to call weekly IT trade publications etc.

For the most part that's gone out the window as people are always on deadline now.

So, if we don't call, we don't email.....should we knock?

In my case, email generally works best unless someone needs an answer right now or needs to check something out very quickly. But that presupposes I'm available right there and then. I think most people will end up settling down back to email or possibly IM until the two industries find another way of working together.

My preference is to push everything that is not personalised to me down the RSS route. I want to be able to subscribe and unsubcribe to press release lists at will, not rely on other people to do that for me as that is too unreliable. It might even be worth introducing personalised 'channels' for hacks and bloggers using RSS.

With luck, that will reduce pressure on the email inbox. However, we have to plan for the worst not the best. With the worst PRs, no amount of telling them to change their ways will stop them. That's way it's been for years.

Then you have the issue that people will move to RSS or something like that at different rates. And I'm sure I've missed a flaw in that plan anyway.

"The chances are that if I have heard about whatever it is, I'm not going to be surprised. No surprise equals no news. And if I haven't heard about it, then it can't be news because clearly other people have heard about it."

What would constitute to being news to you Chris?

Tim,

I think you've missed the point - I'm talking about pitch emails that kick off with "have you heard about...?" There are implicit assumptions in anything that begins that way.

Anyone who knows they have news won't start an email like that (or at least I can't think of a good reason why they should).

I'll alter the phrasing to make it clearer as it looks as though there's a bit missing from the passage that might have caused the confusion.

I think the phrase "Pick up the phone...." is a bad idea. "...build a relationship" is a great idea. There are editors that like being contacted by phone, those that like email, some that like IM, some that will only use a mobile phone and some that like talking via blog comments. Out job as PRs is to know what is what. the only time it is appropriate to call an editor in chief is when you aren't quite sure what section editor is appropriate or when you are trying to establish a relationship... or when you have tickets to their favorite sportingt event. EiC's are not to be pitched on story ideas.

Good point Lou and it would be great - just like it would be great if we knew exactly what the journalist wanted at any given time. I'm not being sarcastic, it is just that it is impossible (certainly for the newer PROs like myself) to ascertain which journalist wants what and by which channel. I'd love it if i could just bang out an e-mail and if they like it they would get back to me but so far this has rarely occured.

Chris regarding RSS, Rainier Pr tried it for a while with very little success. It would be fantastic if journalists subscribed to our RSS and followed up on the stories they liked. but we all know that there's not that many and so being reminded is the only way.

This doesn't reflect on the other more experienced people at my compnay - just me. Some are shit hot at journalist relations.

The point is PRs need to understand the news value of the story and know which journalist it will appeal to. Then send it only to those individuals.

That, in a nutshell, is what media relations is all about.

Get either side of that equation wrong and you end up with spam.

Tim,

The first question is a post in itself. In fact, it's a lot of posts. I've got a couple from last year still sitting in drafts in MarsEdit that never got published because I didn't really want to turn this blog into a set of PR whinges. I'll dust them off.

In the meantime, try this guy. He's written about why certain releases hit a Vegas travel book. I noticed it because he uses a phrase that I use in this context: "the stars aligned". That, in a nutshell, is why a hack will run with a story. Second guessing that is something of an art-form, which is why we've tolerated huge piles of releases for years. It's only recently that the noise-to-signal ratio has gone through the roof that it has become worth considering blocking most incoming releases.

On the RSS thing. I had no idea Rainier was doing that. That might be because the company doesn't have many clients that I deal with on a regular basis. So, I'm not sure what the feed was for. If it was for client releases, it probably wouldn't work as I want to be able to select release feeds on a company-by-company basis. If it was doing something else, that might have been interesting but I didn't know about it. And, as I say, I would prefer to go down the RSS route. I can't speak for anyone else.

On replying to emails. Sorry, but unless it demands an instant response, it's probably just never going to happen. A lot of the time, you just don't have a hard reason for not running with something other than a niggling feeling that it just won't work. and then the next pile of stuff arrives. The things that do work, people will be onto you in seconds (just as long as it didn't get buried under a pile of releases about electronic desk organisers and brightly coloured cable ties). That's the way it is.

If there was a surefire way of blocking the irrelevant stuff and only letting the relevant pitches through, people would be using it now. And a few more replies would be coming back. But there isn't.

Thanks for that. i'll put it on my RSS feeds.

Hey Chris,

I don't want anyone to get to confused. I employed the "stars align" line as an example why it is near impossible to second guess editors — so don't bother flooding them with e-mails on the off chance there is something in your release that happens to fit. You may as well play MegaBucks, but the PR payoff is less and the risk is higher.

I also use it because while wearing the the PR hat, I was part of a media event for the opening of a private school in Vegas a few years ago. The media was very excited about it, because the education system here sucks, it had three times higher tuition, the Gov. was speaking at the event (and he had been unavailable for a few weeks), etc. But the media never showed because ... the first 'Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire' couple decided to get a divorce and the reporters were all at the courthouse.

It happens.

Anyway, I sold the publication in 2003. What you might appreciate is that we still receive releases for it. Great point on the phone calls though. If I had to choose between the two ... e-mails are always better. Actual news, that sure is nice.

Best,
Rich

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