PR Pros: Flack Attack or a Story Only a Reporter Could Love?

Cruising the Internet one night I ended up on Stephen Wildstrom’s Web page. He’s been the Technology & You columnist for years at BusinessWeek. On his “For PR Folks” page, Steve provides all the pointers he wants PR people to abide by when pitching and contacting him.

In it he says, “I guess they teach you in flack school to begin every conversation by asking, ‘Is this a good time?’ or ‘Are you on deadline?’ It’s just annoying.”

He said FLACK School!

I’ve always hated the term flack, but that’s what a lot of PR people have become—flack that journalists must fly through to survive. Why is that? I suspect it’s two things:

  • First, I believe there is too much emphasis on getting through a media list in a call down. Journalists literally drown in a sea of emails, voicemails, and phone calls each day from a crew of cold calling sales people posing as PR professionals. If we were to look at the email inboxes of journalists we would literally see hundreds of pitches—most of them lame! Flack! Nearly all are dumped in the trash, including the handful of great pitches they should read.
  • Second, a lot of PR people have never been a journalist. You can see it in the way they pitch, in the way they talk to the press, in the way they write. I’m convinced in most cases you cannot be a good PR pro unless you’ve been on a desk, covered a beat on deadline, and been pitched by PR people. You have to do it! You can’t pitch good stories unless you know what a good story is and how that story should be given to a journalist.

What’s the solution? Go be a journalist. Freelance as an unpaid journalist for a community newspaper. Write for the newsletter at your church or favorite non-profit organization. Get a job as a journalist. Take journalism classes in college seriously. Write everything in inverted pyramid following the AP Style guide. Get an AP style guide.

Most importantly, don’t just go through a media list. Find the top 10 most influential reporters for the story you’re pitching and craft your pitch directly to them. Consider their audience first, the reporter’s interest second (but don’t tell the reporter that). If you pitch items of interest to the audience, the reporter will be interested. Have news, have an angle, and have experts ready to speak. Prepare the story as if you are the reporter. If you do, your relationships with reporters will grow. When you get a reporter on the phone, get to the point quickly.

Back to Wildstrom. I’ve been pitching Steve for 14 years now. He will answer my emails and take my calls. The reason? I always have a story for him that is worth his time to look at. If I don’t, I don’t call. He knows that too. More times than not we end up in his office for a demonstration and interview following a simple, good pitch.

Don’t be a PR flack. Be a PR pro—a reporter. As a reporter you will influence a reporter.