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Media Relations Through the Eyes of a Reporter

Elisabeth O'Donnell

Elisabeth O'Donnell

Ever wonder what the reporter on the other side of your pitch is thinking? How long do they want you to wait to follow-up? Did you make it clear you studied their background – or is the funny tidbit you got from an old social post a bit too stalker-esque?

Luckily, I got the scoop from reporter turned Content Manager Lizzy Snell. Lizzy wrote for multiple publications for nearly nine years before joining us. Most recently she covered privacy and security for an online healthcare pub. She shared pitch horror stories, as well as the plus side of building relationships with PR people.

Can you estimate how many pitches you used to receive daily?

Probably around 10 to 15 email pitches on a normal day, but at least half would be generic pitches: either straight press releases or pitches that are clearly done with a “spray and pray” mindset. Leading up to large events, like HIMSS, the number could double. Even genuine pitches weren’t always applicable because the topic wouldn’t be on-point or they’d be offering vendors only.

Phone calls were rarely straight pitches – they were usually follow-ups. If someone tried to pitch over the phone, I would usually ask for email because it’s easier to physically see all the information.

Since my coverage was very niche, it was always really important for me to know if someone did their research – not just pitching healthcare topics, but having a privacy and security focus. Take that extra little step.

What made pitches stand out among the crowd?

Red flags: Obviously generic pitches. Saying things like “Hi [Your name],” instead of my name or just reading “Hello” as a greeting. I’ve also received pitches where they get my name right, but then link to a story that’s not mine, with the tie-in of “I loved your recent story…” I’ve also been called Kevin before.

Shining stars: When the PR person has definitely done his or her research. They get my name right (so simple, but so important!), show knowledge on the topic being pitched and my outlet. It’s also important to show you’re listening. If I say that I need a customer – I need a customer. Everyone has a job to do, and while it is important to try and push to get your client media attention, it’s not uncommon for media to need an end-user or a customer – not another vendor. Finding ways to work with the reporter goes a long way in building rapport and establishing a solid working relationship.

Do you remember any specific horror stories?

One time a woman was clearly just trying to do some research and “connect” with me to make her pitch stand out – totally fine and understandable. In her initial email she made a comment about “finding another crazy cat lady!” I was extremely confused because I do not own a cat. I do love cats but…how did she know this?

Apparently, she scoured through my personal Twitter account (since made private) and found a photo I posted of my old roommate’s cat. What was meant to be endearing, actually just came off as creepy.

When you’re in the early stages of connecting, stick to what the reporter has written. What does his or her collection of bylines tell you? Show that you read what they write so you can demonstrate how your story will truly add to their coverage.

What is the best amount of time to wait between follow-ups?

It depends on the type of story. Obviously, for breaking news you want to push a bit more and try to beat others to the punch. Faster follow-ups, maybe after just a few hours, make more sense in that scenario.

For more evergreen topics, or things without a harsh deadline, a one-week follow up might make sense. There’s really not one hard and fast rule. But, waiting only five minutes after you send an email to then call and ask “Did you get my email?” can be a bit much. (This totally happened, on more than one occasion).

What is the single most important thing for PR people to do to foster good relationships with reporters?

Treat them like humans! This definitely goes both ways – I cringe every time I see journalists behaving badly and being unnecessarily rude to PR people. Just be polite, show you’ve done your research, and understand that things do get lost in the shuffle sometimes. Larger organizations will get even more pitches than I got, so it’s very possible your pitch got pushed to the bottom of the inbox.

Also, keep tabs on the reporters you want to eventually pitch to for your clients – within reason! Follow their professional social media accounts: see what topics they’re Tweeting about, what stories they’re writing, who else they’re talking to. Send a quick note on a particular story you liked and tell them “Great job!” or “Super interesting angle!” No need to mention a client, just show them that you’re paying attention and have an interest in the space. This helps them remember you when you do eventually pitch something, and they’ll know you know the industry.

What did you like about working with PR people?

I loved building relationships! Reporters want solid, dependable sources. I definitely was able to build up a repertoire of PR people to count on for a quick expert quote/opinion on breaking news, or someone to provide in-depth information for a larger researched piece. These were people who brought me a great story at some point and stayed reliable. They made sure interviews took place, they followed up (within reason) to make sure sources came through for me, and they followed my professional social media accounts and continuously proved themselves as knowledgeable. It made me trust them as true partners.

Want to be a true partner to journalists covering important and exciting tech? We’re hiring! Get in touch.