Fellow journalists, how do you deal with PR companies?
February 9, 2019 8:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for better ways to manage the overwhelming number of pitches I get each day and not miss the tiny percentage I'm actually interested in. I'm looking for suggestions both for sorting through pitches and how to interact with the PR people contacting me. (I read last year that there are now six PR people for each journalist, and it feels like it.)

I feel like I don't have time to read the dozens of pitches (often more than 100) I get each day. I'm just looking for general suggestions, but these are a few things on my mind for each category of pitch:
1. Some are clearly not a fit. I try to respond to these when I have time, with a short canned response explaining what I cover, because if I don't respond, I could get five or six followup emails. Do you bother answering this type of pitch?
2. Some are relevant but not interesting, and when I reject them, they almost always ask for feedback. I usually ignore these requests or explain I don't have time to answer, but do you think it's useful to actually give feedback? How much do you engage with PR people outside of what's necessary for a particular story? I'm always getting requests to meet for coffee, etc. I don't really have time and it also feels a little unprofessional to have a relationship that's too cozy, but have you ever found value in this? By the same token, if you write about companies, do you ever meet with them in person just to discuss what you're interested in and what they're working on? It's true that I do occasionally get good stories because someone is very familiar with what I would cover.
3. A minority of pitches are interesting and I reply as soon as I can (assuming that they haven't been lost in the sea of all of the other emails), but a larger number are maybes. If the email is very long or they're sharing a report, or if I'm just on the fence for some other reason, I tend to star the emails to come back to, but rarely do. Do you have a better method for organizing potential stories so you don't forget about them?
posted by pinochiette to Work & Money (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Former journalist here. Part of the problem is many if not most PR people get paid for press releases by the pound. You are not the client; they need something to demonstrate that they should be paid, and that is usually a gazillion press releases sent to hapless journalists such as yourself that have little to do with what you cover.

I actually found it useful to talk to PR people because they would prefer to get an actual published article out of you rather than something close but not a good fit. You aren’t obligated and you don’t owe anyone a meeting for coffee or lunch or whatever. But the best PR people who I worked with were people who genuinely cared about what I was going to cover and worked hard to help me do my job while doing their own. If it feels like a conflict of interest then you don’t need to meet with them, but for me it wasn’t a conflict of interest because it was not anything other than a professional relationship. PR people can be super helpful if they’re good at what they do and if you talk to them. I nearly drowned under the weight of press releases and pitches back in the day, so I feel for you, truly.
posted by Bella Donna at 9:48 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

For stuff that's clearly not a good fit, I would just ignore. If the people sending you this stuff can't
be bothered to at least figure out what general kind of work you do, why should that be your problem? Someone a few questions down mentioned that their response to "spray and pray" from PR firms is just no response at all, and I think that's how you should handle that tier of triage as well. If you have e.g. a medical beat and people are sending you press releases about e.g. a new restaurant that opened up downtown, just click Archive and move on.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:30 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

You could triage messages by setting up an auto-response email that includes a link to a free Google or survey monkey form for them to submit stories. Don't respond to anyone who doesn't use the form. Add some friendly text to the form entry page about you not being able to get back to everyone but you'll be in touch if the story is of interest.

Make the form short and easy to complete, eg:

- a selection field populated with the topics you cover
- PR's name & company
- contact details (email or phone, whatever works for you).

You could include an upload file (or paste text) field if they have a press release ready to go, and include a field for general comments too.

You can then skim through the form submissions online and respond from there if of interest. It won't cut down on the general bulk of stuff but it should make it easier to sort the wheat from the chaff without having to contact everyone directly yourself.
posted by freya_lamb at 10:51 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]

Ooh - and add an "expected publish date" field too so you can filter for scheduling requirements.
posted by freya_lamb at 11:05 AM on February 9

Ditto on the web form idea.

One point for forms is that a well-composed one can share what your expectations are with people going in. It’s not just a data gathering practice, but also an expectation-setting one.

For example, asking questions like “how much is your budget?” communicates that you do have a budget in mind — and will help filter out those tho don’t have a budget, or at least set expectations around budgets. Or “how does your pitch relate to widget-making” communicates your journalistic focus on widgets, etc.
posted by suedehead at 12:13 PM on February 9

Ex-journalist, PR-person here, in Europe.
Our success is measured in actual clippings in reputable media. We are extremely interested in sending you the things you actually want to write about, but also often don’t know on what you base your decisions - what is a story to you in particular. (Eventually, if the PR person has a beat and the journalist does, too, you run into each other enough that the predictive abilities improve.)

We send out press releases to hundreds of journalists, then follow up by telephone with the ones with whom we expect the best chances of success. Many times, you just get a press release to keep the name of the company in your mind or keep you up to date, not to get a response.

As a journalist, I only ever replied to the ones I was explicitly interested in and deleted the rest. Sometimes I’d save the email if I thought I could use the person for a different article. If I got called, I would explain what I would need to make this „a story“. I tried to be nice about it. Often PR reps would call me, asking if I‘d seen their email. I would say no, and feel embarassed, but they were always super nice about sending it again. They don‘t actually care.

My suggestion is:
When asked in person, be explicit about y/n. They‘re often required to persist till they get a „no“.
PR is full of young people with little experience. Be short but helpful towards newbs about what you need/don‘t need.
If you get a PR pro who really seems to understand what you need, use them. Like, ask them for data and numbers to flesh out your research, ask for help with recommending more interviewees etc. A lot of us who know our stuff enjoy being asked to help research things!
posted by Omnomnom at 12:24 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]

Did PR work for a bit. One of the things you might look into is getting your email removed from the big PR media contact databases (Cision and Meltwater are two the big ones I know of).

When I was doing journalism and getting TONS of totally irrelevant spammy pitches I started blocking those email domains -- if an organization's policy is to totally indiscriminately send pitches about cool new socks to a reporter who covers the local education beat, for example, that's probably not a good indicator that I'm going to get something relevant from them compared to mountains of irrelevant garbage.
posted by forkisbetter at 1:10 PM on February 9

I'm a PR-ish person, I wouldn't expect to get a response to a press release unless you were writing a story about it and you had some follow up questions. I would respond to follow up questions by the deadline you gave me with the information you requested, or a further statement, or an explanation about why I can't do so. We send out a lot of press releases to people about things they don't write stories about, but we have a smaller group of journalists who regularly write stories based on our press releases. We might meet journalists in that second group once a year for coffee, maybe less often.
posted by plonkee at 2:41 PM on February 9

Delete on receipt everything in categories 1 and 2 without responding. You don't owe them a reply, even a short canned one. They're sending this to scores of people hoping one will bite, they're not sitting in their office feeling sad that pinochiette didn't reply. Delete the follow-ups too - it takes half a second when you recognise their name hitting your inbox again to hit delete. Don't waste your time on giving them feedback or teaching them how to do their job. Even one sentence of feedback, multiplied by say 40 emails, and you could have written a story. Unless journalism's changed drastically since I left it, you don't have time to do anything other than fill the paper, certainly not to go doing kindnesses to people who bombard you with emails that are one step away from spam.

In terms of going for coffee, it kind of depends how much time you have spare. In the days when there was a little more money sloshing around the industry and therefore little more time available (because we had sufficient reporters), I'd go for coffee occasionally with PR people if they sounded from their initial approach that they might have genuine human interest stories for me (in fact, one of those was how I landed my current job - walked away from coffee thinking what a great job she had, and when I later heard from her boss that she'd left, I pounced). But most of the people I went for coffee with were 'real' people from the community who could potentially bring me a whole variety of stories, not PR people who were laser-focussed on the one thing they were paid to promote.

I do see you mention writing about companies though, so YMMV if you're a different kind of journalist from me - I was a news reporter.
posted by penguin pie at 3:25 PM on February 9

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