4 Ways to Build Great Reporter Relationships
In the very beginning of my public relations agency days, I remember being taught about the concept of "call-downs": You have a list of reporters, editors, etc. you've already emailed, and it's time to call each and every one of them. I remember asking why, if the person had not responded, it was worth calling them. I was told that they'd possibly not read the email, and that I was to "follow up." When I asked what I should do if I thought they had (perhaps a gut instinct), I was told to call anyway--and effectively bug them until they found the story interesting enough. I remember my first call--a lovely young man who told me in no uncertain terms that the email was boring, I was annoying and then hung up on me.
After huddling in the toilet and sobbing a little, I went back to my desk. I made another call. "Hello, this is..." Click. After a while I stopped--those stories that I closed by calling people were usually done in the same style as teenagers convincing celebrities to go to prom with them. Reporters would agree to talk to my client to get rid of me or because they felt sorry for me, and those were rare breezes in a hurricane of slammed phones and sarcasm. And who could blame them? I was some random guy calling them in the middle of their work day to get them interested in something that I was only interested in because someone was paying me to be.
The irony of the breathless hype of the annoy-the-reporter-into-submission (through email or through phone calls) technique is that it actually dilutes value. Whether you as a business owner are doing it or your PR person is doing it, communicate like a telemarketer, and you will be valued like one.
Here are four ways to build reporter relationships--the right way:
1. Be a person worth knowing.
It's hard to articulate this without being mean, but some PR practitioners do not make an effort to actually be worth talking to. Spend your time reading both the things you need to know and then go so far above and beyond what you need to that you're at least approaching a reporter's breadth of knowledge. Pitching a hardware-focused PC reporter? Know how to put together a PC. Know what Haswell means and why it's important. Many PR people make the mistake of simply learning enough--you should do your damndest to reach a reporter's level of interest and know-how. This will make you worth talking to as a PR person, and better at getting a reporter's interest--because you'll have a realistic understanding of the importance of your client.
2. When you meet them, don't talk about your clients.
When I meet a reporter, I do everything I can to avoid talking about my clients unless specifically asked. Just like being on a date and not immediately asking if you'd like to copulate, you should use some self-restraint and not start listing your clients. This is, of course, unless you're specifically asked. But if you're meeting with a reporter, the goal is to establish a relationship. You are effectively separating yourself from the pack of "me me me" PR people. To the average reporter, most PR people want to use them. Your number one goal is essentially to become friends. You may get a story. You may not. You now know a cool human being who could professionally help you. The end.
3. Talk to them where they want to be talked to. (It's probably not the phone.)
My number one way of communicating with reporters is instant messenger, followed by email, followed by almost nowhere else. Two reporters in six years have said, "Call me if you need me. Don't email." Three have said, "Text me," after knowing them for years. The rest have mostly said, "Don't ever call me, ever," and that sentiment has been drummed into me repeatedly. Many PR people ignore this, believing that harassing a reporter into doing what they want is a good way of working. It isn't. If they want to talk to you in a particular way, use that channel: If they don't write about your client, it's because they don't like it. And that moves neatly into my next point...
4. Don't get offended if they won't cover your client.
I've heard plenty of PR people over the years say that a reporter is "dumb" or "wrong" or "stupid" for not covering their client. If you're saying the same thing, apply the adjectives to yourself instead, because reporters aren't obligated to write about what you want them to write about. It's their job to write what they or their editors want them to write, for their audience. If you can't get them something that fits that, that's your bad, not theirs. Sometimes--even if it is a good fit--you're just not fitting into what they're doing at that particular time. In none of these cases are they wrong, 'they simply aren't doing what you want. Think of Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo's He's Just Not That Into You. It explains how sometimes people just simply don't like you that way, not because they're dumb, or wrong, or silly, or incorrect, but because they just don't. Take this into account with every pitch you make.