You open your laptop one morning and settle in with a freshly-brewed mug of coffee to start work for the day. It’s going to be an exciting one! Why? You sent out a slew of pitches the day prior and you’re certain you will get interest from major media outlets around the country — and not a moment too soon. A feature story in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times or similar publication would be the win your startup client desperately needs to secure next year’s growth, attract new investors and meet its bottom line for the year. Game changer.
Then you check your email. There are responses from journalists! You open the first one.
“What is this?” one reads.
“Why did you send this to me?” says another.
“I don’t cover sales pitches,” a third writes. The tone oozes irritation.
And the worst?
“This isn’t my beat,” the reporter writes, “and you spelled my name wrong.”
Suddenly, your awesome, feeling-like-a-rock star morning just took a miserable turn. What happened?
It’s likely the appropriate question is: What didn’t happen?
For starters, you didn’t research your journalists or take the time to understand the kind of stories they cover. Your pitch was an inflated, wordy sales document — a cheesy promotional piece — that any reporter, even one fresh out of college, could see through. Beyond that, the information itself was boring. Nobody would care about it, except for you and your client.
What now? It won’t be easy — after all, you still have to answer to your colleagues, your client and your boss, letting them know you haven’t landed any confirmed media interest or coverage. It is, however, a learning opportunity.
PR Horror Stories: Tough Lessons to Learn
Every PR practitioner has made mistakes. No matter your experience level, a publicity mishap can do substantial damage to your reputation and hurt your relationships with media and target audiences. Here, the PR and media relations team at Trust Relations lists 11 mistakes PR pros make and how to avoid them.
1. A Lame Pitch
Pitching is an art. It's also a science. The ability to pitch jaded journalists who have seen it all is a skill that develops over time through practice, attention to detail, well thought-out tactics and an understanding of what reporters look for in a story. In other words, what you think is “newsy” may not be interesting to your target media. It’s important to understand the difference between a media pitch and a sales promotion. Sales promotions typically contain lengthy information and use marketing language better-suited for a Google ad than a PR campaign. On the other hand, too little information will signal to a fact-finding journalist right away that checking the legitimacy of the story will be a major time commitment. Either misstep can be a turn off for most media outlets.
2. Copy Errors. Ugh
There is nothing a journalist can spot faster than a grammar, punctuation or spelling error. If you don’t use AP style in your pitch or press release, they will see that too. Check and double check spelling, word use, punctuation and AP style. Put the draft down for a day and then read it again.Go the extra mile and have a friend or colleague proofread it too. Typically, a pitch or press release that contains mistakes will be ignored, or even called out via email or on social media — a cringe-worthy moment for any PR person.
3. Sending Incorrect Information
Incorrect numbers, misspelled names, or lack of both, is a huge red flag. Provide as much legitimacy and attention to detail as you can in your pitch, and try to whet their appetite for more. Check and recheck your figures, data and other information. A journalist will. If you don’t, your great pitch could make the story take a turn you don’t want it to take — such as your company reporting incorrect financials or investors, for instance.
4. A Too Long (Or Too Short) Pitch Or Press Release
There is a sweet spot; a few lines or a paragraph tops for the pitch, and two pages tops for the press release with boilerplate. Remember, don’t bury the lead! The most important information goes up top. Along those lines, make sure the headline or email subject is just as great as the body of the press release or pitch itself.
5. Targeting National Media Only
Look, everybody wants to land a story in the New York Times or a segment on Good Morning America or CNN. That’s the dream. We all know that top-tier coverage can lead to more website traffic, higher sales, great backlinks, increased brand awareness and credibility, as well as social media shares. While PR campaigns should certainly focus on attracting top journalists covering your industry, , don’t forget about the trades and local press — especially if you’re just starting out. If you’re a small business owner, target your regional news outlets. Pitch the local newspaper, TV stations, radio stations or bloggers. As coverage grows closer to home, so too will your brand credibility. That means when you are ready to pitch national journalists, they’ll Google you and take note of all the media hits your company has secured locally. At the same time, your customers will also notice. Local media will help establish brand awareness in your community and introduce you to new customers.
Keep in mind the best way to get national news coverage is to hire a PR dream team with the right sources, contacts and skill to make it happen for you.
6. Ignoring The Trades
Don’t forget about the trade publications in your relevant industry. They have a ton of clout. Key stakeholders in your industry read or watch these niche outlets and listen closely to what they have to say. Business magazines are often considered both consumer and trade publications. Those are great sources, especially for entrepreneurs.
7. Sending A Mass Email Blast
Don’t do this. It’s lazy and annoying. Volume does not equal results. It typically backfires. Usually companies send these after buying media lists that contain contact email addresses and not much else. They’re often inaccurate and outdated.
We get it: It takes time, energy and the right research to find the proper media outlets and send personal notes to journalists who cover your respective industry. If you personalize a pitch, however, and send it to the person you’re actually targeting, they will notice and appreciate it. And they might cover your story. Even if they don’t, you’re started building a relationship with a reporter that will benefit you, your PR efforts and your brand down the road.
8. Targeting The Wrong Outlets
Do your homework. Find out the trade, consumer and business media outlets covering the type of product or service you sell or the field you’re in. Look for the right reporters who cover a beat that your company would fall into. Don’t just arbitrarily look for the name of an editor and hope they send it out to a reporter desperately looking for a story. This will not work. Journalists — even news interns — are far from starving for something to cover. They are usually bombarded with hundreds of pitches every single week. If you want to stand out, make sure your pitch is going to the right publication and person.
9. Not Being Prepared For Follow-Up
What happens when one of those journalists from yesterday’s pitch comes back to you with questions? (Questions you don’t really know how to answer.)
All PR pros must be ready to answer any questions a reporter might have about the pitch.. Journalists are intelligent and curious; they will research and, honestly, look for holes in your story. You have to be ready. Ever notice when you watch the White House press briefing, how it’s like the press secretary knew exactly what the media was going to ask? Chances are, they did. The best in the industry know exactly what to expect and they have an answer ready. And in the event of a curveball, they have the poise, skill and knowledge to answer the question directly, without side-stepping.
10. Crickets In A Crisis
You don’t have a crisis communications plan. After all, you had no idea you would ever have a PR crisis for one of your clients! But now, people on social media are bashing your client’s product, and all of a sudden things are going viral. You don’t know what to say. Whether it’s online, or when journalists call. Maybe if you stay quiet the whole thing will go away? Nope. It will probably make it worse. You have to react and find a strategic way to communicate the issue and update accordingly. It shows authenticity and willingness to be strong when times are hard. It’s leadership. Stepping up in a crisis and facing the issue head on dissolves any additional concerns and speculation that is ultimately unwarranted.
11. Covering Up Bad News
A PR professional should never, ever lie. Never. Lying or withholding or hiding information is unethical. It also will hurt your company or client in the long run, despite your efforts to do the opposite. The role of a great publicist is to minimize the impact of a negative new story and protect the reputation of the company, brand or client. It’s a tough job, but it’s all in the line of duty as a PR practitioner.
Bottom line? If you’ve royally messed up doing PR, try not to beat yourself up. Making mistakes in public relations can be a good thing if you see them as an opportunity to learn and do better next time. Just don’t do them again.
And remember, a PR agency by your side can prevent these common mishaps — and then some — from happening to your company, startup or brand. That’s reason enough to breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy another cup of coffee. Good luck!