Fireside / November 2013

What Works – and Doesn’t Work – When Pitching Tech Journalists

In more than a decade of technology journalism, I read – or scanned – hundreds of emails from PR agencies. Why was one pitch any more successful than another?

A PR rep always had a better chance of connecting if the pitch aligned with my current tasks. So being aware of what was on my plate helped. In that sense, I agree with former New York Times technology writer David Pogue, who recently blogged: “Rule #1 for PR folks: Know your target.”

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles_FreeDigitalPhotosThree Things to Avoid

There’s another angle to Pogue’s know-your-target rule. He thinks that if PR reps did their homework, they would be aware of his pet peeves, which include buzzwords. But Pogue also contends that buzzwords are a “universal pet peeve” among tech writers, which points to a broader rule.

Professional writers dislike bad writing. Most PR pros get that, and so they work hard to clarify their pitches and related press releases. But it never hurts to remind. What follows is a quick look at three elements of bad PR style: overused marketing lingo, unsupported superlatives and gratuitous adverbs

  • Buzzwords. Which words bug which writers will vary. A mass-market journalist may put a word like WiFi on the black list, as Pogue did in 2008. A trade journalist will be OK with the jargon – but will want to know which version of the IEEE 802.11 (WiFi) spec a vendor is promoting. The problem is imprecision. Take the classic “end-to-end solution.” Which ends? Where are they? And who owns them – vendor or service provider? As for solution, that word is ambiguous. Does the solution involve software, IP routers, optical transport – what is it precisely?
  • Superlatives. Whether by nature, training or learned experience, writers tend to be a skeptical crowd. Calling your end-to-end solution the “best” is the equivalent of a dare. You’re the first? Fastest? Most reliable? OK, prove it. Journalists may have little time to follow up, but if you want to win their trust, avoid goading them into second-guessing you. If you are breaking new ground, let the facts speak for themselves. 
  • Adverbs. So your end-to-end solution “seamlessly” or “successfully” integrates with something else. That’s not surprising. Could it have integrated in any other way, say “defectively”? Adverbs such as “extremely” or “significantly” beg the same question as superlatives: can you back that up or prove it, please? The list of empty and superfluous adverbs goes on. In a random sample of recent pitches and press releases, I stumbled upon the following: positively, highly, especially, readily, clearly and cleanly. Were any necessary? Don’t think so.

Pitches and content marketing

Journalists are a special case. An editor may be vexed by words that could win over a prospective customer. After all, getting a prospect’s attention traditionally has called for copy that builds enthusiasm and excitement – even hype. But that tradition is changing.

Content marketing – a topic for another day – calls for the kind of precise, factual and clear language that passes high editorial standards. In that model, a compelling pitch to a business prospect resembles a persuasive pitch to a journalist.

 

Reporting in the Social Era: Takeaways from Leading Biz Journalists

I recently attended a PRSA – National Capital Chapter Professional Development session at the new National Public Radio (NPR) headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Five leading journalists from top-tier national and D.C.-based publications offered their perspectives on how PR professionals can support reporters in a changing editorial landscape that accommodates our around the clock, on-the-go, social society.  Here are a few of the takeaways:

UrgentiPhone-DGWe’re Not in Kansas Anymore

The editorial world is not what it once was.  Readers are accessing content on their small mobile devices as they’re on the run from one place to another.  With so little time to capture an audience’s attention, rarely will a text-heavy piece suffice.  Reporters are seeking to perfect the art of storytelling through incorporation of all things visual: images, graphics and video.

While strong narrative will always be imperative, multimedia can be the missing component in the creation of a compelling story.  Reporters are now stepping away from the keyboard to learn new tools and tactics, such as shooting high quality photographs on an iPhone or producing a video.  Greg Otto, assistant editor for the Washington Business Journal, said, “It’s important to hone our skills and find the best way to tell our story.”

Moving on Up

Deadlines are shifting; no longer can a reporter sit on a story for an entire day, analyzing the various ways they could approach the news before filing at 5:00 p.m.  Now, it’s all about reporting as it happens.  The 24×7 newscycle creates a constant struggle for reporters to always be the first to report because if they don’t, someone else will.  And that someone could simply be a bystander on the street that breaks the news via Twitter.  The focus is now less about providing in-depth commentary, and more about getting content up early, often and during peak web traffic.

The Communicator + Reporter Dating Game

The value of a strong, trusted relationship could not be stressed enough among the panelists.  They urged PR professionals to proactively connect with reporters, when they are not trying to pitch them, to spark a collaborative partnership.  Let them know about your clients’ areas of expertise early on so that when they need a knowledgeable source right away, they know exactly who to call upon.

When describing the initiation of relationships between PR professionals and journalists, Scott Hensley, digital health correspondent and editor for NPR.org, joked there may be a need for a PR Match.com.  “I may be open to new relationships, though I already have a lot of steady ones,” he added.

 

 

Worker, Writer, Watcher: Telling Stories

typewriter

Writing is a process, often of elimination. This is true in creative as well as professional writing. One of the hardest lessons, in both, is how to put your ego aside and actually learn from the editing process.

Here are a few simple mantras to help you embrace the experience:

A Story is a Story

Whether you are writing a press release or a short story, you need a solid narrative.  When we retell personal stories, we don’t drone on and use lots of jargon.  Instinctively, we make sure to have a clear beginning, middle and end.  For example, on a trip to Greece several years ago, I was expected to ride a mule (whose better days were behind him) up a 1,000-foot narrow cliff path with no guardrail to reach the beautiful town of Santorini. I don’t begin the story with what I had for breakfast that morning, but at the decisive moment when I heard the echoing shouts of the other mule-riding tourists bouncing up the narrow, steep, curving dirt trail and decided I would brave the path on foot.  In other words, cut out “the runway” leading up to event and get to the drama (or, in the case of PR, the news).

Remember Your Audience

We tailor stories to fit our audience and we rely on our listeners for cues for what’s working. In PR, we work within a strict time frame and with specific messages. We know who is writing the news and who is reading it, and we want them to read and write about our clients’ news too.  The best stories are those that get better with retelling, and that is what we want most in public relations—someone to pick up and retell our clients’ story.

Communication is a Two-Way Street

While your skills as a communicator may work well when you are relaying news in conversation, sitting down to write can feel like a monologue.  That’s okay. You need to process and understand all the information and get it on the page before you can edit. There are no perfect sentences. Anticipate and learn to embrace revisions.

Editing is Writing

There are no short-cuts.  You have to get past the brain dump of information before moving on to the actual writing.  This will not be easy, but you cannot get to a finished product by jumping around.

Take Advice from the Masters

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

And remember: Loving the process is an uphill battle.

 

 

 

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