The press release started with: “Hey – what’s up?”
I added it to my collection of awful opening lines in publicity pitches. Then I deleted it from my inbox.
As an editor at the Chicago Tribune for many years, I received thousands of press releases. The good ones made their points clearly and quickly, and they sometimes led to news stories.
The bad ones were excruciating—especially their opening sentences—and they made my list of terrible examples.
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Here’s my advice on avoiding mistakes in PR pitches, supported by the openers of actual emails, along with my italicized comments.
- Don’t tell me what I already know.
- “Brrr . . . it’s cold outside!”
- “Winter has arrived in Chicago!”
- Don’t act as if you know me, unless you do.
- “If you don’t read this now, you’ll hate yourself later.”
- “We think this would be great for you!”
- “I hope you’re doing well and staying warm. It’s quite cold here in NYC, but I know it has NOTHING on Chicago. I was a there a couple of weeks ago and thought I’d die!!”
- “Hi Mark, I hope all is well! Are you getting ready to watch some NFL Monday Night football at a bar?”
- Don’t assume I know what you’re talking about.
- “This is MJ from the Quarter team. I would like to introduce the Quarter Super Charge Powerbank to you, a PowerBank we developed to take advantage of the MagSafe.”
- “Remember Aereo Inc., the startup that attempted to transform the pay-TV industry and was shut down by the U.S. Supreme Court on Jun 28, 2014?”
- “Today the Illinois Blockchain Initiative announced its partnership with self-sovereign identity solutions leader Evernym, leveraging distributed ledger technology to provide secure digital identity solutions.”
- “Teeny Drones, creator of the Teeny Drone – a speedy, durable and lightweight quadcopter; and SheDrones, an emerging nonprofit that will engage, support and train girls in unmanned aerial systems and related technologies, have announced a co-sponsored contest.”
- “Are you covering ASCO this year or is someone else at the paper?” (No further explanation about ASCO. When I asked what ASCO was, the emailer replied that it was a big medical show and he was surprised I didn’t know all about it. But I wasn’t covering medicine.)
- Don’t try so hard to be clever or use hip jargon.
- “Sometimes hair is more than hair.”
- “Speed kills.”
- “I’m writing to suggest a barktacular story idea for Chicago Tribune with some useful tips on how Chicago dog lovers can build a stronger connection with their furry BFFs.”
- “Hi Mark, We have a killer event scheduled for tomorrow that I wanted to invite you to.”
- “I’d like to invite you to an exclusive comedy show + cocktail hour, inspired by the so-painful-it’s-funny act of apartment hunting, hosted by Rent.com, the most legit online rental listing site.”
- Don’t be sloppy.
- “Hi Marc,” (My name is Mark.)
- “The Chicago Cubs are competing to win the World Series to finally put an end to the Curse of the Bill Goat and Heifer International is stepping in to help.” (No need to call it the “Bill Goat.” We’re pretty informal here in Chicago. It’s Billy Goat.)
- “I wanted to make sure you had the story about the new campaign to end global illiteracy from the nonprofit, Worldreader.” (Let’s begin the fight against illiteracy by getting rid of that last comma.)
- Don’t disrespect my time.
- “Please see the attached.” (I received several of these, with no further explanation in the email’s text field. No one is going to open a mystery attachment.)
- “Trust everything is well. I hope you must have gone through the Table of Contents and Sample Report documents for the ‘Global Flame Retardant Chemicals Market Analysis’ report that were shared in the mail below. Kindly let me know of your thoughts.”
- “I am sure you are inundated with these type of emails so I will be quick.” (An email pitch doesn’t get quicker when you take the first sentence to promise to be quick.)
- Don’t say “hey.”
- “Hey REPORTER! I wanted you to be the first to see this email that’s going out in advance of the 5 PM CPS Town Hall tonight. Hope to see you there.”
- Don’t point out how overexposed your client is.
- “Clinical psychologist Dr. Brian Russell has been a guest on Bill O’Reilly’s highly popular show, The O’Reilly Factor, 20 times!”
- Don’t fake enthusiasm; it comes across as fake enthusiasm.
- “Please take a moment today to appreciate things in nature most people take for granted, trees! That’s right, trees!”
Here’s one more “don’t”: Don’t get me wrong—I think plenty of PR pros pitch clearly and effectively.
So here are some positive practices:
- Know your target. If you want to get an article published by a particular news organization, search its website for stories on your subject, then read a few and email or call those reporters. That’s far better than carpet-bombing the entire newsroom.
- Establish a relationship. Occasionally write emails to reporters complimenting them on a story or suggesting an angle for a follow story that they may not have thought about. Keep it short, and don’t pitch anything at that time. When you later contact them with a pitch, they’re more likely to recognize your name and have a positive impression.
- Offer options. When you get a reporter or editor on the phone, ask what kinds of stories they wish they could get. Maybe you’re in a position to help them.
- Take “no” for an answer. Again, it’s a relationship business. Reporters and editors remember the people who accepted rejection politely and got off the phone, rather than keeping them on the phone with a harder sell that didn’t work.
- Stay flexible. If offering exclusivity, give the reporters and editors maximum flexibility on timing. Journalists are put off by marketing people who try to over-control the information, and they sometimes just say, “Forget it.”
Remember that good journalists are advocates for their audience, not for your product. Help them do their job accurately and ethically, and you’re more likely to get your product mentioned, which is your job.
Mark Jacob, former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune, is a freelance writer.