Don’t be a #PRFail: 5 common pitch fumbles to avoid

What are the media relations gaffes that will earn you a mention on Twitter? Here are some of the worst offenses to avoid.


If you do a quick search on Twitter for #PRFail or cruise the dead account of @DearPR, you’ll get a glimpse into a deep well of journalist frustration. In most cases, the errors that earn the PR practitioner an unwelcome shout out on social media could have and should have been avoided through vigilance, attention to detail and common sense.

Though bad writing can reflect poorly on the company or client you represent, it ultimately damages your reputation and credibility. No error is small or insignificant when you only have a couple of short paragraphs to grab a journalist’s attention. Keep your pitches fumble-free by avoiding these all-too-common mistakes:

1. A misleading subject line

The subject line is your first chance at piquing a journalist’s interest and standing out in a crowded inbox. With so much pressure riding on a single sentence, bettering your odds with an underhanded tactic might seem like a good idea at the time, but don’t do it.

Sensationalizing or making an untruthful claim in your subject line might get a journalist to open your email, but if the meat of your pitch doesn’t align or support the claim, then a journalist is unlikely to go any further with the story. If your subject line reads like clickbait, you’ve gone too far.

Similarly, you might think you have a better chance of getting a read if a journalist thinks you’re following up. Phrases like “Re” and “Checking in” might get them thinking that they’ve missed something, but journalists are journalists for a reason, and they will call your bluff.

If you employ either of these misleading tactics, you’ll likely find that not many journalists are eager to work with you. No one appreciates being tricked.

2. Botching the opening

If you received an unsolicited email that greeted you with any of the following, would you read it?

  • Wrong name
  • Misspelled name
  • A nickname
  • A shortened version of your name

If your answer is no, then it stands to reason that neither would a journalist. You don’t have to be ultra-creative. A pleasant “hello” and the journalist’s first name is all you need—but you do have to be ultra-careful.

How does an email that opens with “Hello PR person,” sound? Not great. Referring to them as “blogger” or “journalist” makes you sound like a robot and instantly cues them that you don’t know who you’re pitching to.

If you don’t know their first name at all, reevaluate your list.

3. Wasting time

Journalists are busy people, and it is guaranteed that your email is just one of hundreds in their inbox. A pitch email is not the time for chit chat. Present the story angle, why it’s newsworthy and why it matters to their audience in as few words as possible.

You don’t need to write the whole story. This is the teaser trailer. Get them hooked. If there’s background information that they’ll need, let them know you have it. A couple of short paragraphs and maybe some bullet points are all that’s needed.

4. Making it about you

Before you write, take a step back and reset. The media is not there to highlight your CEO, spotlight your new product offer, or sell things for you. They are a news service that wants to provide timely, relevant, important and interesting information to their audiences. This applies whether they’re a tech magazine, high-profile blog or a regional newspaper. It’s about what your brand or client has to offer that is of value to the journalist’s audience.

5. Missing the point

Apart from getting the contact’s name wrong, the fastest way to the trash bin is sending an irrelevant pitch. Journalists do not have the time to try and decipher why they and their audience should care about what you’ve sent them. They also don’t want to be fielding your pitches. If you don’t know who is best to receive your email at an outlet, do more research or invest in a media database if you don’t already have one.

Research is such an essential part of the process. Getting to know journalists often starts with following them on social media and checking out their websites. Read what they write and pay close attention to what they cover. What’s their niche? It’s not enough to know that a journalist covers sports. What if they only cover semi-pro hockey and you’re trying to pitch a professional golf story? Research will only help you write stronger pitches.

If you haven’t found the sweet spot for your pitches yet, analyze, agonize and then evolve. Only through trial and error will you learn what journalists do and do not respond to. But by following these five tips your trials will be more likely to succeed and keep you from being a #PRFail.

Joy Knowles is a marketing content strategist for Agility PR Solutions.


8 Responses to “Don’t be a #PRFail: 5 common pitch fumbles to avoid”

    Katelyn Lambert, Writer/Editor for Platform Magazine says:

    As a senior public relations major about to head out into the workforce, I found this article very helpful. These are tips I can keep in my back pocket to use in my future job, so I am not a #PRFail. Thanks so much for writing this piece, Joy!

    Tom Fuszard says:

    Good tips, Joy. One step I struggle with is whether to send the news release as an attachment or paste the release inside the email. I contacted several media reps for their preference, and only a couple responded. I thought I was doing them a favor by asking. Was that message considered irrelevant? Is there a standard in the industry?

    – Tom Fuszard

    Jacquie says:

    I always just include the press release in the body of the email and only send attachments when it’s something like a photo. It seems like a message, while well-intended, just adds an extra layer of noise when we’re all trying to streamline.

    Nick Paradise says:

    If doing a widespread distribution or unsolicited pitch, I will avoid attachments entirely and keep it in the body of an email. Only when a release or photo assets are requested do I use attachments. Believe I gleaned this from a PRSA webinar several years ago, so best practices may have evolved.

    Henry Cazalet says:

    On point 2 about botching the opening…
    Do journalists really care if you spell their name wrongly or make some minor greetings error?

    Surely they’re interested in whether the story has legs not whether you’ve mildly offended them?

    Do you think someone would pass up on a pitch because of such a trivial gaffe?

      Ted Kitterman says:

      If you get their name wrong, it’s an indication that you are sending batches of queries. Taking the time to get their name right means you have taken the time to learn their niche and needs and be a helpful partner, not just another email account sending spam. TL;DR: Yes, they care.

    Jeff Loy says:

    One thing to keep in mind concerning attachments is that many organizations have bolstered their cybersecurity efforts in light of COVID-19, increasing the chances of the email hitting the spam folder.

    For items such as images, a link to a media library or somewhere that they may be downloaded is an alternative.

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