Why a ‘get-to-know-you’ phone call is lazy PR

Relationships with reporters are important, but clogging their telephone lines with pleasantries won’t earn you many friends. Here’s why your chatty call is a waste of time.

Some PR pros just can’t cut the phone cord.

The request usually appears in an email, friendly enough in tone: A PR pro wants to “hop on a quick call” with a reporter to shoot the breeze. The PR pro might imagine a meeting of the minds, cordial and witty repartee, underscored by their coffeehouse Spotify playlist.

PR pros know that journalists are busy and receive hundreds of pitches a day. It only follows that to help his or her pitch stand out, a PR pro should befriend the journalist—and give it that personal touch.

However, if you’re pestering a journalist for a phone call without a specific, stated goal, you are wasting their time and yours.

Mixed advice

There’s no consensus about the usefulness of phone calls in PR. Though most PR pros agree that cold calling is a bad practice, not all are convinced that phone pitches are a waste of time.

Some PR pros argue that a well-crafted follow-up call can be just the push a reporter needs to cover your story. For PR pros looking to reach a journalist by phone, make sure you plan ahead, read the signs well and have a backup plan in case your call goes off the rails.

However, some PR pros are moving away from phoning, with many on both sides saying they loathe telephone pitches.

Telephone evangelists argue that a well-placed call is the only way PR pros can break through the digital overload. In a piece for Muck Rack, a digital media list provider, PR pro Micah Warren declared his preference for phone calls:

Please, phone pitching is our best bet for creating a relationship and securing coverage whether you realize it or not. Yes, you prefer email, but I don’t. If I had a nickel for every unreturned pitch to a journalist, I’d be typing this article on my iPad on my yacht.

I hear journalists complain all the time about how their inbox is constantly flooded and many emails go right to the junk folder. Okay, I understand. But, can you understand why I don’t want my news getting lost in all of that?

However, journalists seem to agree: Phone calls are not ideal.

Mumbrella wrote:

A recent Media Stable survey of over 130 journalists across the country asked those in print, radio, television and online how they liked to receive content and story pitches.

Less than 1% of media prefer a phone call as their first point of contact for a story pitch. They are emphatic – they do not want you to call them in the first instance.

What hopefully every PR pro can agree upon is that a phone call shouldn’t be your tactic if you don’t have something important to share.

‘A lost art’

Some PR pros like to bemoan the loss of communicators’ ability to develop relationships on the phone.

However, the demise of the phone call might be due to the changing media landscape as much as new technology. Newsrooms have been hammered by the emergence of digital media, and the shrinkage has left many reporters doing more with less.

Ed Madison and Ben DeJarnette wrote for Medium:

Between 1990 and 2014, the number of full-time journalists working in U.S. newsrooms declined from 56,900 to 32,900— a 42 percent drop — and more than 200 daily newspapers closed their doors for good. The deepest cuts have come at midsize metropolitan dailies, and with the exception of 2016, when political advertising helped stabilize the industry’s sagging revenue figures, newsroom consolidation has shown few signs of slowing down.

To that point, on July 25 the New York Daily News cut its editorial staff by 50 percent.

The result of this industrywide drop is that journalists have less time for everything—less time to cover their beat, less time to source and vet new stories, and certainly less time to take phone calls that have no purpose.

Offer the goods

The best way to cultivate a relationship with a journalist is to consistently offer the stories they need to do their jobs.

If you have a lead on a story that might be perfect for them, can offer an exclusive interview or exceptional insight into a current event that their audience cares about, that reporter will return to you again and again.

Make sure your pitches cut to the point, are error-free and clearly express a strong idea. Deliver good writing, and forget about smooth-talking them on the phone. It wasn’t going to work out for you anyway.

Good pitches are the bread and butter of a PR career, and there is no substitute for a well-crafted missive from a knowledgeable source.

How to learn about a reporter

Some PR pros will still suggest scheduling a phone call to ask a reporter questions, get to know their beat and home in on what that journalist needs from a helpful PR contact.

However, in today’s digital media landscape, this tactic is lazy. A smart PR pro can find dozens of articles written by the journalist they want to work with online, or they can subscribe to a media list like Cision or Muck Rack that can provide such information for a fee.

If you request a phone call without knowing what you want to talk about, you are disrespecting that reporter—and you might get blacklisted.

If you insist upon a phone call, have a specific reason for the call, as well as a backup plan for when the reporter tells you they are too busy.

Have you had recent success with phone pitches? Please share your stories or thoughts in the comments section.

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