Sword and the Script

Confessions and Media Relations


I’ve got a confession to make:  I could have been “outed” out for an aggressive pitch once. Maybe more than once.

Many years ago, my first job with a PR firm landed me the task of pitching a story about a big phone company that had teamed up with a big convenience store chain to do a national give-away on Memorial Day. They were giving out free phone cards to the first 100 military, fire or police veterans that walked through any store and asked for one.

No catch. No proof.  The honor code was in effect. In those days, everyone did not have a mobile phone with unlimited calling, so it was a generous offer.

The team drew up a geographical map and I was assigned Boston.  It was my first pitching experience as a professional working for a PR firm. I had something to prove.

I wrote up a pitch with several different angles tailored to the various beats, for example lifestyle or business.  I started searching through the Web sites for reporters I thought were relevant and began making calls.

First reporter wasn’t interested.  I looked some more.  Second reporter wasn’t interested.  Searched a bit more.  Third reporter wasn’t interested.  Not to be dissuaded, I called fourth and got a bite.

“Really?  That sounds interesting. I know just the person that would be interested….hold on, I’ll transfer you.”

And transfer me he did.  The next reporter answered the transferred call.  I gave my spiel.

“Yeah, that sounds interesting.  Hold on, I’ve got someone you should talk to.”  He transferred the call.

When the next reporter picked up, I gave the pitch and he set in motion another transfer. I hung up.

The realization – remember I was young – slowly dawned on me that there was a group of reporters huddled in cubicles in Boston, laughing and passing me around. It was humbling. I was embarrassed and though I can laugh today, it’s still a bit embarrassing.

Back then it was far less common for a journalist to blow a gasket and go off on a PR person.  Chris Anderson hadn’t lost his cool yet and PR pros weren’t yet unfollowing journalists following unflattering stories. Bloggers weren’t in the picture either.  But times have changed.

Today it’s the kind of pitching that could land a headline like this:
I’ve opted for a screenshot of the headline, rather than a link, because I don’t want to contribute to the SERP.   In fact, I won’t mention the person identified or the publication by name here for the same reason.  For those interested, the article can be easily found in search.

The outcry against the publication has been tremendous. I’ve read each and every one of the 344 comments submitted and they overwhelmingly condemn the publication’s actions.  For example, here were two of the stronger reactions:


Blog posts have sprouted up with similar sentiment.

“The story looks like a case of one person using their position of power…to slam another,” wrote one blogger.  “Was (name’s) email so out of line as to deserve the disproportionate response (from a different journalist than the one he was corresponding with) that he received? No way. Not even close,” said another.  “Unfortunately, many readers disagreed with Wauters’ assessment.  In fact, they felt the smackdown itself was mean-spirited and for the most part, unwarranted,” opined a third.  

What was supposed to be an “outing” of an ostensibly inappropriate PR response, turned into something of a backlash against the outlet.  I won’t pass judgment on the PR pro mentioned, though I might have handled it differently, the outcome could happen to any PR professional. In an age of blogging, it can also happen to any reporter or blogger. 

The reality is that news is relative.  What’s news to one reporter isn’t news to another.  I’ve had pitches I felt were lame and reporters gobbled them up, meanwhile I’ve had other pitches – solve world hunger with the snap of a finger pitches – only to have reporter write back and say, “Yeah, but what’s the news hook?”

News is not a science, and if there’s one thing that social web has shown me is that masses people can be very interested in a topic – as evidenced by social interactions – yet the media yawns. Meanwhile the media can be very interested in a topic and the masses yawn.

As for media relations confessions, since I’m about to embark on a year-long hiatus, I figured I’d get that confession off my chest. I’d prefer to “out” myself on a time of my own choosing than to get bushwhacked on a Friday afternoon:  What comes around goes around.  
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3 comments
Frank Strong, MA, MBA
Frank Strong, MA, MBA

@Krista: I agree regarding mixed feelings about "outing." Perhaps if it's egregious, or intentionally malicious it would be fitting. However, punishing someone for being passionate about their pitch -- especially one that is relevant to their coverage seems wrong. I also believe it reflects poorly on all involved. People notice and the PR community is fairly small and tight nit. @Farida: Perhaps. But I also think the lesson I learned is that it's okay to take "no" for an answer. It's not synonymous with giving up, but rather a chance to try again in the future with new data, or a some other point that makes the news more compelling. Thank you both for posting comments!

Farida at Prism Media Services
Farida at Prism Media Services

From your post, it doesn't seem that you were being aggressive in your pitch, merely sincere and diligent. As a journalist turned PR pro, I've experienced both sides. In India, I had several friends in PR who told me how badly they were treated by other journalists - one of them even moved out of PR because of it. As a journalist back then, I thought it was terrible that people in my profession should abuse their position of power. Being under pressure and under-paid is no excuse for treating others badly. We all learn along the way and everyone makes mistakes (I misreported something once) whether you are a journalist or a PR person, as Krista rightly said above, and it can't hurt to show a little bit of humanity and cut others some slack. Good luck with whatever you're moving on to for the next one year!

Krista
Krista

You are very brave for confessing your tale, Frank--I think every PR pro out there has a similar experience they'd rather forget, but are secretly glad they learned from. I also have mixed feelings about the practice of outing the PR people behind bad media relations. It doesn't do much to help the relationship between reporters and PR folks, and each side makes mistakes every now and then. But you make a good point that it's often difficult to know what will and won't stick. It takes patience and humility often when working in media relations.