Hack to Flack: A Former Journalist’s Guide to Better PR Pitches

Today we’re happy to bring you a guest post by Lindsay Goldwert, a senior program executive at a global tech PR firm. Before she leapt to the dark side, Lindsay worked at the New York Daily News, ABCNews.com, CBSNews.com, CourtTV, Glamour and Redbook. In her spare time, she writes short stories.

As a communications vet who’s worn both the “journalism” and “PR” hats, she provides us with a very unique take on the delicate dance that we call “media relations.” Enjoy!

I have a confession: until very recently I was a working journalist–and I was very cruel to PR people.

Who could blame me? Tasked with writing and producing “life & style” content for the New York Daily News’s bustling website, I could not be bothered with endless email pitches that had nothing to do with my beat. I got snippy when people called to ask me if I had received their e-mail, yet every time I cleared my inbox it managed to fill up again within the hour.

By mid-morning every day, I already had a slate of content to work on–most of it stories that bounced off the day’s news. Yet PR people still called me (always when I was on deadline) to ask whether I might have time for a desk-side client interview or a three-hour lunch event.

Didn’t they know that, as a digital reporter, I never left my desk? Soon, I didn’t just ignore emails from PR people — I deleted them en masse without reading them. Eventually, I got so frustrated with the ill-timed telephone calls that I just stopped picking up my phone altogether.

Sound familiar?

At the same time, I was burning out after 13 years working in magazines, television and digital news. I was tired of following trends like a cat chasing a laser pointer. It had been a tough decade for journalism and I was frustrated by the lack of advancement, the shrinking newsrooms and the fact that my salary was roughly the same in 2012 as it had been in 2008.

When I accepted a job with a global tech PR firm, it was not without the usual trepidation and soul searching. Despite the reticence I felt toward PR in general, I was intrigued by the idea of working with a team on projects rather than riding the endless hamster wheel of the minute-to-minute news cycle. Most of all, I liked the fact that my bosses were excited to hear new ideas and that they seemed ready to rewrite the rules. Frankly, working with tech startups and entrepreneurs seemed like welcome break from keeping up with Kim Kardashian.

But here’s the rub: Now that I’m on the other side of things, I am receiving my comeuppance in a big way.

For the first time, my professional emails go unanswered–total radio silence. I feel like a nuisance. In short, I’ve come to know the pain of being treated the way I treated others. (I also found out the hard way that a lot of people only followed me on Twitter because I worked at the Daily News. I should have known it wasn’t my wit and my way with puns that attracted all those followers.)

The toughest part of the change is the fact that former colleagues now regard me with suspicion. I can see it in their eyes: ‘You’re going to pitch me, aren’t you?”

This is karma, I suppose.

And yet, I find myself happier at this new job than I’ve been in years. And I am determined to do it well while remembering not to do the things that drove me crazy when I was a journalist.

Here’s the thing: a few sharp, intelligent, on-the-news PR people were indispensable to me during my time at the Daily News. I will be forever grateful to the person who connected me with an oncologist specializing in salivary gland cancer an hour after we learned that Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys had died. And bless that PR assistant who scrambled to get me hi-res images of manicures from New York Fashion Week.

They weren’t just flacks — they were colleagues.

I’ve asked some journalists to chime in and talk about the PR practices that drive them crazy. This is a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” that any PR person can live by. I know I do.

Abby Tegnelia, editor-in-chief, Vegas magazine:

 “The best thing a PR person can do is ask me to explain certain sections of the magazines and ask which sections are the most open to pitches. I often go to PR agencies and flip through the magazine page by page, explaining every section and what I am looking for.”

Diana Ransom, contributing editor at Entrepreneur.com and columnist at Entrepreneur magazine:

“I’m always half amused but mostly frustrated when a PR person calls me to pitch a story I’ve already written or edited. I know they’re busy, but at least try to do some research beforehand.”

Ethan Sacks, features writer/online editor New York Daily News:

“I can’t stand getting unsolicited pitches for stories that have nothing to do with an individual reporter’s beat. For example, it makes no sense to send a “best cocktails for a Super Bowl party” pitch to a reporter who covers arts and entertainment. It shows the publicist has not bothered to do a lick of research into the person to whom they’re sending the email.”

Marilisa Racco, freelance fashion and beauty writer:

“I really hate it when PR people tell me that their product is a perfect fit for my column. I know what’s a perfect fit for my column — it’s my column.”

Jo Piazza, senior digital editor for Current TV:

“I really dislike the the ‘hindsight is 20/20 flacks,’ the ones who approach me the day a story, trying to push their very similar client on me. If I just wrote the story it’s unlikely I will write it again.” 

Tracy Miller, health reporter, NYDailyNews.com:

“I am always automatically wary of turning any mass email type of PR pitch into a story because I know it’s gone out to dozens, if not hundreds, of other writers and editors, and I don’t like writing the same story as a ton of other people. No one does. So anything PR people can do to tailor their pitch specifically to me and my employer — it really matters.

My pet peeves include unprofessional language (“Hey girl omg riiiiiiight?”) exclamation points, emoticons, colored fonts, Comic Sans and, worst of all, giant photo attachments that clog my inbox. These get deleted without being opened.”

What do we think?

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.