By Emily Labes, Associate Publicist
I am from Cleveland. Anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes with me knows that. Typical of most Clevelanders, when people ask me where I’m from, I’m most inclined to talk about the erratic weather, the fact that our river has caught on fire multiple times (and how we pronounce “fire,” which is “fie-yur”), and/or Lebron James.
However, I have recently added a new talking point to my roster of Midwestern small-talk topics – the fact that, for the most part, our manners are beyond reproach. I may curse like a sailor when I’m in the company of family and trusted friends; but I always say “please,” and “thank you,” I always chew with my mouth closed and keep one hand in my lap while I’m eating, I never place my elbows on the dinner table, and I always, always look people in the eye when I am speaking to them.
Supposedly these are traits that are inherently present in most Americans who are over the age of five; but Midwesterners approach manners with an Emily Post-like reverence. I don’t know whether it’s more of a ritual or a compulsion, but it is as ingrained in us as our all-American accents.
Although I do not needlessly apologize nearly as much as my mom does, after almost two years at MEDIA CONNECT, I still find myself blurting out “Sorry to bother you, but…” upon entering my coworkers’ offices – even when I am there by appointment. Then I inevitably apologize for apologizing, and the cycle continues.
Aside from my penchant for verbosity, the reason I disclose all of this is so that you can understand my horror when, upon starting here as an intern, I discovered that a huge portion of my day would consist of barging into peoples’ inboxes and voicemails, often as an unwelcome pest. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but I still don’t think I realized how uncomfortable it would make me, until I was pitching my first Radio Tour. Naturally, I eventually got over that discomfort, but I still find myself airing on the side of caution when doing outreach to the media.
Although my initial fear of imposing made it difficult for me to get acclimated at first, I truly feel that it has made me a better publicist in the long run. In a field where everything is terse and rushed, a little common courtesy can go a long way. In fact, it can often make the difference between a one-time booking and a lasting professional relationship. Though there are certainly times when it is necessary to be a bit more forceful as well. Really, it’s all about finding the balance.
Everyone has his/her own style and technique, but here are a few tips from this cordial Midwesterner:
Know Your Audience. The first step to civility with the media begins before you even interact with the media. Whether you are pitching print, online, or broadcast contacts, the most important thing to do is CAREFULLY vet your outreach list. Journalism is a field with a lot of turnover, and it is not uncommon to accidentally pitch a contact who is no longer appropriate, whether because he/she has switched positions within his/her outlet, or whether he/she has moved to a new outlet altogether. It’s a very forgivable mistake.
But when you’re sending a pitch about someone who recently invented a new kind of sock that can never smell bad to a journalist who has only ever written about artisanal cheeses, you’re doing something wrong – even if your sock inventor is the most interesting human who has ever walked the earth and his invention is the key to world peace. It is inconsiderate, and if the journalist happens to remember you, it will not be fondly.
If you’re working off a sizeable outreach list, go through it at least three times before you start sending out pitches. It helps to do ample research on each and every contact on your list as well. Look up his/her past stories, so that you know his/her stance on what you are pitching. I like to reference past articles that a journalist has written in my pitches as well, to add a personal touch. Although nothing ever came of it, I once had a six or seven email exchange with a journalist, just because I mentioned that an article she wrote about the movie, “Working Girl,” really made me want to see it (I still haven’t, but I should. Really, everyone probably should, if this columnist’s article was even halfway accurate).
The bottom line is: make sure the people you are pitching actually cover the topic you are pitching to them.
Call Me, Maybe? Most journalists will tell you that they prefer to be contacted via email. Yet there are some contacts – predominantly in radio – who you simply will not be able to reach if you do not call them. If and when it comes to that, there is a right way to phone pitch and a wrong way to phone pitch.
The right way to phone pitch involves doing your best to know a producer’s schedule. If the producer with whom you want to speak handles a morning show that airs from 6:00 – 9:00 am ET, you should not call him/her during that time, unless you want to wind up on the air. That’s fine if you’re a “longtime listener, first-time caller,” but if you’re a publicist trying to pitch a guest opportunity, wait until the producer’s show ends before reaching out.
Even if you are somehow positive that the producer will be free at the time you choose to call, it’s still good form to ask if it’s a good time to discuss a guest opportunity. If you’ve ever received a phone call from a telemarketer during dinner, you innately understand the importance of that one small gesture.
When there’s No Follow-Through, Follow Up. This was by far the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn in my professional life thus far. On more than one occasion, I have reached out to a journalist, that journalist has expressed interest, and then that journalist has gone silent. In this situation, it is not only appropriate but necessary to follow up.
A quick email or phone call to remind the journalist that you exist might do the trick (I suggest including your original correspondence in the body of the follow-up email, for reference). But more often than not, you will have to reach out multiple times. It isn’t necessarily because the journalist is no longer interested in the topic you’re pitching; it could just be that something else arose. I know reporters who have tens of thousands of unread emails in their inboxes at any given time. It can be easy to get lost in the void.
If you are pitching an event (or a story idea that is in conjunction with a specific date or event), you may find that you have to send several follow-up emails in a short period of time. There’s no two ways around it – this can be profoundly uncomfortable. When I find myself in situations, I like to include some sort of explanation for my persistence, usually to the effect of: “I don’t mean to bombard you with emails, but ___ is coming up, and we’d really like to confirm whether or not you will be (attending/conducting an interview/reviewing/etc.).” I would also recommend that you throw in a refresher on some of the more exciting aspects of your pitch. This will help substitute confidence for what otherwise could appear to be desperation.
Afterthoughts. If you successfully hit with a journalist, it is common practice to send a thank you email. If you’re really industrious, you could also send a handwritten note instead. In truth, there is no guarantee that these practices will help you successfully book an interview, review, etc. There is also no guarantee that you won’t get ignored, hung up on, yelled at, or told to shove it somewhere that is not appropriate to mention in a public blog post. However, you have absolutely nothing to lose by practicing cordiality, and everything to gain.