The Pitch That Cried Wolf

There are only so many reporters and bloggers covering the field or industry you play in, whether it’s automotive technology, software, clothing, or architectural design. With time and experience, you will wind up speaking to them all one day—or their brethren. In a world of instant communication and shrinking inner circles, a PR person who cries wolf with a few off-the-mark pitches is blackballed in a hurry.

There’s nothing the media dislikes more than vapor (a non-story), so don’t pitch it. Click over to Business Wire, PR Web, or any of its ilk on a given day and you can count up hundreds of thousands of dollars spent propagating vapor news. “Small Company A Signs Agreement with About-to-Fold Company B” or “InterSliceTech.com Launches Bleeding-Edge Customer Tracking Functionality.” Find us a journalist who actually wants to write about topics like that (how do they affect anyone else besides the people who wrote the releases?) and we will tip our hats to that PR person (who has a reporter cousin, of course).

The danger in vapor is that it builds a name for you quickly. The wrong name. If you’re dabbling in handheld technology, say, and you pitch Jason Kincaid, well-known gadgetry guy from TechCrunch, on every software upgrade, he’s going to learn very rapidly not to take seriously any pitch you send his way. Who cares? The danger is that when you have real news, the kind that matters, such as the launch of your new device that makes the iPac shake in its boots, Jason will not pay attention because you’ve proven yourself to be a vapor merchant.

Before you blast out a cluster bomb of e-mails or send that release over the wire, consider long and hard what’s interesting about it. Is it fascinating just because you’ve spent three tireless months working on the content? Is it amazing because your latest noodling brings you one step closer to a competitor that no one’s ever heard of? If that’s the case, hold off and wait ’til you have something worthier of the presses; in other words, don’t believe your own story too much.

Larger public companies are especially guilty of pushing vapor into the press. There’s a theory out there, one we don’t subscribe to, that if you don’t have a steady, weekly stream of information crossing the wires—also known as “the machine”—your business’s progress has sunk to an uncompetitive pace. Remember that with public companies, their news unfortunately engenders an article or two (unfortunately, because it makes the firm think that what they put out is urgent, and so it compels them to keep the vapor machine oiled).

Yet when this non-urgent-news-pushing firm truly has something worth chatting about, the press may not bite. Everyone at the firm scratches their heads and wonders why. But reporters and analysts are glazed over from the hundreds of newsless missives shot through that PR cannon. And they are all too familiar with firms that cry wolf.

The take-away is that vapor works only rarely. For example, it did for the whole of Seinfeld. If what you desire is respected coverage continually, sit on the vapor (“CEO sneezed today!”), and don’t put it out. You’ll only numb the reporters who should care and who should notice that what you do is important. Being important is paramount.

For more topics like this, follow @laermer

Black History Month Brings Out Best & Worst Content

It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. So here is a tale of two pieces of content. It’s up to you, fine readers, to determine which one’s a best practice and which one’s a worst practice.

Match the Quote to the Black History Hero Who Said It
BuzzFeed quizzes can be a polarizing piece of content. Let’s face it, we work hard to get our content shared into ubiquity. Yet BuzzFeed can drop a quiz telling you which meat you are and it’s passed around like a 100% off coupon code.

But asking readers to match quotes to the hero from black history that said it? This is a wonderful example of edutainment. And it’s focused on a topic we could all stand to learn more about. It could only be smarter if a BuzzFeed staffer wrote it. But props to the community member that did.

Black Author’s Book Teaser Will Make Your Kids a Slave to Reading
The individual that alerted us to this news release wonders how it was even allowed to go out over the wire. And I must wonder the same exact thing.

We’ve talked about forcing a connection between your topic and a timely event before. But this example is worse than that. We’ll just let the headline speak for itself and simply note that book marketing is hard. But that’s no excuse for poor taste.

Lazy Hack Turns Lazy Flacks Into Story

Lazy Cat with Beer

The year ended with less of a whimper than expected in the public relations industry with everything from Uber and Sony missteps to smaller gems like GoGo Squeez and Play Doh.

In fact, this story from the New York Post almost went unnoticed. In his December 25th article, “A gift to all the p.r. people who were blown off in 2014,” business reporter John Crudele turns a dozen pitches into a story and outs the 12 folks that sent them his way.

Facebook comments ranged from the expected “he’s mean” and “these people are just trying to do their jobs” to the more snarky “bet they include this in their wrap reports” and a deeper comment noting the “mean generation of faceless relationship building” we’re forced to deal with these days.

Is the story, and Crudele’s approach, mean? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. But let’s remember two things before you weigh in.

1) Consider the Source: The New York Post notes it’s a “tabloid-format” newspaper. And we all know what tabloids tend to be really good at, picking a fight.

2) Target the Pitch: Based on his profile in Cision, you’d wonder why anyone of these folks are pitching Crudele in the first place.** He focuses on topics like stocks, finance issues and related topics. So why in the hell are pitches about beans and regifting being sent his way? Many of the pitches he singled out are clearly not related to his beat.

Do Your Homework

Let’s say your pitch does cross his topics of coverage. If I looked up a reporter and read that he has an aggressive writing style and thrives on issue-oriented controversy? I’m reading his last few articles, at a minimum, before deciding to send him something.

Crudele wrote the piece on Christmas Eve. And by wrote, I mean he phoned it in. So he was being lazy to be sure. But I’m not so sure he was being mean as he was simply being himself. And there are an endless number of ways these 12 pitches, and the people that sent them, could have avoided becoming the story.

Thanks to Traci Coulter for the NY Post link. She’s one of the good PR folks we like to highlight on this blog because they are most excellent professionals.

Kevin Dugan, @prblog

Is Soft Language Killing Your Pitch?

We just paid homage to Ernest Hemingway for his support of simple, clear and effective writing. Add George Carlin to the list of talented individuals reminding us to write tight.

The infamously expletive-wielding Carlin could be the NSFW poster child. So does that make him the worst possible role model in this situation? Before you decide, consider the phrase he invented…soft language.

“American English is loaded with euphemisms — because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. So they invent a kind of to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation.”

To explain soft language, Carlin details the evolution of the term shell shock — in a way only he can.

Term / War Meaning Carlin
Shell Shock / WWI “A condition when a soldier’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum.” “Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables.”
Battle Fatigue / WWII Same “Four syllables now. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock.”
Operational Exhaustion / Korean War Same “We’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile and sounds like something that might happen to your car.”
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Same “We’ve added a hyphen. And the pain of the condition is completely buried under jargon.”

 

The Best Intentions…Don’t Matter

Soft language can ruin your pitch regardless of how well-intended it might be. My favorite example of soft language is from a student’s resume I received for an internship. To dress up the description of a waitressing job, she noted she “excels in suggestive selling.”

I don’t know what suggestive selling is, much less if it’s legal. But more importantly, this word choice almost distracted me from the fact that this student helped finance her college education. This is a good sign that she is probably a hard worker who can manage multiple projects simultaneously.

Softening or inflating language may be used to present something in a better light. It usually does the exact opposite. Even Carlin noted it “takes the life out of life.”

Oh, and if you are up for some NSFW content, Carlin’s bit on soft language is here in its entirety.

Kevin Dugan, @prblog

Hemingway App Fights Bad Pitches

When it comes to media relations, the analogy about a chain only being as strong as its weakest link applies. Your media list may be solid, but if your pitch is ham-fisted it doesn’t matter. This applies to the entire cycle.

The Hemingway App is one tool you can use to make sure your pitch is as simple and clear as possible. As you’ll see below, it points out the readability of whatever you cut and paste into the site, or you can compose on the fly. It also tracks long, complex sentences, passive voice and other common errors.

Unclear writing is color coded and the app gives tips on how to improve each passage. If an adverb shows up, for example, the app recommends that a “verb with force” take its place. Papa would have wanted it that way.

The site is as smart as it is simple. We’re hoping in the future it can used with Word, Google Docs or Evernote. Until then it’s available online and for the desktop (Windows and Apple).

The app’s namesake possessed a writing style described as “lean, hard, athletic narrative.” The end result of this approach to writing is the ability to tell more using less words. And that will make this link in your chain as strong as steel.

We put this post through the app and improved it. Cut and paste your last pitch into the Hemingway App and see what it tells you.

You Don’t Need Client Approval to Pitch the Media (Well)

If you’re in business to business communications, you can empathize with the bane of my career’s existence…client/customer approvals to tell their story, more commonly known as a case history. If you’re in business to consumer communications, there’s a lesson here for you also.

For those who don’t know, case histories are simple stories stating the problem, your client’s solution and the results it brought their customer. This informational overview is the oil that helps the btob media relations machine operate seamlessly. Consider that the story is told by the media, from the customer’s perspective. If your client’s customer is a known brand, case histories turn into earned media more often than not.

The biggest issue in mining this black gold is usually customer approvals. But before we give you some tips on how to get that approval, here’s an example of why you shouldn’t let customer approval stop you from telling the story.

Take No For An Answer
Years ago, my agency turned a client’s issue with getting customer approvals to discuss case studies into an ad campaign. They designed brief case studies to resemble classified documents like the one above.

With details like the customer’s brand and other particulars blacked out, it eliminated the need for customer approval, it attracted the reader and made the ad even shorter to read. The only way it could have been a better campaign would be if I could take credit for it.

Creativity is a Universal Opportunity
This need for creativity applies to the business to consumer segment as well. Consider what the adult video website, Pornhub, is doing for a pending ad campaign. It’s asking the ad community to submit designs for a national, safe for work (SFW) ad campaign touting the site.

We’ve received porn-related pitches before. One of them ranks (literally and figuratively) as one of our worst pitches EVER. But the initial success of Pornhub’s approach, regardless of how we feel about the topic, is a reminder that PR people can talk about anything.

Five Tips to Get the Story Told
So here are some tips to keep in mind about getting your client/customer story told.

1) You Don’t Know Unless You Ask: The one time you don’t ask to tell the story is inevitably going to be the one time you’d be allowed to do so. Never skip asking.

2) It’s How You Ask: I start by telling my client’s customer what a case history is NOT. It’s not an ad or a testimonial, it is an informational overview of the project. And they get to see and approve everything before we pitch the media.

3) Mutual Benefit: How is a Fortune 100 brand going to benefit from a story about how it’s new toilet paper dispensers saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars? It’s probably not. But the person most closely connected with the story, the person approving your request, will benefit. It can be used internally to remind management this person did a good thing, it can be used to remind this person’s team they did a good thing and it can help their personal brand. It doesn’t hurt to tell them this as part of the ask.

4) It’s Who Asks: Who owns the relationship with the client or customer approving your request? This person can help you assess if it’s better for them to ask (with your guidance) or for you to ask or someone else entirely. If the relationship owner is worried it’ll have a negative impact, they either don’t understand what you’re asking or they have other issues in play with the relationship.

5) Ask Once: If this single approval will launch a tide of thought leadership, uh, ships, make that clear. If you ask to pitch the media, then ask to submit it in an awards competition, then ask to put it on your website, right before you ask to use it in a speaker’s proposal….yeah, you wear out your welcome.

Much like baseball, if you average .300, you’ll be a pro — and you’ll probably have enough stories to reach your broader goals.

Kevin Dugan, @prblog