A few weeks ago, I moderated a panel for HARO (Help a Reporter Out) that included three journalists from the Chicago Tribune.
The event was held after work at the Cision offices and, let me tell you, if you ever have a chance to visit them, I highly recommend it.
They have a rooftop space that envies the women’s restroom in the Hancock Building (arguably the best view in the entire city).
If I worked there, I would likely never go home. Every meeting I had (at least between May and October) would be held out there. It’s amazing space and you should check it out if ever in Chicago (or if you live here).
But that’s not really the point. The point is the panel discussion we had with three veteran journalists and how they like to interact with PR professionals.
To say the event was enlightening is putting it mildly.
The Panel of Journalists
Before I tell you what we learned, please meet the journalists on the panel:
Bill Hageman is a 35-year veteran of the Chicago Tribune and current lifestyles reporter. He covers “odds and ends,” travel, literature, and animal topics such as animal welfare and pet issues. He has an incredibly dry sense of humor and he had us all cracking up the entire hour.
Nara Schoenberg has worked at the Chicago Tribune for 15 years. She is a lifestyles reporter who covers books, health, human interest, and the arts. A self-described introvert, she told me the best book she’s read recently was Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (not surprising…everything he writes is compelling).
Becky Yerak has covered the business beat at Chicago Tribune for 11 years and mainly covers consumer-focused housing and retail topics, with some banking and insurance thrown in on occasion. She was the bold one of the group and wasn’t afraid to be really clear with PR pros about what works and what doesn’t.
How to Work with Journalists
What we learned from these three veteran journalists was interesting and, in some cases, downright shocking.
If you had told me they got some of their leads from news releases from trusted PR professionals, I would have argued with you until I was blue in the face.
But I heard it straight from them…and I was really surprised.
Here are 10 additional things we learned:
- Make emails short, personalized, and to the point. Schoenberg said, “It’s great to be witty, it’s great to be fun, but I’m in a hurry and you’re probably in a hurry and even if you’re the wittiest person in the world, it’s not something I want or my editors want. So I like directness and honesty and finding what’s great about the story and just highlighting that in a simple, straight-forward way is very helpful to me.”
- Do not sent attachments. This is a rule we all should abide by, but it had to be said, so that’s apparently not the case. “I see an attachment and I’m like Pavlov’s dogs and I just want to kill it. My inbox gets clogged up and I’m looking for any excuse to kill emails. That is one reason I’ll delete without reading,” said Yerak.
- Send a scoop. This, of course, isn’t a surprise, but they all want scoops, no matter what their beat. “If something is relatively new and interesting, that grabs us right away,” Hageman said.
- Don’t over-reach with tie-ins to insensitive topics. This is one of Schoenberg’s biggest pet peeves. “So if you’re trying to sell hair dye and you somehow link that to a great national tragedy like Hurricane Katrina, reporters tend to remember that and it’s obviously not the way to go,” she said.
- Get the name right. I somehow got on a list as Dannette Johnson. I have no idea where that came from, but when I get email pitches to that name, I know immediately it’s junk. Hageman agrees. “If I get an email addressed to ‘Dear Frank Johnson,’ I’m probably not going to go past that. How can I trust anything in the email if you can’t get my name right?”
- Be persistent. This one shocked me. There is almost nothing that irritates me more than a PR pro who sends me their pitch three or four times and forwards it with a “just trying to get to the top of your inbox again.” I want to reach through my screen and strangle them when they do that. But that didn’t bother these three. “Personally, for most of the lifestyles people, if you send us three of the same email in a day, we won’t be offended. You don’t want to be the person sending the same email eight times in a minute, but other than that, there’s almost no way to offend us. We’re reporters,” said Schoenberg.
- Get to know how they prefer to communicate. For Yerak, it’s about timing, and afternoon emails can get buried. “My general rule of thumb is if you don’t hear from me at all, it’s generally because I’m too busy. And since I get so many emails, if I don’t get to that email that day, I don’t go back to it,” she said. “I have a first in, first out policy. I’ll start looking at emails I receive tonight and emails I get in the morning, but if you send me an email tomorrow at three o’clock in the afternoon and I’m really busy tomorrow, I may not get to it.” Hageman said he even prefers phone calls and then he told a story of some of the animal rights people who call him with scoops all the time.
- Give photo opportunities. Yerak had a tip that came from one of the photo editors: “Give access to photographers; we don’t want handout images.”
- For ambiguous topics, reach out to more than one journalist. “I know this goes against the PR code, generally, but I’m a huge advocate of it’s your job to try to get attention for your client, so I would definitely spread it around,” said Yerak. “We get hundreds of emails every day. There’s days when I don’t get to all my emails, and I don’t know what other reporters are working on generally, so what you send me I may not either have an interest in or time for, so I would say send it to other people. Send it to editors because everyone has a different opinion on what is newsworthy, and an editor might see it and think it’s interesting or they might be desperate so they’ll assign it to somebody.”
- Build a lasting relationship. Hageman said trust is an important trait that has a lasting impression. “There are certain PR people, when I see an email come in from them, I will pretty much drop everything to read it because we worked together in the past. They’ve been really good and professional, and I enjoy working with them to the point where I will put out the extra effort.”
The conversation was definitely enlightening and what I came away with was: Build trust, this is a marathon (not a sprint), journalists are people, too—albeit really busy, if they hurt your feelings, don’t take it personally…keep trying, and news releases do still work if they’re executed properly.