Bad Pitching and Bitching: Should Journalists Expose Bad PR Pitches?

This post was originally published on NakedPR.com (my now-retired blog featuring commentary on PR and social media issues). While I'm considering reviving my Naked PR brand this year, I'm considering taking it in a slightly different direction -- back to its roots. In the meantime, I'm moving most of the original content to other sites I own, saving only a few key posts from the old archives. This one was published on July 21, 2008, and I made some minor updates before moving it to All Freelance Writing.

In this post I commented on two issues, both of which are relevant to writers. On one hand, there's the issue of terribly-targeted PR pitches. That's something any freelance press release writer needs to understand, especially if they take on distribution for their clients. And on the other hand there's the issue of whether or not journalists should publicly "out" PR people for sending a lousy pitch.

Basically, a PR rep sent a poorly targeted (and some would say poorly designed) story pitch to Joe Nocera, with The New York Times. He decided to expose the PR professional and her pitch in a blog post.

Normally at Naked PR I had a very blunt, no-holds-barred approach (much more so than in my attacks on content mills and other writing-related BS here in the past). That's part of the reason I was asked to comment on this issue. But this is some of my milder material.

I'll be sharing at least a couple of other posts from Naked PR in coming weeks as I finish the archive migration. In the meantime, enjoy, and feel free to weigh in. While this post was written in 2008, this issue is just as relevant today.


Mechele Pellebon got in touch late last week, with a link to Joe Nocera's post on the NY Times Executive Suite blog - P.R. Pitch of the Month (or Maybe the Decade). She wondered "“What would NakedPR say?” Well "Naked PR" is feeling slightly constructive today, so here's what I think:

On Pitching

The pitch came from Amanda Miller of Nike Communications, pushing the Phil & Ted's line of products - inline stroller and playpen / crib combo to be more specific.

It was loaded with pop culture references: Brangelina, J.Lo, Marc Anthony, Brook Shields, Gwyneth Paltrow, etc.

It even referred to children as fashion accessories.

Let's cut to the chase - it wasn't a very well thought-out pitch. More importantly, let's look at why:

1. The pitch wasn't well-targeted.

Why on earth would you send something like this to the Times? Would it work for a pop culture mag? Possibly. But this isn't a pop culture mag. I'd like to think most of us know enough to target pitches like this differently to different audiences. In the future, I hope Amanda joins those ranks.

2. The pitch was hypocritical.

On one hand, Amanda notes "with the widespread use of fertility drugs and an increase in women having children later in life (average age is now 31), twins — and children born in quick succession — are born in greater quantity now more than ever."

So we're talking about an aging group of new parents. Then why does the pitch sound like it's targeting a parent reader base in their teens to early twenties? I understand the concept of targeting parents who care about fashion. This was just too much though. Again, time to improve the targeting.

3. The pitch was drawn out.

With a PR pitch, you need to get to the point. And get there quickly.

The issue of referring to children as fashion accessories is a bit unnerving. Then again, it's sadly true in a lot of cases. Don't act like you've never seen it.

On the other hand, is it smart for a company to tie itself to that group? Would you want your, or your client's, company associated with the seriously superficial when the products could otherwise appeal to a much larger base? That doesn't seem smart in this case, especially given the likely readers of the journalist being targeted.

Amanda's mistakes all come down to the same thing - the pitch was extremely poorly targeted. The good news is that's easy to fix moving forward.

On Bitching

Am I going to whine about Nocera for exposing this bad pitch on his blog? Nah.

Someone wasted his time. He happens to have a public outlet to express his disdain. That's life.

Could, or should, he have handled it a bit differently? I think so. It's one thing to spend your time complaining publicly about a pitch you don't like. But wouldn't it be more productive to give some useful feedback?

If you want someone to improve, tell them how. They may or may not listen -- if they don't, by all means, rip them a new one if you think the really needs to be exposed to protect you or someone else from similar stupidity.

On Fixing This Mess

On a more general note, when it comes to folks complaining about pitches, I'd really like them to come out and say how they were contacted. And it would be nice to hear how that PR person came across them, if they know (and it wouldn't hurt for them to ask if they feel they're being improperly targeted).

Why does this matter?

It would help to know if they're actively soliciting pitches, and what they're saying they do (or don't) want. It would also help to see what kind of bio exists, if any, and if that would explain why they're getting certain types of pitches.

Is their own writing style where the PR person found them similar in any way to that of the pitch? If so, then it may not be as poorly targeted as originally thought.

I'm not saying Nocera specifically solicits, or makes it appear like he solicits, these kinds of pitches. But journalists aren't always completely innocent when it comes to bad pitches they receive. Sometimes they forget that they've covered certain things in the past for example -- and that makes it reasonable for PR folks to think they might be interested in covering something similar in the future. At other times, they place blame for bad pitches in the wrong places.

A good example would be when Gina Trapani not long ago was bashing PR folks for "ignoring" her requests on her website not to send pitches to a specific email address. What she neglected to point out (or figure out) was that PR folks weren't finding that address on her website. They were in fact finding it in a media database - a problem she could have solved much earlier by bothering to ask.

Journalists can get to the root of a lot of these problems by simply asking where they were found. I'm not saying they should waste time doing this constantly, but it would cut down on a lot of the bickering back and forth when there are more legitimate reasons for targeting someone, even if the journalist personally thinks something was poorly targeted to them.

By all means, I'm not taking blame away from the PR crowd. We have plenty of clueless folks masquerading as PR professionals without understanding what that really means (which is a LOT more than pitching).

I sometimes wonder what happened to the relations side of things (equally important from the journalist perspective). I suppose as long as Amanda's clients aren't looking for coverage from Joe, and as long as Joe doesn't later need access to Amanda's clients, there's no major harm done here.

It's when either side doesn't have enough forethought to think about what they may be doing to future relationships that we really have a problem.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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3 thoughts on “Bad Pitching and Bitching: Should Journalists Expose Bad PR Pitches?”

  1. Jenn, the title of your post really sums up the Nocera/Miller public relations snafu beautifully. (The article doesn’t disappoint either.) I became a NakedPR reader after your Chris Anderson “Weighing in on Wired” post, and look forward to your weekly dispensing of well-deserved spankings for the PR challenged and warm hugs for the few who respect the craft. Well done.

    Reply
    • I can think of one company and a handful of PR pros who need more than a “spanking” right now, but I’ve been giving myself time to cool off about the re-emergence of the PR blog party under a new guise (and they were doing so good there for a while dammit!). Then again, that group was so quick to assume I was talking about them last time around (they were more transparent than they thought?) that I’m sure this batch knows damn well who they are (and they’re not necessarily the same folks doing the same things). Ah… a bitch fest for another day. Today only mellow Jenn’s in the house.

      Reply
  2. I agree with your assessment of this pitch. First, wrong target. US Magazine is a right fit – they write about pregnant women being a hot trend (provided they lose the baby weight in weeks). They send Angelina mini designer handbags for Baby Sahara – so the pitch is not really out there – just wrong audience. Secondly, it is way to long. I think this is a classic case of one-size-fits-all gone wrong. Technology allows PR professionals to send widespread pitches. But in the end – you have to know your audience and customize a pitch. Old school – I know.

    Reply

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