Making the follow-up call to journalists is one of the most reviled
parts of an AE's job. Larry Dobrow reports on how to get the job done
without irritating the very people you're trying to persuade
The scene: a cubicle in a cramped newsroom. The reporter sits in front
of a computer, nearly entombed by back issues of The Wall Street Journal
and empty McDonald's bags. The phone rings, snapping him away from the
story that's due in 20 minutes and nearly causing him to asphyxiate on a
half-chewed Chicken McNugget. After he answers with a barely audible
grunt, a cheery voice responds, "I was just calling to see whether you
received the press release I faxed you yesterday."
Whether or not PR practitioners on the other end of the line realize it,
such calls are the equivalent of firing another shot in the simmering
war between journalists and PR execs. For, as is well documented, there
are few things that annoy journalists more than the "did you receive my
press release?" follow-up call.
"I've almost stopped making (follow-up calls) altogether, because I
can't stand the attitude journalists have toward them," says Rex John,
senior partner of Rex John & Associates Public Relations. Nonetheless,
most PR folk trudge onward, hoping that they'll happen upon the rare
reporter, editor, or producer who is genuinely appreciative to have been
alerted to the existence of a press release.
Perhaps the problem lies in the very nature of the follow-up phone call.
Think about it: journalists are being asked if they want more
information about a press release that they never asked for in the first
place. Still, there is a case to be made for being diligent about
following up on every release.
Many reporters receive hundreds of e-mails and faxes every week, and
barely have time to skim most of them. But although they might be
irritated, the follow-up call can prompt journalists to fish your
release out of the pile and give it a second look. "Persistence is still
the most direct route between a publicist and coverage," says Chase,
media relations specialist at Access Communications. His view is backed
by that of Fortune reporter Janice Revell. "(Follow-up calls) are
irritating most of the time. But it's like when you see a terrible TV
commercial: it's bad, but you remember it anyway. The call will
sometimes make a reporter think twice."
Most PR practitioners, especially the ones who spent time in journalism
before changing professions, view follow-up calls as a necessary
"You have to do it," says David Coburn, a senior counselor at
PriceMcNabb who admits to having had a "short fuse" with PR people
during his days as a newspaper reporter. "The problem is that most of
the time, these calls are completely mindless." Others, however, see no
point in picking up the phone. "Follow-up calls are a huge waste of
time," says Hodge Communications president Sally Hodge, formerly a
reporter and columnist at the Chicago Tribune. "The only reason people
follow up is because it's become rote.
It's almost like we have to justify our existence to clients."
Needless to say, reporters themselves don't go out of their way to
trumpet the virtues of the follow-up call. "FedEx works. The mail works.
E-mail works," Maxim Online executive editor Gene Newman stresses.
"Assume that whatever it was you sent, we got it. If you don't hear back
from us, we're not interested."
Regardless of whether they believe that follow-up calls are an essential
part of the media relations equation, PR practitioners don't exactly
look forward to the process. Following a handful of ground rules,
however, makes the task considerably less painful. Stick with the
reporter's preferences - if he or she wants to be contacted exclusively
via telegraph, just play along. But be sure to keep your follow-up pitch
quick; if you can't say what you have to say in fewer than 45 seconds,
your pitch isn't ready for prime time. And never, ever disturb a
reporter who is on deadline.
"You might as well throw your press release in the garbage," says
Edelman VP of media relations Craig Brownstein.
In terms of how best to deal with petulant reporters, no two PR execs
have the exact same strategy. "All you can do is ask, 'Is this a good
time?' and be polite and quick," suggests RFB Communications VP Liz
"Anything more, and you risk excommunication." Verb! Communications
president and managing director Lisa Shenkle adds, "If they're really
rude, I'll ask if they'd like to be permanently removed from my list.
But I don't do this too often, because I don't want too many people to
take me up on it."
Given that journalists tend to enjoy seeing their own bylines, appealing
to their egos often works wonders - when done skillfully. "One of the
first things I do is mention a recent article they wrote or segment they
produced," says CooperKatz media director Andrea Martone. But Brownstein
warns that this tactic can backfire: "You don't think any journalist
worth his salt won't see right through this? Come on."
In the end, PR practitioners can do little more than grit their teeth
and accept that no matter what steps they take, some journalists will
never warm to the concept of the follow-up call. "The bottom line is
that if the information in the press release is useful, it will get
noticed," says Fortune's Revell. "I know that's hard for some PR people
to accept, but that's the way it is."
1 Do convey information that wasn't included in the original pitch. Try
alerting the journalist to something (a trend, a current event) that
might make the information in the press release more relevant or
2 Do pick your spots. Only contact those media outlets that are most
likely to respond to the information in the press release
3 Do create a database that contains information about journalists'
preferences, such as the best time to make a follow-up call or the way
they prefer to be contacted
1 Don't let any follow-up call last more than 45 seconds. If you can't
convey your message within 45 seconds, your pitch isn't sufficiently
2 Don't ever say, "I just wanted to make sure you received the press
release." For your call to be taken seriously, you must give additional
information or otherwise make yourself useful to the journalist
3 Don't leave the task of following up to young staffers. The media can
smell an intern a mile away
4 Don't give up if you've had a bad experience following up with one
reporter. "No" does not mean "no forever".