PR TECHNIQUE - FOLLOWING UP WITH JOURNALISTS: Have you read myrelease?

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

evil.



"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

Roop.



"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."



TECHNIQUE TIPS



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

timely



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

concise



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".



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