Social networks can boost pitch potential

Forging online relationships with tech reporters requires the same tact as traditional approaches, finds Aarti Shah

Tony Obregon, director of social media at Cohn & Wolfe, regularly engages with reporters by responding to their Twitter feeds and leaving relevant comments on their blogs. So when he developed a pitch for a particular reporter, he returned to the realm where their interaction began and sent a Twitter pitch that ended with the question, "Is it kosher to ask you this via Twitter?"

What he got was a reply nudging him to read the reporter's blog post that outlined her preferred contact method, which excluded social media channels. Despite the misunderstanding, the reporter, BusinessWeek columnist Sarah Lacy, sent Obregon a follow-up message complimenting him for at least asking if Twitter pitches were OK.

"It was great because we had an exchange about it," Obregon recalls. "And just because she is on these different platforms doesn't mean she wants to be spammed on [them]."

When it comes to social media and pitching, nearly all PR pros are best described as explorers, negotiating the rules of engagement with reporters as they go along. If used strategically, social media can provide a new channel for engaging with and gathering information on reporters. But figuring out the right and wrong way to do this can be complicated.

Obregon's exchange with Lacy highlights the challenge of closely following tech reporters and bloggers, who often have an expansive and frequently updated social media presence. Yet, the underlying key for building relationships using social media is to maintain the same decorum that one would use for traditional pitches.

"The thing to realize is there is nothing magical about these technologies," Lacy says. "So if there is something that I'm not responding to through a phone call or e-mail, you're not going to suddenly get me to write about something because you put it on Facebook or Twitter."

But Twitter feeds and Facebook updates can give PR pros insight into the right time to pitch reporters, like when they are not bogged down in deadlines or traveling.

Todd Defren, principal at Shift Communications, says he uses Twitter to build relationships with tech reporters in ways that wouldn't be possible through traditional channels. For example, when a digital editor recently complained that he was missing lunch because of deadlines, Defren sent the editor a gourmet hamburger in the name of his client.

"When we call up [for a pitch], that hamburger is going to taste pretty good," Defren notes. "That wouldn't been have been possible without something like Twitter."

Even though tech reporters tend to have a pervasive online presence, most use social media for a combination of business and personal contacts. So PR pros should determine how they are using the sites and be wary of inviting reporters to join their network if they have never met.

Frank Gruber, a tech blogger, says he has nearly 300 unconfirmed friend requests on Facebook because he reserves his network mostly for personal relationships. But he's likely to pay attention to a Twitter pitch, especially if it includes a link that he can click for more information.

But reality can make it hard to build an offline relationship with every reporter. To work around this, some PR pros have developed online personas that contribute to the discourse, rather than simply leveraging the space to promote their clients.

Brian Solis, a principal at Futureworks, receives pitches for stories because of the popularity of his blog, PR 2.0.

"Build these relationships [with tech reporters] by showing them that you are paying attention to what they write, and engaging them so they think you have some insight to share as well," he suggests.

Technique tips
Monitor a reporter's interests

Contribute insights to the online space

Find out if reporters are using social media tools for professional networking

Invite a reporter to join your network if you've never interacted

Be too gimmicky in your pitches

Expect a reporter to track on Twitter after only a few posts

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