By Christine Kent
How to approach and build reporter relationships, one e-mail message at a time
Back when PR pros schmoozed with journalists at a local bar, or bumped into them at events around town, it was a lot easier to make connections and start lobbing a few pitches their way. Now, years after e-mail took over our lives, PR people have to rely on an impersonal and easily disposable method of communication to make these crucial connections.
Since e-mail is what we're stuck with, how can you engage a media contact in few words, and without the force of your personal charm? PR pros say that getting too chummy in an e-mail—especially a message to a journalist you've never met—usually has the opposite effect (i.e., you sound a bit like a stalker). And a too-formal tone comes off as extra-stiff in an e-mail.
Here's some guidance on hitting the right note in those first-approach e-mails.
1. Show you're a fan. "I can't think of a more simple, intuitive or appropriate approach to building relationships with journalists and editors via e-mail than actually reading their content, and then commenting to them via e-mail," says David Muise, vice president of PR at Full Spectrum Media in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"It's a great introduction, requires no fluff and shows that you are practicing due diligence. It also shows that you are an active player in the story, and that you're not just sending materials blindly when you need something."
2. Give it the personal touch. Along those same lines, Kevin Aschenbrenner, senior account supervisor/PR for Jaffe Associates in Victoria, Canada, says to use names in your e-mail pitch, and not just the ones you get from a mail merge. "Even if you're working off of a huge media list, start it with their name," says Aschenbrenner. "I actually think it's better to use Outlook and not some mail merge program because, wearing my other hat as the editor of the Jaffe Legal News Service, I've seen e-mail pitches that are so obviously mail merges it's painful."
3. Spell-check makes perfect. Christine Hohlbaum, a Munich, Germany-based PR consultant for U.S.-based Wasabi Publicity, relies heavily on e-mail relationships given the distance between her and her media contacts.
She says that a polished message is key to making a good first impression. "I avoid typos," says Hohlbaum. "Using improper grammar and spelling in an e-mail is like stuttering."
4. Just the facts, ma'am. "E-mailing press isn't writing a love letter," says David Libby, principal of Libby Communications in Oakland, Calif. "It's akin to a job application.
The information should be factual, pertinent to the reporter's audience, quick to the point and mirror the reporter's style. If the information in an e-mail, to a reporter, carries these qualities, consistently, e-mail after e-mail, then the reporter will develop trust for the PR person and might respond."
5. E-mail to help out, not just to pitch. Dylan Powell, a PR writer at Houston's Origin Design, practices the "three to one" rule. He contacts journalists three times with helpful background info or comments before sending them one pitch.
6. The need for speed. "If a PR representative replies to journalists' questions with lightning speed, it automatically shows diligence and a commitment to assist," says Matthew Zintel, managing director of Zintel PR in Los Angeles. "That goes a long way in forming a relationship outside of e-mail. I can't tell you how many times an editor or writer has thanked us for quickly answering e-mail questions just minutes after receiving them, no matter the time."
7. Chill out. "Relax your tone," advises Kevin Quartz, PR director at Harrisburg, Pa., ad agency Pavone.
"Many pitches sound too polished, like every word has been agonized over and scrutinized by a team of writers, because they often have. The most effective and personal e-mail communications read like conversations between two friends—as if you wrote the e-mail just for them."
Kacie Main, an account executive at O'Connell & Goldberg PR in Hollywood, Fla., says she imagines she's chatting up a media contact over the phone.
"I think as PR professionals we get into our 'writing modes' and write e-mails as if we're drafting an overall PR plan we are going to send to the CEO of a major company," Main says. "In order to build relationships through e-mail, you have to write them as if you're on the phone. You would never call someone and immediately jump into your pitch. You would say 'hi, how are you?' And when hanging up, you wouldn't say 'best regards,' you would say 'thanks' or 'talk to you soon.'"
But don't get too friendly: "Don't act like someone's best friend in the first e-mail," says Karen Campbell, senior public relations manager for Zondervan, a publisher based in Grand Rapids. Kevin Quartz agrees: "Keep it professional. There's a fine line between conversational and awkwardly personal. Don't ask how their family is doing if you've never met them."
Think hard about that subject line: "You need to make your subject lines count," says Aschenbrenner. "'New Partners Join Firm' is something I see a lot. They don't even put the firm name in the subject. I try to write subjects like headlines. You want to snag a reporter so they open the e-mail, or at least read the first few sentences in the preview pane."
8. The five-second scan. Elizabeth Robinson, president of Volume PR in Centennial, Colo., got a grateful response to a short-and-sweet pitch she sent to a Fortune Small Business reporter who liked the fact that she didn't waste his time. "This is not an age where people curl up with a cup of a coffee to read e-mails," says Robinson. "We scan everything."
Robinson gives her pitches the "five-second scan test" to see if they're succinct and short enough to be digested in just a few seconds. "Set a timer, and see if the pitch entices you to read on," she suggests.
In her pitch to Fortune Small Business, she reduced the news to a few bullet points. The editor contacted her within three minutes, telling her that he was thankful he "didn't have to unpack paragraphs of text."
Kevin Quartz also likes the bulleted approach. "We've moved away from the 'pitch and attached release' format towards a series of easily digestible bullets of information incorporated into the body of the e-mail," he says. "This makes the entire e-mail look like the information is being delivered directly to the recipient."
Aschenbrenner also believes in the Gospel of Keeping it Short.
"When it comes to the body of the e-mail, the way you're going to let a reporter know that they're dealing with a flack who will be an asset and not a pest is to keep it short, and to the point," he explains. "I write out all my pitches ahead of time and make sure that they are no longer than five to seven sentences. That ensures they don't run beyond the first part of an e-mail. Reporters don't scroll."