Calling a journalist? Avoid making crucial mistakes

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Contrary to what many texters, chatters, tweeters, and emailers would like us to believe, reports of the demise of the phone call have been greatly exaggerated.

For PR professionals (and those who profess to be), those coveted reporters and editors we try so hard to reach might offer a lesson: It is dead. At least it is in the sense of picking up the phone, calling a reporter, and pitching away.

As someone who has been in PR for a “few” years—long enough to remember when the phone pitch really was king, before email, and way before social media—I have learned through many firsthand experiences how important it is to continually modify my approach.

If I am trying to get a reporter on the phone, I almost always begin with an email, conveniently tagged with a read receipt. If the journalist and I have a great relationship but I don’t want to include the pitch by email, I typically say I have a story idea that I think warrants consideration and then ask about talking briefly on the phone.

A great reporter here in the Washington, D.C., area is WTOP Radio’s Neal Augenstein, who is also a prolific tweeter—now well upward of 17,000 tweets. I couldn’t help but “LOL” today when I read this tweet from him, leading to the following exchange:

Not long ago you could make a general determination on when a “good time” would be to call a journalist. Daily newspaper reporters used to have one or two hard deadlines each day. They had one job then: They wrote for the newspaper.

Today, they still do that, but they also blog, tweet, post, and even capture video for a story. They are on deadline all the time, and they cover far more territory than they used to. Having a “beat” is a veritable luxury that no longer exists for many reporters.

So getting a cold call from a PR pro, even if there’s a good relationship in place, is not high on the list of how journalists want to be pitched. Don’t get me wrong: They still want and may very much need to talk to you.

Reporters won’t hesitate to hunt you down to respond, if needed. Understanding the pressures they are under and reaching them first with email or some other written communication—which can provide much-needed context and the chance to digest it when they are focused—can help them to sort out whether it’s newsworthy.

Am I saying you should never call a reporter? Of course not.

Before you dial that phone, especially before you ring that cell phone number that a reporter gave when working on a previous story of yours, stop and think—and send a quick email first. Maybe even a second email, in case the reporter was on the run and just couldn’t reply.

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If you don’t hear back, then call. At least then the journalist will know why you’re calling. Ultimately, you’ll be a lot more successful when pitching your news.

Steve Simon is vice president at Van Eperen & Company, a full-service public relations and strategic communications firm based in Maryland. Contact him at ssimon@veandco.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. A version of this story originally appeared on the firm’s Veracity blog.

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