To call or not to call, that is the question!

Mum: What do you actually do for a living? 

Me: Short version, I call journalists and plead with them to write about my clients. 

That is the conversation that I think happens for all young PR professionals about twenty minutes into a trip home to see the parents. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. 

Anyway, one of the many elements of being a PR professional is connecting with journalists and obtaining coverage. 

But our world has changed so much over the last few years - speak to the old guard that have not only been around the block, they actually put out a press release about the block being built - they will tell you that everything starts with a phone call. But, speak to the up and comers, the young’uns, and you quickly realise something. There are communication specialists that are shit scared of picking up a phone and calling someone! 

I didn’t study PR, so I don’t know what is being taught on the matter, but what I do know is that being a human is important, most of my big coverage wins have come from long lasting relationships. That may be through striking up quick chats on Twitter to being at events and parties and being “that guy” that chatted to people, promising not to pitch them - they liked me... Further down the line they remember that I was a person at a thing, not a bot on a mission to pitch. 

I spoke to Matthew Hughes about this, if you don’t know Matt, he’s a lovely man that writes brilliant words, and a theme started to develop, “don’t call for the sake of it would be my advice, but to be honest, I use my personal number, and for the most part I give that to people I have a good relationship with,” a huge takeaway from our chat. You will get to the phone call stage, but likely when you are more mates than simply PR <> Journo. 

This got me thinking…. I have built a network over time of truly wonderful people on the journo side, so, why not pick up the phone and ask a few more of them what they think of calls? 

(Busted, of course I emailed them). 

When asked if they minded PRs calling or if email was best, Jennifer Savin over at Cosmopolitan summed up most peoples’ thoughts saying that “to be honest I rarely pick up the phone these days… simply because I’ve never had a good pitch over it. Often you can tell it’s a poor intern reading off a script and it’s just a waste of everybody’s time. Email is always my preferred mode of communication as I can read the info as and when I’ve got decent time to do so, rather than being put on the spot.” Whereas another fave of ours, Sifted (sign up to the newsletter here)’s Senior Reporter, Amy Lewin, was somewhat more direct, but honesty is something that comes across well in this world; 

“I HATE getting calls from PR people. 

Email is the way to go.”

Whereas Leo Mirani from the Economist, possibly a little more traditionally, pointed out that he doesn’t “really mind, no. It would be nice if they were useful. But it allows me to say "that's not for me" or "sure, send me an email". It's also a useful reminder that PR folks are human beings just doing their jobs.” 

I have been called many things of late, but being reminded that we are human too is actually decent, cheers, fine sir. 

Lest we forget that a lot of our compatriot hacks don’t work in the same place, they are in LA one week for some phone launch (ironically), Shanghai the next week for a blockchain thing and back to San Fran to find out why 5G is the future that we can’t live without. Journos are often freelance, often on the move, and the last thing they want is their mobile going off. Which is a perfect segway to the lovely and inspiring Charlotte Jee of MIT Technology Review fame:

“I prefer emails. I don't have a desk phone, and I don't share my mobile phone number for work purposes. So emails are the only way to get hold of me (you can try tweeting at me but that is a very hit and miss method...mostly miss). You can also try LinkedIn but expect a long wait...”

So, are people getting more or less calls these days, the answers were mixed, but Chris Merriman helped out adding, “Luckily, thanks to the fact I send them all straight to voicemail, I am getting fewer.”

This sounds like I am hating on calls, I am not. For me they still work, when to the right person at the right time, with the right pitch, so it is hard to generalise, but I had to ask what the biggest annoyance was when people do ring. 

For this there was a reassuring clarity on what people didn’t like…  Three main points: 

  • “Know who you are calling. Not being sure what they're talking about. Not having researched who I am or what I write about beforehand.” - Charlotte Jee, MIT Tech Review 

  • “If you are going to call, get to the point: Very long-winded explanations of stories when I can almost immediately tell whether it's something of interest to our titles.” - Thomas Macaulay of IDG

  • “Be really careful when following up an email: they're phoning because they didn't get a response to their email. It's not the US - take the hint!” - Chris Merriman freelance for The Enquirer and Talk Radio to name a few

Not all doom and gloom though, Alara Basul, UK Tech News’ editor reminds us that being human is going to be vital if you are calling. 

“When a PR calls and doesn't mention a pitch. For example, they may have already emailed about X, but when they call they speak about something completely different - i.e. media invite, event, press briefing etc. Puts less pressure on the journalist and then it will most likely get them to check their inbox for previous correspondence.”

Granted, balancing that with getting to the point is going to be tough...

Any top tips for people calling out of the blue? 

Leo:  “Please start by introducing yourself and telling me what you want from me.”

Charlotte: “Be yourself! Journalists are only human beings (hard to believe sometimes though, I know). So don't let yourself get too nervous. That said, do plenty of research about what you're saying and who you're calling beforehand. Expect journalists to question you on your pitch - practice it with others. And steel yourself for the fact that some people will be very curt with you. They might have an imminent deadline - don't take it personally.”

So the summary, brought to you by the wonderful Yessi Bello-Perez (Jess-y if you are going to call her, not YES-EE) UK Crypto Correspondent for The Next Web:

“I think calls can work really well when there's an established rapport between a PR and a journalist, but that takes time. I can't really think of an instance where someone who was contacting me for the first time ever decided to ring and that turned into coverage. I am by no means saying that PR is an easy job, I know it's tough and there are client expectations to be managed, but I think there are a lot of people not doing their job properly thus giving the industry such a bad name.”

BY DOUG HUNTER, ACCOUNT MANAGER AT CEW COMMS