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The 5 things I wish I knew in my first week working in public relations

The 5 things I wish I knew in my first week working in public relations

This PR agency has a unique hiring strategy that probably be the standard for every PR agency in the world. Every PR Associate, including myself, is a former journalist. 


Why does the Mind Meld PR agency only hire journalists? It goes beyond creativity and superior writing skills, though that’s critically important. (It’s also not just about tapping into an underappreciated talent base, though that’s also a big factor. Layoffs at newsrooms at the Business Insider, The L.A. Times, Vice, Deadspin and dozens of other media outlets big and small are forcing longtime career journalists to look at other uses for their skills.) 


It’s more about gut instincts. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of 30 to 100 news pitches a day, you already have a sense of what works and what doesn’t. You know what PR pitches you liked and which stories you covered. You also know the kind of PR pitches you’d reject out of hand (ie. most of them). So, everyone on the PR team with those instincts has an edge when we’re the ones pitching the reporters.


That said, going from journalism to public relations isn’t always an automatic transition. For a reporter coming into a PR agency, it can be hard to know what to expect in your first few days. Here are some insights to start working effectively in public relations. 


Good stories in PR (and in the news) require a sense of urgency 

I recall going to my first pitch meeting at Mind Meld PR. I was excited to present my ideas for stories we could pitch about our clients, so instead of waiting for the old hands to show how it was done, I volunteered to jump right in. The team could see my enthusiasm, so, all good. It was my time to shine!


I presented what I thought were good ideas, but I wasn’t getting the response I’d expected. After each awesome idea, the team’s polite smiles and reserved feedback killed my mojo. Five minutes in, I was feeling like a comedian that had just bombed on stage. Total crickets. But wait… 


Was it me? My ideas were awesome! Of that I was sure. Maybe it was them. Had I just joined a team of naysayers and energy parasites? (I seriously contemplated the thought that I was being punked by my new colleagues. They could not stand this new genius in their midst, outshining them on the first day.)


The rest of the team took their turns presenting ideas from the news that we could build our outreach around. And instead of being greeted by polite silence, they had a playful, ferocious back and forth to refine these ideas on the fly. It was entertaining to watch…


And as they kept going, I realized where I’d gone wrong.


My ideas were based on stories that were weeks or months old. They were in the right category of news, but they were all based on old news. Those opportunities had come and gone.


Meanwhile, the rest of the team had brought in ideas inspired by news stories from that morning! Breaking news that the world was focused on that day (and might not still be focused on in 48 hours). I realized that just like in a newsroom, the most relevant story ideas would require a sense of urgency. And that’s the direction I took into every pitch meeting, week in and week out, going forward.


When working in public relations, get to the point fast (or get out of the way)


PR pros also know the importance of being concise. Reporters get hundreds of pitches each day, so your outreach has to tell a story in just a few lines. 


The first time I wrote a pitch, I had what I just knew was a great idea. And I wanted to make sure the journalist had all the info they needed to write the story. 

 

But of course, the reporter needs context, right? Who was I to decide what context was important versus what was tangential. 


The problem? When I finished writing the pitch and in my enthusiasm, shared it with a colleague, they pointed out what probably should have been obvious. No reporter was going to read a 4-page pitch. (Yup, it’s true. My first pitch was 4 pages long. Would I have read that as a reporter a month ago? No…)


With some helpful feedback from my new colleague, we figured out what was important for that reporter and whittled it down to just a few paragraphs. That was a pitch that got straight to the point.


(By the way, we didn’t have to throw out the 4 pages. That came in handy later when I was personalizing the pitch for other reporters. It was actually useful because I could pull bits and pieces from that original document, adding a pinch of whatever was relevant to an individual reporter covering a particular business or tech beat.)


Journalists don’t have time to read your novel of an email. They just need the relevant facts to decide whether they’d like to follow up with an interview. The phrase “kill your darlings” has now been ingrained into my writing process. I’m always aiming to be more direct and brief. And that strategy is working much better than sending pages and pages of info to overworked journalists.  


The right turn of phrase can open doors, if you know it


Get familiar with your client’s industry. It’s something I understood intuitively from the start, at least in theory. And that means literally speaking their language.


Without researching the trends in the industry, the big players, and competitors, it’s tough to know which conversations you should be injecting your clients into. Once you grasp the industry, you can start to write pitches effectively and target the right journalists. Remember, reporters are experts too. They’ll know if you didn’t do the research, and ignore your pitch. 


When I first started in PR, I took on a client in the marketing space. I have to admit, in the first two weeks, there was a lot of industry jargon that I was completely unfamiliar with. Terms like ad recall, click-through-rate, and A/B testing… I didn’t know what these meant. But I had to learn. After every meeting, I’d look up all of these phrases, figure out their meaning and start using them immediately to good effect in pitches. And I had to start researching my client’s industry and reading trade publications that got down to the minute details. 


These kinds of phrases are the language of ad industry reporters. By learning this ‘language’ I was able to ask questions of our client on a deeper level, signalling to them, just by using these words, that we understood their business. And when pitching reporters, my hit rate went up. 


It took a few weeks, and A LOT of questions, but that work has paid off in the form of connecting with journalists and getting results for the client. 


Learn as you go. Use data to make your PR pitches more effective  


Journalists are all about telling stories, and a lot of them at that. They might write thousands of words a day. You might think that a public relations pro has it easier. After all, we’re not typically writing 400 to 1,200 words per article. Often, our pitches are in the 150-word range. Really, just a few paragraphs. What’s so hard about that?


Well, try creating dozens (and dozens) of variations on that pitch, targeting all kinds of hyper-niche reporters, only after doing research to figure out exactly what makes each of them tick? The truth is I think I might be writing twice as much as when I was a working journalist, overall.


And it’s not just about putting out a high volume of written pitches. They need to be effective. Well, how do we know these pitches are effective, particularly when reporters don’t have time to give you feedback? (Usually, there’s no response at all, unless a reporter is interested in using our pitch. And even when they use your pitch, they might not tell you. The first time you find out is when a Google Alert for a client goes off, showing a new article somewhere on the Internet featuring the company.)


As PR professionals, we use different tools like MuckRack (others use Meltwater or other apps) to track metrics like open rate and audience reach. This means we can experiment with the effectiveness of different subject lines, and understand which publications give our clients maximum reach.

 

I didn’t know these measurement tools existed when I started pitching in my first week. I figured I’d just send out emails and hope for a response and that was all we could do. But my colleague introduced me to the idea of tracking metrics like open rate and click-through rate. 


That allowed me to start A/B testing different approaches and subject lines. Write the subject line one way. Then try changing just one word (or maybe the whole line) and see what happens.

Now, if a pitch is or isn’t working, I know it’s not just coincidence. I have a way to measure the effectiveness, adapt and improve our chances at all times.


Creativity is only the start. You need a PR process


I recall sending out pitches in my first week, thinking every pitch I sent was perfect, and expecting to hear back from every journalist on my media list. Nope. Journalists have all sorts of restraints, including the whims of editors and managers, and deadlines. Or, your pitch just might not be a fit. 


I learned quickly that you have to take the ego out of outreach, and stay consistent even when you haven’t heard back. 


Creativity helps, but if that creativity isn’t combined with productivity, you won’t get the results. A single win can require many hours of work. 


(BTW, contrary to popular belief. reporters aren’t going to respond to you because you went to the same college as them. You have to write clever and well targeted pitches, and be consistent in your outreach to get big wins. It’s not uncommon for PR professionals to reach out to hundreds of reporters for a specific pitch. )


Consistent outreach also means following up with journalists who haven’t responded to you. Only 10 percent of reporters say they would prefer not to receive any follow ups, while 55 percent said they’re okay with receiving follow ups, especially in the first week. And since PR professionals pay attention to the data, they also send follow ups to reporters after their initial outreach. 


Curious about what it’s like to work in public relations? Check out more awesome ideas about how to do public relations.

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