15 Common Complaints from Journalists

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During my interviews with members of the professional media on the Media Pro Spotlight podcast, I ask for their advice on what people could do better to establish warm relationships with them. Often, this leads to a list of things PR people do to make journalists’ lives a living hell. Following is a list of things to avoid if you hope to build strong, mutually beneficial relationships with one of your most important target audiences.

They don’t return calls or emails from journalists. I don’t know why this happens. Perhaps the person in charge of the PR function is unqualified for the position, characteristically rude, or their CEO has a pathological fear of the media. Whatever the reason, they’re not doing themselves any favors. My friend is a senior editor for a two-million-circulation lifestyle magazine. On a tight deadline, she needed to connect with the PR people at three separate hotel properties to make arrangements for a site tour and an interview with their executive chef. Not one of them returned her call, so she had to spend additional time on follow-up calls. Later, over a glass of wine, she said, “What’s wrong with you PR people?”

They don’t have an online press kit or succinct description of themselves in their “About Us” section. I’d been assigned by the local newspaper to write a 100-word descriptive blurb about 20 separate businesses, each of which had been named “best” in their categories in the annual “best of” competition. I had a very tight deadline. Going online, I couldn’t find anywhere on their websites a succinct paragraph of who they were and what they did. A good website or online press kit makes it easier for journalists to do their jobs.

They blast their press releases to every outlet, every time, indiscriminately. The typical journalist receives up to 300 emails a day, and most of them are press releases that they consider “spam,” because the sender went for the shotgun approach. Healthcare editors get press releases about auto repair. Business editors get press releases about food recipes. You get the idea. Be fastidious about the creation and segmentation of your media lists.

They don’t do their research before pitching a journalist. This one’s related to the previous gripe about people who spread their press releases like manure. It’s a best practice to pitch your stories to one journalist at a time, after having done the research to learn more about the journalist’s interests, style, previous work and contact preferences. It shows respect, and that you’re a professional. No one likes having their time wasted, and having to sift through piles of email that’s mostly irrelevant. It’s annoying and frustrating. Hacks and novices are in the majority, so your effort to do things right goes a long way.

Their press releases are poorly written or improperly formatted. I only mention this because my media friends bring it up all the time. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff I get,” is a common complaint. It’s too tempting for journalists and editors to hit the “delete” button these days because of the sheer volume of unprofessional submissions they get every day, so if they do open your press release, you want it to shine. If you’re consistently on the mark, they’ll be less trigger-happy the next time they see emails from you.

Their press releases are purely promotional or not newsworthy. There are people who think that the press release is an opportunity to promote or advertise. It’s not. In fact, it’s highly inappropriate to try. Resist the urge to sneak in sales messages. The press release is a news story, or an announcement of something noteworthy or that’s about to happen. The minute an editor spots a sales agenda and poof! It’s deleted. Want to advertise something? Call their advertising department.

They don’t deliver what they promised. A writer friend of mine traveled to a foreign country to do a story about a lovely travel destination. He arrived at the arranged location promptly at the designated time (on a Saturday), and was puzzled that there was no one there to greet him and show him around. There was no one on site who knew what was going on, so he called the media contact person’s cell phone. It went to voice mail. He called several times. Then, he called his editor in New York, who did some digging and learned that the media contact was out on vacation. My friend wrote the story anyway, but it left a bad taste in his mouth.

They are pests. Relentless follow-up is appropriate in some situations, but it’s not okay to harangue a newsroom. If you’ve sent a press release that pertains to an upcoming event or is a story in which you have strong confidence that it’s good, then it’s okay to call a day or so after you’ve sent your pitch or press release to ask whether your media contact received it. It’s possible your item was inadvertently missed. It’s also possible that your media contact is not interested in your item or can’t use it for any number of reasons. Perhaps they’ve already written a similar story that week, or their news crew is booked up, or your topic doesn’t fit into their programming, or they’re just not interested, period. If the media contact doesn’t return your call or respond to your email, then let it go. Don’t call day after day after day. Not only does it drive them underground where you’re concerned, but it brands you as a nuisance.

They think that because they have purchased advertising with the media outlet that they’re entitled to editorial. [Sound of air being sucked inward through teeth.] In the traditional media world, there is a giant barrier, called the “Chinese Wall,” between the editorial and advertising departments. In the editorial department are journalists with a sacred trust and an inviolate code of ethics. They report the objective truth, and cannot be bought. To even suggest such an idea is an insult of the highest magnitude.

They ask to see a story before it’s written. Unfortunately, you can’t control the substance of a story or what is said about you, unless the story is an advertorial and you have paid the media outlet to have a copywriter (not reporter) write a flattering profile on your behalf. If you ask the reporter who’s interviewing you if you can see the story before it goes to print, he or she will give you a sad, embarrassed smile and explain politely that it doesn’t work that way. You will see the story after it appears.

They complain to the editor after the story is published because it paints you in a bad light.  Do not place blame on the reporter or the media outlet that ran the story. Most important, do not complain to the media outlet. Instead, move on with your life. One bad review or well-publicized customer complaint isn’t going to ruin you. There are, however, exceptions to every rule. If there were egregious errors in the reported facts, or you have compelling evidence to suggest the reporter’s sources were unreliable or had axes to grind (e.g., a disgruntled former employee), then you have the right to raise your concerns with the editor or producer who green-lighted the story. This must be a civil discussion, and you must walk into it showing respect as you would to any other professional with whom you have built a relationship of trust. Showing respect earns respect.

They’re a diva. A diva is someone who is perceived as a person who has lost sight of respect and concern for others.They have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. If you want to be a diva when a reporter is doing a story about you, then the journalist may present you with a jaundiced eye, using concrete examples of your behavior to describe you to his/her readers. Good writers “show,” not “tell.” She won’t say, “Gosh, that guy’s a jerk.” Instead, she’ll paint a word picture: “Johnny Diva screamed at the waiter to bring him a clean fork, then blew a waft of cigar smoke into his face.”

They have unrealistic expectations. When you employ media relations as a strategy to build your brand, awareness and mailing list, expect to be in it for the long haul. To expect immediate results is unrealistic. Not every story you submit for consideration will be picked up. Not every publicity campaign will resonate with your audience or sell tickets. Even though a news crew has added you to its day calendar to cover your event, it doesn’t mean they’ll be there, because they may be diverted to a four-alarm fire instead.

Their online presence is lacking. I can tell many stories about journalists who were thwarted from their interest in doing a story because they couldn’t get what they needed from the target’s website. No contact information… no press kit… no company description… amateurish or antiquated website design… poorly written content. Today it’s common that rather than calling you, a journalist will research you first by conducting an Internet search on you or your business. If your online presence is lacking, it’s a big red flag that you’re bush league. What kind of business professional still doesn’t have a decent LinkedIn profile? Why does nothing come up in the google search? Why does your website look like crap? Is your CEO in hiding? Reporters want to talk to credible resources and experts who are in touch with the world and who have a strong online presence.

Your website’s “press room” is solely an archive of the previous press coverage you’ve received. It’s lovely that you have PDFs and videos of previous press coverage. It validates you as a credible resource. Certainly these things ought to be available for viewing on your website. But since the press room is intended as a place where journalists can go to become educated on your business, there needs to be more up there than reading the news stories or watching the video clips in your archives. They’re not your adoring mother, watching every second of your footage and beaming with pride. Do yourself and your business a favor by investing in the creation of an online press kit.