PR trades, including PRNEWS, expound on authenticity’s virtues. Yet authenticity is a two-way street and includes journalists. So, here’s a confession: sometimes a media relations tactic routinely hated and long derided in surveys actually works.
It’s called spray and pray pitching and sometimes spammy pitching. A sub-category of it has a media relations person sending a large, automated list of journalists a pitch touting an expert source. Sometimes the pitch is repeated. For weeks and months. Same 'expert;' usually the same pitcher.
As you can imagine, there are times when journalists on deadline desperately need an additional source(s). Several sources may suddenly have gone AWOL, another doesn’t offer much substance during a short phone interview and a third is ignoring your emails and calls.
Perhaps an editor asks that the journalist add another voice to her article.
As it happens, there are several PR pros who’ve pitched this journalist every week, for months. Each pitch offers an executive, often a solo practitioner, or an academic. Both seem capable of commenting on literally anything. At least that’s the promise.
Two weeks ago, one of these 'super sources,' a former executive with a big company, was willing to speak about communication in the face of a looming recession. A week before that it was how to best communicate during inflation.
Last week, it was Roe v. Wade and how communicators can maximize internal communication so their corporate message is as clear to the C-suite as it is on the factory floor.
This week, it’s five tips communicators can learn from Cassidy Hutchinson’s June 28 presentation during a special session of the Jan. 6 Select Committee.
The academic source must have an army pitching her weekly (are they students seeking extra credit?). Similar to the above-mentioned pitches, the pitches for the professor feature newsjacking topics. Recently the pitch was about reputation issues stemming from Daniel Snyder’s trouble. Last week, it was Meta’s policy of prohibiting employees from mentioning abortion on internal discussion boards. This week it's NFL-related.
At times, the journalist, desperate for another source, contacts the pitcher. The hope is she can supply this rent-a-quote expert quickly. A bonus, the source has something useful to say.
For Amy Maclean, editorial director of CableFAX, a daily in the television industry, this type of “perpetual pitch usually falls on deaf ears. I figure if this person is that accessible and willing to comment on virtually anything, how much can they really add to a piece?”
On the other hand, Maclean finds herself up against it. “There are times where I just break down…I’m desperate and will grab the low-hanging fruit,” Maclean says. She likens these moments to using “the emergency pull-cord when all else fails.”
And there’s one other time when Maclean will bite on a weekly pitch touting an all-around expert. It's when “I’ll take pity on the PR person and listen to the pitch,” she says.
‘Who are you?’
The topper is what happens just days after our journalist has contacted this PR pro, interviewed the source she represents and quoted him in an article. Right after, another pitch arrives from the same PR pro. She’s pitching the same expert the journalist interviewed last week. Yet there’s no mention of the recent interview or article. It’s a cold, boilerplate pitch.
It seems clear that the PR pro is working from an automated list, spraying and praying.
Mary Elkordy, president and founder, Elkordy Global Strategies, admits this is not the ideal way pitching should happen. When she’s “pitching personally,” Elkordy sends personal notes to journalists, thanking them for using a source she's pitched. Additionally, she urges giving journalists “a rest…you don’t pitch them day after day,” she says.
In a more perfect world, a pitcher might elevate the journalist in our example above to a different list, Elkordy says. Perhaps this friendly list includes verbiage acknowledging the journalist previously interviewed the expert source. ‘Since you’ve spoken with XYZ previously, would you like to interview him about today’s breaking story?’
Other options include automated lists that let PR pros add a personal note above a blind pitch. It’s a compromise.
The best situation, of course, is when a pitcher who’s worked previously with a journalist crafts a personal pitch, says Christina Forrest, a director at Violet PR. “Our highest chance of getting coverage,” she says, “is building and maintaining great relationships with journalists.” Accordingly, she believes “bulk outreach” or blind pitching, which ignores recent time spent with a journalist, “runs the risk of damaging that relationship.”
Similarly, Jennifer Risi, president and founder, The Sway Effect, prefers a “customized, personalized approach…I don’t think you should pitch the same reporter over and over again.” She “doesn’t know why” others do.
Instead, Risi chooses “the best reporter for a story” after “doing my research…I think about what does the journalist want to hear? What does the client want to say? And then I do a sort of matchmaking.” For Risi, “less is more [when pitching] and do your homework…I don’t pitch 100 people; I pitch the right people.”
Formerly worldwide CCO and global MD at Ogilvy Media Influence, Risi adds, “journalists are on overload…you break through by being a trusted resource and bringing them good stories.”
Forrest takes a stab at explaining why cold pitches of expert sources to large lists continue. “It works to some extent. You’ll get hits, but it’s a short-term win,” she says. More than that, “becoming a resource to journalists, reading their content and knowing what they cover takes time, research and dedication.” In other words, pitching the traditional way is a much slower process.
On the other hand, Elkordy insists pitchers aren’t doing their job “with bad intentions” when they repeatedly send a series of blind pitches touting an expert. In addition, she defends the pitcher in our example above, who sends another cold pitch shortly after the journalist has interviewed her client.
It’s possible, Elkordy says, that someone else in the office sent the pitch, though it might have the first pitcher’s email address on it.
In addition, it could be a time issue. “If it’s a breaking story, you want to get the expert’s name out to the media fast. You don’t want to lose out because someone else beat you.” When it’s a wide-ranging story, like Roe v. Wade, the blind pitching list is larger, Elkordy confirms.
Moreover, sometimes a client or executive insists PR send a series of blind pitches. “Part of our job is getting the client out there,” Elkordy says. “And so, while you never want to bog down someone’s email…we know there are fewer journalists now, you're going to pitch more. It's just the nature of what you're hired to do.”
Media who “don't understand that aspect of it…haven't worked on the PR side” previously, she adds.
As a result, pitches are sent wide, via automated lists, sometimes touting the same expert, week after week.
Yet Elkordy believes “journalists don’t mind” receiving such cold pitches about an expert if it results in “a source for their story.” This type of pitching, she says, answers journalists’ and sources’ needs.
That’s why it continues.