Introducing Our Journalist Roundtable
February 1st, 2021
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There are plenty of perks of being part of The Press Hook for brands, media professionals, and publicists. Our goal is to be your go-to source for every question you have about our industry, and our blog is a destination to provide important information and advice. Recently, we invited publicists from The Press Hook to join a Slack channel discussion about the type of questions that keep them up at night. From press release writing to agency size, we talked to many leading writers to get their insight.

Here, we are happy to introduce the first column of our journalist roundtable series:

The writers:

When an expert represents a brand (i.e. a nutritionist for a snack food brand), what makes you decide if you'll include them or not? Are there ways to do this ethically?

Daley Quinn: To be honest, I usually try to find experts who aren't working with a brand, but that can get pretty difficult. I guess a way to do this ethically would be to state in the story that the expert is working with a particular brand that was recommended, but I've never disclosed that info in any of my stories. Suppose I believe that an expert will only try to push the products they're repping in all of their answers to my questions. In that case, I probably won't interview them because I want the interview to be somewhat unaffiliated!

Lindsay Tigar: It really depends on a few factors. Sometimes, an editor will require that an expert isn’t affiliated with a brand. In that case, I have to follow the assignment letter. However, as a personal ethical standard, I feel comfortable quoting experts who have brand affiliations as long as they don’t spend the interview actively selling products. If my story is about ‘healthy ways to improve your skin’s complexion’ and the expert is affiliated with a high-sugar juice brand and recommends people smear juice all over their face, I’m not going to quote them.

An expert needs to be unbiased, just like a journalist. We aren’t here to help them meet their affiliation requirements. It’s also important to note that most of the time, a publication will want to link to the expert’s personal website, not to their brand affiliation website, which is tricky to explain to publicists who represent the brand.

Wendy Rose Gould: Some outlets are OK with quoting brand-affiliated experts. When quoting, I’ll typically mention the source’s primary qualifications first, then their association with the brand as a secondary citation component. If that expert has a profile that lists their qualifications on your site, that allows me to link more seamlessly to the brand itself. Some outlets won’t allow for brand-affiliated experts, so that’s just a simple no-go territory.

Trae Bodge: I sometimes encounter this with shopping and financial experts who I assume have brand partnerships. When I am working on an article, I usually ask for a series of tips, and I don’t ask for disclosures. Instead, I include information that is high-quality and relevant to my piece. On the flip side, I won’t include the expert or their tips if there’s a hard sell.

I feel that everyone needs to make a living, and if they provide me with quality content, I don’t have a problem with them mentioning a partner brand. I assume that they are only partnering with brands that they have vetted and believe in, which is how I partner with brands in my other function as a subject matter expert.

Joanne Cleaver: The expert’s authority has to be bigger than the brand. I’ve literally had people try to read the brand marketing collateral. Orr worse, just think I can quote their marketing collateral as part of their interview with me. To me, this signals someone who, first, is woefully unprepared for a genuine interview. If all they know is the one thing they currently think is their newsy hook, and it’s all about them, and what they want to say, their expertise is one-dimensional.

Typically this happens with people who think that a media interview is ‘free advertising.’ When people go into it with that expectation, they shoot themselves in the foot. If they don’t realize that their comments have to serve the bigger purpose of the readers through the story, they are unlikely to move off their ‘talking points’ to context, trends and additional comments that help build the story. It’s frustrating for everyone. A pitch that seems to be framed in terms of ‘free advertising’ and an interview that cannot move past that framework puts that organization and individual on my do-not-call list.

When is a press release necessary?

DQ: When I ask for one — ha! No need to send a press release as an attachment in an email. I rarely read them. Something short and sweet with a catchy subject line is always best.

LT: Since I write mostly feature stories, I don’t have a real need for press releases. I think they can be helpful for news writers who are permitted to pull quotes off of press releases. I would never be able to do that since my editors require and expect original content and interviews. It’s essential to know your audience when you’re sending off press releases since, most of the time, feature or lifestyle writers will delete ‘em right away. If there is a publicist I work with frequently who sends me a press release, I’ll read it and maybe file it for a future story idea. But a cold one likely goes straight into the trashcan, especially if the subject line is ‘For Immediate Release’ and doesn’t have my name in the introduction.

WRG: Honestly, I’m of the mindset that the traditional press release is kind of dead (at least in the lifestyle space). I think it can make sense sometimes for a formal, large update where a lot of information needs to be communicated, but otherwise, I think your time is better spent with quick, personable email briefs and check-ins.

TB: Rarely. I find most press releases to be too long (and boring). I prefer a brief, concise pitch with all the relevant info. Bullets are always nice, as are small images and don’t forget a URL. I appreciate pitches like this, as they allow me to quickly assess whether the product, service or expert is a fit for what I’m working on.

JC: Usually, except for when the expert is commenting on breaking news or trends, or, if the expert’s bio is so on point, their expertise and relevance are self-evident.

How much value do journalists place on relationships with publicists (i.e., are you more likely to cover something if it's an existing relationship, or does it not matter if the angle is right?)

DQ: I am probably more likely to cover something if I have an existing relationship with a publicist. But it's mostly because I get a million products sent to me every day, and it's easier for me to remember specific products when they've been attached to a publicist in my mind, if that makes sense. I am much, much more drawn to working with publicists I have a relationship with when I am interviewing experts because I know they won't flake on me when I need those interview answers back. But I won't include a random product in a story if I don't think it's a good fit, regardless of my relationship with a publicist.

LT: I truly value my relationships with publicists, many of which I’ve worked with for five or six years. It comes down to who I can trust to send me answers to questions when I request them and who will pitch me within my niche. That isn’t to say I ‘only’ work with a handful of publicists for each and every story, but I definitely have a preferred list of go-to’s. I will read all pitches tied to current story opportunities, but based on experience, I know if I send interview questions to 20 publicists, I’ll only get ten back. And only six of those will be quality responses. Since my job is to meet the deadline, I have to ensure I send out the opportunities to my trusted contacts to write the story, no matter what.

WRG: I highly value publicists, and the ones who are reliable, kind, and easy to work with are my go-tos over and over again. That said, the expert or brand needs to be exemplary, too. Just because there is a good publicist/writer relationship, that doesn’t mean a brand/expert can be jammed like a misfit puzzle piece into a story.

TB: I greatly value relationships with publicists. While I always try to remain objective and focus on the very best products or services, I will sometimes cover something from a PR friendly who works hard to give me what I need vs. a publicist whom I had to ask several times for info (despite my explicit instructions provided at the outset). An example would be two comparable products, of which I can only include one.

JC: I genuinely appreciate a publicist who understands the journalistic process and who knows that their client cannot drive the story's goal, but help the story achieve its mission. What I don’t appreciate are these two things that happened to me this week:

  1. A publicist pitches an expert who actually is relevant to a current assignment, then tells me that the expert is not after all available for an interview and instead sends canned quotes from, you guessed it, marketing collateral. Why did you waste my time?
  2. A PR rep who tries to get the story's angle changed to include a source that is not relevant to the story. The story assignment is already set. This is not a negotiation. Either you get on board with what the story’s about or get out of the way and find a different way to continue the conversation. These two incidences are typical of publicist misfires.

What is the best protocol for follow-ups?

DQ: Sometimes, I will get products sent to me, and then the day I receive them, I get an email from a publicist asking me if I've tried the product yet, which is crazy. I think it's best to wait a week or two to follow up on things because we have a lot going on! Honestly, I would prefer no follow-ups, but I don't think that will ever happen.

LT: I probably receive up to 100 follow-ups a day since I work on 40 to 60 stories a month. Yep: 100 emails, only for follow-ups alone! Because I receive so many, I have a canned follow-up email that I send out that kindly requests six weeks before inquiring about publication. I never know when a story will run. I never know what will ultimately be included since I don’t have the final say over the edit. I haven’t tested a product (or even opened the box!) if it arrived yesterday. I know follow-ups are part of the gig, but I rarely have an update. Also, please only follow-up via email. I’ll never respond to social media messages or phone calls.

WRG: For follow-ups, I would generally allow at least one week. Trust that your emails are being read.

TB: I'm all for follow-ups because sometimes I miss things. Following up a few days to a week later works for me, where following up the next day doesn’t. (Especially an aggressively-worded follow-up on Monday after pitching me over a weekend...gggrrr.)

JC: Short and polite.

Does agency recognition matter (e.g., someone you don’t know reaching out from an agency you have worked with before) vs. solo practitioners or smaller, boutique agencies that you haven’t worked with?

DQ: If I think the product or expert is legit, it doesn't matter which agency it's coming from.

LT: If I recognize an agency and/or one-woman-or-man-show, I’ll likely open the email. But it doesn’t decide if I’ll work with them or not on a story. I honestly don’t care who a publicist works for, as long as they deliver what I ask for!

WRG: Sometimes, yes, but it’s not the end-all be-all. I work with solo and small agencies all the time, and TBH I probably have closer relationships with them compared to some of the ‘big dog’ agencies that experience more internal turnover. Be kind, be reliable, work with brands you believe in.

TB: No. If I receive a pitch from a publicist with a Gmail address, I give that pitch the same time and attention as I would a pitch from a publicist from a big PR firm. For me, it’s about good work. Some newbies reveal themselves by sending sloppy pitches or pitching late at night or on weekends, but I could say the same things for agency PR’s. And agency PR often goes wrong by sending the same canned PR blasts to every writer out there rather than sending targeted pitches, which I think are more effective.

JC: I could not care less about the purported agency authority, brand, how much the source is paying the agency to manage the process and all that. I care about a short, straight line from my need for qualified sources to the source themselves and about the ease of arranging and executing the interview. Period.