Want to Upset a Reporter? Call to ‘Follow Up’ on Your Email

Phone Talkin © by Martin Cathrae

Journalists, as a group, have a lot of pet peeves: sources who want to go off the record for no good reason, overly literal editors, the Oxford comma. But the biggest complaint? Getting calls from flacks who want to make sure that their email arrived. We live in 2013: the email always arrives.

Jeffrey Young, an otherwise calm and thoughtful Huffington Post reporter, once wished death on PR pros who dare to waste his time following up on an email (“DIE IN A FIRE,” he tweeted). Washington Post policy wunderkind Ezra Klein says he lets all calls go to voicemail, lest he waste his day confirming that — yes — the email actually arrived. Ivan Oransky, the executive editor of Reuters Health, published a list of more than 20 snarky responses reporters could use when they get that phone call. (Hanging up and putting the call on indefinite hold were two popular tactics.)

Despite the near-universal condemnation, the calls keep coming.

Sometimes, it’s a function of inexperience on the part of the PR pro. But more often, it’s pressure to get a response — any response — to satisfy a boss or a client or that blank spot next to a reporter’s name on a media list, trading lasting damage for a small bit of certainty. But if calls are off-limits and an email pitch goes unresponded-to, what is a flack to do? I have three suggestions:

  • Email Again. Huffington Post business editor Nate Hindman — who is also in the explicitly anti-phone camp — doesn’t have any problem with a second email. A gentle note of reminder is usually far more appreciated than a ringing phone.
  • Try an End Run: If one reporter has gone dark, there may be another reporter (or producer or editor or freelancer) that may be more engaged. Just be transparent about the previous pitch. No reporter wants to think you’re going over their head, so explain yourself.
  • Buttonhole the Reporter: If the pitch is really important, and the reporter hasn’t responded, try to nab them in person. Grab them for coffee. Check in with them at a conference. And if you don’t have a strong enough relationship to schedule a coffee then the problem isn’t with the pitch. It’s with the relationship.

At the end of the day, a reporter who ignores a pitch is often signaling that not only are they not going to write the story, they’re not even going to consider it. A pitch with a high rate of non-responders may be fundamentally flawed, regardless of whether it’s delivered by email or phone or carrier pigeon.

So rather than taking radio silence from reporters as a reason to hit the phones (and damage relationships), it’s worth first looking inward: Is the pitch brief? Is it well-targeted to the writer’s area of interest? Has a relationship been established with the reporter?

If those questions can’t be answered, then you’re just phoning it in. Just don’t compound the damage by literally phoning it in.

Brian Reid has nearly two decades of experience as a modern storyteller. He a director at W2O Group, where he specializes in media relations and strategy. His past lives have included positions as a Bloomberg reporter, a Washington Post blogger, an NIH writer and a freelance journalist.

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  • Sarah Weddle

    I am so happy you wrote this piece! In my experience, it’s just what you’ve said – a lot of PR pros KNOW that calls are a waste of time (for them and for the reporters), but their boss is “holding them hostage” until they get a response. Obviously the boss wants to be accountable to the client, but there needs to be a line. Repetitive calls truly are a waste, and it’s at the detriment of the PR pro who is forced to sully their reputation (and relationships with journalists) because those in charge don’t understand the nature of pitching today – and/or they are prioritizing a client over the success of their employee in the overall PR landscape.

    • I completely agree with you, Sarah, but those in charge probably prioritize clients over employees because PR turnover is so high its easy to fill an empty seat quickly and employees don’t pay the bills, clients do.

    • Obviously, *our* bosses are not the problem, but I would like to see the PR culture change to the point where our relationships can be questioned, but not our effort. Just because you’ve called three times doesn’t make you diligent and dogged. It makes you delusional.

  • So THAT’s why you left me on hold for so long! On the plus side, your “hold music” is fantastic.

    On the serious side, I’m just learning the basics of media relations – so thanks for teaching me through your experience!

  • These reporters have a freaking God complex. When they don’t reply to email, I just enter their email addresses in some online sweepstakes. That way they see the difference between real spam and spam lite.

  • OC PR Girl

    I disagree. There may be some reporters who don’t like follow-up calls, but in my experience, there are many who appreciate them. Most of the reporters I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with end up running the story after I call them. Their email inboxes are packed full of press releases and pitches. A quick phone call is enough to bring yours to the top and express importance. (I’m taking time out of my day to make the phone call just as much as they’re taking time out of their day to receive it.)
    I think it’s the way a PR pro handles the follow-up call that matters. Ask the reporter if they have a moment and be sure to be respectful of their time. And if they tell you that they’d prefer that you send them a second email rather than call them to follow up, then respect their wishes and make note of it.

  • Sue Warren

    I have been on both sides as a news editor and now as a PR Manager so this is a tough one. As a news editor I hated receiving calls (especially right on deadline) from people asking if I got their news release. I received hundreds a day. My view was if I needed more info I’d call the PR. However, as a PR I have had instances where if I hadn’t followed up the Newsdesk may well have missed a great news story, just because they were sifting through hundreds of emails! After many years I have come to the conclusion it’s about timing, relationships (if you have a great relationship a call is not going to hurt) and whether you believe in he strength of the story you are pitching. A follow up reminder email is also a must if you experience radio silence!