By Scott Piro
Twitter is the best thing to happen to media relations since the telephone. It offers amazing opportunities to connect with journalists – and risks! – and both of these stem from the fact that Twitter is a public platform.
Let’s take a step back to define “media relations.” Wikipedia says it “involves working with media for the purpose of informing the public of an organization’s mission, policies and practices in a positive, consistent and credible manner.” You know what it also is? Sales. Media relations is sales, except instead of selling products or services, we’re selling ideas. Many journalists and bloggers want ideas for their next article or post, and TV and radio producers want ideas for which guests to feature and segments to produce.
Because there aren’t many opportunities to meet journalists face-to-face, the most-effective way to “close deals” in media relations is over the telephone. If you’re a gifted salesperson with legitimate, interesting stories to tell, audio is the best way to convince journalists with passion and enthusiasm that your stories are worth their coverage.
But it’s increasingly difficult to speak with journalists live over the telephone. For one thing, they’re incredibly busy and don’t usually answer their phones, preferring instead to let calls go to voicemail. (Whether or not to leave a voicemail and how long it should be if you do – that’s a separate blog post.) Secondly, to survive in the Digital Age, many publications have converted staff journalists into “contributors” who work remotely and use unpublished cell phone numbers as their primary phones.
Therefore, the workhorse of media relations has long been the email. Public relations professionals craft smart, brief pitches; we let our words do the talking when, because of circumstances, our voices sometimes can’t. But despite expensive, powerful media databases being available to us as well as modern genius tools like this, sometimes journalists succeed in hiding their email addresses. What are PR people and companies savvy enough to handle media relations in-house supposed to do then?
And that is where Twitter comes in – the great equalizer. First of all, almost all journalists have an account, and because it’s a public platform, their Twitter handles are published and searchable. Typing their name and “Twitter” into a Google search will usually pull up their accounts. This brings us to a phenomenally-useful powerhouse of information – the Twitter bio. Many journalists operate separate blogs or websites for their personal interests. Clicking over to them and reading the About or Contact pages sometimes reveals their personal email addresses. If not, using the email permutator with information from their personal sites might.
It’s worth asking questions such as: Should I send a message to a journalist who took the extra step to render their email address unpublished – won’t that annoy them? Or: Do I really want to send a story pitch to a journalist’s personal email address – won’t that annoy them? These are important questions to ask.
Personally, I don’t let the answers stop me. If a journalist prefers not to be contacted via email, whether the address is professional or personal, they only need say so in the reply to my message. I’ll listen to their preference and never contact them again this way. But if your pitch is well written, interesting, and relevant enough to what they cover, many journalists won’t be angry. In fact, some may reply and tell you, “No, thanks. This one doesn’t work for me. But keep me on your list, I’d like to get your next pitch.” And others may say the words you really want to hear: “This is great, I’d like to interview her. Is she available this Wednesday at noon?”
The same property that makes Twitter a near-infallible resource for finding the journalist you wish to reach – the fact that it’s public – also heavily influences what you should write to a journalist in a tweet and how you should write it. Keep in mind, a lot of journalists follow each other on Twitter. If you give too many details of your story away to a reporter in a public tweet… you’re really giving those same details away to the entire Twitterverse, with a high likelihood other journalists already following your target will see them.
For this reason, whenever secrecy or discretion is a concern, it’s smarter to use Twitter to get the reporter’s attention, then move the conversation back over to email, if possible. Especially if your objective is to break an exclusive story with your top target media outlet, be very careful about what you write in a tweet. The reporter you’re trying to influence could get scooped by a rival paying attention to their feed. If you’ve accidentally given a hot story to your target’s rival, they may feel burned and put you on their blacklist.
What kind of tweets should you write to bloggers and journalists? Here are two examples:
The Benign Intro
@journalist Do you accept story pitches? If yes, what’s the best way to send you one? THX
- Don’t assume they want your story. Be humble and polite and ask first if it’s OK that you send them a pitch.
- You can send this kind of tweet even if you already know their email address. If they @reply to you with their address, now you’ve effectively given them a heads-up. They’re aware that your email is coming, and the chances are much greater that it will cut through their email clutter, and they’ll read it.
@journalist I emailed a story idea to your [media outlet name] address. Hope u can take a look; I think it’s rly a good fit
- Be specific. Indeed, you “sent” them the story idea; but saying you “emailed it” is more precise.
- Don’t write email addresses in the tweets. Doing so could bring them spam, and it also broadcasts their address to followers when they may be trying to keep it secret.
- Humbly request that they take a look; indicate you’ve done research about what they cover.
When your idea has already been distributed widely – via a press release wire service, through other media coverage, or both – and the story is already out there, then it’s okay to be more explicit about your idea. You’ve only got 140 characters, though. Here are some tips to pack the most information into your tweet as possible:
- Use as much “textese“(a.k.a. “chatspeak”) as possible. Don’t worry about being perceived as a teenager; practicality trumps this.
- Link to the wire service web page of your press release. Consider using bit.ly to customize the short URL to something “catchier” (e.g., bit.ly/[company name]pitch).
- Give them the heads up to check their email, if you’ve already sent them something that way.
Remember, if the journalist is already following you, then you’ll be able to share private information back and forth via direct messages. Personally, I never ask journalists to follow me in order for this purpose. In my view, it violates the need to appear humble; it assumes too much about your own self-importance. But if they explain in a tweet that they’ve already followed you and ask you to follow them, then by all means, that’s a great scenario.
I should remind you that media relations generally requires some courage. Many journalists are under a great deal of pressure at work; not all of them are friendly. Using a medium like Twitter adds a risk that any negative reactions to your outreach could be made public at your expense – in the form of an RT with comment or a @reply. Media relations is not for wimps! Be prepared for occasional insulting responses. If you can’t accept these, you should not be doing this work.
This same mentality of using Twitter as a great equalizer – everyone has an account, and therefore everyone is reachable – applies to its more media-rich spawn: Instagram and Vine. TechCrunch blogger and CrunchFund VC MG Siegler pointed out in a 2011 blog post the strong effect that a really well-conceived pitch had on him. And now that Instagram also handles video posts, pitches can become even more creative.
Here’s one final thought: Know your audience. Earlier this year, I was making every effort to get a client covered by The Huffington Post. Their tech department has several permanent writers on staff, but many more of the posts are done by freelancers. I had already developed a relationship with one of them, and only because of several reasons – (1) our rapport was always fun; (2) we were following each other’s personal accounts on multiple platforms; and (3) the client’s product I was pitching was also light and fun – I decided to use Vine to send her a loose and playful pitch. It turned out she was no longer working with HuffPo, but she gave me the name and email address of a staff writer I didn’t already know, and I was able to pitch them my story. I would never try something so informal with most media professionals, but because of my pre-existing relationship, I went for it – and got a useful result!
Have you ever used Twitter to pitch a member of the media? If so, what kind of result did you get? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments. And what about that voicemail blog post I teased earlier – tell me if you’d like to hear that next, or suggest another media relations topic in the comment box below.