Square Pegs, Round Holes

It’s a cliche to say that the internet has changed the world, but in many cases it’s an important issue, because in terms of business, so many industries still haven’t caught up. In the writing/journalism/news industry, it used to be that the majority of writers headed to work every day, sat at a desk for an 8-hour shift, and generally answered to a boss of some sort.

With more and more publications moving online though, that is no longer the case. Whole publications are run from home offices, and newspapers and magazines realized that it was a heck of a lot cheaper in terms of benefits and overhead to just hire freelance writers as needed. From the perspective of the publication this is considerably more efficient, but when it comes to interacting with other industries, in this case, public relations firms, the old status quo no longer works.

Someone has to change how they do business. But who?

In a recent comment on another post on this blog, Susan said:

PR people send out media releases to hundreds of journalists per release, and while we try to keep contact info up to date and everything organized to avoid sending people information that isn’t relevant to them, sometimes people slip through the cracks.

Hundreds at a time.

Obviously, if your organization is working on that scale, life gets difficult if you have special cases; people with odd delivery instructions, people like me who prefer to vet all story ideas before receiving further information. But every writer working from home is a special case. One side needs to accommodate the other. And I don’t mean to be a princess here, but when it comes down to it, it’s far easier for a PR company to have someone keep on top of something like mailing lists and special delivery instructions than for me to move to an office building and hire a receptionist to accommodate a PR company who wants to send me a press package.

As such, if PR companies want to court freelance writers, small indie publications or bloggers, they’re the ones who are going to have to change how they do business.

Some things to consider:

  • If a writer works from a home office, it’s a safe bet to assume that they’re not necessarily there for the full standard working day. I go out to events, to do interviews, or just to walk my dogs. So PR companies that send press packages by courier often find their stuff returned. I don’t have a receptionist, I don’t even have a concierge. Which means that I’ve been on the receiving end of angry calls from PR people and courier companies demanding to know why I wasn’t here to accept a package that I didn’t even know was coming. I’ve tried to get PR companies to put a note on my address info to not send things without contacting me first, but it almost never happens. Don’t know that I’m working from a home office? Why not?
  • If you’re sending out hundreds of press releases then you probably don’t have a personal relationship with each of the writers you’re sending that info to. Spend the time to do this. Read our sites – regularly – to become familiar with the kind of stuff we cover; leave comments, chat with us on Twitter or friend us on LinkedIn. This social networking thing isn’t just about having a gazillion followers on Twitter. As a PR company, it’s not about having the biggest mailing list (do PR people have mailing list dick-waving contests?). It’s about building relationships with writers who you know will appreciate the stories and put effort and care into covering your clients. I know it seems like all I do here is rag on PR people, but I can list off a dozen or more PR companies full of people I absolutely *adore* – because they’ve brought me amazing stories to cover, because they’ve introduced me to a product that I love, or because they just take the time to get to know me as a person, not as someone who can do something for them.
  • Know that most indie publications are not here for the fame and fortune. (We might think we are when we’re first starting out, but reality doesn’t take too long to kick in.) Which means that many of us are here solely because we love it and we’re not interested in playing the media game. A good PR company will have the skills to deal with the curmudgeonly anti-establishment crew like yours truly who aren’t beholden to you for stories. Oh, you’ll definitely find plenty of naive bloggers who will attend every event offering a free cocktail or box of groceries, but if you want true indie sites (with a dedicated readership) who refuse to be beholden to anyone, you’ll need to come up with campaigns that are a little more innovative.

I can’t tell PR companies how to set up their mailing lists/files (although maybe I should change careers and start developing something), but I think the flaw to the whole system is thinking that by sending out a bulk press release to a hundred journalists that you’ve done your job to the best of your ability. If I, as a writer, have the time and wherewithal to set up a reference system for every PR company who contacts me (contact names, clients, outcomes of invitations, successful stories, other issues) then I would expect that any PR company who contacts me would have something similar. That they’ll know my delivery requirements; or that I prefer plain text instead of attachments in emails; or that I don’t cover mainstream grocery products or chain restaurants. This little bit of research, in the end, makes the PR person’s job easier. Unless they’re getting paid by quantity (number of press releases sent, number of stories regardless of quality), then having the information that enables them to filter writers to find the best fit only serves to make them look better at what they do.

Is it fair to expect PR companies to do all this legwork? Maybe it’s not, maybe I am just being a princess. But is it fair to expect writers, who all have different set-ups and criteria and mandates, to accommodate a PR company that just wants to deal with things in bulk and not personalize the experience? “Susan” goes on to say in her comment, “Most journalists can’t be bothered to respond, which makes it difficult for us to do our jobs as well.” Maybe if writers were made to feel that they’re not just one in a hundred, that someone had taken the time to ensure that the story was a good fit, that our time and resources had been respected – maybe then the response rate would be better.