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How did your tech news story wind up in the circular file? The top ten ways PR pitches go wrong

Jon Reed & Brian Sommer Profile picture for user jonandbrian September 12, 2023
Summary:
PR pitches can spark a great story - but too often, they wind up in the virtual recycling bin. Here are ten notorious PR mistakes to avoid, all based on real life encounters from diginomica inboxes. These "close encounters of the worst kind" can be avoided - we'll explain how.

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Ever wonder why some tech vendors/products get a lot of coverage, and others don’t?  Here are some all-too-common PR gaffes that put a major roadblock in the way of editorial coverage.

Even the sexiest of AI pitches can’t survive these PR snafus. It wasn't easy, but we narrowed this list down to ten PR gaffes to avoid (Update: now expanded to 12, with year-end bonus content!). At the end, we’ll reveal three keys to staying off this list.

1. The press release reads like a hundred others, and says nothing unique.  Will readers care that a customer finally got around to migrating their compute load to the cloud, or that a vendor is looking to ‘unleash the power of generative-AI’ with next generation applications? A quick hand poll is not encouraging: readers want more from us than that. It’s a bad sign when your press release is inferior to a quick Google News search.

2. The PR firm writes incomprehensible, jargon-laden copy.  When the buzzwords-per-sentence ratio is greater than three, the copy is doomed. The following copy could be from any firm about any product. Press releases should not need a buzzword decoder ring to be effective.

In today's dynamic corporate landscape, your teams encounter multifaceted challenges. At XYZ, we are at the forefront of addressing these complexities by seamlessly integrating data, optimizing workflows, and fostering agile decision-making. We'd love to engage in a thought-provoking discussion on how (product concept goes here) transcends mere technology adoption, becoming a strategic lever for delivering substantial business value and elevating productivity.

3. Personalization gone wrong - the pitch has the wrong name on it. Today, Brian’s name on one pitch was ‘XXX’ (no lie!). Recently, it’s been Byron, Brain, Jim, and others, too (That’s how Jon coined Brian’s video persona, “Brain Sommer.”) Meanwhile, as part of a new hyper-personalized PR program, Jon was approached as Priscilla.

4. Embargos should be for real news. Lots of vendors think every minor brand trivia item tiny morsel of news warrants coveted “embargo status.” Jon even has an inbox filter for the PR keyword “embargo” – removing all embargoed news is a big time saver for him, but probably not what PR firms intended!  Embargos used to create a sense of exclusivity and anticipation; now they are so shopworn, the reaction is one of numb indifference.

5. Access to referenced items is only possible via a paywall, registration form, or maybe a secret incantation. Why would anyone intentionally set up PR hoops to get access to study results, survey data, etc.? When we ask for the full report, and get a link to a sign up form instead, we can’t help but wonder if the PR person did this intentionally, to setup a cage match between a cranky, spam-weary analyst and a lead-hungry demand generation team!  

6. Invitations across countries and time zones – Even those of us on the enterprise beat need a little beauty sleep.  A “special event” that’s 13-time zones off from  the recipient is suddenly not quite that special. An in-person luncheon 1,000 miles away is a tad tricky also. AI does some pretty cool things but teletransportation isn’t one of them.

7. The PR firm valiantly tries to make news out of a non-story.  Unfortunately, “earned coverage,” aka news, is the byproduct of doing something notable or newsworthy. Last time we checked, these weren’t newsworthy stories:

  • a customer just agreed to potentially use your software sometime in the future
  • an executive just hired a new assistant
  • the company agreed to be a cubic zirconia level sponsor for some trade show
  • someone found an old workflow automation program lying around and decided to call it AI
  • a sustainability report is now “interactive” because you can click on it

8. AI-created is not the same as personally crafted. This problem is starting to appear but could become a landslide. Yes, generic, AI-generated copy might be better than some of the press releases humans create, but when generative AI starts writing PR pitches, we’re pretty sure what’s going to happen next – and it won’t be an interview. On the other hand:

9. The PR firm says they can get us an interview with the CEO, but we get the Area VP of Customer Affairs at the Lompoc office instead. Don’t get us wrong, we’ve got nothing against Lompoc. But for whatever reason, readers are less interested in the goings-on in the greater Lompoc area than they are with the future of the company, via those who are actually deciding it.

10. Pitching us something we don’t cover. Some pitches are moon shots that make us regret anything we ever said to mock hyper-personalization. Brian recently got a pitch for modern art sales in Florida; Jon got a pitch for a generative AI mushroom identification startup.  When even Us Magazine wouldn’t cover the pitch, that’s a bad sign for getting it onto diginomica.

11. Pitching us the same news story we’ve already reported on. Spray and pray is one thing, but sending news that’s already done, dusted and published takes spraying to a whole new level. (Yes, this one went to eleven also).

12. Pursing a meaningless "update" to the point of mutual irritation.The best stories come together with interest on both sides. When a PR person presses for useless "updates" on situations where there is obviously no update to be had, that's just a bowl-circling time waste, a checkbox next to a task with no existential meaning or purpose. If you don't get a response on your PR pitch, think twice before "circling back." The problem is likely in the (lack of) relevant ideas your pitch contains, not the media/analyst you have decided you must obtain an "update" from. This one is inspired by Avasant's Frank Scavo, who asked us: "So in your next version can you add, 'Demand your target analyst give you a status report?'"

The wrap - better pitches ahead?

It wasn’t easy to narrow these gaffes to twelve – we had to leave off doozies like cc’ing multiple writers on the same pitch, or, worse, pitching writers from the same publication the same story separately. “Wait - you interviewed them also?” is not what you want to hear before your story goes live.

Of course, there are terrific PR professionals who are instrumental in making great stories happen – and furthering relationships on all sides. Alas, our over-stuffed inboxes are living proof that the true pros have to toil alongside the virtual carpet blasters. We should also acknowledge that PR pros can be put in the awkward position of doing things on this list because their client insisted on it. That's why we kept our satire broad, not on individuals - but sometimes even the best of intentions can lead to worst practices.

The end goal isn’t just great stories – It’s helping customers solve real problems, and get more projects into the success column. For those PR pros who want to make that happen, three tips stand out:

  1. Customize your pitch to each writer who's relevant to a specific story; connect your clients’ expertise to their hot topics.
  2. Offer up a customer 1:1 who can speak openly (and on the record!) about why they chose your client, the challenges to go-live, and the business results achieved.
  3. Offer up executive access, if not the CEO than the CFO/CIO/COO level, or else offer up the product or engineering lead who can speak to the tech, customer results or roadmap (this is especially useful for AI stories, where going ‘under the hood’ is essential right now).

Do some combination of these three things, keep ChatGPT away from your pitch writing, and we like your chances of avoiding our next PR mistakes roundup.

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