We recently wrote out to two thousand correspondents and editors asking them for their views on so-called “sell-in” calls from PR people.
I must admit that I have always been sceptical about the value of these calls. I worked in-house as a director of media relations for 15 years before I set up my agency six years ago. When I appointed agencies to support me one of my main criteria was that an agency would spend as much time as possible on ideas and as little time as possible on “sales”.
My rationale is that journalists are hugely over-stretched and they simply don’t have time to field calls. Each call represents a couple of minutes that the journalist won’t get back.
In my view, it’s the quality of the story that matters and makes a difference. If you get that right, everything else falls into place.
Too many agencies attempt to seduce their clients into a belief that process is a good substitute for ideas. It just isn’t.
I’m not saying that communication with journalists should be restricted to email. There are some occasions when a call makes sense. There is also a role for texts, tweets, direct messages, etc. We live in a world built around less obtrusive triggers.
[NB: Curiously when I floated the idea that acting as a glorified call centre was a bad idea on Twitter, the PR people that took issue with me were people who claimed in their biographies to be “social media” experts.]
Here’s another way to look at it. The top 150 PR agencies in the UK have a combined fee income of £1 billion. Let’s assume (conservatively) that 10% of that fee goes on “sell-in” calls. Imagine if that money was spent on developing better ideas.
I should repeat – sometimes a call makes sense. If your instinct, based on what you know about an individual’s interests, is that a call will be helpful, make it. Don’t call if you’re just checking to see if the email has turned up. That’s deeply annoying, as you’ll see below, and does more to erode perceptions of the brand that you are representing than enhance them, which after all is the whole point isn’t it?
Here’s some of the feedback we received from our poll of journalists:
“Follow-up calls after e-mailing press releases are REALLY irritating. Who’s got the time?”
“I have never, ever been talked into reporting something through a follow-up call. They are utterly useless and really a bit insulting, in the sense that they imply journalists are not capable of spotting and chasing stories for ourselves.”
“The dreaded follow up call is, well, dreaded.”
“My quick response to these calls combines sex and transport.”
“The thing is people doing follow up calls are rarely the ones who know the story best, so are unlikely to be able to offer any kind of new angle that might make you rethink not running it.”
“Time is too short in 24 hour news.”
“If someone called me back to re-try the pitch the same thing, the chances are that I’d just get irritated that they were wasting my precious time.”
“It’s quite clear from the email if the opportunity is something we’d like to follow up on or not.”
“There is nothing that makes me click the delete button faster than when a PR phones up to ask if a story will/has been in.”
“Ringing me up repeatedly will not make it go in, it will do the opposite.”
“I hate it when people send local and regional journalists releases which have nothing to do with their patch and make no attempt whatsoever to tailor them.”
“I find it frustrating when PRs call up to see if the article has been published rather than carrying out a simple search on the site themselves.”
“I do remember one instance where I wrote up an article and then received a follow up call from the PR saying it needed to go through the client’s press team before I could publish it, so I ended up not using it.”
“After more than 40 years in the biz I can usually spot a story from the start. If it needs hyping then it’s probably not a good tale.”
“I always read at least the headline on everything I’m emailed and I never change my mind after a follow up call. They are a complete waste of time.”
“Not only have I not been convinced by a follow up call, I’ve actually re-considered something I was on the fence about running because of follow up calls.”
“PRs saying “just checking my email has arrived”. Really? They do arrive. If we are interested we will call.”
“All stories are on merit – you pretty much know from the start whether you’d do it or not”
“I usually know within about three seconds whether an idea or pitch has any hope whatsoever of making it into our paper”
“If I get follow up calls I either won’t take the call, or I’ll not listen as I generally don’t have time, or I’ll tell them why it’s not a story – as it generally isn’t.”
“I have never changed my mind on a story because of a follow up call – I find them so patronising.”
“It would be more constructive if some of the Jemimas and Jeremys were to say something like: “What did you think of the release? Was it written well? Is there anything we can do by way of improvement?”
“I’ve been a journalist for more than ten years, and I’ve never known a follow up call to work. Apart from not working, they convey the impression that PR people have so much time on their hands that they can afford to waste some by making pointless phonecalls to every single person on their contacts list.”
“If the release looks really interesting, we’ll follow it up. If it doesn’t, we won’t.”
“The point of why they’re so very irritating is that they always ask the same questions. “Did you get my email/ press release?” “Are you interested in the story?””
“I have never been talked into a story through persistent PR pestering. Some PRs have fallen out of favour with me for constantly ignoring my request not to call.”
“I get most annoyed by people who have clearly never listened to our programmes, don’t know the types of interviews we do, who our presenters are, etc.”
“PRs often call on press days and waffle on, in spite of being asked to call back later in the week when we aren’t under such pressure.”
“If it isn’t good enough, it isn’t good enough. Simple as that, and a follow-up call would not make a lot of difference.”
“No journalist will approach an editor to pitch a story that every other journalist already knows about. At least they shouldn’t.”
“If I am harassed by a PR having already decided I’m going to write a story, if it’s not a crucial story, I have on several occasions decided I won’t write the story after all. Relationships really matter, as clearly if I know someone well they can call and talk it through and that would be fine. However, despite the growing number of PRs, it strikes me there are fewer good ones around. And yes, there are whole agencies of people who seem to be tone deaf to good PR and if a company moves to that agency I’m pretty much sure from that minute I’ll be writing less about them.”
“The follow up call is irritating, and fails to recognise that if the press release hasn’t been followed up by that stage then it’s already failed to do its job.”
“Follow-up calls” would be hilarious if they weren’t such a waste of my time and also, I feel moved to point out, of the client’s money. If they knew how much of their fat PR fee was being spent on charging them a lavish hourly rate for a workie, or someone who sounds like they don’t know any more than a workie, to pester irrelevant journalists I think they’d be shocked and appalled.”
“If I have time, after pointing out that had I been interested they’d have heard from me, I inquire as to which section of my newspaper (it has many) they see the story appearing in. This basic question invariably reveals that the person making the call has never read the paper, has no idea what’s in each section or thought about the best target for their particular product/client.”
“What needs to be remembered is I/we receive hundreds – and I mean hundreds – of emails every day and there is a five second window of opportunity to get the message across as fingers hover over the delete button.”
“Who the PR is matters a lot. I always give PRs I trust a lot of time. But those cold calling with crap surveys get short shrift.”
“Basically if the press release is going to get in the paper it will make the paper because it’s a good story in its own right.”
“Generally I know straight away whether I’m bothered about a story. Very rarely would a follow-up call make a difference.”
“My only advice is when an email is sent through to copy that PRs do not follow up with a call to check it has arrived. We are very efficient at reading incoming emails and we don’t have time for this sort of call.”
“Nope, the call doesn’t last that long.”