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Public Relations Basics: Do Your Research

As a journalist, it wasn’t often that I listened to a public relations pitch. But then there were times when I was three hours from deadline and I still didn’t have a story. During one of those crunch times, I checked my voicemail and there was a new message from a public relations rep named Alyssa Shelasky, pitching me on a story that I would normally ignore. But Alyssa got me interested in a very easy way: she did her research.

Alyssa’s firm was representing a beverage company that is popular among tech industry workers. The company makes a drink that’s like liquid speed for guys who stay up late writing code or playing multi-player games. The tech industry and the gaming industry both fell under my beat and she knew that. But what impressed me was when she pointed out that about 18 months prior I had written a story about a partnership between a beverage company and a web site. I had forgotten the story completely, but soon I remembered how offbeat it was, and how my readers enjoyed it.

Still, my audience at New York Post was comprised mostly of people who work on Wall Street. I told Alyssa the story had to have a Wall Street angle.

“Well, we have figures showing how our sales have increased in the Wall Street area since the beginning of the year and I can put you in touch with some finance people who love the drink.”

Bingo. That was my story. “Wall Street Finds Pep In Techie Drink” was my working headline.

The deal wasn’t done, though. I had to pitch my editor on the story. He was waiting patiently for me to call and tell him that I was going deliver news of a Department of Justice investigation or impending bankruptcy. When I told him the story and my angle, to my amazement, he loved it.

When it was all said and done, the story came out well. Maybe a little too well because a few people suggested I go to work for the company’s marketing department. But I also received about three dozen emails from readers who enjoyed the story and said they either drink the beverage in question or wanted to try it.

So was Alyssa’s five minutes of research that impressive? Indeed. There are a few simple ways for a public relations pro to research a writer and make a pitch worthwhile for both parties. Remember: These tips are for when individual pitches by phone or email. You can still use press release services and mass mailings, but for the personal pitches it’s best to know the writer.

1. Google them! That’s right, throw their name into Google and see what comes up. Writers change beats and publications all the time, so it’s best to make sure you keep an up-to-date press list of where your favorite scribe is currently employed and what they’re covering.

2. Research your competitor. This is how Alyssa found me, through a search for an article that I wrote about one of her client’s competitors. Reason would stand that if I wrote about her client’s competitor, I may be interested in writing about her client. And the fact that I covered the subject so long ago gave me a reason to come back and take another look at it.

3. You can always ask. There is no harm in asking a writer to identify exactly what they cover. I don’t cover retail, but I always tell people representing retailers to keep me informed of online initiatives or technology partnerships. A lot of writers, myself included, get tired of covering the same companies time and time again.

4. Call the desk. If it’s a newspaper you’re pitching, call the appropriate “desk” (city/metro, business, features, etc.). You may find out that you’re better off pitching a feature writer for a particular piece or getting an arts writer interested in your business.

These are just a handful of beginner’s tips. I know it sounds odd that a little bit of research would impress a writer. But like public relations pros, we’re busy people. Just as you don’t have time to waste on someone not interested in generating publicity for your client, we don’t have time to waste with a publicist barking up the wrong tree. The more familiar public relations professionals are with a writer’s work, the better chance they have of winning a reporter over.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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