Freelancers: Our latest competition

While the bulk of today’s buzzworthy public relations and marketing discussions don’t center on traditional media, it remains my soft spot and, believe it or not, it is also changing. While the latest blog tracking, Twitter monitoring and dashboard tools whisk us away for 15 minutes, the editors and reporters that slog into an office, dig up stories the old fashioned way and hold (some) power to influence our clients’ businesses – those people are seeing shifts too. That shift is another voice in the room and it’s getting louder.

During a recent group discussion with one of my favorite newspaper reporters in Washington DC, we started talking about pitching. Know your publication, send it to the right person, make it timely, keep it short – this was all familiar. But no, this list of tips that read like a PR manual wasn’t for me. It was for freelancers.

We know staffing is changing everywhere and even household-name publications like BusinessWeek are flushing out staff and reorganizing from top to bottom. I think most of us also know that contributed material is king in many places. But this reporter etched a clear reality into my mind – staffs are smaller, freelancers are more widely used than ever and they’re speaking our language.

Before I get ahead of myself, let’s just establish that of course we’re not required to do the job or have the knowledge of a freelancer. They are expected to be subject matter experts and exceptional writers. So are we, but that’s not our only hat. Also, there are many times when public relations professionals are simply required to be purveyors of news. However, I think one element of becoming truly strong in public relations is the ability to find exceptional stories and bring original, useful ideas to reporters. We intersect again.

My reaction was: Ok, so freelancers are my competition. How can I act like one? Here’s some of the best advice that came out of the discussion:

  • Don’t send more than four paragraphs in a pitch. Ever.
  • Obvious, but make your writing really good.
  • If you think it’s concise, boil it down even more. Get right to what’s special and timely about the idea.
  • Don’t put “pitch” in your subject line. Make it attention-getting without being sales-ey.
  • Be a resource. Take rejection, offer non-client related ideas, stay in touch, etc. Once you’ve worked together once or twice, meet for coffee.
  • I loved this one: Don’t come across as a crazy person. (mostly refers to over-formatted emails,  unusually persistent follow-up).
  • Don’t force it. If the idea isn’t right for the publication and you know it in your gut, move on.
  • Don’t force the idea either. If you’re not getting traction, rework it, make it better or ditch it.
  • If you have a really great story idea, do shop it one publication at a time.

Some of these may read like reminders on the ‘basics’ but perhaps now is an important time to read them again. Journalism is changing across every platform and the PR industry needs visibility into the helpful – like generating leads through Twitter – and potentially threatening developments. Even if their lurking in the least likely places.

- Contributed by Jennifer Eberline. Follow her @jeberline.