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“We made the mistakes so you don’t have to” – advice from senior PR pros

I spoke to some senior PR pros to find out what mistakes they made earlier in their career and what they learnt from it. Here’s their advice for spotting mistakes, improving coverage rates and keeping journalists happy.

Advice: get others to check over your emails before clicking send 

Jess Fairfax, Digital PR Manager, Kaizen

“There were a few occasions where I had some unfortunate spelling mistakes in emails sent over to journalists, and this could have been avoided by simply having a read-through several times.

Since then, I not only triple-check my emails myself, but it’s also important to not be afraid of asking another team member for fresh eyes. I try to read the emails to myself aloud to ensure that it flows and makes sense. Even though it is a simple thing to fix, PR can be quite overwhelming and it requires quite a strong sense of time management – so make sure to allocate enough time to review all your emails while sending off.”

Advice: become a name that journalists can trust

Claire Fulton Ray, Freelance PR Consultant

“When I first started out I made the mistake that most junior PRs make, and that is forgetting that journalists and news desks are incredibly busy and receive hundreds of emails a day! The news that you’re trying to peddle to them isn’t always top of their priority if they have a deadline looming so you must be very aware of the time schedules and print runs of each publication to which you pitch your ideas.

In that same vein -be aware of lead times! It’s no good pitching Christmas gift ideas in December as many publications and online journals would have written and filed their features long before December, and often as early as September!

A lesson I learned early on was that to cultivate an actual working relationship with journalists is crucial. Don’t just throw stuff at them willy nilly- if you can be as helpful as possible and make your name known, journalists will learn that you are a name they can trust to provide the information, imagery and contacts required in a timely manner (and in the correct format!). If newspapers and magazines know that you are a trustworthy and helpful (polite!) PR then they will be happy to work with you and your name will stand out among tide of other emails flooding their inboxes.”

Advice: only respond to enquiries if they are relevant 

Natalie Trice, Freelance PR consultant and author

“I sent a journalist a tenuous ResponseSource enquiry reply and really did get the sharp end of their frustration and they never worked me with me again. I still go red thinking about it now and it was 20 years ago but it taught me only to go back if I really can help.

You get one chance to make a good impression and if you respond with an irrelevant story, they won’t be impressed. At best they will ignore you, at worst they will come back and give you a stripping down and even block you from their email address.”

Advice: know which specific topics your client wants to be known for 

Laura Hampton, Head of Marketing and Digital PR, Impression

“As a young PR, I’d seek any available opportunity to get my client featured and that’s essentially what we were judged by – our ability to get as much coverage as possible. But that’s not always best for the client, and the more I’ve matured, the more I’ve adapted my approach to place my clients only in the most relevant publications and with the most valuable message for them and their audience.

One way I do that is to agree ‘circles of focus’ with my client. We’ll discuss what topics they’re willing to discuss and be featured for, where their core offering sits at the centre of the ‘target’, with each additional circle around that representing a set of topics slightly more removed. So for Impression, our core topics are digital marketing and web, but then we are also willing and able to speak about less related topics like general marketing and business.

My advice for young PRs would be to always agree the topics your client is willing to be known for and document them for clarity. Also, maintain communication throughout, as new opportunities may come up. Communication is the key to a happy PR client.”

Advice: tailor your pitches and cut out the jargon

Mark Stuart, Senior Account Director at Battenhall

“Reporters are being inundated with “opportunities” all day long every day. Research and targeting, therefore, are absolutely crucial.

When I was less experienced, I would send a press release or pitch out to a wave of titles expecting to magically get some great coverage or media interest, only to be surprised when nothing came back. But gradually, as I learned what would get traction and what wouldn’t, I started to get better responses and more coverage. This would involve reading everything about a media outlet, understanding their audience, being very specific about the journalist I was approaching, mentioning articles they had written that had caught my eye and why they were relevant to what I was offering them.

PR and media relations is a lot of trial and error, but by being as targeted, relevant and specific as possible, you give yourself the best chance of succeeding. And actually speaking or writing like a human, not in business or marketing lingo, goes a long way. Media, in general, hate people ‘reaching out’ to them and can smell corporate BS a mile off, so be honest, transparent, and cut out the jargon”.

Advice: be brief and have the right photography

Kasia Bigda, Marketing and Communications Director, Mr Lee’s Noodles

“My initial pitch emails had been around 15 paragraphs long….who have time to read that all?! It is a turn off from the start! My most successful pitches had around 3 paragraphs with a link to the press release and to the high res images, with info about stockists and RRP included in the copy. If they want to know more, they will ask.

I also like to paste an image into the email to hopefully entice them with the visuals. Cannot stress enough how many times we have been featured just because we had a jaw-dropping photography! Professional images are worth every penny!”

Advice: check your file names and image captions

Sara Tye, Founder and Managing Director, redheadPR

“One of the biggest mistakes I made was to send a wrongly labelled photograph out globally to every news desk in the country at the weekend.  I spent the whole Sunday phoning every picture desk to get them to change the picture with the correct file name and embedded caption while I was on the phone.  What I learnt, which I already knew, but then implemented religiously and without question.

Check every attachment on an email by opening it and reading it, before you press send. Don’t skimp on this task or think – it’s OK if you check it before.’

The outcome was – that picture made every national on the Monday and globally online.  It was the correct caption and picture.”

Advice: keep informed with what journalists want to receive

Hannah A’Court, Senior Account Manager, Neo PR

“The mistakes you make might not always have immediate consequences for you, but they can still have an impact. In a previous role, one of my colleagues made an approach to a journalist using historical data. It resulted in a difficult call from a very disgruntled journalist, which had to be taken by a different member of the team with no context or explanation available. Understandably this caused stress on both sides, and did result in some temporary tension with external contacts and some internal! When pitching content, it’s so important to know who you’re talking to, why what you have is relevant and what value you can offer to them. It wasn’t my mistake, but it certainly taught me to always double check my information and keep up-to-date with journalist interests.”

Advice: chase clients when you need to respond to an enquiry quickly

Alex Mason, Founder, alexdmasonPR

“Never be afraid to pester a client for a fast response! There are so many opportunities that come through for inclusion in comment pieces and articles via services like ResponseSource, but they pretty much always have quite a short window of time in which to reply with relevant information. This means that you can’t hang around when it comes to extracting that information from your client!

Early in my career, many opportunities for great coverage were probably missed because I simply didn’t hear back from the client quickly enough; but I didn’t have the guts to put the pressure on and chase them either! Send them a second email, pick up the phone and steal five minutes of their time – just make sure you put that extra effort in to get the information back to the journalist asap. The client will thank you in the long-run when the coverage comes through, and the journalist you’ve supplied is much more likely to come to you again if you’ve been able to help them out with speedy, accurate information!”

Advice: know your key messages before making phone calls

Rebecca Donnelly, Head of Corporate, Tyto PR

“There are lots pitfalls when doing a classic ‘sell-in’ of a press release or news announcement; mostly associated with not doing your research or taking the time to identify the right journalists before you pick up the phone.

One rookie error that I was guilty of in the early days, and have seen time and again since, is trying to talk a journalist into submission. It can be really nerve-wracking picking up the phone to journalists when you don’t have a lot of experience, and it can be tempting to just keep talking and talking out of nervousness in the hope that if you provide enough information then surely there will be SOMETHING in there that’s interesting! Perhaps the journalist will cover the story just to get you to stop talking? Well, it won’t work, and you might keel over from lack of oxygen!

Be really clear on your one key message before you pick up the phone, have answers prepared for two or three key questions that might come up, and know exactly what you want to ask the journalist – they’ll appreciate your brevity and always ask for more if they’re interested.”

Advice: don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Jodie Brazier, Comms Consultant, TopLine Comms

“During my first year, I was so worried about making mistakes, but I quickly learnt that mistakes are inevitable, everyone makes them – no matter how senior you are. However, it’s how you react to mistakes and learn from them that’s the most important thing.

The first lesson I learnt was to master the basics – things like setting up calls, sending diary invites with the correct details to the correct people and making sure you’re fully prepared for meetings is vital. Once, during my first few weeks, I messed up sending the call details which meant that our meeting was delayed and we lost precious time talking to one of our clients. I was so embarrassed, but quickly fixed the situation by resending the invites, with the correct details and then apologising for the mishap straight away. I learnt very early on that it really is the little things that count when looking professional in front of clients – like making sure meetings run as smoothly as possible. I also learnt that attention to detail is key – always double check emails – especially if it’s going to a client or to a journalist – make sure you’re sending it to the right person!

Don’t underestimate the power of good spelling and grammar either and watch out for autocorrect – although it is useful most of the time, it has been known to change my clients’ names to something else automatically. This meant that I once sent a pitch to a journalist with the client’s name spelt wrong because I didn’t notice the autocorrect change. Luckily the journalist knew my client well and it wasn’t a problem, but the lesson remains – proofread everything before it leaves your inbox!

Ultimately, when first starting out in PR don’t be afraid to just go for it – mistakes are bound to happen along the way, but just take a deep breath and think about how to resolve them and make sure they don’t happen again.”

Did you learn anything useful? Do you have any other tips for PRs? Share them in the comments box below.

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