The art of following up with journalists

“You can’t keep calling me!” — said an angry business editor when receiving a follow-up call regarding a story. So where is the fine line between being annoying and actually helpful to a journo? I reached out to some journalists to see what their opinion is.

Alex Hern, Technology Features writer, The Guardian

Tech writer of The Guardian says that it’s all about common sense and following up with relevant stories or opportunities. Alex is not a fan of follow-up calls.

Anita Singh, Arts & Entertainment Editor, The Daily Telegraph

Anita highlights the fact that she, just like most of the journos, is flooded with emails. She says that follow-ups are helpful, but the story needs to be relevant to her audience and publication.

Dave Lee, Silicon Valley reporter, BBC

San Francisco-based Dave Lee is another journo to highlight the relevance of the story we’re pitching.

Emma Haslett, Business journalist, Bloomberg

One follow-up call is a sweet spot, according to Bloomberg’s Emma Haslett.

Mark Scott, Chief Technology Correspondent, POLITICO

Politicos’ chief tech correspondent is against following up with calls. He also emphasises being personal in all pitches.

Jane McCallion, Features Editor, ITPro, CloudPro & Channel Pro

Making sure the story is fresh is important, says features editor of ITPro.

Jasper Hamill, Tech and Science Editor, Metro

Tech and science editor of the the most read newspaper in the UK says that a good headline can help your email to stand out.

Daisy Wyatt, Assistant Editor, i

Make sure you know what you’re pitching and don’t just check whether a journalist got your email, advises i’s editor.

I always think if a PR really cares about the product they are promoting, they will call to follow-up. That said, so many PRs call without doing even some of the most basic research about who on the team they should be pitching to – which is why I’m likely not to have responded to their email in the first place. PRs calling to “check you received my email” can be grating. Journalists receive hundreds of emails a day. If they are ringing to chase up their email pitch, they should start the call with what they are PRing rather than asking if we’ve managed to read another press release in our inbox.

Jason Murdock, Senior Tech Reporter, Newsweek

Newsweek’s senior tech reporter told me that timely follow-up can be helpful for a journalist. There are some caveats, though…

In my opinion there’s nothing wrong with a good, timely, follow up call or email. However, if it seems like I am ignoring multiple messages (which is usually because the pitch is irrelevant to my beat) it’s safe to assume there is no interest. It’s not always negative though, the day-to-day nature of news means it’s simply not possible to get to every story, no matter how good some angles may be presented, so I am never bothered about a call or email coming in the next day. I understand the pressure on PRs to meet client demands so I am largely sympathetic to the grind, but from my perspective—due to the amount of emails received on a daily basis—they will often be judged, at least initially, on the subject line alone. In short, timing is everything, and in the end the top line of the email pitch will speak for itself. If there’s no real hook, you can’t expect much from a reporter on deadline, no matter what your survey results say or what webinar you are hosting.

Sophie Christie, Business and Personal Finance, The Telegraph

The Telegraph’s digital producer Sophie Christie told me that if a journalist is interested in a story then they will respond. So if we chase them by phone or with another email, a grumpy response is guaranteed.

It’s definitely a fine line. I used to be in PR so understand the pressure from clients to chase journalists and get their thoughts on a press release, but often it can do more damage than good. Realistically, if a journalist is interested in your research/study/survey then they will respond to you, so if you chase them by phone or with another email you’re guaranteed to get a grumpy response. Instead, if a journalist shows interest, add value by offering to dig around for more data, or suggest a time for them to speak to a senior spokesperson over the phone, or offer up a case study which might lend itself well to the piece. Rather than pestering journalists who obviously aren’t interested in your story, go after the ones that are and try to be as helpful to them as possible – in this instance, a follow-up call might even be appreciated by the journalist, as they can ask further questions or find out more about the research you’ve put out.

Claer Barrett, Personal Finance Editor, FT & Editor, FT Money

Last but not least, PF legend Claer Barrett told me about a few no-no’s of following up with journalists, including sending a message via WhatsApp (sic!)!

Nearly every phone call I get at work is from a PR asking if I have received their email. The problem with email is that there is no limit to how many messages can be received! I would guesstimate that I open about 10 per cent of what I receive in a standard day. Any more and I wouldn’t get any work done. If it doesn’t have the yellow arrow (priority inbox) or have a snappy subject line then it is unlikely to get opened as it will look like something commoditised that gets sent to a huge mailing list. If it’s a comment on a breaking story, then put the subject (eg “comment from X on FCA annual report”) as that way it’s obvious, or when I sift my inbox for comments, it will come up in search. Long subject lines don’t get read as only the first five words show up. Even less on iPhone! Advice? If you call, don’t ask if I got your email. Say what it is. Same goes for email subject lines. Less is more! Story for Saturday? Offer of exclusive? Contact I’d like you to meet? Possible meeting next Tuesday? Call with chief exec of xx company? If there’s no reply, fine to email again. Bear in mind deadlines tend to be in afternoons and your message may be more likely to be missed. Maybe resend at a different time. It is easy to miss things the first time, but if the subject line is clear, I am more likely to see it and respond – even if it’s a very quick “not this time, thank you”. If you know me well and think it is genuinely something I would really be interested in and are puzzled at non-response, then I don’t mind a call or a text. But I really hate it when PRs WhatsApp me as that’s how I talk to my kids / family. That might be me showing my age though, as there are other journalists who probably prefer WhatsApp! Would be interested to read what others think!

Rich Leigh, Radioactive PR, author of Myths of PR

I wanted to make this piece journalist-focused and ask their advice only, but Myths of PR written by Rich Leigh is too good not to mention it here. In the chapter eight of his book, entitled Calling media is a no-no, Rich pinpoints some of the arguments for and against calling journos, as opposed to emailing them. The chapter gives a lot of valuable hints on following up and in many cases echoes advice given by the journalists I spoke with. For example, Rich draws attention to calling a journalist just to ask whether they got your release:

Don’t call to ask if they got your release. You’ll be laughed off the phone and for good reason. In any case, if you’re using tracking and haven’t received a bounce-back of some sort, you’ll already know – after all, we really should trust in technology’s ability to ensure an email is delivered, no?

You can grab your copy of Myths of PR here.

Key takeouts

#1 Do your research before you even pitch the story

#2 Be personal, avoid bulk mail-outs

#3 Don’t call to check if the journalist ‘got your email’

#4When following-up, be relevant

#5 Using WhatsApp to contact a journalist might not be the best idea

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If you have any suggestions, would like to guest post or give me a feedback, feel free to email me at kl.marcel [at] gmail.com, tweet me @marcelkl or connect with me on LinkedIn. Thanks for stopping by, have a splendid day!

Author: Marcel Klebba

Junior account executive at a global PR agency, working across the corporate & B2B accounts. Interested in current affairs, tech, and digital.

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