Targeted PR in the Digital Age

PR bashing is fast becoming the blood sport of choice among technology journalists. Sites ridiculing PR efforts and showcasing bad press releases (for example, The Buzz Saw, Whack-a-Flack) are proliferating, as are articles that fulminate about (literally) offbeat pitches, incomprehensible product descriptions, ignorance of the product pitched, and — public enemy No. 1 — phone calls, phone calls, phone calls (all of them apparently placed at 4:35 on a Thursday afternoon).

PR, of course, is not alone among the various forms of contemporary marketing in attracting the wrath of its intended audience. Like TV and magazine advertising, direct mail, telemarketing, trade shows, and billboards, PR seems to have reached the saturation point — and has kept on soaking.

Like other forms of public communication, however, PR is moving in two directions at once. On the one hand, it’s turning up the broadcast volume, with more documents being sent to more journalists and more young staffers placing more pitch and follow-up calls every day. The ramp-up is made easier by electronic media databases that allow for easy email merges to huge lists, by email itself, which is faster than faxing, and by huge PR budgets (fueled by huge expectations) that provide the smile-and-dial firepower.

As is often the case, what technology helped disease, technology can help cure. The web offers a wealth of tools that enable PR pros to keep constant tabs on who’s writing about what, and when. With its relatively limited “target market” — a typical pitch might go out to dozens or hundreds of journalists — PR is one of the few forums in which meaningful one-to-one marketing is feasible.

In the battle for media attention, PR practitioners can try to bludgeon their way to breakthrough — using caps and exclamation points in subject lines, carpet bombing the whole staff of The Industry Standard, calling each target five times in one week. Or they can wield the penknife of personal relevance — the right message, keyed by the right phrase, to the right person. In some cases, this will be the journalist’s own phrase — nothing is dearer to any writer’s heart than being read. That’s as true for trade journalists writing about dental drills as it is for New York Times editorialists offering prescriptions for peace in the Middle East.

The web has created a wealth of tools for targeting PR messages, including:

  • Online versions of key print publications, with email links to the authors. Response on behalf of a PR client to a reporter’s latest article draws a relatively high response rate.

  • Search engines that make it easy to pull up a given journalist’s recent articles. These include general search engines, online publications’ internal search engines, and subscription-based databases like Dow Jones and Westlaw.
  • ProfNet and other bulletin boards for journalist’s queries. Responses to these queries have probably 10 times the response rate of broadcast press releases and pitches. Responses need not be on behalf of clients only — I’ve referred journalists to my mother, my neighbor, my ex-boss, my undergraduate classics professor, and my clients’ customers and partners. Some of these referrals have led to lasting relationships (no, not just with my mother).
  • Online news sites and email newsletters that get a story out more quickly than more reflective publications. Picking up a story at 1 p.m. on internet.com sometimes makes it possible to get a client quoted or mentioned in another publication’s slower-breaking (and more in-depth) coverage of the story.
  • Publications’ beat lists and editorial calendars, available online.
  • Online newsletters that track journalists’ job movements. Press Access’s free service is best for tech press — it seems to catch many moves within days. Well-targeted email to someone who’s new to a beat can bring a very fast response.
  • Freelance or syndicated journalists’ web sites, newsletters, and online discussion groups. These resources provide insight into a given writer’s core interests, hobbies and incidental passions, pet peeves, preferred dog breeds, etc. — all information that can help make a pitch relevant and personal.
  • Electronic contacts databases that make it possible to craft an email merge to comprehensive but well-targeted emailing press lists.

Powerful as these tools are, my bludgeon-versus-penknife dichotomy is honestly (like all Goofus/Gallant constructions) something of an oversimplification. The fact is that PR cannot live by one-to-one targeting alone. While 20 targeted pitches may yield results as good as a press release emailed to 400 journalists, PR folks can’t afford to forego the extra pickup from the broadcast — though they can tailor the list as precisely as possible by editorial beat and news/story type. Given the pressures not to be left out of stories covering a client’s space, we need dragnets as well as fishing flies.

All the same, I’ve found my best leads when I’ve gone fishin’ — that is, indulged in my favorite form of procrastination: reading on the job. It may be, in fact, that the best targeting tool is serendipity — interrupting the task of the moment to scroll through an online newsletter that’s just popped into your inbox, leafing through a trade magazine the mailman has just delivered, keeping sensors open while reading the daily newspaper, following links to related stories while reading online — and shooting off your e-mouth in response. For at least part of their week, PR people need to be lazy — like a fox.

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