Patricia R. Olsen is a veteran reporter with hundreds of articles and columns in The New York Times, On Wall Street, Family Business, and more. I recently spoke to Olsen and gathered her insights and opinions on working with PR professionals. She told me how to pitch journalists a home-run story, and how to avoid getting benched. Here are her top three tips for PR success:
1. Be Professional
Olsen likes to work with PR people who are experienced and aware of journalists’ own needs and constraints. Understand the ins and outs of a reporter’s job, and craft a pitch that makes her day easier. But don’t try and do Olsen’s job for her. When asked about PR pet peeves, she said it irks her when she receives “an entire, unsolicited column.” You can make suggestions, but Olsen does need to write the column herself.
The first step is to send a well-written query that’s been read and approved by someone other than yourself. Olsen can tell when a pitch hasn’t been thoughtfully edited. “I get queries with opinions that are much too detailed and promotional,” says Olsen, “Or they emphasize the wrong points; or the pitch doesn’t grab me.” Well-written means brief. A five-paragraph query is taxing to read.
To demonstrate professionalism beyond the first pitch, limit your follow-up emails, send prompt replies, and avoid a pushy tone. Olsen says checking in every month won’t speed the publishing process along, but it will annoy time-pressured journalists. “I can’t tell them when I will be writing a column about their company CEO,” she explains, “I’m at the mercy of the editor’s time.”
2. Know the Angle
Olsen contributes to a New York Times Q&A column called Vocations that debuted in October 2013 to replace her Preoccupations and The Boss columns (Olsen’s final Boss column ran October 13). It’s about a person’s job. She receives many pitches that miss the mark, from PR pros who don’t grasp what’s a good fit. For example, a lawyer-turned-fitness trainer is not good, she says. “Many people change careers and become [fitness] trainers, so this is too common, and the person has to have a compelling story. The best way to see what might be a good fit is to study the column.”
3. Bring a Savvy Source
A press release is useless to Olsen. To tell a print-worthy story, she needs an interview subject. Not surprisingly, her ideal source is transparent, upfront about a company’s questionable past, and able to share valuable stories and insights. If your source is only interested in promotion and the company line, your story will never make it to the editor.
The best sources “can provide a lot of detailed stories and anecdotes to make a point,” says Olsen. She listens for “sound bites,” “good philosophical statements,” and “lessons learned.” And she can’t run the same story that’s already been published across ten other blogs and magazines.
Think Like a Journalist
No matter how brilliant your press release, journalists are ultimately the ones spreading your company’s story. Toss them thoughtful, targeted queries and pitches, along with excellent sources… and realize there are no guarantees for coverage.