Deirdre Kelly has been a staff writer with The Globe and Mail since 1985. Her first book, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre), a memoir using eight trips to Paris over a 30-year period to map a coming-of-age story, was published last year and is now a national best-seller. More info about the book can be found on her website.
How can someone grab your attention with a pitch?
That’s an obvious question, but I’m afraid I will give something of a slippery response: I often come up with my own ideas. That’s the nature of my job; I have to be aware of trends, what’s being talked and written about, and generally follow my gut. I have good instincts after more than 25 years at The Globe and Mail (yes, I am that old) and can spot a story 10 miles off, if not a year before it really becomes news elsewhere, and well before a publicist tells me that they have something new to tell me.
PRs don’t tend to pitch trend stories, which, by necessity, would involve a variety of sources and points of view beyond their own client. I have always striven to think and write outside a press release. I dislike very much the idea that a journalist is merely an adjunct to someone’s publicity or marketing department.
That said, I have some regular features that need to be filed weekly, and am open to enterprising publicists who are reading those features. These include two new columns I write for the Saturday Style section: In the Mix and My Favourite Room. There have been a few instances where a PR has sent an email with the subject heading “In the Mix”, and then suggested a drink and/or bar for me to profile. Do I open this email as soon as I see it? Hell, yes! Said PR, by showing such winning initiative, instantly has my attention! I am THRILLED beyond words that they’ve taken notice of the column and have come up with a candidate that might suit my purposes. The same goes for My Favourite Room, though I must say sometimes the candidates aren’t hugely noteworthy, or worse, they ain’t got style. These are pitches based on having a client they want to push my way, and it’s not always the right fit. But, hey, I’ll never fault anyone for trying.
So, to answer your question: the ideal pitch would be conceived as a story with a unique angle and broad reach, an idea ultimately promoting the creation of an article saying something not said before.
What do you find most useful when dealing with public relations professionals?
Speed and a certain degree of intelligence go a long way in my books. I work for a daily newspaper. The deadlines come screaming at me, every day. If I need something, I usually needed it yesterday, and it really helps when a PR basically drops everything and hustles to get me what I ask for. I am completely aware of how tyrannical that sounds, and believe me, I do apologize whenever the demand appears brusque and last minute. But I can’t help it. I really can’t. The newspaper is a ferociously hungry beast; it devours copy by the second.
As for the requirement of intelligence, what I mean is the ability to think while running ragged on your feet trying to confirm a fact, find a source or a quote for my story. I’ve had instances when a seasoned PR has known to refuse a quote if it doesn’t fit the needs of the story, and cajoled the subject to come up with something better. That’s the sign of a pro, and after the dust has settled, boy, do I remember that person. Next time, if they’re the ones pleading for me to do something for them, I will do everything in my power to repay the favour.
What is the biggest mistake PR professionals make?
Getting way too personal over a story. I’ve had this happen to me more times than I care to remember. This happened even recently over a style story I wrote, where the PR sent me a poison pen email, chastising me for not putting her client, whom I gave lots of ink, in the top graph. Wow. Talk about burning your bridges. Blatant hostility from PR people is more common than you might think. But I tended to experience it more often during my 15 years as The Globe and Mail’s dance critic. I was basically licensed to state my opinion in print, and sometimes that opinion wasn’t always complimentary about the production at hand.
Some publicists would hate me for stating my mind and punish me by making it difficult for me to access talent for future stories and deny me access to their events. I was once even refused review tickets to a show, and had to buy them on my credit card. Did the PR really think I wouldn’t review them, anyway? I’d love to name names. Unfortunately, there are quite a few.
I guess my message is to develop a thick skin, and know that the world is made more interesting by having difference of opinion in it (or just differences, period).
My pet peeve
Besides having my name continually misspelled and mispronounced, (for the record I say my name DEAR-DREE, but I’ve had every variation, including Derrière, my all-time favourite). My biggest pet peeve is when publicists haven’t done their research and haven’t a clue as to what I do or have done at the paper. When I became a fashion reporter in 2000, after being an award-winning critic in the arts department for over a decade, I had a number of rather callow PR’s call and congratulate me on my recent hire. They would ask me where I was before, and when I said, “Here all along you dork,” (no, I didn’t, but I wanted to), there would be a strained silence on the other end. But beside having fun with them, those PRs taught me humility.
In this business, you really are as good as your last byline, and if people didn’t read the arts pages and were only fixated on dresses, then, really, who was I to call them on it? Journalists can be too often full of themselves, and I think it’s good to be reminded that you aren’t the queen bee when deadline rolls around. At the end of the day, it’s about teamwork and being respectful while getting the job done well.
What also bothers me is a PR who carpet-bombs the newspaper with the same request for a story/interview, and not let all of us know that more than one of us is poised to show up at the same event. That’s just bad form.
Any other thoughts you’d like to add?
Some of my best friends are publicists. Really. I say this in case I’ve come across as too holier-than-thou. But it’s true. I feel I owe much of my career to hard-working, self-sacrificing, smart, funny, endearing, one-of-a-kind (I’m thinking here of the incomparable Gino Empry, rest his soul) publicists who have helped me develop my stories done well, and deliver them on time. I love you all!
Here’s a story to share:
As a fledgling journo, a true wannabe penning weekly dance reviews for The Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto where I was an undergraduate, I arrived one evening to Toronto Dance Theatre to review a program showcasing the choreography of company founders, Patricia Beatty, David Earle and Peter Randazzo (ah, those were the days). At the entrance were three clippings of reviews of the previous week’s performances.
One was from The Toronto Star, one from The Globe and Mail and the other was from The Varsity, with my byline on it. I stopped dead in my tracks. This was the first time I was receiving public validation for my efforts as an aspiring arts critic, which showed me I truly was on the right career path and that the community I was writing about cared about what I had to say. It was because of a publicist who was willing to give me my due despite my tender years. His name is Stephen Johnson, and he has my everlasting gratitude.