Kate Carraway is a senior writer at Eye Weekly and freelance life and culture writer, who has worked with Vice, Globe and Mail, LA Weekly, The Daily Beast, Jezebel.com and Nerve.com, among others.
How can someone grab your attention with a pitch?
To me, it seems so simple, and I really am curious as to why 90 per cent of the pitches I get are so far off-base, especially because everyone says this: even if I’m not that interested in an event, or product, or person, I will absolutely consider it for a story if the pitch takes into account what I do and what my publication does. Easy, right? But I guess not.
I don’t say that to be condescending: I really don’t know what that disconnect is all about. It seems like a tremendous waste of time, energy and opportunity for publicists to be blanketing — and in doing so, alienating — their contacts with a lot of random press releases and pitches when just a few pointed, personalized pitches would have better results. I instantly delete anything without my name on it, and anything longer than a few hundred words; I instantly read anything personal, short and specific about how I might use this information for my work at Eye or elsewhere. Just like I have to sell the reader on my writing, you have to sell me on your client. Use my ego, lack of time and need for constant, solid story ideas to do it.
In terms of Eye Weekly, I often get pitches for bands, films, arts stuff, some of which might work. But as the senior writer, my job is to write a monthly sex column, a weekly personal column and a daily blog, and do a certain amount of other coverage that gets handed down from the section and senior editors. A publicist would ideally know who the person is who assigns that coverage (it’s on the masthead), because in addition to those stories being their decision, not mine, those editors might already have a coverage plan for Band X, Film X, Play X or whatever. So, if a publicist has a specific writer in mind, the appropriate editor should be included in the email, and the pitch could say, “Dear ——-, I think you might like to cover X in your section; I think Kate would love it/them because from past stories I know she likes Band/Film/Play Y.” Then the editor and I would definitely talk about the pitch, and it would have a 1000% better chance of becoming a story.
If my name is spelled wrong, if it’s about something like menopause or an exhibit in Detroit or the release of a new limo company or municipal politics, that confirms that the publicist doesn’t know my work or my publication, and has possibly alienated me professionally. I don’t like attachments (I assure you I wont open an unsolicited attachment unless it’s a party invite with the word “Moët” involved), or press releases about something I can’t possibly use (don’t tell me you’re now representing Brand X unless you’re pitching me something specific on Brand X). Less, but better, is what I would love to get from pitches.
What do you find most useful when dealing with public relations professionals?
I’ve had success just by contacting the PRs that handle stuff and people I already care about. It’s also helpful having a personal column with my face on it, because even if the PR doesn’t know that I might care about their client, they might know who I am if they (and they should!) read all the local publications.
What is the biggest mistake PR professionals make?
Other than shitty pitches? Calling me, unless it’s necessary. Calling is the best if there’s a last-minute change of plans (I use a BlackBerry but it’s easier to miss one of 100 emails in a day than one of five phone calls) or an emergency. I will definitely resent a phone call that is about a press release I have not responded to. If it’s a really good pitch and I haven’t responded, email again, but with more details and more about how I’d use it, not just to ask if I got it. (I got it; I just wasn’t interested enough.) This happened today, actually, and the personalized reminder email was so nice and cool that I’m going to attend a thing I would have skipped if they’d called. Maybe this is not very generous to say, but, c’mon. We’re all too busy for that.
Also, sometimes my boss will forward me an email that is exactly up my alley, but that I wasn’t initially sent. I don’t expect anyone to just know that I am really into punk rock and luxury beauty products, for instance (if you are repping a book about these two things together, please send immediately) but it’s a missed opportunity to not be paying attention to what local writers and editors pay attention to, what the themes are in their coverage. I can identify the professional and personal interests of writers that I don’t know personally or follow closely, just having read a handful of their stories.
Oh, and assuming that I know who you are is a mistake. That is not an insult, it’s just that writers are like squirrely, bookish weirdos who don’t remember what day of the week it is and publicists are cuter and nicer and are better at that stuff. It’s important that you remind me in person or via email when we met or worked together last.
(For the record: the biggest mistake that I make, I think, is bad scheduling; I have to cancel on events and reschedule interviews more than I’d like because that is my dumb reality of writing and hustling full-time, and things come up. I had to email the PR for Vawk on Monday morning to cancel, because Monday was a batshit-crazy workday and I didn’t feel right leaving the office to see a fashion show. You know?)
My pet peeve
I am not into the politics or dishonesty that sometimes comes up in the relationship between writers and PRs. Recently I was uninvited to several parties after I wrote something negative about other, related events. That’s actually totally fine: I understand and am sympathetic to what a publicist does and has to explain to their clients. But, just tell me. “We can’t invite you because X” or “You’re in the local media, this is for national press only” or whatever is fine.
Or, telling me straight-up that you didn’t like something I wrote, instead of telling my best friend’s friend that I’m a bitch, is good. It’s just work, you know? And the process is collaborative between publicists, writers, editors and readers, especially now, with instant feedback and more transparency. We should work together to do all of this better. (Especially in Toronto: people who work in New York and L.A. tend to be more direct and specific about what they want and what they think, which is very good for everybody.)
I try to be as clear as possible about what I can and can’t provide; when people offer to send samples or an invite I have a stock response about how they can send whatever they want but I won’t guarantee or even suggest that I’ll cover it in return. As a reader I feel like I know when something is being covered because it’s convenient, not because it’s worthwhile, and I feel betrayed by that, so I won’t participate.
Also, I hate parties with cash bars. Is that bitchy?
Any other thoughts you’d like to add?
Since basically all of that was about the dark side of working with PR, I want to make a point of saying that I’m inspired by the 10 or 20 PR people I know who are very good at their jobs. They’re like the patient babysitters and writers are like the spoiled brats; I am always really impressed by how together and friendly and attentive publicists are with their clients and with media people. It’s awesome. I am also rarely pressured to provide specific or positive coverage; I think that all the PR people I communicate with regularly know what it is that I cover and how I cover it. And ultimately, we need each other to do our work and develop our businesses, so the more we understand each others’ needs, the better.