Industry Insight: What Editors Want

If you were to ask editors at print or online publications what they want from public relations or marketing professionals, the sarcastic ones (and they predominate) will say that all they want is to be left alone. Less cranky (and more realistic) editors will say, “Good stories,” and then moan about why that simple fact is so hard for marketers to understand.

In reality, editors need public relations and marketing professionals today more than ever before. Almost every editor you’ll come into contact with, even those primarily responsible for a print publication, have websites that need daily fertilizing with fresh content. Consequently, the demand for stories to fill the Web’s infinite space—stories that will generate page views, clicks, and revenue—has skyrocketed. At the same time, falling ad revenues and circulation at both newspapers and magazines has led to budget cuts that have reduced writing and editing staff, either through layoffs or attrition. The result is that the demand on editors to produce stories has increased as their story-generation resources have decreased. Therefore, the barriers preventing publicists from placing their stories have been lowered significantly.

Indeed, it’s never been easier to find a home for your stories. If, that is, you do it right. And to do it right, it’s important first to face a few unappetizing facts.

To begin with, almost all editors—whether print or online, whether working for consumer or trade publications—hold public relations and marketing professionals in low regard. Whenever a journalist changes careers and goes to work in public relations or marketing, his ex-colleagues invariably will say that he or she has gone over to “the dark side.”

There are several reasons for this.

For one, journalists (who in the annual Gallup poll of trusted professions were listed 26th out of 31, just above real estate agents and psychics and just below stockbrokers and CEOs) need someone—anyone—to look down upon, and PR and marketing professionals are easy targets. After all, it’s the marketers that need them, not the other way around (or so the editors like to tell themselves). Furthermore, journalists believe that while they themselves deal in the real, marketers deal in the convenient; i.e., whatever makes their clients look good.

I know. I’ve been a writer and editor at dailies, weeklies, and monthlies for over 30 years. (You can see my picture on Rhetoriq’s website; note my distinguished grey hairs and patented editorial smirk.) Before writing and editing thought leadership content, I had been the editor of CIO Magazine, the leading trade publication for chief information officers, for three years, its managing editor for another three, and a senior editor for three years before that. And while I never disliked public relations people and marketing professionals, I often wondered why they couldn’t seem to understand what role they played in my life, what I needed from them, and how they should approach me, even after I explained it repeatedly and, I thought, quite clearly.

So I’m giving it another crack, this time from the other side of the fence—or, if you will, from the dark side. If you want to get an article published in a consumer or trade publication, in print or online, if you want your client quoted or his product mentioned, you’ve got to understand what the editor you’re dealing with wants and needs, and what he doesn’t want and what he doesn’t need.

Pitching: The Do’s and Don’ts

There may be, as Paul Simon once sang, 50 ways to leave your lover, and there are at least those many ways either to torpedo your chances for placing a story with an editor or to turn that editor into a fan, forever open to your ideas. Some of them include:

Do: Know the publication.

How many pitches have I received for stories and ideas that had absolutely nothing to do with the publication for which I worked?


How clear was it that the person pitching me had never, ever read a single page of the publication for which I worked?


How inclined was I to listen to such an individual?

Not at all.

Do: Use email.
Don’t: Use the telephone.

Do you like getting phone calls in the middle of your busy day from people you don’t know who are trying to sell you something you didn’t ask for and don’t want or need?

I didn’t think so.

Email is a blessing for editors and public relations and marketing professionals alike. Email gives the recipient time to think; it gives the sender room to express his ideas.

Snail mail, on the other hand, is a waste of your time and money. Unless they’re clearly marked as containing either money or chocolate, most letters go right in the trash, unopened.

Do: Try to develop a relationship with your target editor.

Obviously, it’s easier to get through to someone you know than to someone you don’t. Just as obviously, developing that relationship is hard. The only way to do it is to do your job, such as help him publish a story that will make him and his journal look good. If you can do that, you’ll have made a friend who will always be willing to lend you an ear.

Do: Target the right editor.
Don’t: Write to the publisher or the editor-in-chief.

Most print publications—especially trade publications—have mastheads that describe the duties and beats of the editors on staff. Send your story idea to the person who covers the beat relevant to your story. If you can’t figure that out, send your email to the managing editor or a senior editor. The editor-in-chief often has very little to do with what stories actually get into the publication. The publisher has nothing to do with what gets into the publication; his job is to schmooze advertisers and say no when the editor-in-chief asks for a budget increase.

Don’t: Sell the client.
Do: Sell the idea.

A good public relations or marketing professional believes in his client and his clients’ product or service. He thinks they’re great, and they very well may be. However, unless the client or the client’s product is inarguably famous (Bill Gates, say, or the iPhone), the editor you’re pitching couldn’t care less about your client, client’s product or service, or you. In fact, the more you stress your client’s sterling qualities, the harder you sell them, the more suspicious the editor becomes. The editor believes that whatever you’re saying is self-serving, as, let’s face it, it is. The trick is to make your pitch without mentioning your client at all.

How can you do that? One day at CIO, I received an email describing “the most wired town in America.” It was a Chicago suburb, and every bit of the town’s business—license applications, voter registration, paying traffic tickets, etc.—was conducted online. Every home had a broadband Internet connection; every citizen who didn’t own a PC or a laptop had access to a public one. The mayor was the town’s CIO. I liked the story, and I sent a writer to visit the town. The PR person smoothed the way for my writer to interview the mayor, police chief, and assorted citizen-users. The story ran off the cover of CIO.

Who was the client? The PR rep never mentioned her client to me or the reporter, but it came out in the course of reporting the story (as the PR person knew it would) that the client was the firm that designed and implemented the town’s network. Of course, the firm was mentioned in the story early and often. However, if the pitch had begun with the firm (“My client is the leading designer of public sector secure wide area networks blah, blah, blah”), rather than the story about the town, it would have gone directly into the metal, circular file underneath my desk, the one the maintenance crew emptied every evening. Granted, I would have missed a good story, but no one would have ever known that. Not even me. The PR person’s client, on the other hand, would have been justified in wondering why the firm it had hired was failing to get its story out.

I’ve always considered this pitch and how the PR person went about it, the beaux ideal. I knew she must have had a client somewhere in the background, but that’s where it belonged, and that’s where it stayed. She pitched me a story, a narrative, something unusual, something I didn’t know about, an idea, and even seeded the pitch with its ultimate headline: “The Most Wired Town in America.”

That was years ago. Today, the game has changed a bit. Because of what generates clicks on the Web, traditional storytelling is less valued by editors. Readers are loath to spend the time it takes to click through a lengthy story, no matter how compelling. What grabs an editor’s attention these days is what we called at CIO “conceptual scoops.” That is, a fact, or an item, that could be expanded upon to identify a heretofore undiscovered trend. For example, if your client is an outsourcing consultancy, a “conceptual” pitch for a story might go like this:

PR person: “Did you know that rents are rising in Bangalore?”

Me: “Who cares? I live in Boston.”

PR person: “U.S. companies care. They’re starting to move their operations out of India because Indian workers are job-hopping for higher salaries to pay the rent.”

Me: “Interesting. Know any examples of a company doing that?”

PR person: “As a matter of fact . . .”

This requires some thought on the part of the person making the pitch; in fact, it requires thought leadership. But what hasn’t changed is that if the PR person doesn’t have an example, the client’s outsourcing expertise will go unreported in the editor’s publication.

Remember: For the editor, it’s never about your client; it’s about what your client represents. And if your client’s accomplishments are real and substantial and germane to a developing trend, you can be confident it will turn up in the story that you help develop.

Don’t: Leave home without examples.

At CIO, I was required to do “vendor visits.” That means that a couple of times a month, I had to sit down with a technology, IT services, or other company that sells to IT executives and listen to his spiel, and if I could not convince him to shut his laptop, watch a PowerPoint presentation about his company’s solution for this, that, or the next thing.

Sometimes, the presentations were interesting and the products sounded good. And I would ask, “Do you have any clients that are using your product and would be willing to talk about their experience with it?”

“Of course,” the publicist would say. “I’ll call you with their names and contacts.”

But they rarely did. And, consequently, I rarely ran any stories about their companies or products.

Without an example, without a real, live user, there is no story; there is only hot air.

Don’t: Make it personal.

Many times, after I received an email pitch, the pitch’s author would call me several days later and, in a hurt, wounded, or even angry voice, ask me why I hadn’t responded. Well, there may have been many reasons why I hadn’t responded—I was busy; I was lazy; the pitch didn’t interest me, whatever—but none of them were any of the publicist’s business, and I resented being put on the spot. I can confidently say that no public relations person or marketing professional in over 30 years ever placed a story with me by making me feel bad or criticizing how I did my job.

This is not to say that persistence is not rewarded. I have been worn down by PR people who checked in regularly to ask if I had had a chance to consider their proposal or who sent a steady stream of proposals to my inbox.

Editors are human. Sort of. And so are you. You share that. So try to put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself how you would like to be approached if you were behind their desk, what stories would grab your attention if you had their job, what would be important and helpful to you if you were they.

It really shouldn’t be that hard.

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