You may have read the article Zach Schonfeld of Newsweek wrote when he decided to read and reply to every single PR email he received for a week. His story details the almost comical number of emails that reporters get from PR professionals like us each day. As someone who has been on both sides of the newsdesk, I was really interested in his story. However, it was the follow up he wrote that really got my attention.

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Think your inbox is full? Imagine the inbox of the reporters who just got your pitch. Remember, there are roughly five PR people for each journalist. (From Newsweek)

After his initial story ran, Schonfeld was flooded with a few accusations but primarily accolades from the PR world. In his follow up, Dear PR People Everywhere: I Am Not Your Savior, he expressed surprise that his humorous and candid reflections on the large amount of poorly crafted pitches gained so much traction from PR folks.

Why was he so stumped about his newfound fandom? Because the PR lessons learned by his experiment were remarkably simple:

What few PR insights can be gleaned from my experiment seem, in retrospect, so self-explanatory that my two-year-old could grasp them, and I don’t have a two-year-old. Of course, it’s not particularly strategic to alert New York media about a dog sculpture in Chicago. Of course, maybe don’t place the wrong publication name in the email subject line (as is not uncommon). ­– Zach Schonfeld, Newsweek

This realization that the keys to a good pitch are simple (make it relevant and timely) can be compared to a realization that the key to losing weight is also simple (eat right and exercise). But if these things are so simple, why are there a multimillion dollar dieting industry and too many bad pitches to count? Bear with me on this analogy for a minute, and I’ll explain.

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Is a mail merge the fast food of media relations?

The reality is that we can face budget and time restraints coupled with continuing demand for media hits– with a dwindling force of reporters to write those coveted articles. When time is tight and coverage is needed, it’s just easier to reach for the pre-packaged cheeseburger (read: mass mail merge, distribution, etc.) than to cook a meal from scratch.

Sending out a mass press release to 200 possibly-relevant contacts from Cision isn’t the right thing to do; it’s a quick fix to a long-term problem. But when you have a limited budget and a workday stretching past 12 hours, it sure feels good. The alternative is to research and send each relevant, targeted reporter a note about your pitch along with a reference to an article they wrote recently. This route is more time consuming and will give you far less instant gratification than seeing replies roll in (even if they decline) after sending a distribution. It’s kind of like reaching for that break room donut because getting up early enough to eat a healthy breakfast didn’t happen.

So why persist with the more difficult path? Because when you build good habits, it gets better my friends. I often feel that getting up early to exercise is terrible. But if done regularly, with friends, it becomes better. That’s the same thing that can happen with media relations.

When it comes to good PR communication with the media, consistent legwork pays off. If you have a client that needs to reach an outlet and you research those writers, you’ll find the ones who really focus in on the relevant topics for your client. They may not cover you the first time around, but with consistent outreach (and by reading their articles regularly) you can develop a working relationship. The reporter gets to know you, because you first get to know them, what they cover and, most importantly, what their audience likes to read.

Eventually, there will be no risk that you would ever get their name, or title wrong. There’s no need to “personalize” a pitch to them with an insert field button. It’s personalized because you know them. You actually read their article and you actually have something in their real-life editorial calendar that might work. You know when to send something over to their office and when to wait for their deadline to pass. Together, you find opportunities that please both your client and their editor.

Remember, reporters are never the enemy. But they only see one side of our work. It’s in their inbox, and usually, it’s just a subject line. Make it count.