Are cold phone pitches ever OK?
Ask any journalist about their preferred channels for receiving pitches, and I can almost guarantee that "phone call" is at the very bottom of the list.
It's not that we don't use our phones; we have no problem scheduling phone interviews, or taking a quick call to follow up on an email thread. But just about every reporter I know — myself included — silently (or not so silently) curses the poor PR rep who decided to interrupt their day with a cold phone pitch.
Many of us take to Twitter to lament the phone pitches we receive, including a few in this excellent tweet roundup by Michelle Garrett. But I think journalist and digital media expert Elizabeth Spiers said it best: Phone pitches are "intrusive, disruptive to existing work, they suck up more time and they're horribly inefficient." Once a journalist has gotten into writing mode, the slightest distraction can really throw off their groove.
And what's more distracting than someone calling to demand that you stop what you're doing, right now, to listen to a pitch you probably can't even use?
What we find most difficult about phone pitches, aside from their disruptive nature, is that it's hard to properly process and analyze all the information the caller is saying. Most reporters deal primarily in the written word. We retain information much better when it's written out in front of us, and we can read through it at our own pace (or multiple times, if needed). We'll lose a good chunk of a PR rep's mile-a-minute phone pitch, and if we're even remotely interested, we'll probably end up asking you to email us the information anyway.
A PR contact (who no longer works in PR) once told me her boss expected her to "smile and dial," and used phone outreach to journalists as the primary measure of success. I imagine the boss saw very few results, and it was no personal reflection on the PR pro: in many cases, cold calls are the least effective way to land coverage. But, when used very sparingly and in the right context, calling a journalist could be the best way to get your story on their radar.
There are three scenarios in which I believe cold-calling reporters is acceptable and effective.
1. Your client has urgent, breaking news relevant to their beat. This typically only works with reporters who cover breaking stories. In this case, a phone call about a developing story may mean you're the first person to offer a source. Proceed with caution, though, because it's likely that you and the journalist you're trying to reach have a different idea of what's "urgent" and "relevant." Be absolutely certain about what types of stories the person covers and what their typical story turnaround time is like.
2. The journalist put out a source request and is on a tight deadline. Think a HARO query or a call-out on social media. This person is in need of an expert source and wants to make something happen as quickly as possible. A phone call is, in this case, a much faster and more direct way to reach the reporter than sending an email or tweet — which could get lost in the flood of other messages they're receiving.
3. The journalist has publicly expressed a preference for phone pitches. They're rare, but they do exist: Some journalists out there do actually like getting pitched via cold call. If they've written in a bio or, at some point, shared that they're OK with phone calls, you're in the clear.
If you do decide that a cold call is the right pitching method, be clear, concise and respectful of the journalist's schedule. Make sure you ask up front if the person has a few minutes to chat, and if they say they're busy or they'd prefer you to email them, don't push to take up more of their time. Some may hang up on you or berate you, but in most cases, a little professional courtesy goes a very long way.
Photo: Telephone receiver via Shutterstock