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A sales pitch isn’t a relationship

It had been pitched as a “get acquainted” call. The CEO really wanted to establish a relationship with me, the PR agency rep said. We would have a dialogue about what interested me and how the company could help me do my work.

I rarely accept such invitations, but I had worked with this particular public relations person several times before, and the topic of the conversation did look interesting. After brief introductions, the CEO began talking. He didn’t stop for 20 minutes. During the entire half-hour meeting, I said probably less than 50 words. Not once did he ask about my interests, my activities, or even my reaction to what he was saying. At least there was no PowerPoint.

I was a technology journalist for 23 years before leaving the field in 2005 to focus on social media marketing. Last year I returned to tech journalism on a contract basis, in part to help out a friend and in part because the site he ran badly needed attention.

Time Machine

The experience has been like stepping into a time machine. Although the media world has been turned upside down since I last worked in journalism, PR practices have hardly changed at all. It’s still all about the sale.

Between 20 and 30 arrive in my email every day, and they all look the same: 800 words of text stuffed with empty superlatives and vacuous executive quotes. Each pitch invariably ends with an offer to connect with an executive for the client company, a conversation that I’m told is intended to “build a relationship.” I’ve had hundreds of these meetings over the years, yet I can probably count on the fingers of both hands the number of executives who have genuinely followed through on that pledge. When presented with an audience, most of them just can’t resist the urge to sell. That isn’t a relationship, it’s a mugging, and PowerPoint is their blunt weapon.

Give-and-take is a crucial element of a relationship, but the behavior of most executives during these get-acquainted calls makes me want never to speak to them again. That’s okay; they don’t call back anyway.

I understand that PR is a tougher job today that it was a few years ago. There are many more media outlets to follow, and bloggers introduce even more complexity. The press tour, which used to provide that crucial face-to-face element, is almost extinct. Journalists are busier and more distracted than ever.

But that doesn’t excuse the failure of PR organizations to use the many new tools that have come on line to communicate, educate and yes, even build relationships. The process starts with putting away the sales pitch.

Early on in my last full-time journalism job as founding editor at TechTarget, I got an invitation to meet with Greg Gianforte, a successful serial entrepreneur who at the time was bootstrapping RightNow Technologies. I was surprised to even get the call. TechTarget was tiny at the time, still in startup mode and practically unknown. But I took the meeting.

Gianforte made me a promise that day. He pledged to check in with me once each quarter, just to update me on his work and inquire about my own. For the next five years, he did exactly that. There was no presentation, no sales pitch, and during more than 20 calls, we built a relationship of trust and mutual respect. Three years ago we co-authored a book.

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