The latest skirmish in the PR/journalist fight: ghosting each other

Some of you might know about Cision as the company that currently operates PR Newswire (where vendors can post press releases). But they also maintain a database of press contacts with their beats and contact preferences. I have been on this list for decades, and periodically they ask me to update my data. Last week they asked me to participate in their latest survey that will form the basis of their “Global State of the Media” report. I gladly filled it out. One of the questions was: “What would make you block a PR person or put them on the “do not call” list?

Now, I sharpened my virtual pencil and got ready to dish. I have noticed a notable degradation in the quality of PR responses to my own queries. In a recent story for CSOonline on email security suites, four of the vendors (out of 13 initially contacted) didn’t even respond.

Anyway, to answer the question you were presented with lots of situations. I checked the following:

Last minute cancelation, spamming irrelevant pitches, repeated follow ups (more on that in a moment), broken embargo promises, failure to respond within my deadline and lack of transparency. All of these I have experienced since 1987 when I first began writing for PC Week as a tech reporter. The repeated follow-ups is a thing, and one of the subsequent questions from Cision was how often is too many follow-ups? (That’s easy. My answer, anything greater than zero. Assume no answer means no interest.)

I probably could have checked the others, but restrained myself:

Brochure-ware sounding pitches, inaccurate information (this is the only product that does X), calling me by my wrong name (making botched mail-merges obvious) and unsolicited social media pitches.

I will give you an example of “this is the only product” sort of email that I periodically get, this one taken from recently correspondence where company X was defined as “the only company that unifies identity proofing and passwordless authentication.” I replied: You could say the same thing about half a dozen companies right now, depending on how you define “ID proofing” or “passwordless” or even “authentication.” HYPR, Auth0, Secret Double Octopus, Trusona, Iovation’s TruValidate (maybe, but they didn’t respond to my queries), Cisco/Duo, and many that are part of the FIDO Alliance all could fall into this category. All of these vendors do identity validation beyond the “typical” multi-factor authentication mechanisms. My PR contact said, “Getting people to understand that identity and authentication are two different things is why account compromise attacks are so rampant.” Very true, dat.

Now, that was a nice discussion with this PR person, whom I have known for at least 15 years, and probably longer. He is genuinely good at his job, which is why we could have this back-and-forth discussion and not just hit the eject button to ghost each other.

As I have already hinted at, one of the preset responses that wasn’t included in the Cision survey was being unresponsive to my own queries. I am amazed at how few PR people (or at least their email address) don’t respond to a direct question about their products. What, they are too busy? One of the challenges of having this group email box is that it relieves everyone from any actual responsibility to follow up. The generally accepted reply time period is that same business day. Often, I have to send a second email, or try to track down a real person’s phone number, in search of an answer. You would think that a live press query would move the massive PR machine like a tsunami moving across the ocean, but in a good way I hope.

This isn’t new, sad to say. Around the virtual water-cooler that my fellow tech reporters frequent, the complaints about badly behaving PR folks is an evergreen topic. Some people do abuse their contact lists, to be sure. Given that the supply of freshly minted comms undergrads continues (my daughter is one of them, ahem), there will always be inexperienced PR folks to train and to learn the ways of world. Back in the late 1980s, the incoming tray of the PC Week fax machine would be filled to overflowing with unsolicited pitches. Now we just have our inbox, plus all of our social media accounts to deal with. I am not sure that is an improvement.

Let’s talk about that hallowed ground, the reporter’s email inbox, for a moment. Some people are offended by receiving a single email: I guess the effort involved in placing your middle finger on the delete key is too much effort. Certainly, this is more effort than tossing a bunch of faxed pages into the nearby trash. But I try not to get too worked up about my overflowing inbox. Yes, if I am out of the office (where else am I going to be these days, anyway?) for any extended period of time the emails do pile up.

Should we ghost each other? I don’t know but notice how I phrased that question. It has to be a two-way street. Should there be allowable offenses, or red lines that we can’t cross? Perhaps. Cision does try to indicate the preferred contact mechanism (hint: for me, it is email). One good thing about the modern era is that I almost never get a telephone pitch call, something that was common c.1989. But let’s hope we can treat each other with respect. We are in this together.

Red Cross blog: Dennis Grooms, retired no more!

You might think that after a freak accident falling 70 feet when trying to trim one of his trees would be enough of an incentive to retire, but then you probably don’t know Dennis Grooms. Fortunately, Grooms managed to survive his 2009 fall. But in the process, he managed to break both legs and had other injuries as well as come out of a multi-day coma and chalk up a three months’ stay in the hospital. The fall did have one benefit: in his retirement, he was able to step up his volunteer efforts at various disaster deployments, both for the American Red Cross and other relief agencies.

I wrote more about his experience with ARC and how he is anything but retired.



Ten tips towards better collaboration with your consultants

One of the more fun things that I do is working as a consultant with different project teams around the world, helping them to make their products better and more secure. I got inspired when I read some of these horror stories posted on The Freelancer blog. Over the years I have learned a few things about how to best collaborate. I thought I would share ten specific lessons. I have removed any identifying details to spare any of the potential guilty parties.

1.     How to have virtual meetings.  The best tools for doing this are Webex and GotoMeeting, and both offer free versions. Next best is The problem is that often times a company has more than one meeting product, and sometimes they use tools such as Lync/Skype for Business which is a great tool for internal meetings but breaks down if used by outside contractors that don’t have domain credentials. Best to pick one standard and use it: in some engagements, we couldn’t start the meeting on time because the participants got multiple invites with different products (including one phone bridge just to make matters worse). This creates all sorts of confusion as to where the “real” meeting was taking place.

2.     Part of a meeting is to show a presentation or review documents. That is great, but if you are going to do real-time group editing that can get tedious. Better to collect comments offline and appoint one person in charge of that process. The times that I have done real-time line editing it isn’t very efficient, and often the loudest voice in the virtual room dominates over lesser ones that could have important points to make. Yes, there is a time and place for real-time line editing, but only when a team is used to working this way and everyone knows each other really well.

3.     Another way to do joint line editing is to send out an email with a link to an online document in GDocs or O365, and allow everyone to post their suggested changes over a fixed time period. If you go this route, make sure all the participants have the correct access rights to the document, especially if you are using contractors outside your corporate domain. Also, if you do send out emails, send out the link and not the actual document as an attachment – that could be counter-productive too.

4.     Avoid endless edit cycles. I have had my stories go through several edit passes, and often after the first one these edits aren’t adding any value to the piece and instead are more political nods to a manager’s whims. While everyone thinks she or he is a great editor, few often have the right skills. It also helps to be clear on who is going to be doing the editing, and who just needs to see the document prior to any final distribution. Sometimes you get stuck in a seemingly endless loop between two editors: one undoes the other’s changes.

5. Appoint one person to collect all comments and resolve them if possible. Doodle did this survey a while back that triaged meeting participants into three types: initiators, herders, and loners. It is worth reviewing their study to see how it can apply to your particular team. You don’t have to go a full-on Myers-Briggs but it helps to know whom you are dealing with.

6.     Another tip: don’t schedule any meeting until you are sure you have deliverables in hand to actually discuss. I had this happen to me a few times: someone would schedule a series of weekly meetings, and nothing transpired during the week so the meeting was pointless.

7.     This brings up another tip. Part of running a great meeting is sending out an agenda in the meeting invite so everyone can start with the same points to cover. And then making sure you stick to the agenda.

8.     If you need to have audio conference calls, you should pick a single conferencing product and stick to it, and ensure that it can be accessed from international numbers if you have clients overseas. Many companies that I have worked for have multiple conferencing vendors, which gets confusing when you are trying to schedule one.

9.     Don’t have a final project meeting without inviting the contractors who worked on it. This seems like common sense, but you would be surprised how often this happens.

10.     Use (or equivalent) to schedule your appointments. If you have several clients and they need to book your time in advance, this is a great tool that removes the need for phone tag and a human appointment-taker. They have s a free basic account, with premium accounts at $8/user/month that add custom branding and URL links and reporting options.

Feel free to share some of your own collaboration or freelancing horror stories here too.



Freelancing tip: collecting your clips in one place

One of the best things that I ever did was put together a website that had links to all of my clips. Granted, this in 1995 when the Web was young, and many pubs didn’t have online versions. But now everyone is online and it is a lot easier to do.

Why should you build a clips site? Because you need a reference to your body of work. When you pitch a new editor, he or she wants to be able to quickly go someplace and review your clips and see how and what you write. If you have it all nicely arranged online, you make getting new work easier. All they have to do is look you up your website online and read your previous work.You can also use this website as a handy reference for what you should be pitching too. Finally, you also increase your Google juice and drive additional traffic to your work, which is helpful these days where everyone is counting page views.

What should you use? I use my own hosted WordPress site, and it is a good tool to learn anyway, since many sites now employ it themselves. You can take a look at my site here, and see that I have separate pages for each publisher, and then I also put up a new post whenever one of my articles is published. You can add keywords to make it easier to find particular subjects too and demonstrate your expertise in particular topic areas. I also add a short summary, or maybe the first paragraph of the piece, in my post. If you get a blog on, it is free of charge but then you are limited to their templates. If you want something fancier, you can run a WordPress site on your own domain for a few dollars a month, as i do.

But sometimes putting links to online stories isn’t enough. A lot of pubs have come and gone, and so for the articles that you really care about, take a moment after a piece is published and produce a PDF copy of the piece (If you have a Mac, this can be done easily through the print dialog box.  If you have Windows, there are utilities that can help too. Then put this pdf in a folder that you can retrieve later when the link dies, and post it to your website.

If you don’t want to build your own blog site, there are other alternatives that are free. Editorial-for-hire services such as Ebyline, Contently, and Skyword all offer this feature, and they also might notify you when a piece is posted so you can add it to your portfolio. Here are links to mine:

Note tthat you can create a custom URL in the Contently and Skyword portfolios, which is a nice touch. I went overboard with my page in Contently, putting more than 400 article links together.  I think they have the best of the three systems. Not sure that after you have more than 25 stories in your portfolio if it really matters, but if you are going to use one of these services for your actual portfolio, then you should maintain it. I still recommend you set up your own clips website outside of these systems for complete control and just in case one of the services goes out of business or changes things on you.

The hardest part about building your clips website is just getting started. Once you have it running, adding a new clip won’t take more than a few moments.

Ways to Watch Your Freelancing Rate

I have been in the freelancing business for 25 years and have seen a disturbing drop in per-word rates, especially in the past couple of years. I remember when $1 per word was considered the middle of the road for an established IT writer. Now it seems like the top of the heap, and in some cases almost unattainable. I frequently get asked to write for ten cents a word, or even less.

So my suggestion to freelancers is this: Try to work for the editors that you respect that will pay you the most per word.  In the long run, this will make you the most money.

In order to do that, you need to know how much work is involved in creating the kind of article that you will be asked to write. This means understanding how much research and reporting is needed; and for that you need to be careful about your own limitations and understand the process of how a story gets constructed.

These days research almost always means looking stuff up online and spending time clicking and reading various websites. That isn’t too hard, but it can get time consuming. The good news is that this research isn’t limited by anything other than your own curiosity and time. Sometimes you don’t understand something and really could talk to a live person to clear things up and you need to do some reporting.

Reporting is where the time can get away from you. I recently wrote a story where my editor asked me to get a quote from a source at IBM. I was working with the right PR person (which for a big company like IBM can be a challenge in and of itself) and she was doing a great job hooking me up with the right expert. Except it was taking too long. I couldn’t file my story until I had this quote: weeks went by before the stars were in alignment and I could do my interview. So, be prepared in some instances research can take far longer than expected, and you should account for this when you decide to accept an assignment. And don’t take your client’s word for how accessible a source could be: oftentimes they don’t realize what is involved in securing an interview and obtaining a quote.

Finally, don’t forget my advice about accounting for the number of edit cycles that a client may have in store for you. That should be reflected in your contracts and your rates. Don’t be shy about requesting a heavy surcharge for additional edit cycles, because that can eat up your time quickly.

How to Know When to Write

have been a freelance writer for more than 25 years, and before that, a professional trade journalist for another six years. Over the years my income has varied but always been very comfortable. I have written magazine articles for most of the major IT pubs, created dozens of websites, and written three books, two of which have been published (and let’s just say the results were less than stellar).  Over that period I learned a few important lessons about being a freelancer that I want to share with you. Here is one biggie:

Find your best time of day to write, and protect it.

I am a morning person, that is the way it is. I am most productive in the hours before 10 am. On all of my books, most of the major writing was done in the early morning hours. You need to listen to your body’s biorhythms and follow them. If you have an article to write and it is the wrong time of day, put it aside until tomorrow. Don’t try forcing the words on the page. You will be more productive.

Maybe you have never thought of your writing in this fashion. I know when I first began to do freelancing, I was a bit lost. What do I do first? How do I put together a pitch proposal for work? You have a lot of things competing for your time. So, structuring what you are planning on doing is critical.

For the next week, keep a short journal and note what you spend you time on during each day. Start paying attention to when you can write with the fewest distractions. Do you need to turn off your email, not answer your phone? Shut down a few windows on your computer? Whatever it takes, it is time to focus.

Finally, keep track of ideas. You can use a journal, or have a Word doc that you annotate. Your editors are always looking for new ideas, and it is helpful to have a ready supply of potential pitches.

Now make sure to schedule your “writing time” so that you don’t have other things going on that invade this important part of your day. Dentist or doctor appointments? Visits with friends? Keep them, certainly, but schedule them around your best and most productive moments.

Avoid Rewrite Nightmares: Keep the Edit Cycles to a Minimum

One secret every freelancer has to learn is the writing part of the job pales by comparison to time needed for work to be edited. I have worked for very good and very bad editors over the years. From the best editors, I have learned how to sharpen my writing and improve how I frame particular ideas. From the bad ones, I have learned patience and, well, read on.

There are some clients that just can’t seem to help themselves and have to rewrite almost everything from top to bottom. To avoid getting trapped in these situations, you need to be crystal clear about how your work will be treated once it leaves your computer. Some clients think they are better writers than you, others want to show to their bosses that they have added value to your work.

Now, my contracts are very explicit about this process. I put in language that exactly says I will perform one edit cycle: I write it, the client makes comments, and I submit the final version. If they want to go back and forth endlessly, I charge more.  In some cases, a lot more, such as two or three times my original rate. That usually gets my point across: the editing is almost more time consuming than the original writing. If you don’t have a standard contract, now is the time to look around onlineand modify one that will suit your purpose.

I am not saying that every word that I create is precious and needs to be in the final piece. Just that I enjoy writing, not fiddling with syntax and word usage.

It also helps to have a clear idea of who is going to be involved in the actual editing process itself. Sometimes you get stuck between two editors, one who undoes the changes of the other. Insist (and in writing too) on a single point of contact at your client and have them consolidate and filter all the requests for changes to you. Otherwise, you go nuts with this back-and-forth. And put that in your contract too.

With some writing projects that I have done, I wanted to get multiple comments from reviewers very quickly into my draft, almost happening in real-time. For these situations, I have used one of the real-time editing tools such as Google Docs or Both tools reflect requested changes with a scrolling chat window and different colors to represent each person’s changes. But you have to know your client very well to implement something like this.

If all else fails, then don’t work for these clients: They can make you work much harder  for an end product that isn’t always superior. In the end, you will be happier and enjoy the writing process more if you limit the number of edit cycles and approvals up front.