In our Journalist Spotlight Q&A series, PR Newswire for Journalists and ProfNet users share their insight and advice on how PR professionals and experts can improve communications and increase their chances of being featured in their publications.
In this edition, we catch up with Timothy Gower, an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in more than two dozen major magazines and newspapers, including Prevention, Reader’s Digest, Esquire, Men’s Health, and the New York Times. He is also the author or co-author of a dozen books.
Timothy, for those not familiar with your work, can you tell us a little about the topics you cover?
I primarily write about health and medicine, though in the last few years I have done a fair amount of work in personal finance -- which is interesting, since I can’t balance a checkbook.
What are PR pros doing right – and what are they getting wrong – when they reply to your queries?
I deal with a lot of media representatives at hospitals and medical schools, and on the whole, they are wonderful -- responsive and accommodating, and usually able to put me on the phone with the doctors and scientists I need to interview within a reasonable amount of time. Every now and then, a PR person will promise more than he or she can deliver -- that is, “I’ll get someone from rheumatology for you to interview by Tuesday,” then they just disappear. If I’m counting on that interview and it doesn’t materialize, I’m in trouble. And I may not trust your promises in the future.
Also, please don’t give me the same doctor every time I call for a comment, since I can’t quote the same person over and over, from one story to the next. (You might be surprised how often this happens.)
This is a little thing, but sending email queries with a subject line written to give the appearance that I have already responded -- that is, it reads “re: new therapy…” or whatever -- is silly and fools no one. Journalists joke about how desperate that seems.
Is there anything PR reps can do to set themselves apart from other respondents?
Know what kinds of topics I cover and send appropriate pitches. I believe a lot of PR agencies use very outdated materials to determine a journalist’s area of coverage. Years ago, I did a tiny bit of food writing, but that didn’t last long. Yet I still get pitches about hot new products. I guess I checked a box on a form once saying I write about food. But that was many years ago. I know there are clearinghouses that collect and sell this information about journalists. They contact me for updates on occasion, which I’m happy to provide.
Also, when you send out a story pitch, proofread it first. Typos and poor grammar are distracting and sap the power of your message.
Are you open to cold calls/pitches? If so, what are your guidelines for those?
By email, yes. By phone, no. If I wrote for a daily or weekly publication, I might be more amenable to phone pitches, but I tend to have very long deadlines, so I don’t need a steady stream of story ideas to rely on. Furthermore, most of the story topics I end up writing about are either generated in-house at the magazines I contribute to regularly, or they come from my own research.
Do you use social media, either to connect with people or to promote your articles?
I post links to my stories on Facebook and Twitter. And I have had modest success using both to find interviewees.
What’s your favorite or most memorable story you’ve written?
I guess you could say the first and last. The first major feature I wrote as a freelancer came about when I was trying to break in at the Boston Phoenix, the dearly departed alternative weekly, back in my 20s. I called Sy Sperling of the Hair Club for Men -- which advertised relentlessly on TV at the time -- and said I wanted to interview him. He said sure and gave me a wonderful 45-minute interview. I turned that into a query and the Phoenix assigned a 3000-word feature about the Hair Club phenomenon, by far longer than anything I had done to date. That story got me hired by the Phoenix. I eventually left to freelance and have written thousands of stories since.
The last major feature I wrote was about the first penis transplant performed in the United States. Yes, that one was memorable, too, for many reasons.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I value and appreciate the work that PR professionals do. The only thing I’ll add is that one of the biggest challenges I face is finding “real people” to tell their stories when I write about a medical condition. I highly value media reps who can help me in that regard. Get me a patient and I’ll quote your doctor.