20 years ago I had a mullett...

Pitch Letter

In two weeks, I fly to Baltimore for my 20th High School reunion. Appropriate timing  since I just wrote a piece paralleling the new media landscape and the turbulent social realities of high school. Coincidentally, my first PR gig was also in 1990 -- part of my high school "senior project." My dad's cousin owned a small agency outside Baltimore, MD called Phil Willen & Associates (don't look for them on Twitter... they're long gone). I interned there for about two months. My upcoming trip has me thinking a lot about how much has changed since 1990, specifically in the PR field. I hate using the cliche "now more than ever before," but the fact is, PR as a field has undergone more change in the last 20 years than in any 20 year period prior (perhaps with the exception of that 20 year period when a meteor struck Earth and wiped out the Dinosaurs. Those two decades really sucked if you were in the PR game!). So I thought I would dedicate this post to some of the big and not so big changes in PR since 1990 -- in no particular order. Here goes...

1) No more tongue calluses: In 1990, snail mail was the distribution medium of choice (although fax was coming on strong). We would have "stuffing parties," in which a team would stay late at the office with a stack of 1,000 mail-merged letters, 1,000 press releases, 1,000 envelopes, 1,000 labels, and a case of some fancy-pants microbrew. Although one could easily obtain envelope-sponges, I preferred the tried and true licking approach. After about 200 envelopes, your tongue would start to go numb. Despite what happened to George Costanza's fiance on Seinfeld, I think we proved that one cannot die from licking envelopes (you just get a bit woozy).

2) Social networking: Although not as significant as tongue calluses, this thing called the Internet happened over the last 20 years. At the risk of understating it's importance, I'll just say that the Internet has fundamentally impacted everything, everywhere, forever -- PR and otherwise.

3)  #  #  #: The first thing I learned in my PR internship was to always end press releases with the ole "trip-pound." This was one of those things that I simply accepted as a truism, but never understood why we did it. I found this Web site here, which says that "professional press release writers add three pound signs (###) at the end, which conveys to reporters and media professionals they have reached the end of press release information." Do people still use trip-pound today? ... of course they do. So what has changed you might ask? Reporters actually reading a press release in its entirety. It just doesn't happen. Rendering "#  #  #" a quaint throwback to simpler times.

4) Implosion of the traditional media universe: Diminishing ad revenues, consolidation, circulation shrinkage, content consumption shifting to the Web, lay-offs, broadsheet shifting to tabloid, and on and on. Landing a sit-down "meet and greet" between a client and a beat reporter has become a thing of the past.

5) R.I.P. ye verbose pitch: There was a time in the not too distant past when PR folk would spend hours crafting beautiful pitch letters. They would begin not with the actual pitch, but with a context-laying paragraph intended to grab a reporter by his chest hair and yank him into a brilliantly composed four-paragraph letter. I pulled (at random) a pitch letter that I wrote in 1995 for a specialty veterinary practice which offered cardiology, ophthalmology, acupuncture, etc. for dogs and cats. Nowadays, the pitch would be written like this: "Dear Bill, I work with a veterinary practice, that offers cardiology, ophthalmology, and even acupuncture for dogs and cats. Check out the Web site here. Wanted to see if you had interest in learning more about this one-of-a-kind operation in your backyard." That's about all the space you get to entice a reporter these days. This is how my pitch letter started in 1995:

Dear Bill,

If your family doctor told you that your vision was blurry due to cataracts, you would probably consult an ophthalmologist. If you were having lower back pain, your doctor may refer you to an orthopedic surgeon. For any number of potential medical afflictions, your general practitioner will refer you to a specialty physician. Increasingly, veterinary medicine is adapting a similar model for specialize care. General practicing veterinarians are referring pet owners to ...

You get the idea.

6) A never-ending flow of crap: Tweets galore, Facebook updates, RSS feeds, voice mails (on my biz phone, cell phone, and home phone), snail mail, email, spam, Google alerts ... I could go on. To be sure, some of it is important and even valued. But in general, it's crap. I've come to accept this reality as the way things are, and have developed wonderful systems for organizing, filtering, and coping with the ever-present deluge. Doesn't mean I have to like it though. In some respects this massive influx has finally taught us what it's like to be a reporter on the receiving end of bad pitches.

7) Real time feedback: One of the amazing tools we are now afforded in the PR biz, is the ability to see what audiences are saying about our clients. It's one of the truly wonderful byproducts of the Internet Age. It allows us to more effectively gauge audience attitudes and tailor messaging in an appropriate fashion.

I'm sure there are plenty of other things, but I think it's time to draw this post to a close. Let me know what else you think has changed in PR (for better or worse) in the last two decades.