Between You and MEdia… with Michelle Caffrey

As PR professionals, we all know the importance of building meaningful relationships with members of the media – reporters, producers, assignment editors, etc. But how does that happen, and where do you start? 

In this new section of the PPRA blog, PPRA members will share insight, tips and tricks, and fun facts learned from members of the media through informal interviews. You won’t have to wait for our “Media Mingle” or “Editors Panel” to get your tough questions answered and connect with the media. Our goal with this blog section is to continue engagement with our media counterparts in an informative and fun manner. So, between you and me – enjoy!

The Philadelphia Business Journal is the region’s go to source for business news. The weekly print publication is paired with a digital newsroom that publishes stories daily and offers exclusive content to subscribers. Hear from PBJ reporter, Michelle Caffrey, on how she works with PR professionals to turn pitches into published stories in this interview by PPRA member and past president, Adam Dorvin.

How did you get started as a journalist? I’ve been obsessed with reading and writing since I could physically do it, so I wound up writing for my middle school newspaper, the ‘teen section’ of my local newspaper, my high school newspaper and college newspaper. My first full-time gig in journalism was covering the wild local political scene in Washington Township, Gloucester County for the then-named Gloucester County Times, now the South Jersey Times. I don’t miss sitting in school board meetings until midnight, but that town still holds a special place in my heart.

Michelle Caffrey Headshot

Who/what inspired you to pursue journalism and what keeps you inspired? Watching reporters on TV on 9/11 made an enormous impression on my 12-year-old mind. I was terrified, and realized how crucial their role was in communicating important facts to the public. Now, I’m constantly inspired by the amazing work other journalists are churning out, especially those at local papers fighting never-ending cuts and layoffs to keep those in power accountable. Black and brown reporters who work incredibly hard, against systems designed to oppress them, to hold truth to power also deserve immense respect and inspire me every day.

How do you work with PR professionals? Often and respectfully. Reporters need PR professionals and PR professionals need reporters, there’s no way around it. At the end of the day, we’re both just trying to do our jobs the best we can. There’s always going to be conflict, since sometimes our goals are mutually exclusive, but I always try to hear people out, see their perspective, explain where I’m coming from and go from there. A little bit of mutual, professional respect goes far.

What advice would you give PR professionals looking to pitch you?  Since we’re a regional pub, make the Philly connection clear to me right away. If I don’t see a local dateline or area code in the contact info at first glance, I usually hit delete since a lot of national pitches end up in my inbox. Highlight the hook high-up as well. They hide at the end of a press release a lot. A straight-up personal email will also catch my attention much more than a generic release.

How many pitches do you get a day from PR folks? Depends on the day or week — please give me more things to write about during the dead week between Christmas and New Years, please — but between a dozen and three dozen. Some are relevant, but a lot aren’t, just because the Business Journal has a fairly narrow focus on stories that are important to the Philadelphia-area business community.

How much follow up is too much on a pitch—with someone you don’t have a relationship with, and someone you do? If we’ve been working together for years, and you know it’s a story I’d normally write (a well-known tech startup raising a big Series B round, for example,) feel free to keep bugging me, since there are a lot of times when I just miss an email or call when things are busy. If it’s a story that’s kind of on the fence of my normal coverage, I’d say two or three, max, check-ins and move on. Honestly, that goes whether or not we’ve worked together before, because the only way to build a relationship is to start one.

Also, if I turn a pitch down, please don’t try and convince me otherwise and sell the story anyway (unless there’s good info you’ve withheld, but why would you do that?) The number one reason I don’t respond to pitches that aren’t a good fit is because I don’t want to have to get into a whole debate and turn it down a second or third time.

How do you prefer to be pitched? What is the best way to make a pitch stand out?
Definitely an email. There’s so much noise out there it’s helpful to just have one place for pitches, and email is the easiest way to keep track of them. If we don’t have an established relationship though, I don’t love phone follow-ups. Usually if someone is calling me it’s because I didn’t answer an initial email, because it’s not a good fit for us, and a polite decline on the phone turns into one of those debates. I don’t always have the bandwidth to get into it. Oh and if I do pick up the story, please don’t ask me every day asking when it’s going to run, unless you’re giving me a heads up another outlet could scoop me. Things are always shifting and plans are always changing in a newsroom, usually a story is going to run when it’s going to run.

How do you step away from the 24 hour newscycle? What do you do outside of work?
In the summer I try to spend as much time with my family in Cape May as possible, but in general, my healthy coping mechanisms are running, yoga and reading. My unhealthy ones are bourbon and reality TV. It’s all about balance, right?

Can you share a fun and interesting fact about yourself?
I spent seven years working as a dental assistant on and off before getting my first full-time gig as a reporter. I like to think it helped me learn how to get people who are anxious or under stress to open up, pun kind-of intended.

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