JournalismPR & Journalism Education

Don’t Let Your Intern Pitch

I recently read a great post suggesting that you shouldn’t use interns to pitch the media. The post references a recent Forbes.com article on do-it-yourself PR tactics that suggests using an intern to pitch the media. Using an intern to pitch your news is like having an assistant shop for your spouse. It lacks the personal touch and sends the message that you really don’t care.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think interns should get real-world experience from an internship. If your organization is willing to invest the time in training an intern on media relations, participating in phone pitches, proofing and editing their email pitches, and giving them one-on-one coaching throughout the process, then by all means go ahead. Of course, if you had the free time to train an intern on media relations, you probably wouldn’t need an intern to do the pitching for you in the first place. Most of the time (and there are always exceptions), organizations hire an intern to pick up the slack. They think an intern is a cheap labor.

The major problem I have with using interns to pitch your story is the message it sends to journalists. You’re basically saying, “I’m busy with more important things than talking to you about our story.” While the intern may only be trying to schedule an interview for the expert, having an intern call a journalist is a wrong way to introduce your organization. If you don’t value the journalist’s time enough to call them yourself, do you really expect them to give your story the attention it deserves?

Here are a few other reasons why I don’t think you should let your intern do the pitching for you:

  • Interns don’t know your business. The typical internship is three months long. How long have you been working? Chances are you know a lot more about the topic than your intern. Reporters won’t just agree to talk to you without asking a few questions. If your intern can’t answer those questions, the reporter will quickly lose interest and move onto the next story.
  • Interns will sound scripted. You have to get reporters excited most of the time. If you’re reading a script, they’ll pick up on it. You need to sell the story, to get them excited about what you’re pitching. This comes from more than a couple months experience.
  • Interns don’t know the “dos and don’ts”. Your intern may think it’s perfectly fine to ask a reporter “when will you be able to write about the release I sent?” or “can you make sure our story appears on the front page, my boss says it has to be a front page story?” These are both real examples.
  • Interns are still learning. It’s an internship, which is part of college. College is a place where you learn stuff. You can’t expect an intern to be completely up to speed yet. They’re still developing their writing experience (a big point). They’re still learning what media relations is, let alone how it works. If you have a great training organization in your company, you may be able to give your intern more responsibility.
  • Interns take “no” for an answer. A lot of reporters will reject your pitch right out of the gate. They’re interrupted all day long and do their best to get you off the phone in under a minute. If a reporter says, “can you call me back later?”, most interns will say “sure.” The chances of getting the reporter back on the phone are slim to none. You have to be polite and aggressive (provided your pitch is relevant). It could be your only chance.
  • Interns are fearless. This is not always the best thing. Good interns will call any media outlet and pitch any story angle you ask them to. This is the media relations equivalent of jumping off a bridge if asked. I have seen interns asked to pitch stories that more experienced PR professionals didn’t think they could place (because they knew the story was weak). This takes advantage of the intern, setting them up for failure and not necessarily providing them with the best work experience.
  • Interns aren’t paid by your clients. In agency environments, clients are paying for your best talent. Having an intern work on a client account (without authorization) is a no-no. Provide the best available team to work on client accounts – or prepare to spend more time looking for clients.

Let’s turn the tables. What if the local paper wanted to interview you for a story and sent the intern out to write it. How would that make you feel? Imagine how frustrated journalists must get this time of year as interns blindly pitch them off a mass media list?

Now, before you jump all over this post in defense of internships, let me be clear: I think internships are an essential right of passage for public relations professionals. Internships should involve some media relations training, but the emphasis should be on training. Consider doing role-playing on a regular basis with your interns (not a bad idea for your entire media relations team) where you practice pitches, prior to doing a live pitch with the journalist. Have participants throw questions at the pitcher (or objections) and practice. Practice makes perfect with anything. Don’t just hand the intern a media list and have them go at it. Spend the time to put together an intensive program that works towards getting the intern pitch-ready by the end of their tour.

I’d also like to point out that there are a few instances when I think it’s fine to have an intern pitch your story. If you have a local community event coming up and you want to alert the local papers, have the intern do it. If you’re announcing a new hire or a promotion, and you’re confident you have all the right contacts on your media list for this type of announcement, fine. Run-of-the-mill news announcements can be handled by an intern. A product announcement about your latest software product should not.

If you have any major announcements to make, consider pitching the story direct from the source. You have a much better chance at getting a reporter’s attention if your CEO calls her than your intern.

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