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The One That Got Away: How to Move on After Your Big Story Falls Through


Stephen Oakes
Published on June 08, 2017
By Stephen Oakes

Over my long public relations career, through a combination of advice, experience, a little skill and a lot of luck, I’ve been fortunate enough to land clients in such outlets as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, CNN, Good Morning America and the CBS Evening News. I’ve also been turned down or flatly ignored by these and countless others. As we all know, it’s the nature of the business.

Man fishing and losing his catch
But what about the in-between? The near-miss? The one that got away? The opportunity where you’ve secured reporter interest but you then discover you can’t deliver? These to me are among the most frustrating experiences of the PR world. Not only do you miss out on the story, you’re forced to tell the reporter you can’t provide what you promised, hurting your credibility and only perpetuating the general perception among media that PR people have no integrity.


We’ve all been there. It can be easy to blame yourself, the reporter, the client, your significant other or any combination thereof. But countless variables beyond our control are in play. Here are some thoughts to make you better prepared going in, and to ease the pain.

Keep Calm and Pitch On:

For me, the most exciting part of PR is landing that big story. There’s the thrill of the chase, the adrenaline kick when you get initial interest, and the quick tempo of working toward the reporter’s deadline. Knowing that the results of your client’s interview, talking points you wrote or some other work product will soon be consumed by thousands is very gratifying. Not to mention the accolades you may receive from colleagues and the client, and benefits to your agency’s reputation.

keep calm and carry on
So you’ve done everything right and invested countless hours, but it just didn’t work out. The client didn’t have the data the reporter wanted after all, the CEO backed out of the interview at the last minute, an editor killed the story, and the list can go on and on. It’s a frustrating, often emotional experience. It can make you second guess every step you took for the story, and even your PR skills in general. It’s not always easy to take, but it’s best to try to stay calm and professional. Know that you did the best you could, but the forces of the universe conspired against you. Rather than let the disappointment get to you, better to vent to a friend or talk to a senior colleague who’s likely been there before.

There will be other opportunities.

Understand Your Client’s Position:

If you have to do the walk of shame back to the reporter, try not to be negative toward anyone, especially your client. It’s important to keep in mind that clients are often under pressures and have constraints we may not be aware of. I spent part of my career in-house, which helped me gain some perspective as to why clients sometimes never returned my emails. They have marketing, product development and many other constituencies all demanding their attention. They may have been misinformed about the product or the data or the executive’s availability. The best situation is to try to forge a solid enough relationship with your client where they can admit to such difficulties, and together you can attempt to save face. Often, going through such an experience can solidify a stronger relationship with the client, when they see your ability to provide counsel in difficult times as well as good ones.

Be Honest:

Honesty and integrity have been among my best friends in this business. If you know the reporter well, or even if you don’t, sometimes a frank admission of the situation will go a long way. For one, they’ll appreciate the transparency. And second, they may understand your position. You’re not the first PR person that has failed to deliver. Honesty is more respected and more effective than conjuring an excuse. Besides, journalists are trained and experienced in detecting mistruths. They’ll probably see through your ruse. By being honest, there’s a possibility of salvaging the situation, earning their trust, guiding the story in a different direction or rescheduling the interview, whatever the case may be. And even if that doesn’t work out, the next time you reach out with a pitch, the reporter might remember your candor and be more open to working with you again.

Learn and Adjust:

The silver lining of this kind of experience is that it can teach valuable lessons, ones you’re sure to remember due to the pain and frustration involved. Long term relationship with an upfront client? Then you can probably take them at their word, knowing you can pitch what they’ve provided and come through once you get reporter interest. But in other circumstances, you may need to do some additional homework. If you’re told a product is revolutionary, is it? If you’re told your client leads their space, do they? If you’re told the executive you’re offering can speak on a certain topic, can they?

PR can be challenging for many reasons. We’re often tempted to hype in order to secure a reporter’s interest, but promising what you can’t deliver will always be a problem. You’ll miss out on stories for this and other reasons too, but do your best and try not to worry about what is beyond your control. Instead, go the extra mile, cover every eventuality you can, and you’ll get big results.


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