Our goal as publicists is to maximize our client's brand awareness. As today's media landscape continues to evolve, it simultaneously intensifies an already competitive market for publicists and their pitching efforts. There are two sides to the publicist/media relationship and today we sat down with writer and dear friend, Anna Medaris Miller, who not only shared with us the background of how she got to where she is today, but also shares with us some media insight, as well as pitching advice for public relations professionals.
First, let me tell you a little bit more about Anna. Anna is a New York City based health and wellness editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer advice, stories on fitness, nutrition, reproductive health, medical conditions, mental health and more. She also manages dozens of dietitians, trainers and other professionals who contribute to the Eat+Run blog. Anna frequently acts as a U.S. News spokesperson and health expert on local and national radio and TV, and has appeared on the Today Show, Good Morning America and Fox affiliates. Anna has written for The Washington Post, Women’s Health magazine, The Muse and Monitor on Psychology magazine, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan and American University.
1. What made you decide to be a journalist?
I don’t know that I ever “decided;” I just always loved talking to all kinds of people and doing all kinds of random things. In fact, I was once called “a weird stuff o-meter” and wore the title proudly.
In college, I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I did know I loved going to the massive computer lab to write women’s studies papers. I also knew that was kind of weird.
It wasn’t until two years post-college, though, when I went to my first Association of Health Care Journalists’ conference, that I thought, “These are my people.” I knew wanted to be them when I grew up.
2. What was your first official job in the media industry, and how did you secure it?
If official means working full-time at an independent news organization, the job was a health and wellness reporter for U.S. News & World Report – the same company (and almost the same role) I have now, three and a half years later.
Getting here was an un-strategic but ultimately successful path from smaller health trade publications to “mainstream media.” I started as an unpaid intern writing and editing for a university medical center’s online and print publications, and later moved to the American Psychological Association’s monthly magazine. All the while, I freelanced for the Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report, and I also earned my master’s degree in journalism on the weekends. When a spot opened up at U.S. News, they asked me to interview for the role.
3. What is the most important skill you've learned during your time writing for major media outlets?
Probably time management in the sense that I’ve had to learn how to do the best I can given the deadline and life. If you have a deadline every day, you can’t pull all-nighters and neglect other responsibilities for every story. You have to be OK with the fact that there’s always going to be more to learn and more people to talk to, and that not every story is going to be your favorite.
I’ve also gained plenty of practical writing skills – if you can say it in fewer words, do it. If you can say it with a less “impressive,” but more easily understood word, do it. Short sentences are good; clichés are not. Always sleep between a first and second draft.
4. What is the biggest challenge that comes with being a journalist?
It changes by the year or even month, but right now for the profession, one of the biggest challenges is being trusted and seen as valuable by the public. It’s also tough to navigate your own career growth in a field that’s always changing (and for some publications, collapsing), and that doesn’t have a clear path for advancement. While breaking news reporters or those who talk to people who don’t want to talk would surely have different answers, my daily life is frankly pretty fun. Any stressful bits are fleeting and manageable.
5. You’ve had amazing success as a health expert and have been featured on Good Morning America and the Today Show, among others. What have these experiences taught you?
Don’t go out the night before, and tuck your hair behind your ears. Oh, you mean something more profound? This isn’t a secret, but preparation is key. Even if you just have one or two lines down to open with, it will make the whole rest of the segment easier. If you start out stumbling, it’s harder to stop. Also, everyone – meaning old high school classmates or other random Instagram followers – decides you’re “famous” if you go on TV just once. I don’t hate it!
6. What has been your favorite story that you’ve reported on?
This is tough – I’ve probably written around 300 for U.S. News alone, and many have been really satisfying, particularly those that have made groups of people struggling with various health issues feel validated and less alone. But the experience that challenged and ultimately fulfilled me the most was a piece for the Washington Post magazine about – get this – pole-dancing competitions (men and children allowed!).
I completely immersed myself in the community and the experience, and worked with an editor I really jibed with. I remember talking to him on the phone and barely being able to finish my sentence without us both doubling over in tears of laughter.
But the process was wildly challenging in unexpected ways. Most notably, after my editor and I thought the story was pretty much good to go, his editor thought it needed to be “reimagined” – and fast. Meanwhile, I needed to complete my final graduate school project AND my apartment became a do-not-enter zone, thanks to the neighboring strip club that collapsed (how ironic?).
To cut to the chase, I holed up in my office (I couldn’t go home, anyway) and cranked out a new version of the story – after plenty of panic attacks, tears and beers. It was published on time in full, glossy form, and life was good – roof over my head or not.
7. What is the best advice you can give to publicists looking to obtain a media placement?
Know what your “pitchee” actually covers, and how he or she actually operates. I, for example, rarely mention brands in my stories, and yet at least 80 percent of the pitches that come to me are intended to get a brand mention. I also don’t cover news-news, and yet get tons of pitches related to recent legislation that passed. I write for a national publication, so I’m not going to cover a local event. I also don’t often care that it’s “national day of unplugging” or “national frozen foods month” – yes, these both apparently exist and were pitched to me just this week.
My best advice is old-school: Build a relationship with the reporter. I, for one, always say yes if I get invited to a cool event that either will just be plain fun (a North Face-sponsored party that included brushing elbows with Olympic athletes was a favorite) or helpful/interesting to my own work (a metabolic assessment from Lifetime was an eye-opener). I met the PR folks at the events and continue to use them regularly to connect with sources.
8. What are the type of PR pitches that catch your eye the most?
Honestly, very few catch my eye – I do a lot of deleting without reading much. Pitches that are clearly personalized (i.e. not mass-emailed) have the most luck, as well as those that are short, sweet and tell me something I find interesting and potentially useful to my beat (which of course, is pretty subjective).
That said, other reporters are more open to pitches. I just take a lot of pride and get a lot of enjoyment out of coming up with my own story ideas, so in a way taking yours – no matter how good it is – feels kind of like cheating.
9. What are some of the things you notice a lot in PR pitches that are major “dont’s?”
You wouldn’t believe the number of “Dear [First Name]” pitches I get, and far more come in addressed to a different name. Obviously, that’s a don’t.
Everyone has a different philosophy, but calling me – especially multiple times – is a don’t. I actually never answer the phone (unless I know it’s a colleague or I’m expecting a source to call me).
I know it’s unfair and maybe not even possible, depending on your own duties, but follow-up emails – and again, especially multiple – are a don’t in my book. If I haven’t responded to your email, it’s because I’m not interested. If I responded to every email saying, “Thanks but no thanks,” I’d never have time to do my job. Nothing means no; a response means maybe.
10. What do you notice that publicists can be doing better?
I’m going to come back to point No. 7 – for me, relationships matter, and are becoming a lost art between media and PR pros. If I know you, a lot of my earlier advice goes out the window. For example, I will respond to your emails, even if it’s a no, if we’re pals. At that point, it’s just the decent thing to do. Plus, you’re a real person, not just the “from” entry on a very easily delete-able email.
Of course “making friends with reporters” is not something you can just do; you need to be authentic and actually enjoy one another. My friendship with the fun, talented and helpful Jenna Guarneri is the perfect example. :)
Click through for our top 5 favorite articles by Anna:
· How to Get Your Fitness Groove Back
· The 13 Best Diets For Your Heart
· The 13 Best Diets to Prevent and Manage Diabetes
· What All Plant-Based Eaters Need to Know About Vitamin B12
· 7 Traditional Chinese and Indian Eating Principles That Can Help You Lose Weight