Constructive Ways to Decline a Dead Duck PR Prospect

Cool_storyWhether in-house or agency – all PRs have been there. Your client or contact gets in touch to pitch what they think is a great story, a momentous milestone or provocative project, but it turns out to be a dead duck.

Situations like this can leave us between a rock and hard place. Collaborations are vital to PR success, but selling in substandard stories can sour your relationships with key publications.

So in this guide, we’ll discuss diplomatic ways of knocking back a dead duck and offer some suggestions on constructive ways to feed back on staid stories.

Back to basics

It’s all too easy for PRs to assume that everyone’s aware of the basic aims of media relations and the processes by which press coverage is achieved. However, as we’ve found time and again – it’s terribly easy for misunderstandings to crop up.

We’re well aware of what sort of thing is going to ignite the interest of journalists in our target sectors and it’s up to us to keep on top of the internal news agenda and draw out fruitful collaborations to further our PR goals.

While it’s great that contacts are coming to you with potential pitches, you shouldn’t fall into the trap of capitulating to selling-in substandard stories. This is harmful, not only for your relationship with key members of your target press, but can also cause strife when your internal point of contact fails to achieve the breadth of coverage they desire.

What do journalists want?declining_poor_PR_stories-377334-edited

We need to protect our professional relationships with journalists, but at the same time forge new and lasting relationships for clients.

This isn’t built on providing duff, uninteresting and un-newsworthy copy and you absolutely don’t want to become the boy (or girl) who cried ‘good story’ to your target publications. Presenting staid stories isn’t just a waste of time – it can actively harm your relationship with the press, and might even lead to genuinely good stories you try and sell-in being overlooked.

Similarly, resist requests to ‘beef up’ press releases or shoehorn in key messages that higher-ups are keen to get across. If they’re only tangentially-related – they’re almost certainly going to be disregarded and a desire to include them belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what you’re trying to achieve.

PRs aren’t there to ‘trick’ journalists into promoting an organisation’s news agenda, but instead to pull out the best and brightest stories that present the organisation in question in the most favourable light.

But don’t just take my word for it. One resource we’ve found fantastically useful for giving clients insight into the workings of the press is the acerbic ‘style guide’ of freelance journalist David Thame, which contains gems like this:

“Oh please, please spare me quotes like this: Norman Halfwit, director at Idiot Developments, said: “I’m delighted to welcome Sh!t Marketing as our fourth tenant.” Suzy Blonde, director at Sh!t, said: “We’re so happy to bring our expanding business to an Idiot Developments scheme.” Not only is Sh!t a silly brand name I won’t use – but the quotes add nothing.”

What to do with these stories?blogging

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying do away with this sort of news altogether. There is a place for this sort of thing – it’s just not necessarily in the press.

For instance, that neglected company blog you’ve set up and ignored for months on end provides the perfect forum for fairly run-of-the-mill company news – with the added bonus of giving you something to talk about on social media.

Make the most of this format by mentioning (and ‘tagging’) any other involved parties, or industry bodies (if the story is to do with accreditation for instance) and including them in your social media posts when promoting the article. If they’re prompted to share – you’ve potentially vastly increased the reach of the story with a minimum of effort.

And opportunities abound to re-use items like these – whether in email newsletters or print materials.

What makes a sensational story?

So what does make an interesting news story? Well, in short, news. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and candidly ask yourself:

  • Is this of interest?
  • Is it of value?
  • Did something exciting happen because of it?
  • How long ago did it occur?
  • Did it have a local or regional impact?
  • Will it affect a significant amount of people?
  • Are there any human interest angles to exploit?

While the specifics of what make a good news story can vary wildly depending on the type of organisation you’re dealing with – by examining your prospects under the harsh light of the above criteria – you should be able to determine whether or not they’re truly newsworthy.


Another factor to bear in mind is the type of publications you’ll be targeting. For instance, a swathe of new junior hires might not tickle the fancy of a trade publication, but a local paper might trumpet their impact on the local economy.

Regional business press want to know about deals, investment, people. Trade press want to know about collaborations, changes which affect the industry, landmark cases that affect how business is conducted – truly novel innovations or technologies, et cetera. So there is a lot of scope for identifying truly interesting stories from your organisation.

In the Loopnewspapers

It’s far too easy for non-PRs to fall back into the immersion of their day-to-day work, so keeping your stakeholders in the loop on PR is crucial if you’re to cultivate conducive collaborations.

Holding regular meetings and workshops and above all – trumpeting collaborations that have led to successful press coverage – are vital tactics in raising the profile of PR within an organisation. After all, there’s nothing like seeing someone else’s name or team in the headlines to provoke a bit of envy within other departments.

Similarly, be sure to keep abreast of milestones and forthcoming opportunities for newsjacking. The press are always seeking quality commentary on major stories, but you have to be agile – so plan ahead and find out who can talk about what and make sure they’re available well ahead of time.

Constructive criticism

If you’re to foster successful collaborations, you can’t shy away from knocking back stories. However, no one’s saying you should trample over someone’s dreams. If you have to say no, be sure to explain:

  • Why the story lacks punch
  • What could’ve or can make it better
  • The type of stories in this area you are looking for
  • Any other stories from this source on the horizon or in the works
  • Potential other places to use the story (e.g. newsletter, blog).

And You?

Have you been faced with knocking back a criminally dull story? Or would you like to share some tips we may have overlooked? Either way – be sure to leave us a comment below or get in touch via Twitter.

And if you’re looking for more advice on media relations, don’t miss out on our free guide, where we explain the pros, cons, costs and potential ROI of popular marketing, PR and digital options for SMEs:

PR and Marketing for SMEs

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