Twitter pitches: erm, what about confidentiality?

Guardian tech editor Charles Arthur has made headlines in the past week by stating that he will no longer use email, and instead, only accept PR pitches via Twitter. This isn't the first PR stunt Charles has staged along these lines; I went to a Full Run talk he gave years ago where he claimed he never reads press releases, so Twitter is just another quicker way of getting news, in Charles' eyes.

I agree with Charles in that pitching via Twitter is a wonderful thing, when the information in question is already public and/or has already gone out over the wire. It keeps things concise, to the point, brief. It forces us to keep things simple. But it has a major flaw. What about pitching information that is not yet a part of the public record?

There are some inherent problems with only using Twitter to pitch PR stories:

1. Most good stories worth printing, and therefore worth journalists knowing about, are pitched in advance, when it's still confidential
2. In order to use Twitter for a private conversation you need to be able to DM someone
3. Twitter is absolutely dreadful when it comes to updating DM so even though I have 600 followers, I can only DM about 125 of them. I have chalked this up to a Twitter bug; if anyone knows it is caused by something else, let me know. In a nutshell, Twitter is a game changer but it's not without its (major) service faults
4. If the person doesn't follow you back, and I know Charles doesn't follow most PR people back, the DM process is hopeless, leaving your only option a public Tweet
5. No PR person in his or her right mind would ever pitch an exclusive over a public Tweet. Otherwise it would be called an 'inclusive'

Charles, as well as many other journalists, want to do things quicker, better, easier. But even they can't change the fact that a large part of the PR process is hinged upon client confidentiality and restricted by NDA agreements and this will never change. Most good stories are restricted in terms of timing due to good reason (for instance, because the new service you're pitching hasn't yet gone live). Exclusives are a critical part of the pitching process and if you really only accept Tweets, it pretty much means you don't want exclusives.

Lots of journalists want to change this balance of power, but frankly, companies will always control their own newsflow and 'timing is everything.' If journalists still want the holy grail of exclusives, I don't see how you can ignore email altogether, unless you want PRs to start showing up on your doorstep to tell you about a story in person and hand you a printout or go back to the 70s and start faxing you text. They can Tweet it first: "On my way to Guardian towers!" Giving you just enough time to alert your security staff.

I'm not a stick in the mud, and I'm usually fine with embracing new ways of doing things, but I respect NDAs and confidentiality like a priest respects the Pope, because otherwise, I'd be grossly infringing upon the trust of my clients, not to mention the legal implications of our contracts.

Comments very welcome on this post.


  1. Sounds like an appealing idea - short pitches, but not entirely practical for the reasons you pointed out. i'd rather get the release. So we have it, and can use or lose.

    I mainly only read the subject line - it is incredible that some PRs will send releases with minimal subject lines (here's our new release)and MS Word docs attached. These get binned. Hard working subject lines are essential.

  2. Are exclusives "a critical part of the pitching process"?

    Perhaps once, perhaps still now - but in the future? The media landscape is changing beyond all recognition - social media is spreading news as it happens and traditional media outlets seem to increasingly publish stories online instantaneously, rather than 'saving' it for the next day's paper.

    With a plethora of new channels available - and news media operating at light speed and online...the world of pitching, print deadlines...and "exclusives" must be up for change too?

    You offer an exclusive to guarantee coverage to the right audience...but who says those media exclusives will always be the way to get coverage in this new world? We *might* not need our traditional media mates so much in future.

  3. Thanks for the comments, I will address them in a minute.... I'm trying to test whether this comment function is working; Charles posted some comments and they disappeared. Tech always goes wrong at the worst possible moment!

  4. I am but a humble consumer, but surely the point of PR is to get the message out there? (Notwithstanding the fact that lots of exclusives—arguably most of them, in fact—that journalists get didn't originate at a PR shop).

    Therefore, isn't the lack of exclusivity something that can only work in your favour? If more people pick up the message and run with it, then it's all the better for your clients. On the receiving end, nobody really cares if the story they're reading is a Gdn Tech (or whatever) exclusive or not—if the story's got meat, that's the driver to read it.

  5. Right... so by way of a couple 140 character exchanges Charles told me his view is that Twitter is so big, it can't be ignored and that email should be PR's last resort. And he says, no, he will not be following all PR people from now on. :-)

    I get the argument that media is changing so quickly, I do. Completely agree that you have to evolve or risk death. But central to this debate is whether the standard implications of confidentiality and privacy are changing too. And how the relationship with PR and journalists is affected.

    I think everyone would agree the Twitter pitch idea is a good idea if we can get around the practicalities of it. The mess is in the detail.

    Maybe exclusives won't matter in future. Or maybe a way of summing this whole argument up is 'who breaks it' won't matter in future because Twitter will break everything, and 'how you get it' won't matter either because you'll get everything on Twitter.

    For that to happen, Twitter execs need to do some serious work on the constant bugs in the service, in my opinion.

  6. Oh..but I like the fail whale! ;)

    Twitter's good, but, there are many more people in the world off twitter than on it. It is probably best that it doesn't become universal...that might be like Microsoft controlling all email traffic...eek.

    Perhaps we need an open source twitter, SMS for the internet?

  7. Thanks for pointing me towards this Emily, you make some really good points.

    As far as I'm concerned, as a freelance journalist, anything that increases the amount of information reaching me is a good thing. The problem I've encountered is how badly represented British arts PRs are on Twitter. While travel PRs, bloggers and editors (the other thing I write about) seem to be getting their messages out there, not much to do with theatre and books seems to be coming through.

    I look forward to the time when arts PRs are as savvy about these things as tech PRs.

  8. I think this is a great post, thanks Emily. I completely agree with you about the confidentiality issue. Like it or not, PR agencies work for their clients, not individual journalists. The comment about subject lines in email is really interesting. This creates the effect of Twitter (get all your message into a subject line) but with the confidentiality of individual email. Either way - short, effective messages win.