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Fever Pitch: Straight talk about PR from Life Science Journalists

An interview with Adam Feuerstein, Senior Writer, Biotech, Stat News
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What do life science journalists think about PR media pitches?

Adam Feuerstein, the self-proclaimed “Night King of Biotech,” and a seventeen-year veteran of life science and biotech reporting, started writing about biotech thanks to the dot com collapse in the early 2000’s. “At that point in my life, I was writing about technology based out in San Francisco, and I needed a new job because the publication that I was working for was going bust,” said Feuerstein. That new job was The Street, a business and investing news source. “They had an opening for biotech reporter, and that was me,” said Feuerstein.

Recently, Feuerstein joined the Boston Globe startup Stat News team in June 2017 as senior writer and national biotech columnist.

Love Hate Love

PR professionals and media are mutually dependent on each other while being intrinsically different and often, diametrically opposed. In the end, their mutual goal is news, but almost everyone would agree that the tactics are quite different.

I recently chatted with Feuerstein about his relationship with PR reps, and his experience with media pitches and PR fails, resulting in some good advice and coveted insight into the outspoken journalist’s mind.

Fortune Favors the Prepared

Asked to describe a good PR pitch, Feuerstein answered “Rare.”

Too often, PR people just don’t do the legwork necessary to understand the types of topics, distinct style and audience of a given news outlet. “I think a good pitch is one that obviously is compelling and that takes into account what it is I do and what I would likely write about,” said Feuerstein. Without this basic research, the pitch ends up being ignored or falling flat.

“I think it’s important to always look at my background and what I’ve written in past. Particularly if you’re pitching a company,” said Feuerstein. “What always shocks me is if I get pitched a sort of bubbly, light hearted, feel-good feature on a company that I have written critically about in past. ‘Clearly you have no idea who you’re talking to,’” said Feuerstein.

To avoid this, a PR rep need only to put the journalist’s name and the company name in the search box and search, but even this basic tactic often doesn’t happen. Being prepared and understanding what it is that a particular journalist is interested in about writing about will make a pitch much more effective, or can lay the groundwork for a later story.

“I think sometimes maybe you’ll think there’s something interesting, but it’s a little bit far out in the future, and you want to tell me about something or you want me to meet somebody,” said Feuerstein. “Maybe we can do that, but without the actual story pitch. ‘Hey you should get to know these guys and I think that in the future there will be something here that you’ll be interested in.’ I think those [kinds of pitches] are fine,” said Feuerstein.

It’s A Relationship

Journalists are busy people and they get a lot of pitches. It may not be reasonable to get time on their calendars, but just keeping in touch can have huge benefits, and not just when you need something. Sending company updates and information go a long way toward building a longer term relationship with a journalist instead of a merely transactional relationship.

It doesn’t always have to be about the story. Rather than pitching with a yes or no mentality, PR professionals can be more effective by reaching out regularly with tidbits and information, offers to interview executives, or regular updates to prime a future story opportunity.

“I might be busy on something, I just might not be interested that day, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I am completely disinterested,” said Feuerstein. “It just means that maybe a ‘no’ today could be ‘yes’ later on.

“A lot of times I think that’s driven by the client, [who says] ‘I want a story. I need a story written about us right now,’” said Feuerstein. “Smart PR people know that maybe nobody is going to write a story about you right now but in six months they might, so we can get that process rolling.”

As well, if you pitch a reporter and don’t get an immediate response email or return call, or even if you get a ‘no,’ don’t give up. Send regular updates instead of falling off the radar completely.

“It’s not my responsibility to go back to that person in three or six months and say, ‘Hey, what happened to that company?’” said Feuerstein. “I can’t keep track of all these companies. That’s your responsibility. You should do that. You should say, 'Yeah, alright, you know what? I’ll bring you in every quarter and send you an email to let you know what these guys are doing, or every six months, and ultimately if something is more newsworthy, you’d be interested.’ That’s fine, do that,” said Feuerstein.

Cut Back On The Sugar

Feuerstein is a stickler for transparency and honest communications about the progress companies are making, such as the Unum story published in early March and a recent open letter to Scott Gottlieb. He has a keen sense of what is true and what is BS, and will look at press releases with a skeptical eye in search of the holes. The message for PR reps is that it’s better to advise their clients to be up front, earlier, than get caught holding back information.

“When there are examples of that not happening, when companies are not disclosing things the way they should or not being as transparent as they should, those are avoidable mistakes that companies make,” said Feuerstein.

“If you adopt a more transparent ethos, you’re less likely to run into those kinds of problems,” said Feuerstein. “I’ve said this publicly, I’ll never slam a company for failing. I think failure is something that happens to everyone in this industry. It’s expected, it’s going to happen to the best of companies.”

Like Watergate, it’s the cover up that gets you. It’s when PR reps try to mislead, minimize or downplay bad news, that they get slammed. It’s better to be up front about a setback.

“A good example is Dermira,” said Feuerstein. “Their trial totally failed. They were up front about it. I spoke to them under embargo on Monday and we talked about it, and they were honest and open about it. And I think that’s to their credit. They’re not trying to sugar coat it, they’re not trying to say they found some group where it works. Look, it failed. I think that’s the right approach to take. Not that I demand that companies brief me under embargo in advance all the time. I understand that sometimes it can happen and other times it can't, and there are a lot of other considerations that are involved in that kind of decision making. But I can count on one hand the number of times a company has come to me under embargo with that news.”

Feuerstein thinks this kind of open communication gives companies greater opportunities to talk about failures and what might have happened, which results in a more comprehensive, balanced story.

“Not that it necessarily softens the blow,” said Feuerstein. “It’s not like Demira talked to me early and the stock is going better because of it. They got hammered and that’s no surprise. But at least you can get more of their story in the story. That goes toward being open and transparent about things and not clamming up when things go wrong. Things go wrong all the time. Don’t run away from it or minimize it or pretend that bad things don’t happen. Because they do,” said Feuerstein.

PR Pet Peeves

Clearly, not knowing what a journalist writes about shows a lack of professionalism and laziness. Like Feuerstein, most journalists will have a long published archive of stories for reference, which can reveal a lot about individual style.

“I joke and say I have this reputation of being someone who is very skeptical and someone who takes a critical look at companies, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t written positively leaning stories,” said Feuerstein. “There are lots of companies I really like, and I have written stories that have praised companies. It’s a little bit of a caricature that gets played up. All that stuff is true but I think if you look at the actual record you’ll see plenty of company stories that I have written that are positive.”

One of Feuerstein’s biggest pet peeves is that there are not enough PR people who give honest and straight advice to their clients.

“I feel like when I have private conversations with PR people, I will say ‘I can’t believe this company did this,’ and they agree with me privately but when I ask, ‘Then why didn’t you advise your client to do something different? Why did that happen? What are you getting paid for?’ There is no answer.” said Feuerstein. “You’re not just there to transcribe or write some press release and send it to me. It’s not like you’re an idiot. I think most PR people understand all of the things I am saying and that they understand and agree, generally.”

Feuerstein believes that PR reps are not in the business to purposely mislead people, but when it comes to clients that don’t understand or want to go in a direction that sounds misleading, he believes PR reps need to be forceful and explain to them that it’s not in their best interest in the long run. Bad situations are avoidable situations if PR reps advised their clients in a better way. “Sometimes I feel like that doesn’t happen,” said Feuerstein. “So that bothers me.”

Prove You Exist And Be There

A final piece of advice and one thing that would make a journalist’s life easier is having clear and direct contact information for media people. If there is a PR person working at the company, then that person’s contact information should be on website and on the press releases. There’s nothing worse than sending an email to a blind email inbox where it’s unclear if anybody is on the other end to answer.

“I hate when you go to the media section of a website and it just says ‘press[at]abiotech[dot]com,’” said Feuerstein. “Or when the contact info is not on the press release. It gets annoying. There should be a real person.

“Especially when it comes to things on deadline; I have a specific question I need answered right now and I need to reach you,” said Feuerstein. “If you put out news in the morning, particularly for West Coast companies, if your press release goes out at 7:00 AM, be ready to answer questions at 7:01 AM. Don’t tell me you’re in San Diego and you put out a press release at 7 AM in the morning, and I email you and you’re still sleeping. If you have news you need to get up at 4 AM in the morning. I know that you don’t want to get up at 4 AM in the morning every day but if you have news, be ready to have reporters call you.

“Because we actually work for a living, so when the press release comes out there are questions I need to have answered,” said Feuerstein. “I need to actually work when the news is news, not twelve hours later. Be awake. Get up and be ready, and be near your phone, answer your email right away. Because that’s annoying when they say ‘We’ll call you back in six hours.’ Don’t do that, call me back now.”

Pitch Me, Pitch My Team

One last piece of advice is to not waste time worrying about who is at the other end of your pitch. Most newsrooms are collegial and will pass story ideas around. “At Stat, there are four of us that cover biotech. There’s me and Rebecca Robbins, Damian Garde and Meghana Keshavan,” said Feuerstein. “Pretty much every pitch that comes in is shared. If someone pitches me a story, we literally sit together and we talk about story ideas. We try to make sure that things get shared around.”

You can reach Adam Feuerstein at Stat News through his profile page. But you might want to read some of his articles first.

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