How to, and how not to, pitch to the media

Let’s get rid of those bad pitches and give journalists fewer reasons to use the delete button (image source: http://www.meltwater.com)

Having worked as a journalist, as the head of an agency, and finally on the client side, I’ve learned a fair few lessons on the art of pitching a story. The beauty about the communications industry is that no matter how many year’s you’ve put in, you still keep learning. This was the case on Monday of this week, when I received an agency email pitch which basically used the client’s latest piece of coverage as the pitch.

Thanks to that experience I’m sharing with you some tips on how to properly pitch to the media, developed by Forbes contributor Cheryl Connor. They’re simple but effective, and they focus on the content and the delivery rather than the traditional media relations approach used still by many in the region.

1. Choose a target. And make sure the target will actually fit. For example, thousands of companies through the years have attempted to pitch The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg on writing about products such as network traffic management tools. Yet he specializes in covering products consumers would use. A good fit? Not at all.

2. Read the writer’s prior articles. Thoroughly. Read them with an eye for their interests, their themes, and the way your idea would help extend their subject matter further. (Not “I see you wrote about XX, so how about you write about it again?”) When you make your pitch, let the writer know how and where your idea might fit. Think through the idea through the reporter’s eyes—how will this piece be of interest and need to the reader? How will it meet the criteria the publication and the writer’s section and assignments must meet?

3. Pitch a story—don’t pitch your company. Believe it or not, your company and product, by themselves, are not an interesting topic. But as part of a broader story or an example of a pervasive need or a message—now they can shine. Think of what that story might be and imagine what it might look like in the hands of the reporter you’ve chosen. From that point of view, prepare your pitch. Make your pitch by email first. Let it gel for at least an afternoon, or preferably for a day. If the idea is a good one, the reporter may respond right away. If you don’t hear back, perhaps the next step is a call. When you call, refer to the earlier message. Regardless of whether the reporter has seen it or not, re-forward as a courtesy as you are talking to allow the individual to scan the high points of the message and preliminarily respond.

4. Be respectful of the reporter’s right to make the decision. As tempting as it is to ply the reporter with a strong armed pitch, you will be more successful by respecting the reporter’s right to say yes or no, while providing them with as many meaningful reasons as possible to have the desire to say yes. Is the story an exclusive? An idea or a slant that hasn’t been offered to anybody else? Will it be of broad need and interest to the reporter’s readers or viewers, and does it give them strong news or an angle on the information that hasn’t been presented before? All of these ideas will help.

5. When you speak to the reporter, get straight to the point. The whole idea of buttering a reporter up to the topic you called for is a bad one. Clearly you phoned because you wanted something. With the first words out of your mouth, let them know what it is, and what your reasons are for thinking it’s a good idea. If it’s yes, follow through quickly with the next steps. If not, why not? For another person or with another approach could it be a better idea? With the business of the call handled, you can then visit with the reporter for a bit and catch up if they have the time and the willingness. And at that point, they’ll know the personal interest is sincere.

6. Be honest and transparent about your desire for the interview or the meeting. For example, I was extremely annoyed to get an urgent message from a vendor needing my next available time to discuss their public relations only to find out their one and only reason for the appointment was to give me a demonstration of a product they were hoping I would cover for Forbes. And it was a product that didn’t fit my area of coverage, at that. The executives wasted an hour and a half of their time and mine. Not only will they not see coverage, but the company they represent will now find it highly difficult to get a return appointment with me when they genuinely do want to meet to discuss their PR.

7. If you can’t reach the reporter, avoid the temptation to call repeatedly. Listen to the reporter’s voice mail—it will often provide you with clues. For example, the reporter may be on vacation this week—out sick—moved to another beat (or even another publication) or may be so adamantly opposed to voice messages that you should be aware the message will likely never be heard (or may even offend them). If you do leave a message, one message in a day is ample. If the reporter has left a cell number on the message, refrain from using it unless the matter is genuinely urgent. They’ll appreciate the courtesy you use in reaching out in the ways they most like to be contacted.

8. Consider the strengths of Twitter. Twitter can often be a clue as to where the reporter is and what they are doing on that day. For example, if they Tweet they just arrived at the Oracle World trade show, it’s no wonder they didn’t answer the office phone. Now you know. Time your next call for after the event. Also, many reporters will respond to direct messages through Twitter faster than any other mechanism. Use that advantage, when you can take it, with skill.

These points reflect my own sentiments. A pitch should be interesting and to the point, add value to the journalist and her/his audience and relevant to the journalist’s beat. Communicators are story-tellers. The more interesting our story, the better the chance that the journalist will say yes to the pitch. There’s far too many badly thought-out pitches being made, mass emails promoting a person or a company. The next time you pitch, send the email to a colleague and ask them to answer you, in all honesty, if they’d buy your pitch.

#HappyDubai and the times when you need a good community manager

If you were working on #HappyDubai would you view this image positively or negatively?

If you were working on #HappyDubai would you view this image and the associated Tweet positively or negatively?

First we had the successful #MyDubai initiative. Now, we have #HappyDubai which was launched last week by Dubai Municipality.

According to an article in Gulf News residents can now share positive experiences regarding municipal services through the Happy Dubai initiative. They can post comments and pictures using the #HappyDubai social media hashtag. The feedback will spread through Twitter (@myhappydubai) and the happydubai.ae website. The feel-good initiative, launched on Tuesday, aims to highlight civic services of the Dubai Municipality and feedback from stakeholders.

“With the Happiness Map, we are aiming to track conversations around #HappyDubai and where they are coming from. In time, it will become an interesting reference point to identify areas in Dubai that are the favourite #HappyDubai places for residents,” the municipality told Gulf News.

“This phase of the campaign allows residents to send us their comments and feedback through the website. Residents can also get in touch with us via other touch points including Dubai Municipality’s social media presence, our 24-hour contact number 800900, e-mail us at info@dm.gov.ae or visit our centres around the emirate.”

Here’s where it gets more complicated. The beauty of the #MyDubai campaign is that its objective – the public are asked to share their own experiences of Dubai, without a spin and without a filter. #HappyDubai is subjective, and one of the aims of the Happy Dubai campaign is to make Dubai one of top 10 happiest cities in world by 2021. Dubai’s residents are being asked to share their happiness with Dubai Municipality and the city in general. Rather than engaging in a dialogue, they’re being asked to take a specific emotional stance which is a much riskier strategy.

Hussain Nasser Lootah, director-general of Dubai Municipality, said: “Various initiatives and the projects adopted and executed by Dubai Municipality in different fields give the emirate its unique style which makes it ‘stand out’ among the most developed cities in the world.

“The UAE has been ranked 14th in the happiness index set by the Global Initiative of the UN. Our goal is to spread happiness among the population of UAE and by 2021, Dubai would like to be one of the top ten happiest cities.”

The worst thing that can happen is for the campaign to be hijacked. This isn’t new, and even brands such as McDonalds have had to pull campaigns due to consumers not reacting as they’d hoped (a great example is #McDStories).

There’s a lot to love about Dubai and the campaign launched by Dubai Municipality (the microsite is a great feature, especially the #HappyDubai map), but not everyone feels as strongly about #HappyDubai as the people behind the campaign. One “David Brown” tweeted repeatedly about the issue facing labourers in the Emirate with the hashtag #HappyDubai. See the below for one Tweet, including a link to a site about alleged human rights abuses in the GCC and the image Photoshopped with the #HappyDubai logo.

Could it get worse? Well, yes it could do if your community manager misunderstands the point being made and then retweets the original message. The follow-up is even worse (unless I’m missing the irony).

The lesson is simple. Before a campaign is even launched whoever handles social media needs to understand the various viewpoints that may be coming his or her way, both positive and negative (the same is also true of the whole organization). There should be talking points and message tracks in place for any negative sentiment. This is especially true of a campaign such as #HappyDubai which takes a subjective stance on people’s emotions towards a specific issue.

And more than anything else, if you can’t spot a negative comment and you work in social media, you need to find a new industry to work in.

@saudigazette’s reader voices and does the Kingdom have an image problem?

Saudi Gazette's new Voices column aims to give readers an opportunity to share their own opinions

Saudi Gazette’s new Voices column aims to give readers an opportunity to share their own opinions

Saudi Gazette has launched a fascinating project to give its readers an opportunity to write more than a letter to the editor, but rather pen a guest column. The first column, named Voices, features the thoughts of former Saudi journalist and doctoral candidate Najah Al-Osaimi. The piece by Najah looks at Saudi’s image and how it is perceived abroad. It makes for an interesting read, even more so when considering its publishing in Saudi Arabia.

Let me know your thoughts on Saudi Arabia and its image problem abroad. And thank you Saudi Gazette for another wonderful idea. If you are interested in writing a column for the Saudi Gazette then email your contribution, no less than 300 words, to voices@saudigazette.com.sa.

Will Huffington Post’s entry into the Gulf be a game-changer?

How will the Huffington Post affect the Gulf’s media landscape? We’ll find out early next year. (image source: http://www.aim.org)

Being in the Middle East’s media sector can often feel like waiting for a bus. You can wait for years for a new launch (post-2008 in any case) and then all of a sudden you have two of the world’s largest news portals announcing expansion plans. First we had Buzzfeed, and now we have the Huffington Post. The local site Doha News broke the story earlier this month. According to the piece, the site will be partnered by the former director general of the Al Jazeera Media Network Wadah Khanfar and his media firm Integral Media Strategies.

The site will be in Arabic and will launch early next year. HuffPost Arabi, as it will be known, will be based in London. HuffPo founder and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington is quoted by Doha News as saying the site would “bring more Arab voices into the conversation and deepen the world’s understanding of life in the Arab world, from its problems to its accomplishments to its untapped potential.”

The site will include a combination of aggregation, blog posts from a wide variety of sources and original reporting from HuffPo reporters and Khanfar’s team.

Launched in 2005, the original Huffington Post redefined online media by working with bloggers to aggregate news. The site was the first online news portal to win a Pulitzer and was sold in 2011 for 315 million dollars to AOL. Besides English, the Huffington Post is published in French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, German, Portuguese and Korean.

However, how will the Arabic be received? Firstly, Khanfar was one of the driving forces behind the success of Al Jazeera. However, with him at the helm HuffPost Arabi is likely to be persona non grata in many of the Gulf states due Al Jazeera’s implied support for Islamist groups and perceived interference in the internal politics of governments across the region.

In addition, much of the dialogue that the Huffington Post is looking to encourage in the region can already be found online on social media. With its base in London, five thousand kilometers from the Gulf, how will the HuffPost Arabi be able to distinguish itself in a crowded media landscape that is government controlled? I can’t wait to find out.

The challenge of control in the age of social media – Garnier, the Israel-Gaza conflict and the threat of boycott

How much damage has Garnier Israel done to the Garnier global brand through its local actions? (image source: http://www.deliberation.info)

Listen long enough to any communicator working for a multinational in an emerging market and they’ll touch on the issue of what is called ‘corporate’. The concept of centralized communications, of control being exerted from head office over global communications is understandable – corporations want to ensure that the message being disseminated is consistent with the aims of the company as a whole. Rather this than each country office doing as they wish, which may result in local messages which are not in alignment with the global communications.

Combine this with the reach and immediacy of social media, and the implications for going off-message can be explosive. Many brands have been implicated in the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, and issues such as this have the ability to polarize opinion, particularly online where millions have been expressing their support for and anger with one side or the other.

While many of the brands who have been targeted by Pro-Palestinian groups advocating for boycotts have in effect kept their own counsel and said nothing (with the exception of Starbucks which took the step of reiterating that it neither operates in Israel nor supports the Israeli army), Garnier was caught out by its local operations.

Halfway through the conflict Garnier Israel had donated 500 gift packs to StandWithUs, an Israeli advocacy group which promotes the country to the world through social media. During July and August StandWithUs also undertook a number of domestic initiatives such as providing gift packs to soldiers on the front line and in support functions.

First, StandWithUS donated the 500 gift packs from Garnier to a group of female Israeli soldiers. The organization then promoted the handout on its social media channels (most prominently on Facebook), with the following comments:

“We are honoured [sic] to be delivering these “girly” care packages for our lovely female IDF fighters!

Today’s delivery of care packages was stocked with thousands of products for our girls protecting Israel. They even received facial soaps and minerals, so they can still take care of themselves, eve while defending the country.

Shout out to the Garnier Israel|גרנייה for the amazing donation of facial soaps, minerals and deodorants!”

Unfortunately for Garnier, the post was quickly picked up by Pro-Palestinian social media goers. As the UK’s Independent newspaper noted on Saturday the 9th of August, the Facebook post alone had been shared over 22,000 times and had garnered 3,000 comments, most of which were calling for a boycott of Garnier products. The post has also inspired a hashtag, #BoycottGarnier, calling for consumers to shop buying the brand. Even Garnier’s own brand ambassador to the Arab World, Hind Sabry, took to the media to voice her displeasure at what had happened. The Independent curated some of the reactions to the post which I’m including below.

A week after the now-infamous post Garnier USA released a comment distancing itself from the donations by Garnier Israel (have a look below). But, is this too little, too late? In a globalized world of brands which are commonplace in every country on the planet and which need to appeal to as many consumers as possible, what can companies do to ensure that the action of local entities doesn’t harm their global image when it seems that nothing can be communicated to an external audience in private?

“Garnier values peace and harmony and has a strict policy of not getting involved in any conflict or political matter. The hand-out of about 500 products was part of a local retailer initiative. This was managed strictly at local market level and we are very sorry if anyone was offended,” Garnier’s Corporate Communications Director Ms Kerr said.

In the age of social media, the assumption has to be that if the message is going to alienate a specific stakeholder group, then just don’t put it out there, period. For corporations the size of Garnier, that’s easier said than done.

PS To make matters even worse, Garnier’s apology has reportedly upset Israelis who have now vowed to stop buying the company’s products according to the Times of Israel.

This Eid, are our words enough or should we do more?

I love Eid, the name given to the two major Muslim festivals. Eid one of those times that reminds me of Christmas or Easter. It’s a time for family, for giving and for being with those that you love. But this year, I’ve not been feeling the same festive spirit. Maybe it’s due to the three-year-long conflict in Syria, which has claimed over 170,000 lives? Maybe it’s the news coming out of Iraq, where one of the world’s oldest civilizations, is on the bring of being torn apart by religious fanatics and sectarianism. Then there’s Libya, where the population has found itself at the mercy of the numerous militias who remained armed and in control after the fall of Gaddafi. And finally, there’s Gaza.

During Eid, it’s customary to wish others a wonderful year ahead; we say to one another, “may every year find you in good health.” This year, I feel the need to do more. In this region, we often feel the need to blame others for our troubles. However, we have to start rolling our sleeves up ourselves, and doing what we need to do to make our region better, for everyone in it.

We have to work towards opening ourselves up and not just tolerating but accepting and embracing those who are different. We should help to educate others, to pass on to them the skills that they will need to find a job and build a career. We need to raise our voices, and tell our governments to work together for the interests of the entire region rather than a select few.

There’s many things that need to be done, and the best people to act are us. For too long we’ve relied on others to help, be it governments at home or abroad. This Eid, I am going to act and volunteer more for the causes that I believe in. I will raise my voice as often and as loud as I can do for those that have been silenced. And, I will donate to charities and organizations that are on the ground and that I know are making a difference.

I hope that these actions, though not much, will make some difference to others. This Eid, what are you doing? Do you feel the same, and, if so, will you join me and turn your words into actions? Let me know.

Coca Cola’s #OpenUp campaign to promote sharing and caring in the Middle East

Coca Cola has hit upon an interesting initiative for its latest digital campaign, with the aim of promoting openness between families. Released with the hashtag #OpenUp on YouTube, Coca Cola has developed two videos over the past eight days. The first, and for me the most moving, is that of Saudi chef Badr. Badr left behind the family tradition of architecture to study and become a cook, which is a rarity in Saudi society. The video and story are both well conceived and directed.

The second video features a social media star from Kuwait, named Ascia. Ascia recounts the challenges she has had to overcome in society as she has pioneered her ideas through Instagram. She thanks her husband Ahmed for the support he has shown her.

What do you think? Are the concepts powerful enough for you to share your #OpenUp story? Do you find them sincere or too scripted? Let me know your thoughts on the content and on Coca Cola’s work here. I’ll keep you posted on any additional videos that Coca Cola posts for this campaign.