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.
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