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:

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.

Was Alwaleed’s decision to take on Forbes the right one?

Will Alwaleed make up with Forbes or will this fake front cover be the closest he gets to being featured positively in the magazine again? (picture credit: Forbes)

In terms of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, they don’t come much bigger than Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud. The ‘Rainbow Prince’ and grandson of the founder of the state of Saudi Arabia, is one of the world’s richest men. But recently his fortunes have taken a tumble. The Prince has taken offense to Forbes magazine this year during the publication’s compiling of its annual Rich List. The publication, which is the leading authority on the world’s richest people, has been accused of libel by Alwaleed over a claim that it underestimated his fortune by $9.6bn through stock market manipulations of his publicly-listed company Kingdom Holding.

Alwaleed, who’s often named the richest businessman in the Middle East, has made his anger with Forbes well-known to the media through a decision to take Forbes to the high court in London. His legal counsel has filed a defamation claim against the Forbes publisher, Forbes editor Randall Lane and two Forbes journalists for undermining his name. The prince insists that he’s worth closer to $30 billion, which would take him from the 26th richest person on the Forbes Rich List to a ranking within the top ten.

“The basis for actively pursuing a legal action against Forbes would not be about ranking on some list or personal wealth, it is about correcting seriously defamatory comments that have been made about HRH Prince Alwaleed as an individual and Kingdom Holding Company.”

While the prince has played his hand, the question is was this the right reaction? Was bringing everything to the surface the best action Alwaleed could have taken? Forbes initially responded to Alwaleed’s anger the same way that most top-tier publications do, by rebuking his claims through a research-based argument. Below are some excerpts from the feature.

“That [Forbes] list is how he wants the world to judge his success or his stature,” says one of the prince’s former lieutenants, who, like almost all his ex-colleagues, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from the Arab world’s richest man. “It’s a very big thing for him.” Various thresholds–a top 20 or top 10 position–are stated goals in the palace, these ex-employees say.

Forbes ran down a whole history of its dealings with Alwaleed in relation to the Rich List and the excerpts below don’t paint the prince in a good light (as one may expect following such a fall-out).

“That [first] outreach [to Forbes] proved to be the first in what is now a quarter-century of intermittent lobbying, cajoling and threatening when it comes to his net worth listing. Of the 1,426 billionaires on our list, not one–not even the vainglorious Donald Trump–goes to greater measure to try to affect his or her ranking.

In 2006 when FORBES estimated that the prince was actually worth $7 billion less than he said he was, he called me at home the day after the list was released, sounding nearly in tears. “What do you want?” he pleaded, offering up his private banker in Switzerland. “Tell me what you need.” Several years ago he had Kingdom Holding’s chief financial officer fly from Riyadh to New York a few weeks before the list came out to ensure that FORBES used his stated numbers. The CFO and a companion said they were not to leave the editor’s office until that commitment was secured.”

As can be expected, when you take on a global publication and accuse it of lies, that publication isn’t going to take things lightly. Forbes has run subsequent pieces on Alwaleed contradicting his uncle, the King of Saudi Arabia, in an article entitled Is Prince Alwaleed Trying To Undermine The Saudi King? The piece focused on Forbes initial allegations that the stock market was manipulated to suit the valuation of the Alwaleed-owned investment vehicle Kingdom Holding.

In my article about Prince Alwaleed that Forbes published in March, we quote a former employee of Alwaleed’s, who describes the Saudi stock market as follows: “The players are not many. They come in with big funds, and they buy from each other. There are no casinos. It’s the gambling site of the Saudis.”

As the Forbes writer Kerry Dolan notes, stock market manipulation is an issue that the King himself has taken umbrage with. As a journalist in the country, market manipulation of stocks on the Saudi Bourse Tadawal is well-known and many Saudis will openly tell you whom they suspect of manipulating pricing.

Forbes has also published a very classy picture library detailing what it describes as The Fabulous Life of Price Alwaleed Bin Talal AlSaud (It’s an interesting read, but did Forbes have to drop to tabloid level?).

More recent events have also, in my mind, put Alwaleed’s decision to take on Forbes into a different context. The prince has been involved in another civil case in a London court after himself being sued by a Jordanian businesswoman named Daad Sharab who says she was not paid a promised $10 million commission for brokering the sale of a jet owned by Alwaleed to Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi. The following comments were noted during the cross-examination of Alwaleed by Reuters.

[Alwaleed] repeated time and again that the agreement all along had been that Sharab would receive an amount that would be decided “at my discretion”, and she overstepped the mark by asking for $10 million.

“She did not respect the fact that it was my discretion … Discretion means I have all the right to do whatever I want,” Alwaleed said. “When she came with 10 (million dollars) I went to zero.”

These comments prompted Sharab’s lawyer, Clive Freedman, to ask the prince whether his discretion was supposed to be exercised reasonably, or “like the discretion of an absolute ruler who follows his every whim”.

Freedman accused the prince of making up his evidence as he went along and of being a “debt-dodger” who had refused to pay Sharab for years of work on his behalf, giving no reason until forced to by litigation.

The prince said he did not lie, adding that Sharab had understood all along that she would be paid at his discretion and no one had forced her to work for him on those terms.

But Judge Peter Smith expressed surprised at the prince’s defense. “Nobody is going to do business with you if it relies on your discretion and your discretion becomes capricious,” the judge told the prince.

“Your case then is that your discretion entitles you to not pay her anything? I thought you were an honorable man and you wouldn’t take advantage of people in this way,” he said.

The judge said that it would be better for the parties to settle the case out of court, warning that one or both parties were at risk of being branded liars in his judgment. “I cannot believe that’s in the interest of either of you,” he said.

More recently, at the end of June, one of Kingdom Holding’s board members stepped down from his role for personal reasons. While Ahmed Halawani, who led private equity investments for the prince, may have felt it was time to leave Alwaleed after ten years of service, did recent pressures influence his decision?

And finally, there’s the case of another of Alwaleed’s former business partners. Pierre Daher, the CEO of Lebanese television station LBC International, has given several interviews with Dubai-based marketing publications focusing on his fall-out with Alwaleed. The story is another fascinating read, and is well worth your time.

In all of this, the focus shifts from the other party to Alwaleed. The issues of transparency and of trust keep repeating themselves. Who do we believe? Putting out a media statement is a very different thing to taking another party to court. As Alwaleed has already seen himself this summer, a London court is very different from the Middle East.

Alwaleed has excellent media relations in the Middle East, where he’s seldom questioned (Alwaleed owns a minority stake in several media outlets globally and locally, including in the region’s largest publisher Saudi Research and Publishing Group). But was it wise to openly question and then take to court a global title such as Forbes? We will soon see how this plays out, but I for one am looking forward to what should be an explosive trial between Forbes and Alwaleed.