The Art of the Pitch – Advice from UAE Media on what works, and what doesn’t

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The pitch – these two words can strike fear into the hearts of a PR executive. And with good reason; journalists can tear a pitch to shreds in the time it takes you to read this sentence. Perfecting a pitch doesn’t need to be hard. But don’t take my words for it. I’ve asked four Dubai-based journalists to talk about the best and the worst pitches, as well as what advice they would proffer to people working in public relations. Thank you to the journalists who shared their answers (disclaimer: no PR people were hurt during the writing of this post). Here we go!

  • What’s the best pitch you’ve received?

Journalist 1

It was from Rachel Maher at PHD UAE.

The pitch was regarding coverage for PHD’s upcoming Brainscape conference. The theme of the year was ‘AI’. She took the time to go through my editorial calendar, factor in the deadlines, and then approach me with a few initial ideas on how we could work together. She then met for a coffee to further brainstorm and was perfectly happy to be part of another feature I had planned around AI – instead of expecting and insisting massive coverage on the event alone.

To summarize, what I liked was:

  • Factoring in the magazine’s timelines
  • Brainstorming to see what works best for the title – not just the company
  • Supporting with contacts and relevant material
  • Not expecting and insisting on exclusive coverage; instead collaborating and adding value to the magazine

Journalist 2

I don’t think there’s been a ‘best’ pitch that has stood out for me – sorry!

Journalist 3

No particular pitch is very memorable – but I’ll tell you the most successful ones were the simplest. “Hey, saw you had a story on X yesterday. Would you be interested in a follow-up/ related story.” Provided they’re telling the truth, I’ll likely stop what I’m doing to listen.

Journalist 4

Best pitch was possibly from a junior PR girl at MSL handling Cadillac, who had found the “Penalty of Leadership” ad and suggested getting the Cadillac marketing manager to write about how it resonates today. I was impressed because it was about advertising, not about the car, I’d not seen the ad, and it was a bit random. Mind you, they never filed. But I was impressed at the pitch.

  • And Worst pitch:

Journalist 1

Honestly, too many to name, so here’s are the kind of pitches that really suck:

  1. The one where they just name the client and state that they want exposure (duh!)

Getting exposure for the client is a PR agency’s job! It’s also their job to figure out how. A generic email stating that we have XYZ client and want to get them featured – without mentioning little else – is frustrating, to say the least.

  1. The one where the client wants control of everything

The client decides when, what and how, they’ll contribute without any regard for the title’s editorial style and/or guidelines. I’ve had several people call asking (rather rudely) why a comma was changed or why a sentence was paraphrased… please, let editors do their jobs!

  1. The one where the agency knows nothing

I’ve had PR folks reach out with random pitches from artificial insemination to the hottest ladies’ night out. While the latter is helpful personally, I don’t know how it’s relevant to the magazine. So, in some instances, I ask which section they’re pitching this for. Of course, the replies are sections that don’t exist.

  1. The one where they overestimate their client

As harsh as this might sound, sometimes a company/spokesperson is just not worth being featured. They don’t have anything interesting or new to offer – even if the topic fits within the editorial structure of the title. PR folks refuse to understand the shortcomings of their client and get extremely pushy by suggesting different angles and story ideas.

Journalist 2

LITERALLY everything in October that’s centers around Breast Cancer Awareness. From pink cupcakes to pink drinks to yoga on the beach, there’s absolutely no connection and it’s just a way for brands to peddle their name for the month.

Journalist 3

I am actually failing to come up with the example of a really bad pitch. I think it’s because I’ve heard so many bad pitches over the years, I assume that everything is a bad pitch; as a result, I only listen for about 10 seconds. If the PR hasn’t gotten to the point, I either ask them to get to the point NOW (if I sense there may be some usable behind the rambling) or just shut them off. If I shut them off, it means I’ve probably forgotten about them about 10 seconds later.

Journalist 4

So many! One girl pitched me the new line of Samsonite suitcases and I asked her where I should run it. “The Business News section,” she suggested. (I was on Communicate then). I told her I couldn’t find that section, so she said wherever I saw fit. I said the back page, Dish section would probably be best. She agreed. Then when I ran the conversation in full on our back page, her boss called me to say she was in tears. Should he fire her? No, I said, as she’s guaranteed to always read the mags she’s pitching to from now on. I felt like a bit of a shit, though.

  • What’s your advice to PR people re pitching to media

Journalist 1

Be considerate. As cliché as it sounds, please understand the pressures under which journalists and editors today are working. Stop wasting their time with numerous calls; a barrage of emails; irrelevant messages; and being pushy.

Be relevant. Do your research, go through a couple of previous issues (not just the most recent one), and then see how you can add value. Your job is to get exposure for your clients, not ours. Figure out how. We’d be happy to work with you, not do your job for you.

Push back. Sometimes, you know your client is wrong. Let them know. And if you can’t, don’t approach with us something you don’t believe in yourself.

Know how much is too much. I can’t say this enough but please stop calling, emailing and Whatsapping…all at the same time!

And most importantly, you don’t always need to pitch! The best PR folks, in my opinion, are the ones who are responsive, quick and present when journalists and editors need a comment or contribution.

Journalist 2

Know. Your. Audience. I don’t want to receive pitches or releases about going back to school or the latest women’s fall collection if that’s not what I write about. Also, if you’ve emailed me about something, there’s absolutely no need to give me a phone call a few hours later to see if ‘I’ve had a chance to review the email’. If something really does interest me, I will respond and take things forward myself.

Journalist 3

Get to the point. Be honest, even if you think it means I won’t be interested. Be ready to accept rejections (I’ve send emails telling me entire dept to ignore emails from a PR if – after getting a no from me – they try to go around me to another editor or reporter. Deliver on what you promise.

Journalist 4

The usual. Know the magazine. Tailor the pitch to the readers, not to your client. No one gives a damn about how market leading your client’s solutions are; they want to be informed, educated or entertained. The point of a B2B mag is to help readers do their jobs better, not to let them ignore free advertorial.

  • Has Social Media changed the pitch?

Journalist 1

This is hard to answer because I am the social media generation. I haven’t personally experienced pitches prior to social media. Having said that, for better or for worse, I don’t see the growth of social media having any bearing on the pitching process.

Journalist 2

I thankfully haven’t been pitched too often via SM, but on occasion an agency or PR person will tweet me or send a message on Facebook saying that they’d like to connect for a story or brand. It’s certainly an easier way to connect with people, but I still think it’s better to pitch something via email or phone call (provided the pitch is relevant!)

Journalist 3

Thanks to social media, it’s just gotten more chaotic because about half the industry isn’t using social media (hi, just calling to let you know I sent you an email) and the other half hits you up on random platforms I really don’t use. I get more pitches of LinkedIn, which I hate and am almost never on, than Twitter, which I am on waaay to much.

Journalist 4

Everyone used to want to see their clients in the mag. Saying I’d use a story online would always be seen as second best. That’s because they all wanted to leave it on their desks, show it to their mums, etc. Now, it’s the opposite. They all want it online, not just in print, so they can share it with their social networks.

The Media, the Web and Influence – a Journalist’s Response

 I wrote earlier this year about the waning influence of media, and how the media could tackle this through more transparency and better use of digital.

The piece elicited a response from one journalist here in the UAE whom I greatly respect. I wanted to share that response with you below.

On auditing and transparency:

Yes, there’s a lack of transparency and yes, there should be auditing but I’m not sure how much that would help. Most advertisers either don’t care or don’t understand that a publication with smaller numbers but the right target audience could still be valuable. In any case, an insane amount of deals are done because the media planners/agency guys and publishers are friends. So to your point, even if there were to be proper auditing, I’m not sure how much it would help the media industry regain its influence. 

On influencers and audience profiles:
Okay, the media and influencers should be treated separately. By default, media (and journalists) are – or should be – influencers, but in the context of the way the term is used here, they are not. So, why are we talking about an influencer who will give a breakdown of their followers? This is an issue, but a completely separate one.
With regards to media building reader profiles, yes they should but it’s important to define whether it should be sales or editorial. The issue of trust and transparency is relatively not as pressing when dealing with editorial because they have nothing to gain per se by bluffing/inflating numbers and audiences. Moreover, if editorial is interested in covering a story, they will do so (or at least, they should) regardless of PR/comms professionals pitching or not pitching said story. In fact, PR/comms need to think beyond what they want to communicate and instead look at what journalists want to do and try and be a part of that – something I’m sure you’re more than familiar with. It’s frustrating, to say the least, to speak to a company when they want to push something but not when you’d like them to weigh in on something.
On journalists as influencers:
There needs to be a line between journalism and whatever passes as content nowadays. Journalists should NOT be content creators and distributors for brands. It has to be either/or. They can’t have a balanced view if they’re speaking for a brand (understandably so)…it’s the whole reason we strive to keep editorial and sales apart. If anything, we need more journalists – not content creators or influencers – to dig up new stories, angles, and perhaps most importantly, be brave enough to pursue those stories.
Have a view? If you do, then drop me a line. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And to the journalist who wrote this, I’d like to say thank you.

What does the blocking of the Doha News website mean for media?

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Many Qatar-based visitors to the Doha News website will have seen this block message yesterday. No reason has been given for why the news site is blocked.

It’s not been a good week for the region’s media. First of all 7Days announced that it’d close by the end of the year. And now, the Doha News website has been blocked by Qatar’s two telecommunications firms, Vodafone and Ooredoo. The news site, which is the only independent media outlet in Qatar (i.e. not government owned, was inaccessible to many inside Qatar. To quote from the site’s own announcement:

As many are aware, Doha News became inaccessible to most online users in Qatar as of yesterday, Nov. 30.

Our URL – dohanews.co – was apparently blocked by both of Qatar’s internet service providers, Ooredoo and Vodafone, simultaneously.

Since then, the majority of people in the country have been unable to access our website on their desktop computers and mobile devices.

Exceptions included access to a VPN (virtual private network) or unfiltered corporate internet.

Yesterday, Doha News put in requests for information from the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA), Ooredoo, Vodafone, the Government Communications Office (GCO) and Qatar’s National Information Security Center (Q-Cert.)

While we waited for their response, we temporarily diverted readers from dohanews.co to another domain name, doha.news.

However, that URL also stopped working in short order.

Deliberately blocked

Given this development and the silence from the government and ISP providers, we can only conclude that our website has been deliberately targeted and blocked by Qatar authorities.

We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which appears to be an act of censorship.

We believe strongly in the importance of a free press, and are saddened that Qatar, home of the Doha Center for Media Freedom and Al Jazeera, has decided to take this step.

There’s been no announcement from Qatar’s authorities as to why Doha News has been blocked, and there’s been much speculation on Twitter about why the site has been blocked (follow the hashtag  which translates to Doha News website ban to see more).

I’ve written about Doha News before. I respect their team for writing about subjects no other media outlet will cover. I value a free media because I understand the good it does for society. Journalism encourages debate and discourse, it promotes an exchange of ideas and it supports transparency. Doha News is a credit to Qatar. I hope that whoever was behind the decision to block Doha News realizes this, and flicks the proverbial switch. However, given the prevailing sentiment, this hope may be ill-founded.

In the meantime, I wish the very best for the Doha News team. As they’ve shown, there’s a futility to blocking websites in today’s age. They’re already publishing on Facebook and Medium. We are in an age where it’s easier than ever to share information, and attempts to block this only result in more coverage of an issue.

Today the only effective way to stop a story breaking is to jail the reporter. However, this approach will do major harm to Qatar’s reputation, particularly as the home of the Arab world’s largest and most influential broadcaster (Al Jazeera’s acting director general was talking about professional journalism only six weeks back). Already the Doha News story has gone global thanks to reporting by the Associated Press, with coverage as far off as America.

For Shabina, Omar and Doha News team, I and others will keep on supporting you in your mission to report on everything that is happening in Qatar.

What does the closure of 7Days mean for the UAE’s print industry?

7days

7Days was a refreshing change to the region’s media landscape. The paper, which is closing for good at the end of December, will be missed by its readers and by the industry.

Many of us in the media industry were saddened to hear of the impending closure of the English-language daily 7Days. The paper was founded 13 years back in Dubai, and ran on a free distribution model similar to the concept pioneered by the Metro newspaper back in London.

7Days was unique in many ways. First was its business model, which was to make money through advertising rather than newspaper sales. Secondly, 7Days positioned itself as a community newspaper. It had a strong roster of journalists who focused on local interest pieces. And the community responded in kind; 7Days became known for its letters page, where readers would often vent their frustrations (I’ll admit, I was a huge fan).

The paper had struggled with its finances; a month ago, the management team announced that they’d be cutting the daily print run to once a week and focusing online. And now, the paper will be shutting down completely. To quote the statement made by 7Days CEO Mark Rix:

“The current trading environment and future global outlook for print advertising remains severely challenged. Whilst it was our stated intention to re-focus and restructure the business for 2017 and beyond, it has since proved not possible to create an acceptable cost base that could deliver a viable and sustainable business. It is therefore with great sadness that we announce the unique 7DAYS news brand will close and thus, cease to inform and entertain the UAE in its refreshing and inimitable way.”

While there’s been much talk about the decline of print, both globally and regionally, I have a different take on 7Days. Most of the papers in the region are government-owned, and as such their operations are bankrolled by the state. In addition, due to their ownership they’re seen as a means to communicate with government and hence attract a level of advertising that may seem incongruous with their distribution/readership numbers. For those who have worked in media here, they will be aware that a number of dailies have been unprofitable for many years.

7Days was different – it was an attempt to redefine how a paper could operate and make money. 7Days didn’t hold the same editorial line as other papers in the UAE due to its ownership (the paper is part-owned by the UK’s Daily Mail General Trust). And its distribution setup was different as well; the paper made money from advertising and classifieds rather than paper sales. The paper was also audited; at its height the paper distributed over 62,000 copies daily (except Fridays).

The fact that 7Days was able to operate for 13 years with an operating model that was both new and unique to the region is a testament to how well the paper was run by the editorial and sales teams. 7Days survived many challenges, including one imposed closure and one recession. However, with money flowing from traditional to new advertising models such as digital and social, the model has not proven to be sustainable without the backing of government largess. Even in the Gulf, the future seems to be focused on digital media.

I was asked by one young public relations professional, Rehmatullah Sheikh, what would happen to 7Days digital assets, particularly its social media following. The paper has developed a large online presence, with 161,000 followers on its @7DAYSUAE Twitter account, and 644,730 likes on its Facebook site. Some have suggested that the paper, particularly its letters section, could live on through these sites. There certainly seems a will among the readership to see 7Days continue in some form or another. Could 7Days become a pioneer for the second time, and promote a public-led media forum through its online assets? I for one hope that 7Days will continue in some shape or form.

Departing but not goodbye – Fida Chaaban and Frank Kane step down from The Entrepreneur and The National

Frank Kane (left), and Fida Chaaban have left their marks on the UAE's media scene.

Frank Kane (left), and Fida Chaaban have left their marks on the UAE’s media scene.

The UAE’s media scene can oft be described as a merry-go-round; journalists change roles almost as frequently as their colleagues in the public relations industry. Every so often, a journalist comes along whom I develop the utmost respect for, both in terms of their professionalism as well as their personality. They’re a pleasure to deal with.

Just like waiting for a bus, not one but two of my favorite media are leaving their roles this summer. The first is a lady who has redefined what it is to be an editor-in-chief of a publication. Fida Chaaban came to the UAE around about two and a half years ago to head up the newly-launched title Entrepreneur Middle East. During that time she’s built up a strong editorial team who aren’t afraid to publish news on its merit (and say no to ethically-inappropriate requests). Fida has gone beyond that and she’s lived the brand – she could be found at any and every event talking about entrepreneurship including the good, the bad, and the public relations. Fida was a pioneer in terms of engagement; in a region where many editors-in-chief are unapproachable, she’d always be online (when did she sleep?), and responding to anyone and everyone.

Fida announced the change and her stepping down in her own fashion by posting an article about it online (it’s well worth a read). She’ll be staying in Dubai, so I’m not saying goodbye but rather I hope to see her back in the media space soon.

The second person is Frank Kane. Few people in the regional PR industry worth their salt don’t know Frank, a man who has been reporting in London for decades and who moved to the UAE around a decade ago. If you want to learn about proper investigative journalism, Frank is the man to listen to. Frank has been with The National for almost seven years, and during that time his column has been a must read for anyone wanting to understand the nuances of business and culture in the country. Frank will be stepping down from The National at the end of this summer, but he’ll be staying in the UAE.

I could share many anecdotes about Frank, but I’ll do with just one. Back in 2008 I was working on a deal between the New York Stock Exchange and Qatar on a multi-million dollar investment. I was talking with the head of a major public relations firm from London and his experienced team, reviewing the media list. Such was the reverence (and apprehension) for Frank that when we got to his name the gentleman in question said, “I’ll deal with Frank”. When you’re equally respected and feared by public relations executives, that’s when you know you have made it as a true journalist.

I’ll miss dealing with both Fida and Frank, and I do hope that both will be back where they need to be (and where we need them to be), behind a desk working on copy that you can’t put down. We need more journalists like them.

PS do follow Fida and Frank on Twitter, at @fida and @frankkanedubai respectively.

Innovation and the need to think simply

Innovation starts with the ability to ask a question

Innovation starts with the ability to ask a question

This week is a special one in the UAE – it’s officially Innovation Week and the country is full of activities extolling the virtues of innovation and all that this word entails (I admit, I’ve come to dislike this word, not because of what it stands for but rather its constant misuse).

As I’m a media junkie, two news pieces stuck out. The first was an effort by the Dubai Media Office to promote innovation through its Media Innovation Lab, a quarterly event that aims to promote a culture of innovation and creativity in media. To quote from Emirates 24/7, “the initiative seeks to share knowledge on media-related innovation among corporate communication and media professionals and media students. It is also in line with the UAE leadership’s directives to promote innovation in all sectors.”

The second is even more ambitious, and, quite literally, out of this world. I’ll let The National’s copy explain this innovation for you:

High school and university students from across the UAE have the chance to directly shape the future of space exploration.

Two competitions giving them the opportunity to watch their experiments blast off on a rocket to the International Space Station were announced on Tuesday at the launch of The National Space Programme in Abu Dhabi.

In the initial stages of the programme, The National, Abu Dhabi Media’s English-language newspaper, has linked up during Innovation Week with the UAE Space Agency, Boeing and other public and private organisations.

The National Space Programme contests are Genes in Space, challenging high school pupils to create a DNA analysis experiment, and the Satellite Launch project, in which a university team will build a satellite.

There’s a third strand I’d like to bring in here. I had the pleasure of talking to a university professor who teaches media here in the UAE. He was recalling the story of an occasion when the power failed at his academic institution. One of his students, a local, asked if she should cover the happening for the university student publication. He said yes and encouraged her to go and follow up with the operations department who look after issues relating to maintenance.

This student did just that and headed down to the operations department to understand more about the power cut. When she did meet someone, she asked what happened and explained why she was asking a question. And the response? “Why are you asking such questions? Who is your professor?”

While I love the ambitions of blasting into space or talking about creativity in the media, I’d love to see us put our feet on the ground and push for a climate where a question is welcomed, both from each of us as individuals as well as the media. As for the curious student, the brave lady did publish her story. She’s my innovator this week.

More media launches in the Gulf – Newsweek Middle East and Inc.

Who wouldn’t want to be a publisher in the Gulf right now? While the industry is losing money left, right and center in the US (and in Europe), the Gulf is seeing a glut of publication launches. The newest titles are Newsweek Middle East and Inc. Newsweek Middle East was launched recently by ARY Digital Network, a Pakistani television company. Their first issue was launched in English at the end of October and an Arabic edition is also in the pipeline. The website is http://www.newsweekme.com. The publication’s two front pages are below, along with a short video from their Twitter feed (the team have accounts on Facebook and on Instagram, and for those of you young uns out there, they are also running a Snapchat account under the name @NewsweekME).

The second publication, which is yet to launch is Inc. magazine, a monthly publication focusing on fast-growth companies. To be based in Qatar, the publication has been hiring journalists from Dubai publishers and should launch by the turn of the year in both English and Arabic.

While the launches of local editions for two global titles is to be welcomed, especially the Arabic-language editions, the question is if/when will this region suffer the same slowdown in terms of ad sales (Newsweek stopped publishing in the US for sometime in 2012 and 2013 and went fully digital for a year). With the Gulf becoming a global pioneer in terms of digital firsts among consumers (for example smartphone penetration, social media usage), will advertisers realize there’s more ROI to be had in advertising online rather than in print? Let’s wait and find out.