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.

Why we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back over the Bell Pottinger saga

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Bell Pottinger has fallen from grace due to its work with the Gupta family, but there are many other instances of ethically dubious work being done by PR practitioners and agencies.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, with no cellphone connection and no newspaper rounds, there’s only one topic of conversation today in the PR industry. That is the expulsion of Bell Pottinger from the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association for its work with the South Africa-based Gupta family. The agency was found to be promoting racial divisions through fake social media accounts in order to divert attention away from their client’s government connections and accusations of improper acquisition of wealth. Here’s a brief background, from the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

Bell Pottinger, one of the City’s leading public relations agencies, has been expelled from the industry’s trade association after an investigation found its secret campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa to be the worst breach of ethics in its history.

The Public Relations and Communications Association said Bell Pottinger was unethical and unprofessional, had brought the industry into disrepute and has banned the firm from its membership for at least five years.

The punishment, unprecedented for a firm of Bell Pottinger’s size, was handed down after the PRCA investigated a complaint from South Africa’s main opposition party that the PR firm sought to stir up anger about “white monopoly capital” and the “economic apartheid” in South Africa.

Bell Pottinger was being paid £100,000 a month by client Oakbay Capital, the holding company of the wealthy, powerful and controversial Gupta family, who have been accused of benefiting financially from their close links to the South African president, Jacob Zuma. Both have previously denied such a relationship.

The PRCA decision to investigate and then expel Bell Pottinger was announced following a complaint by the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, about Bell Pottinger’s work.

There’s been a chorus of voices congratulating the PRCA for this decision (could they have taken any other route?), and insisting that the industry should follow more rigorous ethical guidelines.

What concerns me is 1) how any agency would have taken on a brief to harm others on behalf of a client, 2) why any body would need a complaint to be made to take action when the information was in the public domain (the story broke in Spring of this year, and we’re now into September), and 3) why is this particular case being highlighted when there’s a myriad of other client-agency relationships which should be under the spotlight.

Let me spell out some of the ethically-dubious issues that are there for all to see. We have the US Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is issuing grand jury subpoenas seeking testimony from public relations executives who worked on an international campaign organized by former Trump campaign adviser Paul Manafort as part of his investigation into the alleged Russian interference in US elections, a whole raft of PR agencies and lobby groups working for governments with poor to nil human rights (a recent example is APCO and the Egyptian government), and agencies working with firms who impact public health. Bell Pottinger’s founder Tim Bell has an interesting CV; he’s worked with the Pinochet Foundation, Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad and Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator.

The industry has historically had a reputation for spinning. The father of PR, Edward Bernays, was long associated with the tobacco industry. Anyone who has worked in the industry in the region will know of the role that Hill & Knowlton played in pushing the United States into the first Gulf War through the use of a fictional story about dying babies. More recently we’ve seen agencies use fake digital and social media accounts to discredit groups, corporations or countries on behalf of clients. I could go on…

We have to face up to the fact that the PR industry has an ethics problem. There are far too many agencies who will take the business if the cheque has enough zeros. For an industry that trades in reputation above all, we have to take a far stricter stance on ethics, at least at an agency level. While I applaud the PRCA for what it has done, this is only scratching the surface. We shouldn’t start patting ourselves on the back when the job to clean up the industry has only just begun.

 

Stepping up with the Global Alliance: How do you want the Comms Industry to develop?

Global Alliance

I wanted to share the news here first. I’m honored to be nominated to serve on the board of the Global Alliance as a director. I’ll be taking up the post on a voluntary basis from July of this year.

The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management is the confederation of the world’s major PR and communication management associations and institutions, representing 160,000 practitioners and academics around the world.

The Global Alliance’s mission is to unify the public relations profession, raise professional standards all over the world, share knowledge for the benefit of its members and be the global voice for public relations in the public interest.

As part of this mission, I will be serving to represent communications practitioners in the Middle East. And I want to put a question to you all, my friends and colleagues around the region – how do you want the communications industry to develop?

I want to hear your thoughts. I’ll be working to represent the industry, and I care about your opinions. So let me know your response to my question, and let’s find the answer together.

A Guide to Media Relations in Ramadan (and Eid)

Firstly, Ramadan Kareem! I know I’m late (it’s the workload), but I wanted to share a guide on how to deal with the media in Ramadan. For those who don’t know, Ramadan is the holiest month of the calendar for Muslims globally. Muslims commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad, which was shared in Ramadan, by fasting during Ramadan. This annual observance of spirituality is regarded as one of the five pillars of Islam, and Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. This also means a shift in work schedules for many, with those fasting working shorter hours.

So, what does it mean for PR in Muslim countries or regions such as the Gulf? Here’s my guide to media relations in Ramadan below.

A season for greetings

It’s usual to receive two sets of greetings during Ramadan. The first is at the beginning of Ramadan, where people wish one another a happy or beautiful Ramadan (we usually say Ramadan Kareem). The second message is shared at the end of Ramadan, for Eid, the festival which marks the end of the month.

The Middle East is a society built on relationships, and it’s no surprise that many PR professionals send out such greetings to media to build their relationship with those in the media. A decade back, I used to receive greetings the old-fashioned way, in paper format. Today, I’m much more likely to receive an electronic version, either shared by email or via instant messenger.

Here’s two sample Ramadan message designs for you.

The start of Ramadan is marked by a crescent moon, and this image is commonly used for Ramadan greetings

Besides the crescent moon, there’s many different images associated with Ramadan. Another common image is the mosque, the place of worship for Muslims.

The Iftar or Suhoor Gathering

It’s also common to invite media to an Iftar, the meal which breaks the fast at sunset. The Iftar and Suhoor, which follows the Iftar later in the evening, are occasions to engage with others. PR agencies and clients will often invite a group of media to dine with them.

What’s great about a media Iftar is the opportunity to meet with and talk to journalists in a relaxed atmosphere, without the need to discuss work. The Iftar and suhoor gatherings are a great opportunity to build relations with key media contacts for an hour or two.

There’s other occasions during Ramadan, which are unique to certain parts of the region. In Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, many firms celebrate with their employees or media during a Ghabga, which is a gathering between Iftar and Suhoor. Whatever they’re called in their respective regions, make sure you know these events and how you can use them for media relations.

The Media Working Hours

Many companies reduce their working hours for those fasting (some reduce the hours for all employees). I asked three media people, one in a newspaper, the second from TV, and a third from a magazine, about how Ramadan changes their operations. Their responses are below:

  1. The Newspaper Editor: Working hours do change, and they don’t. My organization reduces hours like everyone else, but reporters must still find stories to fill our pages. The paper still has to come out. We try to reduce the workload but we still have to provide coverage. We’re less demanding on how many stories they file, but since there are fewer press conferences and events, reporters really have to go the extra mile to find people to talk to. Page counts come down slightly on slower news days, but that usually just means fewer international stories for the editors to source. But deadlines don’t change, reporters must still file stories, and the presses still need to be fed. And in the unlikely event that something big breaks… it doesn’t matter if Iftar is in 15 minutes. We want that story. Now, before competition gets it.
  2. The TV Editor: There aren’t many operational changes. Working hours are reduced for those in admin and management positions. For the editorial and operations teams, the hours are the same as outside of Ramadan. The biggest change is that we shift shows around, so the morning show is moved even earlier. Other program timings may change too.
  3. The Magazine Editor: There’s really no change to how we work in Ramadan.

Ramadan Themes

The other major change during Ramadan is a shift in coverage. Top of the list are issues related to Ramadan, such as charity, spirituality and other related issues. A simple example of a charity initiative is shown below.. The Dubai-based Virgin Megastore launched an initiative called Pay it Forward, in collaboration with delivery service Fetchr, to support the Dubai Foundation for Women & Children, which provides protection and support services to victims of domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking.

Unsurprising, there’s less discussion about certain subjects (think alcohol, conspicuous consumption on luxury goods, and other issues which contradict the spirituality of the month). Many have come up a cropper on this issue, such as the below which was put out by a hotel in Dubai.

Atelier was criticized on social media for its gold-themed Iftar (and for the advert also mentioning alcohol)

Make the most of the holy month

Ramadan is a great time for engaging with media, and building relations. I hope that you’ll enjoy this time of year as much as I do, both for the spirituality of the occasion as well as the opportunity to see media friends.

Step up, support the Comms industry. Volunteer for the IABC EMENA Board!

Volunteer

I’ll be the first to admit it. It’s a well-known secret in the communications industry that we’re awful at PRing what we do. The public relations sector doesn’t engage enough with the outside world in terms of what we do and why we’re of real value to any organization.

For me it was exciting to see the turnout at the annual regional Eurocomm event in London recently. The number of professionals who cared enough to travel to London for several days, and engage in learning and debate about the industry, was inspiring. There’s a lot of good will and positive sentiment around the communications sector at the moment, which I hope will long continue.

But, I’m never satisfied. I’d like for us to build on that engagement, and ask you, the communications professionals who I engage with here online, or through social media, to put themselves forward to volunteer to support the industry’s growth and act as leaders and mentors to those who want to learn about and join the sector.

As a not-for-profit organization that aims to promote public relations both globally and throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, IABC works through volunteers. The Europe, Middle East and North Africa board supports activities across the most diverse, and most exciting region for communicators. Under the board, IABC has a host of country chapters that help with everything from organizing our large events (think Eurocomm which was held in London in March), to smaller activities such as media evenings, webinars and training. Volunteers can also help in research work and soliciting ideas and thoughts from our wider family of members.

If you want to give back and help, why don’t you step up and volunteer on the EMENA board? Volunteering is one of the most rewarding activities that I’ve engaged in, and I’m sure you’d enjoy working with a group of people who could not be more passionate about what we do and why we do it.

Please do drop me a line in the comments or send me a message through social media and we can take the conversation from there. You can find more details here on the IABC website. Nominations are open until Wednesday the 17th May.

So, what do you say? Are you up for it?

Expats, Localization and the Need for Balance

The marcomms industry can and should benefit from both local talent as well as foreign expertise (image source: The Daily Telegraph)

There are some places that are so inspiring, they fill me with passion and energy. I just love working with colleagues and friends in London and New York. Their creativity and insights are exceptional. What strikes me most about these places is their ability to absorb talent from abroad, to the extent that you can’t even tell who is the native and who is the immigrant.

Whilst there’s much to admire about how the region’s marcomms industry has developed, there’s still much work to do when it comes to marrying local insights and talent with foreign know-how. For years there’s been a divide between the Gulf’s public and private sectors: the public was staffed by nationals, and the private by expats. Whilst there were exceptions, this was the norm.

There have been changes, both good and bad. The economic changes in countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, combined with the increasing number of local marketing and communications graduates, have helped to increase the number of nationals working in the private sector. An insistence on hiring nationals in both government and semi government organizations have led to there being fewer expats in comms and marketing roles in both Abu Dhabi and Doha. For many multinationals, there’s still an over reliance on expat communicators, many of whom don’t know or try to learn about either the local language or culture.

I’ve always believed that there should be more locals in marcomms in the Gulf (one such person who is an inspiration to me and who I will always be proud of is my wife, who is both a local and who heads up marcomms for a multinational across the Middle East region). However, we need to place people based on merit, and we need to have structured succession planning in place. Both are missing today, across the public and private sectors.

Let me highlight my point. I live in a city which wants to be a global hub, attracting investment and tourism from abroad. That city’s government has been prioritizing national hiring to such an extent that it’s rare to find a foreigner in a mid or senior level comms post today in either a government or semi government role. What has happened is young nationals who don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge have been brought in (or roles have been left open), and as a result the work done and respect given to the function has dropped. There’s less diversity and inclusion in these government organizations, leading to a lack of understanding of foreign audiences and stakeholders.

I’ve also come across countless multinational executives who don’t understand the importance of hiring local knowledge. To them, global strategy only needs to be translated. There’s no understanding of local insights, and an inability to communicate with local audiences because of the lack of any marketing or communications people who are from or connected to the local population. I’ve known regional comms people in the private sector who’ve never even gone to Saudi, despite it being the biggest market in the Gulf. It’s all too easy to manage issues remotely, and let the agency deal with an issue.

We’ve got to change these two approaches in the region. There needs to be a balance, an understanding that foreign expertise is often needed whilst initiatives are created to support knowledge transfer to capable locals. Rather than replacing foreign expertise overnight (which has happened in some places), let’s get these professionals to pass on their expertise through job shadow programs, teaching and mentoring. In one of my previous roles I was asked to do this, and I considered it part of my role in developing the local profession. Others should do the same.

Our region can be as diverse and as exciting as London and New York, and I don’t see why the marcomms industry should be any different. Let’s start making use of both local insights and foreign experience, and combining them to create better work. We need balance in approaching this issue. As always, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

Do You Know Your Rights? Public Relations and the Law

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Yes, I also used to have nightmares about lawyers. But don’t worry, they’re a friendly bunch, especially if you work agency-side.

The law! These are the two words that’ll send most PR practitioners running into the distance and over the horizon. Public relations practitioners aren’t always savvy about their legal rights, or what local legislation means for how they (or their clients) operate.

It was a refreshing change to see this issue tackled at this year’s PR Pressure conference. Organized by Secret PR and now held for a second year, the event included a panel of legal minds who were willing to tackle everything from intellectual property (including pitches), to social media and influencers and chasing debts.

I’m going to summarize some of the key points made by the speakers – Cedar White Bradley Group’s Fatema Fathnezad, Norton Rose Fulbright’s Dino Wilkinson, Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson, Lincoln Legal Consultants’ Nasir Ilyas and Rafi Yachou from InDate.info – on a number of areas which are, or should be, of concern to communicators.

Getting Your Contract Right

As Fiona Robertson clearly pointed out, much of what goes wrong legally starts with the contract. Be as precise as possible in terms of deliverables, avoid jargon, and ensure that you understand what recourse you have to legal help in the jurisdiction under which the contract is applicable. You’ll end up spending much less on a good contract than on any legal dispute (up to a tenth according to Robertson), so ensure that the contract is watertight and clear to all parties.

Who owns the Intellectual Property (and pitches)

We work in a content industry, and yet so little of what we do with content is understood within a legal framework. For example, do you ask for consent from those people that your photographer is taking pictures of? Are you clear on when and where content which you have purchased usage rights for can be used? And what happens when your content is misused, such as after a pitch?

Fatema Fathnezad suggested that agencies trademark their logo and services, and include these trademarks on all materials. In addition, before and after a pitch agencies need to communicate in writing that the material being presented is under copyright and that as such the execution of these concepts cannot be undertaken without the agency’s permission and compensation being paid. Remember that you cannot legally own an idea, but you can copyright and protect the execution of that idea.

Social Media and Influencers

This one may be common sense, but the first thing that agencies and clients need to bear in mind is that they need to manage administration rights of social media accounts.

Secondly, when it comes to influencers any paid content must be considered as advertising. Dino Wilkinson pointed out that many influencers in our region are reluctant to clarify to the public when content is paid for, but as per the advertising laws there are rules which must be followed by both brands and influencers (you can see them here).

Like many other jurisdictions around the world, there’s not as much legislation around influencers as they should be (for example, do they need to have a business license to operate). Both Dino and Fiona spoke of the need for agencies to have contracts in place with influencers, and for there to be background checks on the influencer – remember that these people will be representing your brand or your client, and so the proper due diligence should be done.

Chasing Payments/Debts

Some of the most interesting comments were made by Nasir Ilyas and Rafi Yachou on the issue of debts. Some of the inputs were logical – chase on payments before they’re due and reschedule payment terms if the client has issues paying. If non-payment occurs, look to resolve the situation directly but amicably. And get a lawyer involved – up to a quarter of cases are settled by a letter from a lawyer. There are dispute mechanisms available in the country, such as the DIFC Small Claims Tribunal, but these mechanisms will cost you time and money, so beware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Yachou suggested two novel agency approaches to clients – firstly, do a background risk assessment, so that you understand the history of payments both for a particular industry and a specific client. Secondly, there are insurers who will underwrite agency billing; if a client doesn’t pay, the insurer will make up the shortfall. We’re talking about billing in the millions of Dirhams here, so it’s not going to help small agencies, but it is a thought for those medium and larger sized agencies who want to hedge their risks.

Thank you to Secret PR

I want to say a big thank you to Sarah Mohamed and her Secret PR team for arranging this event, which is free to attend and which does tackle the big issues that the industry faces (other topics included the Arabic language and digital). Sarah and the team put a great amount of effort in to make this work, and it’s good to see a group of people take the initiative to educate others. Thank you Sarah!

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Sarah Mohamed is the head of Secret PR and the dynamo behind the PR Pressure event (image source: Campaign Middle East)