May 13, 2008

The Art of the Pitch

HELL HATH NO FURY like a blogger scorned. That's the lesson I've taken from the latest uproar on the Internet, in which angry bloggers are openly humilitating public relations firms who are bombarding them with unwanted pitches, annoying press releases, and other things in which the bloggers have absolutely no interest.

Much to my surprise, however, the furore has garnered the attention of some public relations types themselves. To their credit, these PR folks are taking a step back and looking at how to improve their relationships with bloggers and journalists. Meg Roberts, a new entrant into the PR field, has posted a pretty good summary of the problem, along with a few good questions that deserve answers: "What do we need to know? How do bloggers and journalists want to be pitched? Better yet, professionals, what are your media relations training programs like in this PR 2.0 world?"

Well, since I'm not a PR man, I can't answer the third question -- although as a writer I do want to know how much money the person who came up with the "PR 2.0" idea got for it. But as a blogger and an actual professional journalist, I suppose my answers to Questions One and Two might have some validity.

I should start by saying my work as a blogger and my work as a journalist are two entirely separate facets of my life. The work I do on my blog is all for fun; the work I do as a journalist is work. As a result, when it comes to my blog, I don't mind getting PR pitches. I really don't. Obviously, I daresay I've deleted nearly all of them in my time, but I'm still flattered to get them for what is essentially a hobby. The best thing a PR person can do in writing to minor players in the blogosphere is make the pitch personal and make sure your pitch covers something the blogger writes about. As one can see on my blog, I write about high and personal finance, all levels of professional football, and people or events who or which can be charitably described as crazy. I also like humor writing. As a result, pitches should focus on these things, and not something I can't stand, like Major League Baseball.

As a journalist, though, it's a whole different story. This is because a lot of PR folks don't seem to understand just what it is we do, why we insist on things being done a certain way, why we don't respond to the pitch you think is incredibly important, and why we really don't like it when you call us out of the blue on deadline. In that vein, I've created a handy jim-dandy tip sheet for PR folks who deal with journalists -- and, dare I say it, high-profile or important bloggers, who in this day and age are as important as journalists. First, we'll cover what PR folks should do, and then what they should not do.

TEN SMART THINGS PR FOLKS
SHOULD DO WHEN WORKING WITH JOURNALISTS

1. KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER.
This is simply a matter of efficiency. Simply put, make sure you're approaching the right person, and approaching the right person the way he wants to be approached. Thus, if you have a client in Topeka, Kan., who makes aircraft parts, you have a pretty limited universe of folks who would be interested in related news. Stick to those folks. Trying to artificially expand that universe -- e.g., pitching stuff about that client to journalists in St. Louis, Mo., or Tulsa, Okla., -- won't work well. Along with that, know your clients' preferences for receiving such news. If they want it via e-mail, e-mail it.

2. START SLOW
Realize that if you're cold-calling a journalist (or cold-emailing), the journalist will not know you from Adam (or Eve). So take it slow and make a good first impression. Make the pitch personal; know what the journalist has written about before and put things in context. This is also a good way to find out how the journalist wants to receive pitches, when he can reasonably receive them, and when you shouldn't call him unless it's a Grade One Emergency. This can go a long way in establishing the groundwork for a beautiful friendship.

3. BE AS HELPFUL AS YOU CAN
A lot of PR work involves journalists calling PR folks for quotes or information. Be as helpful and responsive as you can. If you don't know the answer to a question, do your best to find out and call back -- and do call back. Ask what the journalist's deadline is, send him background information, and have as much data as you can at your fingertips. If you're talking about your Topeka client with a journalist in Topeka, have information ready about basic facts: the work the firm does in Topeka (and Kansas), how many folks it employs, and so on.

4. BE EASY TO REACH
It is always frustrating for a journalist when he is trying to write about XYZ Corp., but can't for the life of him get anyone from XYZ to return his calls. Make sure your contact information is out there, particularly for after-hours stuff. If you're not available -- let's say you took a personal day -- make sure anyone who calls knows about an alternate contact whom he can call instead.

5. BE READY FOR FOLLOW-UPS
You've had an interview with a journalist about your client's new widget! Great! But the journalist has to go back and write the story and then have it mercilessly edited. This process will undoubtedly lead to new questions. Be ready for these, and let the journalist know how he can get in touch with you.

6. LOOK AT YOUR PITCH FROM THE OUTSIDE
Your client may think the announcement of his new product upgrade is the most important thing since canned beer. The journalist receiving it may think differently. Recognize this dichotomy and become one with it. Along with that, as with the above tips, tailor your message accordingly to each journalist and his coverage area.

As an aside, remember the audience for which your journalist is writing. If he is writing for a sophisticated financial audience, it may be perfectly acceptable to have the money quote from your client's CEO use words like "accretive" and "subordinated debenture," even if the phrases "will boost revenues" and "junior debt" would work better. If he is writing for a general audience, the money quote should focus on basic concepts -- and use words readers will understand. Otherwise, your money quote will get boiled down to one sentence, starting, "CEO Smith said."

7. LIMIT YOUR PITCHES
A good way to make sure your pitches get noticed is to make sure you don't flood your contacts' e-mail boxes with pitches about every single little thing that has happened with a client. That way, when you do send out things, your e-mail will actually get read -- and not given a cursory five-second glance before it gets deleted.

8. HELP A JOURNALIST OUT
If you come across breaking news, or hear of something that's up, it wouldn't hurt to drop a line to your friendly neighborhood reporter. If done right, this will go a long way in establishing working relationships with journalists, who will consequently make time for you even when they're really busy.

9. RECOGNIZE YOUR JOURNALIST IS BUSY
Journalists are swamped with a lot of work and a lot of deadlines. If we're really interested in something, we'll get back to you -- you can bet on it. Just realize that it may take time. For instance, if you know your journalist has a deadline of Wednesday for his weekly publication, realize your pitch sent Tuesday probably won't get a real read until Thursday, particularly if it's not breaking news.

10. TRUST IS YOUR SOLE COMMODITY
Just as readers have to trust the journalists they read, so too do journalists have to trust their sources. Recognize this and conduct yourself in an exemplary fashion. Tell the truth, don't shy away from bad news, say what you mean and do what you say you'll do. All these things will go a long way in building trust, which is crucial when dealing with reporters.

TEN THINGS PR FOLKS
SHOULD AVOID AT ALL COSTS
WHEN DEALING WITH THE MEDIA

1. DO NOT LIE
Trust me on this. Do not lie. If the lie becomes apparent before the story is written, it could prove highly embarrassing. If the line becomes apparent afterwards, the journalist will remember you lied, which won't make dealing with him in the future all that easy. Even worse, he might recount this story to all his fellow journalists, which would make them cautious dealing with you.

2. DO NOT COVER UP
The cover-up is always worse than the issue itself. Do not let a situation that would blow itself out in a day -- and most of them do -- turn into a major fiasco.

3. DO NOT IGNORE MISTAKES -- BUT KEEP THEM IN PERSPECTIVE
Do NOT ignore mistakes. Do NOT consider keeping quiet about them as "a cost of doing business." Reporters and their editors want the story right as much as you do, and will gladly correct errors to the record accordingly, even if it really bruises the ego.

That said, remember reporters are human beings. They make mistakes sometimes. A good reporter will, upon being notified of a mistake, do his best to rectify the situation, even if it means he will get a severe dressing-down from his boss. Keep in mind that if you do approach a reporter about a mistake, he will be apologetic at the least and will do what he can to make things right. (I myself deal with mistakes in a manner not dissimilar to Monty Python's dirty fork sketch).

4. DO NOT ASK IF YOU CAN SEE THE STORY BEFOREHAND
From what I understand, some PR folks have actually advised their colleagues to ask reporters if they can see a story prior to publication. Don't do this, as most publications have strict rules forbidding this practice. At the very least, it will annoy the reporter, although he may be understanding about it. However, some reporters would be highly offended at such a suggestion, due to the implication of incompetence. The way to go about handling this issue is to encourage the reporter to call if he has any additional questions or needs any additional information -- and he will.

5. DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT THE NEWSWORTHINESS OF A STORY
Along the lines mentioned in Point Two, there's no better way to attract attention to an unwanted issue than argue with the reporter or editor about its newsworthiness. Arguing with a reporter is futile, because he's been told to write about the story, so he's going to write about it. I have known seasoned reporters who believe the proper response to this line of questioning is: "Do you want in the story or not?" As for editors, they're even tougher than the reporters. The best way to handle this is like you would any other story.

6. DO NOT PESTER A REPORTER ABOUT YOUR NEWS RELEASE
As I noted above, reporters are busy. It may take time for them to get to your news release, especially if the release contains information that is not time-sensitive. If you are unsure whether they got it, a follow-up e-mail -- after a reasonable amount of time -- will suffice. Do NOT call them and ask whether they got the e-mail you sent three hours before, unless it involves breaking news of the highest urgency. You can rest assured they did in fact get it, but are busy working on a story about something completely different; and if you call, you could be bothering them when they're awaiting a crucial call for a story. That's unbelievably frustrating. Also, that "return receipt" feature on Outlook is really annoying. Don't use it unless it involves news of the highest urgency.

7. DO NOT SEND OFF-TOPIC STUFF
Reporters get a lot of e-mail. A lot of e-mail. Do not send innumerable e-mails of no interest. For instance, if your contact covers business in Kansas, do not send e-mails about events in Nebraska or Oklahoma just because they're in the same time zone. Your reporter wants Kansas stuff. Send Kansas stuff.

8. DO NOT USE A LOT OF JARGON
Many years ago, when I was a young reporter, a friend of mine and I would for fun send corporate press releases through a fun little site known as the "Jargonmeter," and then we would laugh hysterically at the result. I can't emphasize how important the use of Plain English is. Not only will it make your release easier to understand, it will better the chances that what you want to get across gets across.

In sum: don't use words like utilize (you mean use), incentivize (you mean encourage), enhance (improve), wordsmith (edit) or extrapediately (whatever the hell that means). This goes double for silly pormanteau words like Webinar, customercentric, futureproof and cyber-anything.

9. DON'T NOT FOLLOW THROUGH
Forgive the double negative: but it's awfully annoying when PR folks tell reporters they call, then don't; pledge to get information but don't deliver; so on and so forth. Remember again that when you work with a reporter, you are actually working with his entire organization. Efficient PR folks are praised and regarded as good guys; inefficent PR folks can develop poor reputations.

10. DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT MAKE A PITCH ON DEADLINE
If there is ONE message I would pass on to interested PR people, it is: do NOT make a pitch when a reporter is on deadline. Consider: you have called at the absolute worst possible time; you are making your pitch to a distracted, harried and busy reporter, who spends most of the inevitably short call trying to get you off the telephone so he can a) get back to work and b) keep the line open for the important call for which he's been waiting all day. These are not conducive conditions for success.

Generally speaking, the best time to make pitches is in the morning, when the reporter has several hours ahead of him and can spend a few minutes shooting the breeze; he will not have that luxury in the late afternoon or early evening.

Well -- thus endeth today's lesson. Hopefully it was somewhat enlightening; I would like to think that was the case, and hopefully it will, in some small measure, contribute to peace and good will among the nation's hack and flack communities. Or, at the very least, make things easier for both of us. Perhaps it might even engender a response -- I am sure there are plenty of things PR folks would like journalists to understand about their profession.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at May 13, 2008 01:12 AM | TrackBack
Comments

Ben,

Thank you for taking the time to write this post. It's great to hear about pitching from a journalist and blogger's perspective, and you brought up many valid points and suggestions that I'll be referring to often.

Take care,
Meg

Posted by: Meg Roberts at May 13, 2008 09:45 AM
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