How To Pitch To The Press: The 8 No-Fail Strategies
This article originally appeared on my column on Forbes.com.
In my day job I’m an entrepreneur, as the founder of a leading PR strategy agency, Snapp Conner PR. But I’m also a frequent speaker on communications and business topics, and as a Forbes contributor, a writer and journalist as well.
Last week I moderated a panel for the Money2020 trade show in Las Vegas. Here’s where things turned interesting. In the final month before the show, somehow my name made its way onto the list of press attendees.
What an eye opener.
I received hundreds of emails. Scores of calls came to our agency. Some even found their way to my cell. Public relations people throughout the U.S. were all being paid by their employers and clients to tout their news to the press and to score commitments for appointments during the show.
First it was funny. Then it was sad. Lengthy pitches. Friendly pitches. Form pitches. Some of the same individuals pitched me again and again. All of this in spite of the fact I was in and out of Las Vegas in a matter of hours and the subjects I cover as a Forbes contributor have no applicability to the things the majority of these poor souls were promoting.
If I were to estimate the salaries and billable hours of the fervent pitches to me alone the cost would amount to tens of thousands of dollars. Multiplied by the hundreds of other reporters who attended this show, the sum exhibitors paid to ply the press likely amounted to a million dollars or more, largely wasted.
Do you know how many pitches I responded to? One. It was one of the shortest pitches of the hundreds I received, but it got straight to the point. The PR person addressed me by name (and even spelled it correctly!) Far more importantly, she had tied the idea she was presenting into not one but two of the articles I’d recently written to suggest how the spokesperson and topic would tie into a great future story for me that would build in a meaningful way upon the things I’d already done.
She quickly highlighted the high points of the company’s recent achievements and news. And she suggested a reasonable and convenient way we could follow up together. No pushiness. No form letter. No guile. But it was clear she had done her homework to provide a useful idea that was intended entirely for me.
I wrote back that she had won the jackpot. Out of sheer respect for the time she had taken (probably 20-30 minutes or less) to create a pitch I could actually use, I would find a way to do the interview and create a story. (She responded back that she was so excited she was strongly considering tattooing my message onto her wrist, a la Angelina Jolie.)
What makes the difference between an effective pitch to the press and the hundreds and thousands that find their way into the trash? I am especially interested in this topic since my team is a PR agency ourselves. I also note the words of entrepreneurs like Contributor Jason Nazar, who noted in one of his recent columns that he had originally outsourced his company’s work in social media and PR, with bad outcome, and as a result had taken it back on by himself. And as far as I can tell, he’s met with outstanding success.
Can you pitch the press successfully? Does it always require an agent or an agency? What are the secrets successful entrepreneurs (and successful PR people) know? Pitching the press may be easier than you think. Here are a few golden rules:
- Choose a target. And make sure the target will actually fit. For example, thousands of companies through the years have attempted to pitch 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 ORCL +0.98% 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.
There is more to effective PR by far than the initial pitch, of course. But for now, bear in mind that in the hundreds of pitches I received from professional PR folks in the space of just a couple of weeks, only one of those pitches met these eight criteria well. When you see me write about mobile payment methods for entrepreneurs within the next several weeks, you will know the reason I chose the topic and story.
So the next time you feel the urge to send a mass PR pitch or to hire an agency to do so, save your money and save your breath. If you follow these principles effectively you may even be able to accomplish some or all of your great public relations yourself. Then, when you have that great pitch and idea prepared, feel free to send me a message or give me a call. I’ll be waiting.