It’s time for another entertaining installment of PR Shorts, our highly informative — if somewhat basic and embarrassingly infrequent — look at a particular aspect of this job we do. Today I’ll discuss the daunting task of pitching a journalist.
The last PR Short touched on the press release, a vital weapon in the PR rep’s arsenal. The press release, however, is ultimately a rather passive way to secure media coverage; yeah, you have to do some legwork with follow-ups, but you’re really just carpet-bombing media with a subject you hope they’ll find interesting. You’ll largely end up sitting at your desk, drinking coffee, updating your Corey Feldman fansite and waiting for responses and inquiries. The pitch, on the other hand, requires a different approach.
With a press release you can sometimes get away with topics that are only tangentially relevant to the writers receiving it — though it’s worth noting that you can quickly piss off even the most patient of journalists by constantly sending them irrelevant press releases. Your pitch, however, has to be highly relevant to the writer and the publication you’re pitching, or else you’re just going to a) not get the coverage, and b) look like an idiot.
Put yourself in the journalist’s shoes. Is the story you’re pitching actually interesting to the publication’s audience? Did you pitch the right person? It’s important to actually read past articles from the writer; don’t just assume that “Tech Writer” means the guy (or gal) is interested in every little tech story. Maybe even more importantly, read recent articles — the writer’s interests may have shifted, he may have been assigned a new beat, whatever. You can show that you’ve done your homework by citing a recent story from the journalist — this won’t guarantee coverage, but it’ll reduce your chances of looking like an idiot, and will also increase the chances that the writer will pass along your pitch to the right person if, by chance, the one you pitched isn’t interested.
Alright, I’ve been guilty of channeling Tolstoy in my pitches, with an endless cascade of words I was sure would woo the writer into loving me — and by extension, the story I was pitching. Then I smartened up and realized that journalists, like me, don’t like reading novel-length emails. Get to the point — you can get your story idea across in a few sentences, and if a writer just isn’t interested, she’ll know within a few sentences.
It’s sometimes difficult to provide evidence that a story is compelling in such a short amount of time — particularly if you’re working with a relatively unknown company or product — but if you absolutely must include lengthy details, be sure to get your most important info out within the first paragraph. You can always provide more information later, but it takes years of training at imaginary schools I made up in my head to learn the telepathy skills necessary to force a journalist to read a crappy, long-winded pitch.
There’s only a brief window in which a news story is interesting; once you’ve crossed that invisible line, you’re going to have an incredibly tough time getting useful coverage. Keep time lines in mind when you’re pitching — particularly if you’re working with print publications, you need to push your stories early to ensure that you have enough time to coordinate any interviews or product viewings, and to let the journalist actually write the story. If you sent out a press release two weeks ago about a product launch and only then start pitching writers on a related story, you’re not likely to get a bite. The perception of exclusivity — the notion that the writer is finding out about something before anyone else — will only help your cause, and even if it’s somewhat obvious that you’re simultaneously pitching multiple writers, the fact that you’re giving them some lead time will always be appreciated.
This is somewhat related to relevancy as cited above, but it bears repeating: you have to be realistic about your expectations. While you feel your story about — oh, I don’t know, your new underpants technology — may be relevant to the people who read Popular Science, is it realistic that you’ll get coverage? If you have a good story, pitch it; there’s no harm in that. But think about how realistic the odds of getting coverage are; if it was a long shot, don’t pester the writer and beg for reasons why the story wasn’t written.
Let’s take GOG.com — it’s an amazing site with the noble and ambitious mission of creating a DRM-free marketplace for digitally distributed games. I think that the very concept of the site is relevant to Wired, for example. I’ve pitched them, too. However, being realistic with my expectations, I anticipated that the writers there — who spend a lot of time talking to big-wigs at global industry players like Microsoft and Google — might not see things my way. While I was disappointed to fail in my quest for coverage, I didn’t cry about it. Instead, we’ve focused a lot of energy on more realistic media hits, and things have gone well. At some point in the future the situation may change, and I’ll revisit the idea of pitching Wired.
There’s certainly a lot more to be said about pitching, but these things are supposed to be short. Err… mission failed. If there are topics you’d like to see covered in future PR Shorts, just leave a comment, send me an email or hit me up on Twitter!