Saturday, April 10, 2010

Pitching the media in the electronic age

Ned Barnett
© 2010


As a senior PR exec for one of the most dynamic high-tech PR agencies on the Left Coast, I spend a great deal of time educating clients (and often, their clients) on what PR really is and how to go about getting press coverage. I’d like to distill those ideas – honed over a professional PR career of 38 years – and present them to you in a fashion you can quickly and easily use. I’m going to start by answering a few of the more commonly asked questions (or more likely, those important questions non-PR professionals are afraid to ask – but should). Then I’m going to offer you a crash course in the very essential basics in pitching and submitting a business news story.

But before you do anything, go look at – and really read – a business newspaper or magazine in which you’d like to have your company written about. Read – really read – the news items, articles and features. Then take a step back, away from self-interest, from ego and from your normally unshakable faith in your company – and ask yourself this:

“If my news item, article or feature idea was about any other company (a competitor or some company completely out of your market space), would it be newsworthy enough, or compelling enough to be published in my target newspaper or magazine?”

If the answer is honesty “yes” – great – you’re on your way to success. If the answer is honestly “no” – that’s great, too. Because you’ve not only passed the honesty test (essential for those who do their own PR), but because you’ve begun to see what “real” news is – and with that understanding, you’re ready to seek it out in your own company.

Preparing the “Perfect” Pitch

OK – you’ve found the story. You’ve lined up a positive quote from one of your own clients – and maybe (if you’re playing in the big leagues) a favorable comment from a professional business analyst. You have the facts, the figures and the human interest that transforms facts into stories and news. Now what?

Now you go down this five-item checklist and prepare yourself for success.

a. "Perfect pitch" - the note you need to strike in the pitch

When you pitch a story, you’re selling an idea – an idea about you and your company. You’re selling it to a jaded individual who’s been there and seen that – but you’re also selling it to an individual who NEEDS story ideas and leads. Not yours – he or she is flooded with leads and ideas – but still, the self-interested reporter or editor is always looking for the next good story. Your job is to tell that story briefly and compellingly – just as if you were trying to hook a prospect during a 30-second elevator ride. To do that, you need a “perfect pitch” – a brief, compelling and well-told story that will link your publicity needs with the reporter’s rational self-interest. If you sell or have sold, if you know how to quickly grab the interest of a prospect, you already have the basic skills of pitching. Now, put your real news into a context the reporter will quickly grasp and you’re ready to go.

b. Shotgun vs. Deer rifle - focusing in on the right media

You may not be a hunter (I’m not). You may not have ever even held a firearm. But you know – thanks to the media – the difference between a shotgun and a deer rifle. One, the deer rifle, sends a carefully-aimed shot for a long distance – if your aim is true, you hit your target. The other, useful at short range, sends a large number of shot – like a handful of gravel – out at a target. Because of the number of shot, if the range is close and the aim is reasonably accurate (not precise – why bother) you’re bound to hit something. Both approaches have impact – but which is right for your story?

Shotgun releases – those sent out over Businesswire or PRNewswire ( and ) – reach thousands of reporters and wind up on thousands of online databases where they can be found. To work with a shotgun approach, the news should be either really compelling (you’ve just bought out Microsoft) or so un-compelling that it makes more sense to cast your bread on the waters in hopes that somebody, somewhere will take a bite.

Deer rifle releases are sent out (or rather, the pitches are made) to very select news media – and generally to specific reporters at those newspapers and magazines. You choose the targets after reading the publications – and the stories your target has written (a quick web-search on Yahoo should help you find online copies of those stories – if not, a trip to the library will pay hefty dividends). Deer rifle stories are generally important stories, but stories that require a special familiarity with your product line and market space.

One is right for you – but it may be a different one at different times. For a really big stories, both approaches may be right – five to ten targeted media followed by a shotgun-blast release over Businesswire or PRNewswire.

c. Phone vs. e-mail (or even antediluvian fax?)

Recent studies show that as many as 80% of reporters in a given (high-tech) market space prefer to receive a pitch via e-mail. This is a major change from past procedures, and even from preferences of just a few years ago (when many reporters were gun-shy of e-mail). Of the remainder, fax is preferred to a phone pitch by two-to-one. Since you’re not likely to know the reporter and know his/her preference, go with the default setting and send the pitch by e-mail (NOT as an attachment – those get deleted un-read unless a reporter has asked for and is expecting an attachment). If you want to further insure success, send a FAX, too. But do not call – that’s the fast track to failure.

d. Initial contact and follow-up

Make your initial contact via e-mail or fax. Depending on the timeliness, send a brief follow-up e-mail (or fax) in 24-48 hours, or even a week if the story is timeless. DO NOT CALL – not unless the reporter has told you that phone pitches are OK. And if you do phone, do not wear out your welcome, or try to be Mr./Ms. Personality. As Sergeant Friday used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” Keep the call brief – unless the reporter chooses to extend it. Ask: “is this a good time?” or “Do you have a minute to hear a quick pitch?” or “Would you prefer an e-mail, or do you have a minute to hear a quick pitch?” or something like that. Then listen to the answer. And heed it – even (or perhaps especially) if it’s not what you want to hear.

e. Writing the pitch – even if it's a phone pitch

Regardless of the medium (e-mail, phone or fax), you only have one chance to make a good first impression. That means writing and polishing and learning your phone pitch – so that it comes out natural, unforced and honest. Actors rehearse. Politicians and professional speechwriters rehearse. Most effective sales people rehearse. So should you.

Success through Press Releases

Pitching is not always necessary – in many cases, the story isn’t worth the pitch. And not all “shotgun” stories are worth the price of a news wire service. Sometimes it just makes sense to send out a press release (with or without a photo) to a targeted list of media. Using a press release to generate favorable publicity might seem intimidating or presumptuous, but it is simple if you follow these steps.

First, decide on who will speak for your company. Then, make sure you have a 5x7 color photograph of that person (or persons) – what’s called a “head-and-shoulders” shot – to go with each release you distribute. This photograph enhances your ability to generate coverage, since it puts a human face on the news.

Next, identify the publications you want to target. Some suggestions include:

• Daily newspapers in your area
• Business newspapers in your area
• Weekly newspapers (that include business coverage) in your area
• Monthly business magazines in your area
• Professional publications serving your company and industry or market space – local, state, national
• Professional and trade publications serving your clients (especially if you specialize in serving or selling to one or several industries)
• Alumni publications from your company spokesperson’s alma mater

Finding out who at a given publication to send the press release to is easy. If you have copies (for local newspapers and business newspapers, alumni and professional society professional magazines and newsletters), check what’s called the “masthead” (usually found on the editorial page or on one of the inside pages near the front) and look for the name of the business editor. The publication’s address is usually found in the masthead – a block of information generally printed next to or just after the table of contents (or on newspapers, these are often found in the editorial pages). If your source is more than a month old, you will want to verify your information by calling the company switchboard and asking, “Is Mr./Ms. Pompous your Business Editor?” – get an answer, then hang up … good switchboard operators may try to put you through – resist the urge (you’re not ready yet).

If you do not have copies of target publications, check the yellow pages (for local publications) then call their receptionist and ask for the mailing address, as well as the name and title of the editor who covers business news. Alternatively, a quick visit to the nearest public library can give you what you need; just ask the reference librarian. Another alternative is to check out the Internet – if you’re comfortable conducting online searches, this is perhaps the easiest way of getting the information you need.

Distribution Choices

Once you have identified your targets (name, contact information), prepare the press release on your company letterhead – an original copy for each news media if you’re mailing it or delivering it by courier. Using a gummed label (don’t write directly on the photograph), put the illustrated individual’s name, title and firm name on the back of each photo to be included with each release. For alumni associations, use the alumni-partner as the spokesperson for each release (a different set of releases for each corporate spokesperson). If you are not sending a photo, you can send a release by e-mail – but not as an attachment. Cut-and-paste the text into an e-mail, with a brief (one or two lines) cover note to set the stage. Brief and to the point is what works.

Package your release, with photo, flat in a 9x12 envelope. If you have a courier, this is an excellent way of delivering the release for maximum impact – there is really nothing better (experienced PR professionals often do the courier bit themselves, hoping to catch the reporter for a moment – do NOT do this at home … this is a high-risk tactic even for Pros). Federal Express or even Priority Mail are delivery methods with more positive impact than first-class mail; in addition, the heavy mailing envelopes protect the release and the photo from being bent.

Before you send the release, it is often useful to call the reporter or editor, introduce yourself (making it clear you are not a PR practitioner) and briefly explain that you’re sending a news release. Ask if there are any special requirements. Do not delegate this task to a secretary. Do not offer to pitch it – you’re just asking a technical delivery question. Do not ask to have the release used, merely inform the editor that you’ll be sending it over. This simple courtesy may help to elevate your release out of what is called the “slush pile” at many publications – it will help you cut through the competing clutter of other press releases and get initial attention. But be careful – this is not a pitch opportunity. It is just paving the way. If the reporter or editor asks about the release, it’s fine to be truthful … but let the release speak.

There are no guarantees in gaining media coverage – this is a news item, not a paid advertisement, and in news decisions, the editor is king – and there is no appeal from the king’s verdict. However, if you follow these easy steps, your opportunities for success increase significantly. Good luck!

The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Relations (or, why is it we never have time to do it right ... but we always have time to do it over ...?)

In the promotion of your business through public relations, there are a number of “fatal” mistakes you can make that will kill or distort your coverage. Of these, there are “Seven Deadly Sins of Public Relations” that will ruin your chances of success, and probably lead to bad press. So do as I say, not as I’ve done …

1. "No Comment"

The worst thing you can say to a reporter is “No Comment” – that has become a tacit admission of guilt. And while the reporter may not know what you’re guilty of, this is like a red flag in front of a bull … he or she will take this as a personal challenge to find out what you’re hiding (and we’re all hiding something).

Practice saying something like this:

“I’ll have to research that question and get back to you – is next Tuesday soon enough?”

“We are in the midst of delicate negotiations right now, and are not at liberty to discuss that question in detail. However, I can assure you that as soon as the negotiations are concluded, I’ll be glad to answer that question.”

In short, give a “real” answer that doesn’t answer the question, but makes it clear that you are not dodging or dissembling. One important caveat: You must pick an answer that is honest – they will check up, and nothing (not even “No Comment”) is worse than self-aware lying to a reporter. They will crucify you – and by their professional standards, they are both right and honor-bound to do so.

2. Spin Control

Even professional political spinmeisters are having an increasingly hard time persuading the press that what they think they heard (or read, or saw) isn’t what was really said (or printed or acted out). If your corporate chairman’s wife likes to go skinny-dipping in public fountains at 3 a.m., you are not going to spin your way out of the embarrassment – especially if the reporter has witnessed this. Better to have her admitted to Betty Ford then explain she’s had a rough time recently, but is being helped then try to pretend what they “saw” isn’t what was really there. Once, this approach was so brazen it actually worked. But from over-use, it has become a serious negative.

3. Disinformation

This is a favorite government tactic – often manifest by “leaking” information about a political or bureaucratic opponent that isn’t exactly true (or may be completely false, though impossible to prove false). As with spin control, this technique has become increasingly discredited – and a righteously wrathful media actively seeks out and punishes the disinformants (whom they deem no more worthy of fair treatment than politicians caught with their hands in the public till). One common (but largely unrecognized) way of putting forth disinformation is to talk about your competitors. You cannot be objective (who could) – and the more bitter the rivalry, the more your honest emotional outrage will color anything you say … and unless it’s scrupulously honest and easily proven, reporters will assume (generally correctly) that it’s disinformation. They’ll lose respect for you while assuming the competitor is the “good guy …”

4. "Baffle them with BS"

This is sadly familiar in sports and in high-tech (which have no other apparent commonality). When information is technical or hard for a layman to follow, it is easy to use jargon or techno-babble to confuse the reporter and try to make you appear larger-than-life and far more knowledgeable. This is a poor strategy with a huge potential for boomeranging. The full quote is “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with B.S.” – and in PR, that’s an inside joke and a measure of contempt for those who cannot present brilliance and who have to resort to confusion. Don’t go there.

5. Playing (media) Favorites

This may seem harmless, right? One reporter’s been good to you. One has been stern-but-fair (or maybe not quite so fair). You’d rather feed a good story to the nice guy/gal, right? Short-term, that’s a good idea. But long-term (and long-term can be pretty short in this day of instant communications), it is a suicide pact. You may not be able to really curry favor with your favorite reporter – but you can bet your pension that you will earn the disfavor and disrespect – and in many cases, the active enmity – of the reporter you snub. One of the first lessons in PR school is this: “Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel.” Reporters and editors ALWAYS get the last word. So respect them all (at least outwardly) and play no favorites.

OK, some PR people can do this and seem to get away with it – they do it by juggling, and they succeed (sometimes) because a professional who really knows the rules can sometimes break or bend them – by knowing the risks and rewards, and by playing the game with skill and finesse. This is another game you don’t want to play at home. Play it straight with reporters, and more often than not, they’ll play straight with you. If they don’t, write a letter to the editor (really – it often works).

6. Demanding Coverage

This is one of the worst failings of amateurs. They think they deserve coverage because:

• Their parents raised such wonderful children

• They “deserve” coverage – hey, the competition was covered last month, and fair’s fair, right?

• Their story is devastatingly important (or, it’s vital to help launch a new product, etc.)

• The big boss is demanding it

There are other excuses – pick yours. Then understand this. While reporters and editors need stories and news, they almost never need yours. They have what is called “editorial judgment” – which means that absent libel and slander, they can write and publish (or ignore) just about anything they want – and they do not have to answer to anybody.

If you must know why your story didn’t run, you can ask – if you do it right. Here’s what I do. “Sir (or ma’am), apparently I did something wrong – I thought it was a good story, but clearly it wasn’t good enough. If you have a minute, I’d appreciate it if you could tell me what I could have done different or better to make this worth your time and interest.” In this case, the fault is yours (probably true – it is with PR professionals … good as we are, we can miss some big point or subtle nuance). But it’s better not to ask – some editors get real defensive. And if you “demand,” kiss your future positive press coverage goodbye.

7. "I was only following orders ..." (doing what you are told, rather than what is right)

If you are doing your company’s PR and are answering to someone else (a Chairman, a Board, a CEO), you may find that they are asking or expecting you to do things that your gut instincts and these brief lessons tell you to steer clear of. Do not be tempted to follow bad advice just because it comes from the top. However, if you do as your told (and it blows up in your face with the reporters or editors), take the heat with integrity. Don’t blame others (or cop out with “I was only following orders …”) – its amazing how little damage comes from admitting you were wrong – and moving on. Almost all reporters and editors respect that, if only because it’s so rare.


OK, so you’ve seen the Seven Deadly Sins – and you know what to avoid. You’ve seen how to choose between targeted and broadside distribution of releases, as well as how to prepare and distribute a pitch. Now, let’s go out there and get us some PR, OK? The reporters are waiting for you … Good Luck!