Wednesday, February 23, 2011

PR, media relations folks: Tip more, pitch less to reach reporters

I stopped pitching reporters when I started this business (although I still coach many clients in smart techniques for doing so). Now that I'm on the other side and getting pitched, I'm noticing more coverage of bad pitching and hearing more complaints from journalists and fellow bloggers. So I think it's time to recalibrate the practice.

Let's try to tip more, and pitch less.

There will still be plenty of times when you need to pitch something: a novel idea, an unusual concept, a surprising approach, an unlikely source. But for most other things, you'll build a better set of relationships with reporters and bloggers (and get better coverage) if you approach your media relations as tipping us off to something new that we will find particularly useful.  Think of it this way: Tips will help you build the relationship that later lets you pitch selectively, when you need it most.

That means you're not shoveling into our email boxes the same stuff thousands or hundreds of other reporters are getting, and making sure we can't somehow unsubscribe. You're reading and watching us, and understanding what each of us wants and needs and doesn't yet have, but might like. Better, it might be something on which we get to act first, rather than in a pack.

That's more essential than ever now, when there's more competition than ever for the scoop, the new quote, the as-yet-unheard perspective. And it's precisely the gap where media relations and the real-time real world haven't caught up with one another.

If you're about to say, "There's no time for that much hand-holding and individualized treatment," consider that you could stop doing any number of things PR folk have done for decades--things that aren't working especially well given the amount of work they entail. That list might include press releases for everything that moves and a few things that don't; embargoes, especially the poorly managed kind; press conferences; and all those blanket pitches, calls and emails. You're putting a lot of time and effort into tactics that don't work or those that result in "metrics" (like how many reporters confirmed receiving your materials) that don't actually matter. Yes, I said that. Instead of attacking every pitch as if every reporter had to have it, prioritize. Pitching someone who will never, ever cover your pitched topic does more damage to your organization or brand than not pitching at all. Avoiding the off-topic pitch strengthens your hand. Reporters I respect get way too much of the former and not enough of the latter.
What does the relationship-building tip look like? Here are a few options calibrated for today:
  1. Instead of a news release, attach a personalized note to a full document.  Once upon a time, pre-email, this was a lovely option that should be revived. It works well with the specialist reporter who has a deep knowledge of the topic. Skip the release and write a thoughtful short note; bonus points if it can say something like, "I think you'll find the conclusion on page 11 provocative" or "The authors will talk to you first, if you're interested." (See point 3 below for why you should especially use this for reporters who cover you well.)
  2. Give an advance heads-up call.  The one thing on which I think we can all agree about embargoes (aside from disliking them) is that they give all sides time to plan...for PR folks, that means time to plan and handle calls and information requests and set up interviews, and for reporters, to plan the coverage and do the research. Why not extract that and replace embargoes with a heads-up call?  "We've got these three studies coming up in the next weeks and months, and I wanted to get a sense of which ones would interest you so we can get you the info" is a call I'd always take.  Even a more hopeful, "Not sure we will actually have this nailed down, but wanted to gauge where you are if we had a response on this issue" call might work as an exploratory call.  Again, it's a case of replacing the blanket approach with more useful and effective targeted help.
  3. Give frequent-flier points to the reporters who cover you well and lovingly.  Here's what a reporter shared with me today: "I got the press release below a little while ago. I found it amusing, in a sour way, because what it is 'confirming!' is actually news that I broke, over the Congressional break....This issue is not something that this Congresswoman gets a ton of attention for — she's introduced this bill maybe 5 times now — and I'm one of the few people who consistently covers it. Wouldn't it be possible for an office to do a simple tailor of their media lists, so that they're sending (what looks like) a more personal note to the media who are friendlier to them? As it is, now I'm just annoyed at them. Seems like such an obvious missed opportunity."  Couldn't have said it better myself (see point 1, above). This reporter asked for my comments, and I imagined a note that said, "Thanks again for beating everyone else to the punch on this. Wanted you to know we're going to alert the latecomers so this doesn't take you by surprise. Thanks for covering us like a blanket and enjoy watching the others catch up to you. We've put a link to your article in the release, too."
  4. The best kind of tip: Give away something for which you're owed nothing, and to which you have no ties.  This has become a best practice on Twitter, where we value conversations with folks who aren't allergic to retweeting someone else's stuff or sharing a good tip for whom to follow or where to find something current. So: What's on your desk that a smart reporter might not know about, and that you can share easily? What are folks in your organization reading and to whom are they talking? What haven't reporters seen that you have? To whom should reporters be talking? It's easy enough to call a reporter (as I did last week) from a conference to say, "This speaker just showed a slide I think you need to see" and offer to snag the speaker's card, or something similar. You could call this karma or a favor, but I tend to call it good media relations. Or as my first media relations mentor told me when he talked me into the field after a journalism job: "Just do what you wish someone had done for you when you called." There are a million pitches they're expecting. Be the thing that comes as rare and refreshing fruit in the middle of the desert.
That approach might just yield you the nicest compliment I've ever had from reporters, something along the lines of "Denise, don't ever not call me." I help communications teams to come up with strategies they can implement--among them, strategies for media relations. I can train your team to pitch more effectively when you do pitch, learn how to figure out what's tip-worthy or--best of all--facilitate a team retreat that will help you come up with a new approach that works better for you and the reporters you work with. Just email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[biz] for more information.


Patric Lane said...

Re #4: it can reap dividends. For example, a reporter with major broadcast network called me out of the blue a few months ago because she thought we *might* have an expert who could help her out with a story she was under the gun to get out lickety split. I knew we didn't, but I did know of someone at another institution who'd be perfect -- so I referred the reporter to them, and she got her story.

A few weeks later, the same reporter called back, wanting to know if we had people who might be good for a high-profile weekly series she's working on now -- and specifically said she was checking with me b/c I'd been helpful last time.

I wasn't expecting such as nice payback (or any at all, frankly) -- but I'll certainly take a 1:30 exclusive profile over an 8 second soundbite any day :)

Bottom line: Pay it forward -- it's not just good karma, it's sound communications practice.

Molly (@mwmcelroy) said...

Love this post, Denise!

I've been trying "heads up emails" to reporters who I know or who -- since I'm new to the Pacific NW and to the U Washington news office -- know our office. I almost always get a response back from the reporter saying whether she'll pursue the story.

Another thing I do -- especially when I started my job six months ago -- is ask local reporters what types of stories they want. It's helped me frame some of my heads up emails.

And like Patric says above, it's a common practice in our office to send reporters to non UW experts if we don't have anyone who fits their story. I also do this if a perfect-fit researcher's schedule doesn't align with the reporter's deadline. I'll ask the researcher to recommend a colleague instead, and they usually send me a contact or two.