Most pitches I receive are terrible.
As a public relations pro who also fields pitches for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) blog, I view pitches from two angles—the sending and receiving ends.
I’ve noticed a trend among many public relations agencies and practitioners to rely mainly on media relations and eschewing the holistic practices that make good PR work flawlessly. This practice has resulted in poor pitching habits that emphasize mass emailing and weak gimmicks—not to mention “newsjacking.”
Every time I hear “newsjacking,” I roll my eyes. Capitalizing on an unexpected event to launch your brand into the social stratosphere requires not only a massive amount of skill, but even more luck—luck equivalent to seeing a genie chasing a leprechaun riding a unicorn.
Bad pitching practices, including newsjacking, have resulted in an epidemic of lazy media relations, for which there is no excuse. Numerous surveys tell you what journalists want, and countless webinars and seminars train you how to do it right—not to mention the endless articles, some written by journalists, calling out PR people for bad practices.
Even with all those resources, it’s still being done wrong. Here’s some advice on how to do it right:
1. Realize that media relations is a tactic, not a strategy. Although a strategic PR campaign will incorporate several communication tactics to engage key audiences, media relations is the easiest to measure and, more important, is easy to explain.
Simply put, clients pay for headlines, and CEOs like to be quoted, which results in media relations being the go-to tactic. A hit in The New York Times or landing a spot as a talking head on a 24-hour news channel will often justify those lofty agency bills or a CEO’s asking what a communication team does.
Unfortunately, many pros have been conditioned to think of PR as media relations and nothing more. Media relations has been elevated to the level of artisanal bacon, which is so very tasty; still, if it’s not part of a balanced diet, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
2. Invest time in building relationships. While working at agencies, I had the Rolling Stones song “Time Is On My Side” on a perpetual loop in my head because, as most agency practitioners know, it’s the exact opposite: Time is never on your side.
Accounting for every hour of work can be daunting, especially given that building a relationship with a reporter or segment producer isn’t guaranteed to result in an article or feature. However, cultivating a genuine relationship can be vastly more beneficial than just sending a pitch every month or so.
Some reporters have reached out to me to vet article ideas they were working on, some having nothing to do with any client I represented. Because we’d developed a rapport, they knew they could turn to me on a tight deadline to find sources for a quick quote or a choice sound bite.
By no means am I implying that practitioners should ignore relevant news that might be important to a client. On the contrary, effective media relations offers an abundant return on investment. When you rely primarily on gimmicks or opportunistic stunts, though, you’re more likely to find yourself apologizing for a blunder.
As the guy fielding your pitches, I’m 90 percent more likely to read your email and consider how it might fit into our editorial calendar and coverage if we have an existing relationship.
3. Offer compelling, relevant content to the right person. Being a reporter is a constant fight against the clock (even more so than being in PR); for that reason, reporters hate nothing more than when someone wastes their time. Scan the internet for “bad PR pitch,” and you’ll find a trove of stories from reporters and even some sites dedicated to the topic. What the complaints typically boil down to is, “This person wasted my time, their time and their client’s time (and money), because I don’t care about this topic.”
Almost all content is compelling and relevant to someone, but if you don’t know your target, you’re simply wasting time. Knowing what will be compelling to a specific reporter results from taking time to build a relationship.
For example, you might think a reporter who covered real estate last week would be interested in your pitch this week about your client constructing the largest commercial building in Topeka, Kansas. However, if you’d really taken the time to build that relationship, you might know that the reporter had only been filling in for a colleague on maternity leave and that he normally writes about movie adaptations of young-adult novels.
Although some “nice” reporters might refer you to the right person once you send your off-base pitch, many won’t, so your great content will be a dud.
4. Think creatively; pitch proactively: There’s a season for almost everything, but if you’re simply waiting for the next hot topic to “jack,” you might be missing out on regular opportunities to offer relevant news to key audiences.
During a breaking news situation, I’ll go first to the sources with whom I have an existing relationship and who will provide relevant sources quickly. However, if you’ve proactively coordinated with me for an interview or blog submission, I’m more likely to work with you to generate something that fits the immediate need.
Look ahead, and take into account the news outlet’s editorial calendar or the topics it covers annually. You won’t have to hijack the news; instead, you’ll be a trusted source and contributor.
5. Diversify your portfolio: Instead of capitalizing on breaking news to gain hits, employ a diverse portfolio of engagement tactics to generate attention for clients or your company. Producing infographics, research, videos or insightful posts are just a few ways to spotlight your client and/or business topic.
Put them out there in the ether, create a client blog or newsroom, and let reporters find the information on their own. Journalists follow conversations about topics important to them.
You’d be surprised by how many reporters still do research and will seek out compelling content without being pitched. Just take a look at the latest trend of embedding Tweets directly into articles.
Keep that conversation going, and show that you can be a reliable source for insightful thoughts on relevant topics. Do that, and you won’t have to come chasing us, because we’ll already be following you.
6. Ignore bad managers: Unfortunately, media relations and general pitching responsibilities are often left to junior professionals who are given very little direction beyond “land hits,” “get interviews” or “we need to be part of this story.”
We’re not doing ourselves, our clients/companies or the profession any favors by promoting bad managers. If you’re one of the unlucky ones still receiving poor guidance from your project lead, I’m giving you permission to ignore their directions.
I’ve been there; I’ve sent blanket pitches to hundreds of reporters and editors and followed up with the inevitable call to ask, “Did you get my email?” If I could, I would apologize to all the reporters I once annoyed; instead, this is my opportunity to keep you from making that mistake.
I’ll preface this by saying, don’t lie. However, if you’re being told to send a blanket pitch or a email blast, don’t do it; your career will thank you. Simply pick the top five to 10 contacts that you’ve researched, and tailor your pitch to each of them.
If you land one to three great earned-media opportunities, no one will notice that you didn’t strike out with 150 duds. (Trust me on this.)
Next time you’re preparing your communication strategy, don’t even think about relying on “newsjacking,” blanket pitching or other stale media relations tactics to get attention. Ask yourself instead if there are better ways to build a more sustainable and effective program.
Laurent L. Lawrence, APR is director of public relations for PRSA. His diverse background in the communication profession includes journalism, agency, non-profit, association and corporate positions. You can follow him on Twitter (@LaurentLawrence).