How can we improve media relations?
It begins with PR pros’ getting acquainted with journalists’ work in industries relevant to their clients and with reporters’ respect for their PR counterparts’ role in managing that relationship.
Beyond that, there are tactical ways for those of us in PR to improve our outreach techniques:
It starts with research.
Dig deep into a reporter’s beat before sending a potentially meaningless pitch. Read what they write—not just posted pieces, but their social media feeds and personal blog, as well.
It may sound creepy to learn that PR agencies keep a “dossier” on key reporters, but it’s all about knowing the territory. We must also know the story we’re pitching. Any decent journalist will approach even a softball pitch with some skepticism.
They will try the product we’re bragging about, vet the experts we’re offering (or seek their own), research the CEO’s background and look at the company’s social media reviews.
If it’s not airtight, it’s not ready to pitch.
Make sure your timing is right.
Many a good story dies because journalists won’t or can’t drop everything to make a hard deadline. Allow plenty of time to pitch anything with a seasonal hook; media relations is a little like retail. Back-to-school ends in August, and the December holiday season is put to bed by early fall. (One journalist recently reported that she received a Christmas pitch this week. Sounds premature, but who knows?)
Before pitching a journalist, it’s wise to make sure he hasn’t recently written a similar story. Often clients think it’s a good idea to piggyback on something just published, but unless you’re bringing something truly fresh or taking the story in an unexpected direction, don’t pitch a “me-too” idea.
It can be effective, however, to newsjack a topic by offering expert commentary on a breaking story. When the FBI announced that it was hiring technology talent to develop a type of wearable emergency alert system, we sent out a pitch about entrepreneurs who had done just that. Our timely pitch resulted in a great Inc. magazine story.
Pitch it short, sweet and smart.
A colleague with a terrific track record treats media pitches a little like tweets. Rather than aiming for 140 characters, he shoots for pitches no longer than 140 words. Journalists appreciate brevity and clarity.
This goes for the subject line as well. Tailor yours to the writer’s beat, and shoot for fewer than 60 characters—with the key terms in the first three or four words. Look into studies analyzing subject lines, and consider sending your team members a test email for review.
Some journalists recommend dispensing with pleasantries, but that varies according to your relationship with the person you’re pitching.
Know when to follow up or fold.
The media follow-up discussion is a burning issue in public relations circles. Our rule is to follow up with a short email a couple of days after first pitching. If we don’t receive any response, we add something new to the original pitch and modify the subject line to reflect that.
After a second round, if the silence is deafening, move on.
Also, some journalists prefer a follow-up (or initial) email; others favor a phone call. Ask about preferred channels.
Establishing credibility and forging a good relationship with a journalist is all about trust. Although some pitches can employ a little license to garner attention, once you’ve secured a journalist’s interest, play it straight.
Know whom you will offer for interviews, and make sure they’re prepared. Don’t bait and switch. If you’ve quoted financials in a pitch, vet the numbers. If you’ve promised additional materials, images or quotes by a certain time, make it happen.
Most PR strategists would agree that you get only one strike with a contact before you’re added to their own personal “no-fly” list.
Put yourself in their shoes.
The pool of journalists has been shrinking for the past decade; the swarm of PR pros has not. This disparity means journalists will be pitched more story ideas than they could ever use.
A writer friend said she often starts work with an inbox of 300 emails and is pretty certain that 99 percent of them are PR pitches. Don’t let that statistic scare you away from developing smart, on-target pitches for the right reporters. Just be painstaking when crafting each, because that same writer said that if a pitch is worthwhile, it will rise to the top.
A version of this post first appeared on the Crenshaw Communications blog.