Ben Bradley, from the ABC News affiliate in Chicago, explains the skill set necessary to pitch TV reporters
How do you pitch a general assignment TV reporter, a breaking news journalist who spends little time in the newsroom and even less scheduling appointments with PR pros?
Very carefully and very selectively, said Ben Bradley, a general assignment reporter for WLS-TV, the ABC News affiliate in Chicago (the top-ranked station in the third largest market in the U.S.).
What is Ben Bradley’s beat?
Ben Bradley has worked as general assignment reporter at WLS-TV, ABC News’s Chicago affiliate, since 2002. In addition to general assignment reporting, Bradley covers Chicago’s Olympic bid for 2016 and politics (on occasion). He’s worked in TV journalism since 1994.
“I never know what I’m doing from day to day,” he told Ragan.com. “I can line up stories or pitch stories or think I have the greatest story in the world … and then there’s an earthquake in the Midwest (which doesn’t happen very often) and all the plans go out the door.”
To pitch reporters with such hectic and unpredictable schedules PR pros must throw away their traditional playbooks and instead think like a reporter. This could lead to unexpected positive coverage when news breaks and ensure that your client or company gets a say when crisis strikes.
Time is of the essence
Don’t rely on traditional PR techniques when working with on-the-go general assignment reporters. That means avoid mass blast e-mails; it might turn the reporter against you.
For instance, if Bradley is included in a mass e-mail that’s irrelevant to his Chicago audience then the e-mail—and probably future ones—are going in the trash.
Still, e-mail is the best way to reach Bradley (unless you know him personally, don’t pitch over voicemail). Make sure it’s targeted for his audience and write short, punchy subject lines which indicate the pitch is about local news.
“For a general assignment news reporter at a TV station in Chicago, if it didn’t happen here, there’s very little interest,” he said. “We would never in a million years do a satellite uplink PR feed.”
Remember time is of the essence for Bradley. Try writing pitch e-mails in the inverted pyramid style that packs the meat of a story in the first few sentences. “I scan the first few paragraphs [of a pitch], and if I’m interested in the first words, I’m reading on,” he remarked.
“People should think about making pitches the way we make news stories,” Bradley continued. “Break it out with a colorful box that shows me the highlights, do a pull quote, think about graphically designing the one-page pitch in a way that’s eye-catching, just like the designer of USA Today would do … creatively present it.”
Don’t make it look like a mock newspaper article, he advises. That’s a turnoff.
And although it seems contradictory, consider sending a reporter snail mail if the story isn’t time sensitive. “I only get one or two pieces of mail a day … I’m more inclined to see [snail mail],” Bradley said. He hinted at a possible trend: Will ingenious PR pros start sending snail mail as opposed to e-mail?
What every pitch needs
Hopefully the following observation surprises you: Bradley said many PR pros fail to give out their cell phone numbers. That’s a big goof (that you’re not making, right?).
Including a cell phone number in addition to an office number is critical. A general assignment reporter may need to reach you the moment he’s interested—that means weekends too.
“We typically don’t deal in setting things up five days in advance,” Bradley said. “If there happens to be an event that a PR person is pitching, that happens to coincide with something we’re doing that day, we need to be able to get hold of people right away to know it’s a sure thing.”
In many cases—maybe most—a PR pro will lose a reporter’s attention if there isn’t quick and easy contact information.
What’s the benefit of pitching a general assignment reporter?
These on-the-spot TV reporters sound awfully high maintenance. You might be thinking, “Why should I even bother pitching them?” The answer is twofold.
First of all, if bad news about your company or client breaks, a reporter knows how to reach you. It is particularly effective if you’ve established a relationship with the reporter.
“So much of our world is spin … if I have a good relationship with somebody who represents something I’m covering I’m more inclined to believe the facts as they present them to me,” Bradley said.
You’re getting a fair shake when bad news breaks—that’s invaluable.
Secondly, it can also lead to unexpected media coverage for your company or client. For instance, a PR pro from a Chicago-area school district sent Bradley pitch after pitch hoping for TV coverage. They were all denied. Then former president Bill Clinton was impeached and Bradley, looking for a local angle, contacted the school.
“This was a great opportunity,” Bradley explained, “to call this person who’s been courting me for a long time and say we want to come into a high school history class and have you explain impeachment.”
It wasn’t a story the PR pro had pitched, but it was media coverage. It appeared her efforts had paid off.
The disconnect between PR & journalism
This story about the school district takes an unusual turn, which Bradley said “symbolizes the disconnect that exists between PR people and the press.”
Bradley contacted the school’s PR person and made his pitch. She denied the request. Her reason: The history department wasn’t on the unit that covered impeachment yet.
“We never did another story with that school again,” he said.
So what’s the lesson?
“You’ve got to be able to stay versatile,” Bradley commented. “Maybe that wasn’t the story you’re pitching, but this one gets you just as much coverage.”
|PR pros need to chill out|
Local TV reporters like Ben Bradley often work on multiple deadlines throughout the day. So if a story’s developing the reporter needs to know immediately if he can use you or your client for the story.
To ensure you’re ready when a TV reporter on deadline calls, follow Bradley’s advice.
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