Lack of news value. Useless quotes. Poor writing.
Those flaws top the common complaints journalists levy against press releases and PR pitches. The list goes on, but you can avoid journalists’ ire—and even increase your media placement—if you take several simple steps.
Here are four ways to land your next idea above the fold, rather than in the delete folder:
1. Avoid the sales pitch. “We all know the dreaded feeling,” says former journalist and current AAA spokesperson Tamra Johnson. “You pick up the phone to an unfamiliar voice with one intention—to get you to buy what they’re selling. We usually walk away from these experiences with little interest in speaking with the salesperson again.”
The solution? Try being more conversational, so you don’t come off like a salesperson.
“Avoid cheesy opening lines, and craft your message like you’re having a conversation,” Johnson says. “Provide the most important information, but don’t try to sell your idea. Instead, share with the journalist how your topic or issue will inform and benefit their audience.”
Carolyn Evert, VP of Northeast Communications at JPMorgan Chase, takes it further. “A great way to build relationships with reporters is … don’t always pitch them!” she says.
Instead, set Google alerts for journalists you want to connect with, and then tell them when they write something that intrigues you on a personal level.
“Interact with them on social media, retweet their articles,” Evert says. “That way, your name may already be familiar when you finally do have a pitch.”
[RELATED: Register for PR Daily’s Sept. 21 “Powerful Press Releases and Pitches Virtual Summit” for more writing and media relations tips from Tamra Johnson, Carolyn Evert and Nick Lanyi.]
2. Don’t be afraid to call. “Make a phone call is one of the best ways I’ve been able to gather intel into a journalist’s workstyle or how the newsroom works,” Evert says.
This includes leaving voicemails. “I’ve had multiple journalists over the years call me back to let me know they weren’t the correct contacts, but that I should contact their colleagues,” she says. “If you’re able to catch a journalist in a good mood, it’s 100 percent possible to strike media intel gold.”
Evert also loves phone pitching, because it’s harder for journalists to go radio silent.
“Once you have someone on the phone, they have to provide feedback on your pitch,” she says. “If they say no, the door’s open to ask for an alternative contact or what story might work for them. You also start building relationships by asking questions.”
3. Eschew the canned quotes. Press release quotes usually repeat content found elsewhere in press releases. That’s why they rarely get picked up.
“You see it all the time,” says Nick Lanyi, a media relations expert with Ragan Consulting Group. “These quotes are also usually rife with clichés.” For example:
“We’re thrilled to announce this new partnership,” CEO John Doe said. “Bringing together these two leading firms will result in tremendous synergies and make us both better.”
“That’s boring—and boring is bad, because it does nothing to encourage the reporter to arrange an interview with the CEO,” Lanyi says. “No reporter wants to produce stories filled with hackneyed quotes, so why offer them up?”
Good quotes conversely provide something that no one but that speaker could provide: his or her viewpoint or emotion, expressed in an interesting way, with details that make the quote sound like something a real person would say. For example:
“I’ve wanted to work with New Partner Corp. since I first heard about the company 20 years ago,” CEO John Doe said. “Their passion to bring Armenian cooking to America is inspiring to me, because I’ve had a similar drive to feed Albanian food to the masses since I started my own business in the 1970s. I can’t wait to get started on this new partnership.”
“More reporters would want to speak with John Doe after reading the second quote,” says Lanyi. “That doesn’t mean they’ll use the quote in their story, but they will call.”
4. Omit needless words. “A journalist has an attention span of around 10 seconds,” says Evert, “so make it a good 10 seconds.”
She suggests starting with the basics of who, what and why. Avoid the temptation to include additional details.
“If you have a good story, that’s all you need to pique a reporter’s interest,” she says. “Then challenge yourself to tell your story in three sentences or less. Once a journalist is hooked, then you can share the nitty-gritty details.”
She shares this example, which she pitched to CNN:
“This unique car seat safety technology is now being introduced in another car seat brand and has the support from Indy car driver Scott Dixon. The technology that helps Scott walk away from horrific crashes (like one he had in Texas last year) is the same in the car seat he uses for his daughter, the Advance 70 Air +.“ It’s called G-Cell HX™. When combined, Air Protect®+ G-Cell HX™ offers superior full body side impact protection around the child’s body in the event of a crash.”
“Fancy writing is great if you’re working on a feature story,” Evert says, “but more often
than not a journalist wants you to just cut to the chase.”
Brian Pittman is a Ragan Communications consultant and webinar manager. Tamra Johnson (AAA), Carolyn Evert (JP Morgan Chase) and Nick Lanyi will reveal more writing and media relations tips during PR Daily’s Sept. 21 “Powerful Press Releases and Pitches Virtual Summit.”