New ways to help reporters out

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We’ve known for a couple years now how useful it can be to do reporters’ legwork for them.

Journalists want to have multiple sources and proof points in their pieces. But they are being pulled in so many different directions they often don’t the time to gather them.

But you may not have realized the lengths that some successful PR pros are going to help out the reporters they are pitching.

For example:

One savvy pro I’ve trained tells me she regularly posts HARO queries seeking examples for a trend story she’s pitching. Of course her organization is prominently featured in the pitch, but she also gathers more proof points other non-related organizations. Then she vets them and passes them along to the top-tier reporter she’s working with.

Another pro taps into her network of hundreds of peers to identify hard-to-find sources for reporters she has relationships with, even for stories that have nothing to do with her clients. Social media and big email lists make this easy. As such, she has positioned herself as someone who can get good sources on the phone quickly, so who do you think her media contacts call when they’re covering an issue relevant to her clients?

Now, this is obviously a sensitive topic, particularly for the journalists involved. They’re not unethical or lazy – they are the final review on the sources and material we send them. But we need to be low-key about helping them out to this extent. That’s why I’m not sharing the specific details from the examples above. Once you establish this type of a mutually beneficial relationship, you want to keep it going and keep it quiet.

For the next story you pitch that you know will require some additional sources and proof points, find them yourself, then pass along.

Refreshingly candid top-tier reporter and her empowering word choice

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This month at the PRSA International Conference I witnessed a refreshingly honest admission from a top-tier reporter who is obviously secure in herself as a successful journalist.

Hadley Malcolm, personal finance writer at USA Today, was asked whether she preferred to reach out to executives directly or go through a PR person.

The typical journalist response in these settings is talk about how annoying it is when PR people insert themselves as “middlemen” and force journalists to work through them and then insist on staying on the call and listening to the interview.

But Hadley said simply, “If the PR person is good and really helpful at wrangling schedules, then it’s better for me to contact the PR person who says, ‘Let me pin them down for you.’”

The key words there: If the PR person is good . . .

See how today’s time-starved journalist will want to work with you once you prove that you add value to their process? Don’t be distracted by all the posts online from journalists and bloggers awash in pitches who complain about too many PR people. Also, don’t be a stumbling block to reporters.

In another refreshingly honest statement, Hadley said, “The reality is we need you as much as you need us, in many cases.”

One way to position yourself as one of those “good PR people” is: promise that the fastest way to get anybody from your organization to comment is to go through you. Remind journalists that they can email you directly or call your cell, and then you can bypass secretaries and look at schedules and get the right spokesperson on the phone.

Another way is:  when your policy requires you to listen in on an interview, provide useful follow-up based on what you heard (when you didn’t interrupt and they forgot you were even there). Something that makes the journalist’s job easier and doesn’t promote your point of view. Do this once and they’ll welcome you sitting in on the call in the future.

Creative pop culture link wins big coverage

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All the TV season premieres last week reminded me of an awesome pitch I saw over the summer.

You’ll learn from its creativity, customization, and brevity.

Matthew McWilliams was brainstorming ways to get the small university he represents some buzz. He thought about one of the history profs at his school who studies medieval Europe, the setting depicted in the hot HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

But he did better than defaulting to the old approach of merely issuing a media availability for the prof to comment on the series. Matthew worked with him to write an essay about the real historical basis for a much-hyped upcoming episode.

Then Matthew used pitches like the following one (to HuffPo) to get the essay in front of writers who cover the show. Note the personalization, conversational style, lack of background on his “client”, and focus on what’s in it for the writer:

[writer’s first name],

I read HuffPo’s Game of Thrones episode recaps each week. As you may know, this Sunday’s GoT duel promises to be one of the bloodiest and most intense television events of the year.  

What many viewers don’t know is that the fight has echoes upon echoes of actual history.  

Dr. Steven Isaac of Longwood University has researched these parallels, which are eerily similar to what viewers will see this weekend. I’ve summarized the highlights below:

[three bullets]

If you’re interested in more, here’s a link to the full essay.

 Let me know if you’re interested in using it—and please feel free to use pieces in articles you have planned.

Here’s the resulting HuffPo piece, and Matthew also scored with a direct pitch to The Atlantic.  It also hit the WSJ after a reporter was Googling after the episode aired and found Matthew’s online article about the essay.

I got to see this pitch in draft form when Matthew shared it with me on one of my private Q&A webinars. He took advantage of his membership in my Inner Circle program to get my take on it, and I helped him tune it up a bit (although the idea was all his and would have been successful without it).

 

Surprising approach to pitching the New York Times

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This summer I presented at a conference where New York Times reporter Richard Perez Pena was kind enough to sit for a panel about how PR people should work with him.

One of the things he said was dumbfounding.

I had looked at his recent work – much of it was, frankly, the kind of coverage that PR people would NOT want. He was just doing his job, uncovering questionable behavior and highlighting negative outcomes from programs that were supposed to help people. So I singled out two stories that were more positive that could have been the result of PR pitches. And I asked him how he found out about them and what made him decide to cover them, out of all the hundreds of potentially worthy topics he could cover on any given day.

One was about a program for international students at Oregon State University. Richard explained all the important trends relating to international students and how OSU had one of the oldest and largest transitional programs for them. And then, he said, he needed another story to work on in Oregon if he was going to fly all the way there.

“And there’s this guy in Hong Kong who emails New York Times reporters incessantly,” Richard said. “He’s been emailing me for years. He emailed me and said, ‘Did you know they’re using art to teach climate change at [the University of] Oregon?”

And that was how he found his second story for the trip.

Incredulous, I asked more about this guy in Hong Kong and what he did to get his emails opened by NYT staffers.

Richard, who was being awesomely open and generous about this, started chuckling and explained how he would get frustrated with this guy periodically and stop opening his emails. One time the guy wrote advocating use of a new word for reading digitally, “dig-ing,” but was worried people would read it as “digging.”

“I don’t know why I opened that email [about the class at the U. of Oregon],” Richard said. “It depends on what I had for lunch, or how I felt about my editors . . .”

Now some people could hear that anecdote and get frustrated and feel like there is no rhyme or reason to pitching top-tier media. And I would understand that reaction.

But I draw the opposite conclusion – if a random, occasionally annoying guy in Hong Kong with no PR training or responsibilities can place a story in the New York Times, surely someone who carefully researchers and crafts a targeted pitch can do it!

Now, this anecdote also highlights the factors that need to align for success, even for a promising story idea. Richard likely wouldn’t have cared about this email if he hadn’t already planned the trip to Oregon. Sometimes you can use social media and/or clues from previous coverage to uncover such influencing factors. But you can’t know everything all the time, so you just do the best research and targeting you can and get that email out there. And if it doesn’t work that time, you try again.

Next time you’ve done your homework and think you have a good idea, but are still feeling apprehensive because of previous rejection, remember:

If a random guy in Hong Kong can do it, so can you!

4 ways to cut your email pitch in half

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Time-starved journalists and bloggers are always demanding that we get to the point and send ever shorter emails. My recommended standard limit for a cold email pitch is 150 words.

Here are some simple, immediately applicable steps to cut your word count.

1. Delete your first sentence. If you’re like almost every PR pro who has attended my workshops, you feel compelled to begin most of your pitches with a set-up line of background to put your news in context. When you’ve targeted your pitch properly, it’s unnecessary. “With Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, social media companies’ soaring valuations are distracting venture capitalists. Despite these conditions, low-tech DayGlo Tires just closed a $10 million round of fundraising . . .” See how you don’t need the first sentence?

2. Leave out proper names and formal titles in the first pitch. Unless the person has broad name recognition, the name can come later. “Devan Snead, associate research director for consumer technology, issued a report that found . . .” is wordy and overly long. Try this instead: “One of our analysts found .  .  .”

3. The following words are common and usually unnecessary – imagine them in a sentence and you’ll see what I mean: basically, essentially, actually, really, nice, past, future, located, currently, presently.

4. Cut another 25 percent. Once you’ve implemented those three steps to cut your pitch down, use the word count feature in Word to force yourself to cut another 25 percent. You might even need to omit distinct thoughts you’re trying to convey. This is great! It really forces you to put yourself in the journalist or blogger’s place and determine what’s most valuable. Give this a shot and then compare with your original version – most times you’ll realize that cutting the extra quarter of copy length costs you little in meaning.

I use these steps – and more from my writing workshop – to keep my weekly pitching tip emails under 400 words.

4 ways to place more TV stories

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My recent experiences with national and regional TV journalists shows how their business has changed and how we should respond.

“Nobody has any money,” said a network producer I spoke to. She was referring to the different newscasts on her network, which each have to pay for the cost of sending a crew to shoot footage and do interviews for a given story. “So they are very selective.” This factor drives the steps we should take to make this tougher selectivity work for us:

1. Offer real people. If you’ve been to my workshop, you know we cover this extensively. Journalists are desperate for regular people who are affected by whatever issue you’re proposing. “I can always find an expert, but my first priority is going to be” the regular person who will say how the change has helped or hurt their life, the producer said.

2. Emphasize visuals. “My biggest concern as a producer is always, ‘What are my pictures going to be?’” Pitch not only the news hook, but explain what ACTION the broadcasters can film. This is what they need to take to their own bosses to sell the story, because they have plenty of news hooks. The visuals that stand out are what determine which stories get covered.

3. Do it yourself. The best way to make a story easy to cover is to avert they need for the network to spend money. Shoot your own footage and offer it to them. Of course the production values need to meet their standards. And there are some ethical considerations. A top network won’t use an interview you’ve shot, nor will they use some action that’s staged. But if you can shoot your newsmaker in the course of her real job, they will consider it. And local affiliates, for better or worse, often are less discriminating in which footage they accept. I recognize the obvious budgetary impact this might have on you, but the results will definitely mean your pitches stand out. Some larger institutions have even built their own small uplink studios so network journalists can interview their sources remotely.

4. Copy broadcasters’ internal style when writing your pitch. A producer I spoke with receives 75-100 emails a day. Once she whittles those down to a story she believes in, she has to turn around and pitch it to her bosses. Her emails are 3-4 sentences tops, often in bullet-point format. She knows once she gets bosses’ attention, she can provide the necessary background and proof-points. You can do the same.

You may have noticed a theme has emerged as I’ve thrown back the curtain on the tumult in the media industry. The more credible, factual background work we do on our own, the more appealing our pitches are to time- and cash-strapped journalists. Use these specific points as your guide, and let me know what kind of results you get.

The results are in – it pays to pitch media on the Friday before a long weekend

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The challenge

Last week, right before the Memorial Day weekend, I issued a challenge – and offered a bounty – to subscribers to my weekly pitching tips emails.

Here’s the contrarian logic that encourages pitching on the Friday afternoon before a long weekend:

The conventional wisdom is to avoid this time because reporters and editors are either taking off early or cramming to get work done so they CAN take off early.So that means they are fielding way fewer PR calls and emails than usual. And that’s why it can be a particularly fruitful time for YOU.

I encouraged my subscribers to pitch on Friday afternoon and let me know the results. And I promised to randomly choose one of the intrepid souls who took me up on it and award the winner a whopping $50 gift card.

The results

Of the 19 people who emailed me back, eight of them got responses Friday afternoon. That’s a higher percentage than I would have anticipated, and higher than the typical response rate of the average PR pro I work with.

Three placed stories that have already run. Shawn Robinson at the University of Dayton earned coverage on ESPN.com, which was extra-timely because the thrust of the piece debunked a negative article in his local paper earlier in the week.

Two others earned commitments for upcoming stories. Matt Stubbs at Mix PR wasn’t sure if his entry would “count” because he was pitching a Bloomberg reporter in England. But then he found that Monday was a holiday there, too. He called her, or, as the Brits say, “rang her” at 3:45 pm her time, and she picked up and ended up agreeing to interview his client.

Audrey Glasby of MountainStar Healthcare wrote that she took the challenge as motivation to reach  out to a key reporter. Audrey had a solid conversation with her about what she likes to cover, why she didn’t cover Audrey’s most recent pitch. And then she agreed to cover a different pitch Audrey shared – interviews happening this week. “Worked like a charm!,” Audrey wrote.

Three more pitching pros got “maybes,” including one from a WSJ writer who hadn’t been picking up his phone all week. Finally, one ambitious pro got a “no thanks,” but I’m calling that a success for the purposes of this experiment because it was from a Today producer.

Ten other pros sent email pitches, most of them to a single journalist, and got nothing back. One of them, Mark Daly, wrote that he’s had “great luck pitching on the day before a holiday period,” including the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

There was only one instance where the Friday-afternoon approach seemed to outright backfire. One valiant phoned eight contacts in vain and only then got one on the phone. In digging deeper as to why, the two of us decided that that key difference here was that she was pitching only trade media. Our assumption is that these types of journalists keep more traditional hours than their business and consumer media colleagues and are more likely to take off early prior to the holiday.

Conclusion

Pitching consumer, business, and general-interest media on the Friday before a long weekend is advantageous, particularly when targeting outlets and individuals who post a high volume of content. But this approach doesn’t seem to work for pitching trade media exclusively.

Remember, the premise isn’t that journalists are always working when other people are taking off. The premise is that those who ARE working are “experiencing a low volume of calls” and are more likely to answer their phone and/or read and respond to email. To hedge your bets and account for those who are out of the office, be sure to pitch multiple targets to increase your odds of finding those at their desks.

Congratulations to the winner of the random drawing, Katie Matheus of RAD Strategies. Your gift card is on its way.

More pitching insights like these:

I’ll be sharing everything I’ve got on fine-tuning your customized media outreach and coming up with newsworthy angles at my Media Pitching Bootcamp in NYC in two weeks – this one usually sells out but we have a few seats still available. You can stay an extra day to learn how to identify your best targets and get on their good side BEFORE pitching them – that’s covered in my Building Relationships Workshop.

Ben Affleck and a giant insurance company: recipe for pitching success?

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Aflac duck on TVThis article is about a “boring” insurance giant creating some fun media placements out of thin air.

Aflac PR executives Laura Kane and Jon Sullivan have been my consulting clients for the past four years, so I’ve had a firsthand seat as they’ve scrapped to come up with new angles to pitch their company.

They’ve done a great job taking advantage of their famous quacking mascot, and they pulled it off again this past spring. Remember all the pre-Oscar buzz about Argo, the movie directed by Ben Affleck? As you do, some of you are being tempted right now to say “Affleck” in the voice of the Aflac Duck. That thought occurred to Laura and Jon, too.

With the help of their agency Fleishman Hillard, they put together a small campaign about their Duck cheering for Affleck.

A letter sent to media ostensibly from the Duck itself included these nuggets:

“. . . Aflac is rooting for Argo, directed by our phonetically favorite filmmaker, Ben Affleck . . .”

“We hope to soon be sending out a high-five to our hunky homonym.”

The mailing included a small plush Aflac Duck, which gave TV personalities something to hold up when they talked about the story on the air.

The effort landed coverage on CNBC.com (re-tweeted 147 times), Fox Business News (photo above), KABC in Los Angeles, and several other outlets.

 

As you know by now, the Duck was rewarded – Affleck’s film won Best Picture. And this campaign landed the Aflac PR team an honor of their own, a Bronze Anvil from PRSA. Congrats to Laura, Jon, and FH.

Identifying your real value as a pitching pro

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Identifying your real value as a pitching pro

The wealthy attorney was cursing while his BMW sputtered and jerked its way into the auto repair shop.

He was late for a client meeting and demanded the sole mechanic look at it immediately. The lawyer, clad in his Armani suit, fidgeted in frustration while the grizzled old guy lifted the hood and looked for a minute. Then he pulled a screwdriver from his coveralls, reached in and tightened a single screw.

“Try it now,” he said.

The attorney jumped behind the wheel and turned the key. The engine purred like a kitten.

He leaned out the window with a huge grin and asked, “How much?”

“Two hundred dollars,” came the deadpan reply.

“What?” cried the attorney, now scowling. “All you did was tighten one screw! It took you less than a minute!”

“Charge for tightening one screw is one dollar,” said the mechanic, loving every minute of it. “Knowing which screw to tighten costs $199.”

Pitching media can be similar.

Your final email, after all your strategizing and revisions, might not look very complicated.

For example, here’s the entire email that Inner Circle member Scott Willyerd sent to top-tier writers last month:

Hi (name),

Ahead of President Obama meeting with the Pope, I wanted to send you updated Papal and Presidential approval ratings from the Saint Leo University Polling Institute.  

Thanks for your time and consideration.

Many would have been tempted to include a whole press release and clutter the email with more detail. Scott’s minimalist approach landed strong mentions of his client in USA Today, NPR, two wire services with multiple pick-ups, and several political outlets.

So stand strong in keeping your pitch emails brutally brief. Anyone can paste a news release into an email and press “send.”

Your real value to your organization is knowing what to include, and often more importantly, what NOT to.

How Dwight Schrute helped me place a story in TIME

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Here’s the short version of how to use ruthlessly brief pitches and pop culture angles to land placements such as this one on TIME’s web site, which was the second-most read story for several days when it first ran.

I was working with a business school professor who coauthored a study about the advantages and disadvantages of working with people she called “socially distinct newcomers.” That’s a perfect, precise description of what she studied, so it’s absolutely the best way to explain the concept in her academic journal article.

But it’s obviously not very familiar language that would be useful in a pitch email subject line or in the lead of a news release.

So I tried to think of a word or phrase that would convey that concept in the shortest amount of words. In my pitching workshops we talk about how finding a pop culture angle can boost your story’s chances of placement, so that was one way I approached this pitch. And then it hit me: the person who most embodies the phrase “socially distinct” is the character Dwight Schrute on NBC’s “The Office.” So I used him to deliver the most interesting finding of the study in brief, familiar language. Here was the subject line of my email:

Study: Embrace the Dwight Schrutes in your ‘office’ for better performance

There’s an obvious risk with this approach – that a target journalist won’t be familiar with Dwight. But it was a risk I chose to accept because of the added zing that this angle brought with it.

Local media loved the excuse to put a photo of Dwight on their sites. Now the HR and management trades are starting to pick it up.

Take-aways:

1. Ruthlessly trim your pitches to make them as short as possible.

2. Among other possibilities, consider an image or concept made familiar through pop culture to make your pitch stand out.