How to succeed by NOT pitching media

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Here’s a commonly overlooked opportunity for building relationships with media: Help them with stories you didn’t pitch.

I know one PR pro who did this so well that once she fielded a call from a reporter asking if she knew how to get certain (non-confidential) financial info from a different company. Our intrepid colleague still doesn’t know why the reporter called HER, but she tracked it down anyway.

Another example: An agency pro was working with a transportation writer. He mentioned he needed to talk to someone who had been injured in a car accident while traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday. Although this story had no bearing on her client, the PR pro used her network within the worldwide agency to quickly find three such people willing to talk to him.

Do you think that reporter paid attention the next time she emailed or called him?

Here’s one simple way you can implement this helpful approach. When you see an influential journalist looking for a source to speak about something beyond what your organization can address, find someone anyway. You know your industry – who would be qualified and effective on that topic? Maybe you’re aware of a university professor or think-tank analyst – go the extra mile and find contact info and share with the influencer.

To be sure, rendering this kind of assistance doesn’t guarantee us any coverage. It’s not a quid pro quo. What we earn is simply attention – the media members we help are more likely to give us the time of day the next time we have something to offer. Not merely to return the favor, but rather because we’ve demonstrated we know a bit about their topic and that we understand how demanding their jobs are. We better make sure we still “bring our A game” and suggest good angles that matter to their audiences.

You can determine media needs by:

– watching their social media posts to see what they are working on

– noting what’s coming up on their editorial calendars

– simply asking, “What’s coming up that you’re working on?”

Finally, a qualifier. You obviously don’t do this for every reporter who has needs. Focus on those who reach audiences that are strategic for your organization. And if you help a reporter or blogger out a couple times who doesn’t respond to your outreach, don’t get mad. Just move on and apply your helpful approach to someone who may be more appreciative.

The age-old PR question: What is the optimal length for my media pitch?

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When pushed for a one-size-fits-all guideline for email pitch length, I usually say 150 words.

But in this post I’ll share some recent evidence to justify when your pitches can be effective even if they’re twice that length.

First, the justification for 150. That guideline came from looking at my successful pitches, asking other prolific media relations pros, and asking journalists. About 150 words kept coming up, which is about twice as long as what you’ve read to this point.

Now check this out. I went back and looked at the six winners of the 2014 “Best Pitches of the Year” contest that I held for members of my Inner Circle.

We had two overall winners and four honorable mentions. They landed the likes of the WSJ (three of them), USAT, TheAtlantic.com, and Ad Age. I was surprised to see that the average word count of these winners was 283!

Then I looked at the distribution and saw a pattern emerge:

Three of the winning pitches were 163, 177 and 180 words long.

The other three were 367, 378, and 435 words long.

What accounted for the difference in the two groups?

The shorter pitches were sharing an asset, while the longer pitches were introducing a self-contained new idea.

Sharing an asset

The shorter pitches were about: a study of breastfeeding habits, a list of the seven best forests to visit, and a survey of millennial spending habits.

You can see how a short pitch would be all that’s necessary to pique the target reporter’s interest and get them to look at the “asset” – the study, the list, or the survey results. Same principle would hold if you’re sharing a video or other piece of content.

Introducing a new idea

The three other pitches faced a tougher challenge. They took an abstract concept and shaped that into a newsworthy angle.

One was about a training program that helps NYC doormen identify elder abuse – but the program is a bit dated so the pitcher used some creativity to make it timely. Another was a bold suggestion for a positive profile of an ad agency that shared concrete examples of why the agency deserved that treatment. And the final one listed similarities between an episode of Game of Thrones and actual medieval history to make a point.

You can see why these would require longer treatment.

Now, here’s an important caveat. The longer pitches were expertly written. After all, they were the best of the year.

So now you have some evidence for a more nuanced approach to determining the best length of your pitches.

When your story idea is good enough and lacks an accompanying asset – you can “go big.” Just make sure you do it well.

When it comes to professional development, are you a skimmer or a diver?

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Got this reply to a “tips” email I sent out last month:

Michael, I quickly searched your email for the subject line that got an 80% response from national media.  But you overwhelmed me with information… if the subject line was among your text I missed it.

The tip for the subject line was most definitely in the email – near the end, of course.

But it doesn’t bother me that this reader missed it. I’m not going to cut away at the other important elements that were included in that email just so it’s easier for people to skim.

That approach doesn’t attract the type of people I’m looking to help.

Some people, like the woman who sent the reply above, only have time to skim their professional development resources. For them, there are lots of helpful industry web sites with snackable PR listicles.

Those resources exist for people who are skimmers when it comes to their professional development.

My preference is to offer you a deeper look into the relatively few topics that will have the biggest impact on your PR success.

People who connect with me tend to be divers when they explore ways to hone their craft.

Which approach fits you right now? You know yourself and your situation best.

Have you liked what you’ve been reading from me lately? Are you a diver who is looking to invest more thoughtful effort in your professional development?

If so, you might be a good candidate for my Inner Circle group coaching program. But I’m not sure.

The way for you to find out is to register for the new complimentary Inner Circle Preview Pass.

It’s a series of emails that give you an inside look at the program, now in its sixth year.

The Preview Pass is the way to determine if the Inner Circle is right for you, and if you’re right for the Inner Circle.

Get the Preview Pass here.

We’ve ruined the compliment approach to pitch introductions

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You might not realize that the well-intentioned opening sentence of your email when pitching media might be backfiring.

You’ve heard it’s a good idea to start your pitch by referencing a reporter’s previous work.

And because you’re naturally a positive person, you likely say something nice about it. Like maybe:

“I am an avid reader of your column and have especially enjoyed your coverage of successful leaders – many of whom are inspirational to me.”

And because you’re honest, you actually DO read the column and you ARE inspired by it.

Problem is, too many other PR people have been pitching media with lines like that when they DON’T actually read the column. And the journalists can tell. So they can be dubious at times.

What’s happened is we have ruined the compliment as an opening when pitching media.

Okay, maybe not totally ruined it. There’s a simple way to preserve this approach.

We just need to be more specific so that our opening comment is credible.

Try this instead:

“I read [column name] every Monday morning after I catch up on email from the weekend. Was impressed – even inspired – by [column subject’s name] and [subject of different column].”

See the difference?

Sure, some journalists might say they’d rather get the news right away. But in practice, they get so many generic, irrelevant pitches that it’s a best practice to PROVE you read or watch their stuff right from the beginning.

This is on my mind because it was a recurring theme during the Q&A webinar I did with my Inner Circle members this week. Talking with them individually, I could hear their sincerity in their voices. But unfortunately while pitching media in a digital medium like email, such sentiment doesn’t always translate. So we worked on perfecting those customized introductions so they won’t be doubted.

Once you complete your specific and credible opening, then you transition into why your news is relevant enough to be appropriate, but different enough to justify further coverage. And that’s a topic for another post :).

How one short media pitch spiked a client’s web traffic

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I’ve been hearing from many of you who are having success reacting to journalists’ and bloggers’ previous work.

Here’s a case study to help you hone your approach.

Mercy Chikowore came to my pitching workshop in DC and paid special attention to the section on customizing pitches and keeping them “brutally brief.”

When she was introducing her bitcoin online retailer to the world, here’s what she sent to Business Insider writer:

Hi Dylan,

Just read your story on the bitcoin ATM – definitely impressive. We’re also so impressed with bitcoin that we opened an online megastore where bitcoin users can buy just about anything they want. If you don’t believe me, just click the link.

You can find more info about the store in the release below. We haven’t been on Letterman, but let us know if this is something that interests you.

Sincerely,

Mercy

Two hours later, this story ran on Business Insider. Mercy found out when a cofounder emailed her that traffic was spiking (he was so excited we can’t share his language here :). Page views went up more than tenfold. The BI story also got picked up by Yahoo Finance and the San Francisco Chronicle.

It started discussions on reddit that resulted in people reaching out for opportunities to invest in or work for the company.

In what’s perhaps a signal of how well Mercy did her job, one of the 141 reddit commenters asked “How did these guys get Business Insider to write an article about them!?”

Takeaways for us:

1. If non-traditional-media sites like Business Insider and reddit aren’t already on your radar as potentially influential ways to reach your audiences, they should be.

2. Mercy’s dogged research before her pitch not only identified someone who was clearly interested in bitcoin, but also gave her a way to make a personal connection to the fact he had been on Letterman.

3. Have the courage to let your careful customization stand on its own, and resist the urge to bog down your initial pitch with background.

We talk about pitches like this multiple times a month in the Inner Circle.

Congrats to Mercy, and to all of you who are getting responses and placements by pitching smarter.

When you’re discouraged because everyone else seems to be succeeding where you’re not, remember this

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Three weeks ago I was delivering a pitching webinar that 6,900 people had registered for.

I fought back my nerves and skipped the typical intro, background, bio and stuff. Right at the top, I dove into sharing five successful pitch examples. My anxiety ebbed as I hit points I’d labored long hours to prepare.

And then out of the corner of my eye I saw the questions coming in over the chat box, poking holes in why the examples weren’t relevant to individual questioners. Not something that had ever happened to me before. Here’s an example:

“These somewhat obscure stories get great coverage because they’re creative, but can you discount the fact that you have GREAT existing relationships already?”

I suppose it’s natural to look for excuses for why we’re not succeeding when others are. But I didn’t want listeners to short-change themselves out of potential growth.

So I set aside my notes and encouraged them to, yes, be realistic about their circumstances, but look for reasons they CAN succeed, rather than for reasons they’ll fail before they even start.

And then I said something that became the most-tweeted quote from the webinar. And that’s funny because I not only didn’t have it in my notes, I’d never said it before or even thought it before that moment:

“Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s end.”

You and I see somebody else’s glistening placement in a sought-after media outlet. We don’t see the hours of planning, prep, and execution. And we certainly don’t see the frustration when things went wrong, when pitches got ignored, or when clients went AWOL. So when we consider our current progress (or lack of it) compared to others’ triumph, the gap can seem insurmountable.

Instead we should visualize our successful conclusions and seek out others’ successes we can aspire to emulate. Not only is this attitude more effective, life is much more fun lived this way.

So thanks to those initial questioners who knocked me off my talking points and helped us create some new thinking that day. And thanks to the other 300 or so who asked constructive questions, which I took a stab at answering here.

If you’re interested, the helpful Cision marketing team that hosted me has posted a replay of the webinar and a recap.

To pitch or not to pitch the New York Times: Strategically choosing your media targets

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I hear it all the time.

Not directly from the PR pros I serve. But indirectly – when those PR pros pass along their bosses’ or clients’ most consistent request:

“We need to be in the New York Times.” (The Journal is mentioned almost as much.)

So I wasn’t surprised last week when I was filling out this “Ask an Expert” Q&A that one of the questions was:

“Bottom line, how do I get my client in the New York Times?”

But I was really impressed with the insightful follow-up questions: “And do I even want to get them in the NYT? Is there a new outlet that’s more influential?

I didn’t have enough space to give my full answer, so here it is:

I’m not here to talk you out of aiming high. Shooting for almost-impossible targets (and a lot of failures in the attempt) is how I developed many of the techniques I teach today.

But because your bosses or clients are usually smart business people, they’ll understand strategic thinking.

And being strategic about choosing media targets goes like this:

“What outlets will likely achieve the most influence on our key audiences given the amount of resources we have for outreach?”

A few hours after writing this I’m going to interview a top agency exec with many mega-wins under his belt who can get budgets in the millions for his campaigns. In his case, depending on the client, the NYT is often a sound answer to that question.

Same with those wonderful times when you conjure a really compelling angle that you KNOW is newsworthy and shareworthy.

But for many of the issues and events we’re tasked to promote, even for the Fortune 500 clients I work with, the NYT or the WSJ does not present a good effort-to-reward ratio.

Usually there are trade pubs, niche web sites, or new online properties that are much more desperate for relevant content and still influential among key audiences.

For example, one of my clients, for whom the NY Times is typically the Holy Grail, landed coverage on a new niche web site she had only heard of within the previous year that was shared 9,900 times on Facebook alone.

Remember, don’t shrink from ambitious expectations – embrace them because they push you further than you can go on your own.

Just make sure that ambition is motivated by strategic thinking, not personal vanity or keeping up with the Joneses.

“NYT or not?” was just one of the insightful questions I puzzled over when drafting my responses. Some of the others were:

What is the single most important thing that public relations practitioners should do before they begin a media pitching project?

What do you predict will be the biggest evolution in media engagement in 2015 and how can PR pros adapt to the change?

With so many pitches coming in from so many potential sources, how does one differentiate themselves in 2015?

What is the most difficult, but worthwhile media engagement you’ve ever worked on?

You can check out more of my answers on the Ask An Expert column on the PRSA blog.

5 Ways to React to Journalists on Twitter Beyond a Compliment

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Engaging journalists on Twitter is one of a few good PR tips for standing out from the masses clamoring for their attention. Once they recognize your name, it’s more likely they’ll open your email when you send them a story idea.

You can set up a Twitter list of key influencers to follow. Services like MuckRack make this easier with vetted search results and automated alerts. [Read more…]

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.