Mind-stretching pitching tip I hadn’t heard before

GET THESE ARTICLES WEEKLY IN YOUR INBOX HERE

Tuesday I learned a tip for better pitches I hadn’t heard before.

I was conducting a training session for my Inner Circle with Noelle Bates, Senior VP of Marketing for Stance. You may know Stance as the company that made socks cool as the official sock of the NBA and now Major League Baseball. Rihanna is one of their brand ambassadors.

Noelle is a great resource for learning what our executives and clients really want, because she came up through the ranks of PR. Started as a “serf” at a couple agencies, working her way up to VP of communications at three ecommerce companies, including one that was acquired by HP.

Now that she runs marketing, she taught our members what she wishes PR pros understood and did better. You know how bosses are always saying, “I wish PR would be more strategic?” She told us exactly how to do that.

One simple and obvious approach (this is not the mind-stretching tip, that is coming in a minute) is for the PR team to constantly generate new pitch angles and new outlets or influencers to approach.

“Understand up front that bosses will probably reject most of them,” Noelle says. “But that one really meaningful piece of coverage that wouldn’t have happened had you not made the effort is likely the reason you will keep them as a client and it will be the reason you grow in your career. We need people who are creative and resourceful and relentless.”

So how do we come up with those ideas? How do we snap out of the numbing routine of the day-to-day and spark better stories?

That’s where Noelle shared a little trick she’s been using herself for years, even though she’s now an executive.

Anytime I watch a news program or read a magazine or newspaper article I am thinking, “How would we pitch this outlet/person to get coverage here?” and I don’t stop thinking about it until I’ve figured it out.”

That means I have to figure out how to pitch a sock brand to “60 Minutes” and what kind of content would be interesting to a reader of Delta’s inflight magazine, but I keep chewing on it until I’ve landed on something where I could actually hear Leslie Stahl saying the words. The vast majority of the time the end idea is not something I’d ever actually pursue. But because I’ve done the stretching to figure out HOW I would if I had to, the simple exercise expands my thinking and provides me with ideas that I would have never come across had I not engaged in the inner brainstorm I’m having every day as I consume media. Most of my good ideas come from me doing this on an ongoing basis, in fact!

Try that out and watch how your thinking expands.

You can watch the rest of the training session with Noelle – including the phrasing of the monthly text message she recommends you send your boss or client – as soon as you join the Inner Circle.

And you’ll also get access to the slate of upcoming trainings. When I announced them at the close of Tuesday’s event, Noelle asked for access so she can learn from them, too.

See you on the inside.

Too concerned about labels

GET THESE ARTICLES WEEKLY IN YOUR INBOX HERE

I’m writing this on the flight home from the PR industry’s largest gathering, the PRSA International Conference.

A vibe I got from a significant element of the attendees was a reluctance to step outside perceived norms of the discipline and cross over into other avenues of communication.

Who cares if a social influencer expects you to pay her to blog and post about your organization? If she delivers the audience you want and the behavior change you want, that’s a great thing!

Who cares if someone wants to use paid digital advertising to drive eyeballs to the same piece of content that you’re sharing with media contacts? Why not do both?

And who cares whether it’s called “PR” or “media relations” or even “advertising” or “marketing.” If it’s going to increase positive outcomes for your employer, you should embrace it.

The next level of resistance I saw started with the words: “I don’t have the budget to . . . (contract with influencers) or (pay for digital ads) or (fund an activity to create newsworthiness).”

Okay, that might be fine. You might be able to earn the attention you need without paying (especially if you’re a likeable cause), and that constraint can be a positive driver of creativity.

But if the shrinking traditional media means you’re now getting less “free” coverage than you used to, then you better make a case to get some budget for something that will keep increasing your visibility.

Like paying some influencers.

Or if the influencers you’re working with are delivering quality content but they just don’t have the organic reach you need to hit your goals, then what’s wrong with sending some paid traffic to THEIR work to get there?

If what you’re used to doing isn’t working, your organization is going to change eventually. Trust me — it will turn out better for you personally if you drive that change. Otherwise you might get driven right out of the equation.

Whether something is labeled “PR” or “advertising” or “digital” or “marketing” only matters when Ph.Ds. get together and argue about what to label the degree programs they offer.

Please don’t limit your impact and potential by stopping at the border of what you believe “PR” means. Dare to step across the so-called lines between disciplines to see if there isn’t a better way.

What’s your take on this issue? What can I do to help you be more comfortable with converging forms of outreach? Send a message to me at [email protected] and your note will come right into my inbox.

Success! Lesson that landed 70+ placements

GET THESE ARTICLES WEEKLY IN YOUR INBOX HERE

I got a success story from one of your fellow readers this week that drives home some vital points.

It’s from Denis Wolcott, a veteran pro who runs his own practice in LA who has heard me speak at conferences and follows this newsletter. Next week I’ll be sharing more lessons like this at our industry largest gathering – the PRSA International Conference. It’s my 14th year speaking there (started when I was 15 ;).  Take it away, Denis:

Michael,

I want to let you know that I took one of your lessons and applied it to a resulting national media win for a client.

Your lesson:  The case study of how bird researchers were taking breath samples of migratory birds. They had a drab-looking white paper to promote, but the creative thinking led to the press release/pitch to highlight “Breathalyzers” for birds.  The point was how PR pros need to search even the most mundane topic and use their creative-thinking skills to find the hook. This bird breathalyzer story is one that I’ve shared many times with may PR colleagues, and, now has been applied to one of my accounts.

My win?  I represent the Port of Long Beach (CA) for a massive new bridge being built at their port.  The bridge will include many seismic features, including the deployment/installation of 70+ “accelerographs” or devices that will measure the movement and energy released onto a bridge from a strong earthquake. A technical story on its face. And my news media audience will need to know how this “design” and quake-resistant features are different, and how this story is different from anything they’ve written or produced in recent years.   

My pitch/hook?  We’re building the “most wired” bridge in the country.  This simple phrase would, I hoped, catch the eye of a reporter and prompt them to explore the second-level hooks – information from this bridge will be shared with engineers around the world; even though other bridges in CA had these same sensors (retrofit), this was the first bridge to be designed to allow sensors be more strategically placed in key areas, etc.     

The win?  An Associated Press reporter from Los Angeles immediately got interested by this angle. 

[Denis related how he also took the following proactive steps before the pitch:

  • Reached out in advance to coordinate messaging with the PIO of the state agency that will collect the sensor data
  • Coordinated with the construction team to be able to media “up-close and up-high” access to the bridge
  • Coached the project director how to break out from engineer-ese and share the story in colorful, non-technical terms]

The result was an AP story that was picked up by 70-and-counting news orgs around the world.  Many news outlets, including the Washington Post, NY Times, etc. also displayed the photo library and video that were part of the AP package.  I have a very happy client.

Notch this as a win for you, too.  I’ve been doing media pitching for 20+ years, and will continue to read your columns and attend your sessions because (a) you can never stop learning and (b) you have structured your programs in a way that give us PR pros – newbies and veterans, alike – invaluable tips, inspiration and very useful lessons we can apply in our own practice.  Keep it up.

Thanks Denis! Hope to see you and many other subscribers Monday morning at my session in Austin.

Come up and say hi.

Coming on too strong

GET THESE ARTICLES WEEKLY IN YOUR INBOX HERE

One of my Inner Circle members recently posted the following question to our members forum: “I’ve heard Michael say that pitching a reporter is a lot like dating. How can I get a reporter to remain interested in me without coming on too strong?”

I do often draw parallels between dating and pitching, mostly to make the point that in both cases it needs to be a good fit. But there are some important distinctions in the dynamic between potential daters and journalists and PR pros. Namely, in PR there’s no such thing as coming on too strong. You can come off annoying. You can come off misguided. You can come off as ignorant, sloppy, or lazy. But if your pitch is properly targeted and carefully crafted, there is no too strong. Please remember those italicized words as you read the rest of this email.

Let’s say you email someone you want to date and they don’t respond. Then you text them something cool that made you think of them and they don’t respond. Then you DM them congratulating them on some success they posted on social, with no response. At this point, I’d recommend you move on. And move on quick before things get any creepier. Maybe you already went too far – I don’t know. And you definitely aren’t reading this to take dating advice from someone who has been married for 21 years.

But you could have that exact same experience with a reporter, and not only is it not creepy, it’s exactly what you should be doing.

A friend of mine received this message from a reporter she was working with, “Thanks for hounding me . . . and no, I am not kidding 🙂 I tell people all the time to keep harassing me until they hear from me.”

The world of dating has trained us to look for and decode subtle signs, nuanced silences, and unspoken intentions. Luckily, the PR world is easier to navigate. Journalists are almost always direct. For one, they don’t have time to play games. And two, even though they are wonderful people, they feel absolutely no social obligation to spare your feelings. If they’re not interested, they’ll tell you. Simple as that.

So if they haven’t told you no, assume they just haven’t seen what you have to offer. Again, if your pitch is properly targeted and carefully crafted, reach out again with some new element to your pitch. Give them a call and let them know you’ve got something you think they’ll love.  Follow up as often as you need until you hear back from them or you come against a deadline. And if they do come back with a no, don’t take it personally. Just means your piece doesn’t fit into their schedule or agenda at the moment. Doesn’t mean you can’t reach out again in the future when you’ve got something their audience wants.

And one more thing that works well in PR but not so much with dating: if your original journalist isn’t interested, ask if they have a friend who might be!

PRSA members, a special free offer for you

As a fellow member of our field’s professional society, I’m happy to share my very best pitching tips with you. Click here for immediate access to three 2-minute videos with tips you can implement in less than a day to boost the results of your next pitch.

How well do you know HER audience?

GET THESE ARTICLES WEEKLY IN YOUR INBOX HERE

Last week I showed 15 pitches to the executive editor of the best-selling newsstand magazine in the nation.

She reacted to them in real time, as if she were opening emails at her desk in her Manhattan office, and followed my prompting to think out loud.

“She’s 23? Too young.”

“Definitely doesn’t matter to my reader that Gwyneth is involved – celebrities don’t do well for us.”

“This one is completely right. It’s right for our demographic. Brain health is something that we’re very focused on.”

What stood out to me right from the beginning is how intimately this editor knows her readers, and how almost protective she is of them.

She wasn’t applying some “standards of newsworthiness” that she got out of a journalism textbook. Nor was she thinking consciously about society’s views of media bias or anything like that. It was only, “Does this hit home to my readers where they live, with what they’re doing every day?”

Every journalist thinks this way now. Because whether they need to sell magazines off of newsstands, or accumulate a certain quota of page views, earn a certain TV rating, or a certain number of podcast downloads, their success or failure is inextricably tied to their audience’s immediate reaction to their content.

That means your success or failure in pitching them is tied to THEIR audience, not yours.

And if your pitches are like most of the ones I see, they are still too focused on your organization’s key messages. I’m not saying you have to abandon those. You just need to reframe them.

Whether you would ever pitch this particular magazine is irrelevant. You need to get inside the heads of the media you’re pitching. Think like a journalist. Best way to do that is talk to them. If you can’t go down to the nearest bar and run into them, then you’ve got to find a way to hear them talk about their needs and how they think.

Do you know anywhere else you can do that besides my Inner Circle? Because I would love to find out.

Right now, the Inner Circle is the only place I’ve ever heard of that lets you hear real journalists’ reactions to real pitches. We’ve done it again and again, with staffers from USAT, WSJ, WaPo, Today, and more.

All those interviews (complete with the screen sharing of the pitches) are available to members of the program.

You can be watching this one, with this particular editor, later today. And then if you want, you can cancel and get a full refund. I’m so confident in the value of the Inner Circle that I happily invite you to do just that 🙂

It’s all right here.

Mockery of weatherman highlights good news for PR

GET THESE ARTICLES WEEKLY IN YOUR INBOX HERE

Here was my first reaction when I saw the viral video of the storm-chasing weatherman who appeared to be bracing against fake wind:

Great, another high-profile example that people will point at and claim that news media can’t be trusted.

One of my friends used to be one of those guys who stands in front of a camera during a hurricane. He says he hated doing it. Pure theatrics, he called it.

But in thinking further about it, and applying the principles that I teach PR teams, these types of incidents don’t matter. Because there is no monolithic “news media.”

When individuals respond to surveys and say they don’t trust “the news media,” that’s a worthless question. Nobody consumes the entire “news media.”

Individuals are drawn to the outlets and sources they trust. And they mostly ignore the ones they don’t.

The people who read Woman’s Day generally don’t watch MSNBC. Those who subscribe to Precast Concrete magazine generally don’t rely on the New York Times for their information.

This applies even within niches – passionate followers of IFL Science aren’t usually pulling Discover magazine out of their mailboxes.

My guess is that the devoted viewers of the Weather Channel, who treat hurricane coverage like others did the royal wedding, don’t doubt that Mike Seidel was bracing himself on slippery grass against potential gusts after reporting all night, just like the network said in a statement. And those diehards will continue to love the Weather Channel.

All this variety and disruption and “fake news” in the media landscape is “good news” for the diligent PR professional. It’s up to you to zero in on those trusted outlets where your organization’s diehards – and future diehards – gather.

You don’t need to be covered favorably by the collective “news media.” You need to be covered by handful of specific outlets that have the highest credibility among your key audiences.

Is content marketing killing pitching?

GET THESE ARTICLES WEEKLY IN YOUR INBOX HERE

Knowing I specialize in boosting pitching results, people sometimes ask me if I think content marketing is making pitching less relevant.

They’re wondering this because of the growth of “brand journalism,” where companies create their own sales-free content simply to attract eyeballs.

When CMOs go to conferences or watch Gary Vaynerchuk videos, they are being told: “Look at the industry publications and sites that your customers subscribe to, and then put those outlets out of business.”

So if brands are attracting customers directly to their own material, why bother to jump through the hoops of refining your ability to pitch it to anyone else?

It’s a fair question during the content marketing revolution.

But those anticipating the demise of pitching are NOT looking to the future. They’re also unknowingly constraining their own potential by limiting their view of what pitching really is.

The real future of brand journalism

Here’s the deal: yes, over the coming years, some brand journalism sites WILL achieve significant influence in their industries. But those editors are going to be clamoring for ideas and experts and content just like traditional media sites do now. And that’s where you come in.

Actually, it’s already happening. I see coverage reports where PR pros are claiming placements on the OPEN Forum small business web site, which attracts more than a million unique visitors per month. Guess what – that’s entirely a “brand journalism” site run by American Express. But if you get your executive or thought leader is in front of an audience that’s important to you, who cares?

Pitching has never been limited to securing coverage from traditional media.

Pitching today and in the future is about 1) finding a third-party gatekeeper who has an audience you want to reach and 2) explaining to the gatekeeper how the content you’re proposing matches the needs of that audience.

Doesn’t matter if that gatekeeper works for USA Today or American Express.

Wandering eyes

There’s another reason that content marketing accentuates the need for skilled pitching pros. As the amount of content online skyrockets, consumers of it are more discriminating. The brand journalism sites that survive will be the ones that successfully earn mentions and links from other sites with heft and eyeballs.

The days of creating content and merely “putting it out there” are over. Content-driven brands will increasingly need pitching pros like you to promote their stuff to other gatekeepers to get it shared and watched. A web site owned by a traditional media company actually brought me in to train their journalists how to “pitch” their stories to journalists at other sites. If the “real media” needs to do it, then the “brand” media need to as well.

In short, here’s how you adapt:

Watch for the brand journalism sites that emerge in your industry. Study them and build relationships with their editors, just like you would with the staffers at a “traditional media outlet.” They’ll likely have different needs and operate under different philosophies, but once you figure those out you’ll see how you can help them.

And your placements will keep rolling in.

PRSA members, a special free offer for you

As a fellow member of our field’s professional society, I’m happy to share my very best pitching tips with you. Click here for immediate access to three 2-minute videos with tips you can implement in less than a day to boost the results of your next pitch.

People, not programs

GET THESE ARTICLES WEEKLY IN YOUR INBOX HERE

Whenever possible, pitches should be about people. Not products or programs.

Readers and viewers are people. And that’s who your target journalist needs to attract and please to keep their job.

I recently reviewed a group of pitches and saw the power of this principle highlighted by two good examples and one that needed some help.

Pitch #1

The client is a large city’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. But the PR pro had wisely found a new and different angle, one that’s different from all the other cities clamoring for the honor. How? His pitch was a profile of an up-and-coming minority woman leader who happened to be in charge of the bid. Her backstory is intriguing, and a profile of her will inevitably reflect positively on the city’s bid. Smart approach.

Pitch #2

This was the classic tech pitch – writing to “introduce” a technological tool that gauges public sentiment on issues and purports to use AI to deliver new and different insights. The pitch listed all the claims about the technology, complete with buzzwords and jargon. And at the very end it mentioned some politicians whose campaigns had used the tool to get elected. I recommended flipping the pitch around to focus on those users and leave the buzzwords on the cutting room floor.

Pitch #3

This pitch came from a company that provides a software platform for business leaders to mentor young people remotely (typically while the mentor is at work and the mentees are at school). I loved the pitch because the PR pro had written it around a specific cross-section of mentors. She focused on female business leaders who want to mentor girls and young women, but are stretched too thin by the demands of their jobs and their own families to be able to regularly travel to do so. Best thing about this niche? It likely describes many of the journalists she would be pitching. We talked about ways she could further personalize the pitch, using the word “you” instead of “many female business leaders.”

By focusing the pitch on the mentors, not on the platform, she brought the service to life and offered her targets interesting characters to explore. My one additional suggestion was that she take the “people, not programs” principle even further and also develop some sources among another group: the students being mentored.

Where do you go to regularly learn from the way other pros are crafting successful pitches-in-the-making, and to get advice on improving yours? Do you have such a resource?

If not, you should check out my Inner Circle group mentoring program. Those three pitches were among those I reviewed during our August “Ask Michael Anything” virtual meeting. I got on the phone with the individual authors of those pitches and worked through improvements with them. Other members of the Inner Circle listened and learned in the background.

You could be joining us for the September AMA – check out the details and apply to join the Inner Circle here.

Emotions rise when tables turn on me

GET THESE ARTICLES WEEKLY IN YOUR INBOX HERE

I’ve been encouraging newsmakers to subject themselves to media interviews for the past 20 years. But when the tables turned and the media “spotlight” was on me, everything I used to say to tell clients seemed less important.

I remember many of them balking and hesitating to participate. Either out of modesty – real or feigned. Or fear. Or mistrust. Often, I’d catch myself getting impatient with them, thinking, “This isn’t that big of a deal.”

And then last month, a reporter wanted to do a story about ME and something that’s close to me. And now I understand way better where those reluctant folks were coming from.

This time, I broke all the so-called “rules” about not trying to influence coverage. I’ll explain why, and what I learned that will make me approach future newsmakers differently.

What was this story about? It’s not related to my PR training business – I’ve been fortunate to have been covered by trade publications through the years, and that has never been sensitive for me. Part of the job.

Nope, this was a Salt Lake City newspaper wanting to do a piece on . . . the elementary school flag football team I coached. They wanted to embed some of the fun videos we had made, and were intrigued that we found a way to have fun, help every player score, and also win games.

But when I got that call, all of a sudden, I’m hearing myself think all those “crazy” concerns that those reluctant spokespeople would spout to me in the past:

“Jim down the street is going to think I’m full of myself and that I called the paper to brag.”

“The other coaches are going to be out to get me because they’ll think I’m trying to get the spotlight.”

“What if the reporter is inadvertently insensitive to some of the kids who aren’t athletic and they end up feeling left out or looking bad?”

I know. It’s elementary school youth sports, for crying out loud. It’s not a big deal.

But that’s exactly my point – it’s not a big deal to other people, but it was to me. There didn’t seem to be anything to lose to an outside observer. But to me and the players I felt responsible for, there was. That feeling brought with it emotions I had to manage.

The reporter and his editor were cool. I just told them straight up that I appreciated their interest and would love to work with them, but I had to be assured that none of the kids would be portrayed in the slightest negative light, even accidentally. And that to ensure this, we would fact-check the piece together before it went live. I knew they might get kind of offended and back off doing the story, but was willing to accept that.

They agreed. Later, when the reporter emailed me to set up the fact-checking call, I did what I had told sources many times over the years “you can’t do.” I asked him to email me the draft before it went live. I insisted that I wouldn’t try to edit it, just fact-check it.

The reporter patiently explained that’s against their policy, but he would be happy to go over it with me on the phone. We did, and caught a couple misunderstandings.

Then I did something else I would have never let a source do in the past – I straight-up asked him to include the names of my assistant coaches. They had been left out, and although the reader wouldn’t miss them, it would have been unfair to all the hours these men had sacrificed. The reporter agreed.

And in the end, none of my concerns came to fruition. A few people in the neighborhood got a kick out of it and barely anyone else noticed. My rational mind probably knew this is what would happen all along. But that didn’t change the emotions I felt once my personal life was the subject of a news article.

My biggest takeaway is that I’ll be much more attentive to those kind of concerns from newsmakers going forward, especially if the line of questioning veers into their personal life.

And in cases like this, when the reporter has come to me, or needs my client as much or more than they need his story, I won’t hesitate.  I’ll suggest or request anything that would help with accuracy and that might allay personal concerns my clients might have.

I know some media trainers who might cringe at this, but times are changing. Journalists can always say no, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. And if we aren’t comfortable with their approach, we can always decide not to participate and write a blog post instead 🙂

This guy was HUNGRY

GET THESE ARTICLES WEEKLY IN YOUR INBOX HERE

I remember Jay Srinivasan clearly because he sat right in the middle, right in the front, and asked a ton of questions. It was obvious that he was committed to learning and improving his skills and his results.

That was at my media pitching workshop in DC four summers ago.

The next summer he was there again. And the next. And again this past June. It’s the same workshop, and he has attended it the last four years in a row.

[The next one is in NYC next month and it’s almost sold out].

I’m around a lot of PR people, and many of them complain about being stuck and unappreciated at work. Not as many of them are willing to invest the time to actually DO something to change their circumstance.

I asked Jay why he keeps coming and said he learns new things every time. It’s obvious Jay is committed to continuous improvement and it has paid off for him.

Here’s what Jay wrote me about the impact of attending my workshop:

“My boss (originally) said if I produce one media placement a month, he would be happy .  . . Last year I was able to place 60 articles, including in The Washington Post, Business Insider, USA Today and Fast Company Design. This was my first time generating national media, and I owe a lot of it to your teachings.”

Armed with that track record of success, during this year’s annual review Jay requested to work from home two days a week, even though that is rare in his company. His boss approved. Now, Jay writes:

“I am now able to avoid three hours of commute time for those two days, drop my daughters off to school, pick them up and take them to swimming and taekwondo classes. It has also reduced some of the load on my wife, who was doing everything while working a high-pressure job.”

Would that be nice? To decrease your commute? Improve your work/life balance? Get more respect from your boss and coworkers?

Do something about it, like Jay did.

Claim one of the remaining seats at this workshop.

It’s almost full – now that I’m writing this final post, it could sell out at any time. Propel your skills and apply what you learn. Improve results and a better life will follow.

And watch out for Jay :).