editor

What your dating disasters can teach you about pitching to journalists...

I met this guy - let’s call him Charlie - at a summer job I had in the postroom of an insurance company. Romance blossomed over the the piles of unopened mail and, at the end of the holidays - much to my delight - he asked me out.

When I arrived for our first date, he was standing outside the station clutching a Woolworth’s bag with a CD single inside.

While the song (Kiss from A Rose by Seal) might mean nothing to some of my readers (younger ones, especially) it meant everything  to me. Because every day during that long summer, as we sorted and opened mail together, that song was played on the radio. And I’d told him how much I loved it.

So when he handed me that Woolworth’s bag and I saw what was inside, I felt really special. He liked me enough to notice what I was into and give me exactly what I wanted. It was the first of many dates, and though we eventually parted, I still think fondly of him.

But Charlie wasn’t the only guy who asked me out that summer.  Another guy - let’s call him Rob - also made a play for me. Trouble was, Rob had asked out every female summer temp in the building - using exactly the same chat up line - and  he already had a girlfriend.

You won’t be surprised to hear he had a lot of knockbacks.

So why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve noticed that a lot of people still use the ‘Rob’ approach to pitching to journalists. Instead of taking the time to understand what they’re looking for - and giving them exactly what they want - they send exactly the same chat-up line (i.e. their pitch or press release) to journalists on completely different publications or programmes. And then they wonder why they get so many knockbacks. Or - even worse - get completely ignored.

If you want to give yourself the best possible chance with a journalist, you need to take the time to understand their publication or programme. That means reading, watching or listening to it it really carefully over a number of weeks - or even months - to get a feel for the kind of story they typically run. It also means noticing the little things, like the regular opinion slot on page 9  you could pitch to or the fact they never run profile interviews (so don’t waste your time suggesting one).

If you’re not doing this, to put it in dating terms... it’s a bit like booking a table at a steakhouse...only to find your date is vegetarian.

So with that in mind, here’s my top tips for wooing journalists:

- Read, watch or listen to their publication or programme over a number of days, weeks or months. That means studying it carefully - not a quick flick through.

- Remember that it’s not a journalist’s job to help publicise you or your organisation. In fact it would be unethical of them to do so. And it may sound harsh, but they’re probably not that  interested in your business or brand either. What they care about is running great stories that are a perfect fit for their audience.  But pitch them great stories they want to run - just because they’re great stories - and they’ll be more than happy to give you a mention.

- Do your homework on lead times (i.e. the time between a piece being commissioned and it being published or broadcast). Many good ideas fall by the wayside because people pitch their idea or send a press release too late and the journalist simply doesn’t have time to turn it around for the deadline. When it doubt, always pitch earlier rather than later.

- Follow them on Twitter: you can learn a lot about journalists from what they share on social media networks. As well as getting a feel for the kind of things they’re interested in (which will help ensure your pitches hit the spot) you’ll also be the first to know if they’re looking for help with a story.

You might also enjoy: 23 questions you should ask yourself before you pitch a story idea to a journalist and Want to get more press coverage? Try using these 9 influential words. 

 

 

Seven fifteen-minutes-or-less PR training ideas that will boost your press coverage...

Keen to up-skill your team but short on time or budget? Try these quick and easy-to-implement training ideas - all of which can be completed in 15 minutes or less…

1. Objective: to improve your phone pitches

Activity: Newspaper review

Provide a selection of daily newspapers, Give participants 10 minutes to skim read them and pick out one or two stories (smaller, quirkier articles rather than headline news). Ask them to summarise in eight seconds or less (the average length of an 'intro' on TV/radio)….and time them doing it!

Examples:

Why using snail slime on your face can make you look younger

Dads injured up to 22 times a year when looking after their children 

Schools ditching nativity for more modern Christmas celebrations

Why it works:  

Busy journalists don't have time to listen to long, rambling phone pitches. Training your team to nail their top line - and get it in within the first few seconds of a pitch - will vastly boost their chances of success

Tip: Not everybody can crack this first time round, so you may need to repeat this exercise a few times - and revisit it every now and then as a refresher.

2. Objective: improve email pitches

Activity: Twitter Challenge

Ask colleagues to think about a story they are currently working on. Get them to summarise the story in 140 characters or less. Then get them to cut it to 120, then 100 (the optimum length of a tweet)

Why it works:  

Most journalists get hundreds of emails each week. Nailing your 'top line' in as few words as possible - and putting it in the first line of your pitch - will improve your chances of success.

Bonus: This exercise forces you to focus on what's important - and what's not. Knowing what to cut and what to keep is one of the fundamentals of good writing.

 3. Objective: improve the open rate of your email pitches

Activity: Subject Lines

Provide a screenshot of a busy inbox (for best results, persuade a friendly journalist to send you one - I'm always happy to oblige). Get colleagues to discuss which kind of words and phrases are the most compelling…and what's a complete turn off. Use this to create a good practice checklist for email subject headers for your department.

Why it works:

Most journalists get hundreds of email pitches each week - many of which go unopened. Create compelling email subject headers and they'll be far less likely to hit 'delete.'

4. Objective: write more compelling copy

Activity: Start With A Story

Ask colleagues to bring along a press release, email pitch, report  - or any other piece of copy they're currently working on. Get them to rewrite the opening paragraph, so it starts with a story.

Why it works:

Starting with a story (or what is sometimes known as a 'drop intro') can be an effective way to grab readers' attention.

Examples:

Children suffering as mental health services fail to cope 

The key to our successful marriage: separate houses 

Variations:

Get colleagues to start with a compelling quote, write in a particular tenses, in the first, second or third person…the possibilities are endless and all encourage writers adapt their writing to create particular effects.

Read more about how to write exciting copy about boring things. 

 5. Objective: generate story ideas

 Activity: Stalk and Steal

Pick a rival organisation that regularly gets more press coverage than yours. Analyse their press coverage over the last three months (or whatever time period you like) to see where their stories are coming from. Are they generating research? Are they launching campaigns? Are they getting their top people to say interesting things. Find out what's working for them and see what you can steal and adapt for your own organisation.

Why it works:

Why reinvent the wheel? If it's working for other organisations, there's a good chance it will work for yours too. And looking at what others are doing can often spark ideas for how you might do things differently.

Inspiration: Read more about being a copycat and how to boost your press coverage when you don't have any news. 

 6. Objective: generate new opportunities for press coverage

Activity: Deep Reading

Pick a publication you haven't had coverage in before (or have tried without success) and get colleagues to analyse the content of every page. Then write a list of the titles of sections you're looking to target.

Why it works:

Flicking through a publication to see if it covers a particular topic can only tell you so much. It's only by analysing a publication (or programme), and taking it apart - section by section - that you can really understand its content and audience. This will make all the difference to your pitching success.

 7. Objective: improve your pitching success

Activity: Creating An Audience Avatar

Pick a publication you haven't had coverage in before (or have tried without success) and write an ideal reader (or listener/viewer) avatar. Include: their job, hobbies, ideal holiday destination, car, shopping habits…anything you can think of that will help you understand their needs, desires and priorities.

Why it works:

It's easy to make assumptions about the audience of a particular publication/programme. Looking closely at the content and analysing what that tells us about an audience gives a much more accurate impression.

Tip: Don't guess - use the content  to guide you. Also…ask for a copy of their media pack. This often contains quite detailed information about readers (or viewers/listeners)...

General training tips

Focus on 'doing': most people learn best when they are engaged in practical activities.

Encourage discovery: help people to acquire knowledge (instead of telling  them what they need to know) and they're far more likely to retain what they've learned.

Use a range of techniques and technologies: many people have preferred learning style(s) - although this can vary depending on the context - so keep things varied. While the activities described above are perfect for a short training session, if you're planning anything longer, it's a good idea to mix things up a bit with audio, video (and other visual materials) alongside verbal input and practical activities. And do bear in mind that in a world where many of us are glued to mobile phones, tablets and other devices for hours on end, concentration is not what it used to be.

 

 

Five things you should do if you're serious about improving your pitching skills...

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1. Learn how to write killer one-liners

Journalists think in headlines. So if you want to get their attention, you must too.

If you’re pitching a story, you should be able to summarise your idea in 6-10 words (the optimum length for an email subject header). It’s worth putting in the time to get this right, as not only can you can use this as an email subject header - you can also use it as the first line of your pitch (both for phone and email).

So how do you craft the perfect one-liner? Imagine you’re telling a friend or relative - one who knows absolutely nothing  about your industry - about your story. Or - better still - imagine your story is being featured on a local radio/TV programme. How would the presenter summarise it 5-10 words? (I call it the eight second rule)

‘And coming up next…(FILL IN THE BLANKS)’

Doing this forces you drop the jargon and explain it in the simplest terms - which is exactly what you need to do to engage a busy journalist.

Read more about the perfect length for an email subject header + the secrets of clickable content

2. State the blinkin’ obvious

Labelling up pitches with ‘story idea’ or ‘feature’ in the email subject header, boosts your chances of getting an open.

If you’re geeky about this sort of thing (like me!), here’s more about getting people to open your emails.

3. Practise ‘deep’ reading

Many journalists complain that PRs don’t read their publication (or watch their programme) before pitching. I disagree. Most PRs I deal with DO read publications before they pitch...they just don’t always do it in the right way.

Reading a publication is one thing; reading a publication you’re going to pitch to is something different entirely. It’s not about flicking through a magazine or newspaper to see if it covers a particular topic (which is what many PRs I deal with seem to do). It’s about taking apart a publication, and analysing its structure, content and audience in quite a lot of detail (hence the phrase ‘deep’ reading).

It may sound daunting, but like everything else in life, practice makes perfect. And if you’re organised in your approach, you can use ‘deep reading’ to get to grips with a new publication (or programme) in a matter of minutes.

Here’s more on how to read  + understand any new publication/programme in minutes

Do this regularly and I guarantee you’ll save time and improve your pitching success rate.

4. Make a few phone calls every day

When I’m working as a commissioning editor, I see dozens of great ideas that don’t get coverage - every day. This is rarely down to a shortage of space (there’s always a ‘home’ for great ideas). Often it’s because the person pitching the story hasn’t taken the time to make a few crucial phone calls. Here are the three most common reasons great stories don’t get coverage:

  1. There isn’t enough time to turn the story around
  2. It’s been pitched to the wrong journalist/editor
  3. It’s got potential as a feature/comment article but has been pitched to a news desk

...all of which could easily be avoided by making a few phone calls. Yes, you might get passed around, fobbed off or come across the odd grouchy sounding journalist, but there’s definitely more to gain than lose. And the information you collect will be far more reliable and up-to-date than any paid-for journalist directory or database.

If you don’t like making these kind of phone calls, here’s a tip I picked up from one of my favourite books on productivity (it’s far more positive than it sounds - I promise!) Why People fail (The 16 Obstacles to Success And How You Can Overcome Them): make a commitment to do this for just ten minutes a day. Once you’ve got started, and had a bit of success, you’ll probably find you can keep going for longer. But even if you don’t, at least you’ve made some progress. Anyone can do anything for ten minutes...honest!

5. Stalk journalists on Twitter

While I’d love to say journalists are completely objective in the stories they choose to cover, that’s obviously not true. We all have different interests, preferences and experiences that mean certain stories will grab us more than others.

Where other journalists might be drawn to stories about legislation or financial mismanagement, I’m generally attracted to issue-based stories like this one on the detention of children in immigration detention centres or this one child and adolescent mental health. That doesn’t mean I won’t cover other kinds of stories (often I don’t have a choice) but I know there’s certain stories I’ll fight harder to get past my editors. And I know I’m not alone in this.

That’s why it’s worth investing time in ‘getting to know’ your target journalists on social media networking sites like Twitter. Making  a Twitter list of key journalists in your ‘patch’ can be an effective way to get a feel for what kind of topics they’re keen to cover (and what they’re not). And the best thing is they need never know you’re stalking them; you can glean an awful lot from what they post about and the articles/blog posts they share.

Find out more about how to build relationships with journalists on social media.

And if you missed these:

Would you story idea pass the BBC Homepage Test?

Eight Pitching Mistakes You Might Have Made This Week (hint: #6 might hurt a bit)

Five, ‘5 minute or less’ pitching tips that will get you results (I’m using #4 in this title)

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