The 3 worst things you can do when pitching a journalist
(All based on true stories)
#1 Pitching without a spokesperson
By far the worst thing you can do is fail to agree, inside your business, who is going to be the spokesperson on your story before you go anywhere near a journalist. You might be thinking, ‘who on Earth would contact a journalist and then fail to put up a spokesperson when the journalist says yes to the story?’ And you’d be 100% right in your astonishment and yet … It’s the equivalent of inviting somebody to a party and then refusing to let them in. Never ever do this.
And if you don't want to give media interviews, you need to give very serious consideration to whether you want your organisation to do any media relations work. Because whilst it’s possible, and wise, to outsource and delegate a lot of media relations there are some things which you must do yourself otherwise it will all fail. The main one is being the public spokesperson because you are the ultimate decision maker of the business.
I can remember, as a BBC television journalist, wanting to report a story about water shortages and hosepipe bans and being told by the water company that its leader’s diary was full.
I told his team we would be running the story, that it would be watched by potentially tens of thousands of its customers who would rightly expect to see the decision maker explain his decision to introduce hosepipe bans to them. To his credit, the leader of the company moved his diary about (I’ve since come to appreciate, working on the corporate side what a real challenge this can be) came into the studio and gave a live interview, answering tough presenter and customer questions. Was it comfortable for him? Unlikely. But was it the right thing to do for customer relations? Definitely. He did, after all, have good reasons behind his decision and he could use this platform to give his customers fuller understanding.
#2 Pitching without a press release
You may have discovered, when you start pitching your story on the phone, journalists will pretty much always cut you off with, ‘have you got a press release?’ From a journalist’s point of view, they want to look at a ‘map’ of your story before they put on walking boots. So, you need to send a press release, then call, then (most times) resend the press release before a conversation can begin. If you take that approach then by the time you get to the phone conversation you are more into collaboration than pitching.
A press release is truthfully your ONLY opportunity for control of your story so you must prioritise this. If your release includes all the elements a journalist seeks, is well-written and aligned to your business you may find your story is cut-and-pasted without any further work! This effectively gives you free advertising but with the added kudos of being independent editorial. Which business wouldn’t want that?
Crucially, the press release is your blueprint to keep your story on track. I have managed to save many a story from going off track by referring the journalist back to the press release. For example, gently pointing out the quote from the CEO (which you should always include and put high up, in the third paragraph) directly answers a key question and offering an interview from that starting point.
Related to the mistake of pitching without a press release is pitching with a press release which is in love with your story over your business. The hallmarks of this are that you send off a story which is not rooted in your core business. And you don’t include what is called a ‘boilerplate’ by journalists – the ‘About’ paragraph which goes at the bottom of all releases and describes your business in ideally around 50 words. What can happen here is the journalist thinks ‘great story’ but they don’t get why it’s your story to tell and so they go and source somebody else to tell it!
It’s a common assumption that it’s a great headline or subject header which grabs a journalist’s attention. But that’s not true. When I worked as a journalist, and I reckon I was pitched at least 25,000 times, I would always scroll down the release first to the bottom to check the source and see if that fitted with the story. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t respond. For example, when I worked on BBC Panorama I can remember a lot of people pitching me to investigate working conditions in call centres in the early noughties. Some of the pitchers said they were emailing on behalf of family members and friends, others said they had quit and wanted to raise the issue. But the pitches I followed up came from those who said they were currently in senior roles in call centres after spending several months, even years, growing increasingly uncomfortable.
#3 Pitching without intention
It astonishes me how much people both fear and yet, at the same time, trust journalists.
When I moved from the newsroom and into the world of corporate communications I could hear colleagues, both in-house and at PR agencies, on the phone with journalists giving them huge downloads of information. When I asked them later why they’d taken that approach they’d reply, ‘I thought I’d give the journalist everything so they could find the story they wanted.’
Whaaaaaaaaaaat? I’d think.
You don’t want to pitch without intention. You don’t want journalists to ‘find’ a story. You want to GIVE them a story. One that benefits your business. Otherwise, what’s the point in investing the time and money into media relations?
To do this you need to be both realistic (informed about how the media works) and unafraid to be honest about why you are pitching.
I once had a client ask me to get them a positive news story on page 3 or 5 of the Guardian. I laughed thinking they were joking and then, awkward because I was with the whole board, realised they were all serious. Have you EVER seen a positive news story dedicated to one organisation on page 3 or 5 of a national newspaper? No. That’s called an advert. So, if you pitch to the Guardian with that expectation, you are in for disappointment.
However, you are also allowed to balance being realistic with being honest. Good journalists know that businesses are not pitching without the hope of return on investment. In fact, when I was a journalist, I found it much more straightforward to work with an organisation which was up front about what it wanted out of our collaboration because then we could negotiate.
Work out what story you want to GIVE and WHY you want to give it BEFORE you pitch.
To illustrate this, back to my client who wanted to be in the Guardian. We worked out what had motivated that request. It turned out their membership wanted to see them ‘in the news’ because they wanted to be part of a more visible organisation. And it was a fair expectation as my client had long-established unique expertise. So ultimately, I won this client a physical ‘seat at the table’ on a high-profile, 2-hour BBC debate about the future of their sector. This transformed and grew their relationship, and income, with their current and new members.