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The Perfect Pitch

Public relations practitioners regularly take on the responsibility of forging and understanding the relationships between clients and their respective publics. The relationship with the media tends to take a high priority for many companies because of the importance placed on media coverage. Unfortunately for public relations practitioners, this relationship also tends to be the hardest for clients to understand. Many clients expect constant media coverage, and while this is rarely possible, understanding what the media seeks can facilitate this process.

The importance of the pitch
Today, more than ever, reporters rely on the media pitch of a public relations practitioner when deciding whether to cover a potential story. On aHelp a Reporter Out conference call sponsored by Peter Shankman, many national reporters shared their opinions on everything from relationships with PR professionals to the best time to send a pitch. All of the reporters on the call agreed that they want the majority of the information in the body of the e-mail. They also agreed that the press release is becoming a thing of the past, going as far as saying that they do not open attachments because of the extra step and the danger of viruses.

Barb Delollis of USA Today said, “By the time I see a press release it’s old news,” and David Moye, an AOL contributor, said, “They are written so the client thinks you are doing work. They aren’t really written for the media.”

This perspective amplifies the importance of writing and sending the perfect pitch.

The power of the subject line
With local print and broadcast reporters receiving one to two dozen e-mail pitches per day, and most national reporters receiving hundreds of pitches per day, a pitch must do more than arrive in the inbox — it must stand out.

Some reporters are more vicious than others in sending pitches to the trash without opening them. Janet Hall of FOX6 WBRC is a self-proclaimed “aggressive deleter,” saying, “Most of us are looking for a reason to delete . . . to get past the delete button, you need a good subject line based on a good subject.”

Other reporters, such as Jon Anderson of the Birmingham News, are more generous. He scans all e-mail pitches and even forwards them to the appropriate areas if he does not cover the topic.

Sarah Needleman of the Wall Street Journal suggested identifying the news hook in the subject line and letting the reporter know if it is time-sensitive. Overusing the term “exclusive” or writing “quick question” in the subject line will keep Delollis from opening pitches. Instead, she suggested using the subject line to tell the reporter the e-mail is a story idea.

Is it all about e-mail?
A reporter’s job is a busy one. For national reporters especially, e-mail allows the reporter to fit pitches into his busy schedule without inconvenience. Not only do national reporters rarely have time for phone pitches, an e-mail pitch provides several advantages.

“The other benefit of e-mail is you can put a link to your client’s website or you could put a couple [of] quick bullet points that a reporter can scan and digest real quickly,” said Needleman on why she prefers an e-mail pitch.

Many reporters do not mind a follow-up call or e-mail. Hillary Potkewitz, a writer for Crain’s New York Business, said, “E-mails sometimes get lost, so it’s nice to have a follow-up phone call . . . Don’t be afraid to send a follow-up e-mail. I think sometimes people are afraid they’re getting annoying . . . but it’s OK to send a follow-up e-mail just to let us know you’re there.”

For broadcast reporters, many still prefer e-mail. However, Hall said she prefers a call if there is an immediate story.

“We have sometimes missed a great little surprise story because it was sent by e-mail instead of calling,” said Hall. She also believes that a call can be more effective if the public relations practitioner has an established relationship with the reporter.

Anderson falls on the other end of the spectrum from the national reporters. He believes a call can be more effective as long as the phone pitch reaches the correct reporter.

The features of the perfect pitch
Most reporters agree that several features of a pitch ensure that the media perceives it positively. Needleman advised public relations practitioners to state the news hook in the pitch and let the reporter know why it is pertinent at that moment.

Understanding what the reporter covers and how to appeal to her readers increases the likelihood that the pitch achieves coverage. Moye believes that too often the pitch focuses primarily on what the client wants. Rather than pitching as if to the client, he suggested, “Give me the pitch you’d tell your friends around beers.”

For local outlets, a pitch increases in value when it relates to the community with a local angle. Hall suggested looking for local angles that correlate with issues in the national news.

Some tips from reporters to keep in mind when pitching include:

  • Keep it short and to the point
  • Identify the news value
  • Reporters prefer real events to staged events
  • Print reporters are looking for visual appeal as well — print now includes online video
  • Tell what the pitch is about in the first sentence and tell why it pertains to the outlet
  • Do your homework — know the outlet and what the reporter covers

Following the reporter’s guidelines gives the pitch a strong chance of avoiding the delete button and making it into the news.

A summary of what not to do
While all reporters vary a bit in what they look for in a pitch, there are certain things that one should always avoid.

  • Sending out generic pitches to many reporters: “I can tell if it’s a shotgun pitch rather than a focused rifle shot,” said Anderson.
  • Trying to make your client the news: “Put the client in the news,” said Potkewitz.
  • Not knowing what the reporter covers
  • Making exaggerated claims
  • Making the reporter open attachments to get basic information: “I hate e-mail that forces me to look at an attachment to get the basic info,” said Hall.

Putting the ‘relationship’ in media relations
As Hall mentioned, establishing relationships with reporters often advances a practitioner’s pitch to the top of the pile (or inbox). The key to strong media relations — and strong public relations — is establishing and nurturing relationships.

Sometimes simply sending a reporter an introduction e-mail (rather than a pitch) paves the way for a relationship with the media, according to Potkewitz. She suggestsed mentioning an article she wrote and how a client fits into it. A simple e-mail such as this example has the potential of securing a spot in a story for the client in the future.

The media to public relations practitioner relationship is symbiotic. By establishing these relationships, the public relations practitioner has the potential to overcome common misunderstandings between the groups. Public relations benefits the media by providing expert sources for news stories. And, of course, the media benefits the public relations practitioner by providing coverage of his clients.

Photo by Megan Cotton

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