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Pandemic Pitching: What’s the Protocol?

Published on April 23, 2020, at 7:05 p.m.

by Macy Krauthamer.

“We are all in this together” has never been more relevant during this apocalyptic time when people are sheltering in place, toilet paper is hard to come by, and the global economy is dropping. The whole world is at a standstill, but pandemic or not, the “show must go on” for most. People are still working their jobs, only now from the comfort of their own homes due to the government-mandated lockdown.

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In the midst of this global crisis, publicists have to tackle pitching the media’s ever-changing, hourly breaking-news landscape. And unfortunately, there is no roadmap for pitching during these unprecedented times. Even people who have been in agency life for 20-30 years have not seen anything quite like this situation.

During a pandemic like COVID-19, it’s especially important for publicists to avoid being tone-deaf. So, what’s the protocol for pitching nonessential products during a pandemic? Here’s what four public relations professionals have to say about it.

Be relevant.
Nobody has the time or the attention span for things that are not relevant right now — or really ever. Thus, it is imperative to make a pitch relevant. Get creative with how to pivot the story to stay relevant in this crisis.

“If you’re trying to pitch a story right now, and it doesn’t consider the new normal that we are all experiencing, then it won’t cut through the clutter,” advised Leslie Licano, co-founder and CEO of Beyond Fifteen Communications.

The Beyond Fifteen team is working with clients on pivoting the messaging they are sending out to journalists. For instance, one of their clients is a fiber internet company, Sifi Networks. So instead of talking about “buying fiber,” the company is talking about streaming behavior, people’s bingeing preferences, and how important internet speed is right now as working from has grown so pervasive.

In public relations, the job is to really read the public sentiment, to gain a better understanding through research, and to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening with the customer.

A lot of journalists’ beats have changed because of COVID-19, so make note of that possibility and know what they are covering before pitching. Do the legwork and research to figure out where the legitimate opportunity for news coverage is.

Deborah Stone, president of Pineapple Public Relations, recognized that virtual tours were gaining coverage and becoming popular news stories given the current climate. People have to entertain themselves somehow, right? So, Stone and her team talked through the possibilities of doing a virtual museum tour with their client, Discover Dekalb. Turns out, the Pineapple PR team pitched the idea to Forbes and got the story covered.

“It’s an example of customizing the pitch for the type of content that people are needing and looking for now; that’s critical in your pitch. Don’t be tone-deaf, be aware,” said Stone.

Sensitivity is key.

In the first couple of weeks, when the shelter-in-place order and the work-from-home policies began, one of the biggest things PR agencies had to take into consideration was that a lot of journalists and broadcast networks were transitioning to working from home and had to completely redo their reporting process.

Courtesy of Allie Smith on Unsplash

“Everybody is going through something that they’ve never been through before,” said Alana Doyle, media coordinator at Ketchum. “It’s important to prioritize empathy throughout all of your outreach.”

Vice President and Senior Media Specialist at Ketchum Rachel Perlmutter said to be mindful that media contacts are people, too, and are dealing with things in their personal lives while also trying to cover the news as it evolves.

She explained how her team has used sensitivity in their pitches by simply adding a light touch of “How are you doing?” or “Just wanted to see what’s helpful to you during this time.” Another example is “Just in case you’re interested, I wanted to share this piece of news. If this is helpful, feel free to use this in a roundup.”

Perlmutter said, “Add in extra language so that [journalists] know you are acknowledging they might have more on their plate.”

Perlmutter said that those types of casual exchanges will go a long way and give better insight into what journalists are working on and what they need. Ketchum is taking a softer pitch approach by “not putting the pressure on [journalists] to get a feature story [covered] that [they] would normally push for under normal circumstances,” Perlmutter explained.

“We’re tapping more lightly, rather than aggressively outreaching right now,” Doyle added.

Set the tone.
It has always been a publicist’s job to find whatever the right message is, at that moment, and to connect that message with the right audience at the right time. So, it is crucial to make sure the message resonates with audiences now more than ever.

“Look at the tone and topic more closely because you want to make sure you’re helping [journalists] and providing them with information that is going to be valuable to their reporting,” said Perlmutter.

One way to ease into a pitch during a time like this is to take a softer approach by addressing the human side of things. Show awareness about the crisis. Licano stated that Beyond Fifteen is trying to inspire, inform, educate and shine a light on the good where it can with its clients.

“We are adjusting content and really trying to focus on telling positive stories where we can. Not wearing rose-colored glasses, or being naive in our optimism, but when there are good things happening, let’s look at those just as much as we look at the bad things that are happening,” Licano said.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Consider what’s needed or what will drive positive long-term outcomes in the public perception of brands. Stone noted that Pineapple Public Relations has been taking a realistic, but optimistic tone to its messaging for news stories.

She explained the approach as “realistic in that we know you’re stuck at home and you can’t go anywhere, [so] we’re not gonna try and sell you something when we know you can’t do it. Optimistic in that we will get through this and we will get to the other side of it. Ultimately it will pass and we will be OK.”

Mistakes to avoid.
A word of caution: “It’s really important to avoid looking like you’re capitalizing on a crisis; that’s where people go wrong,” said Licano.

Don’t jump into a pitch and try to say something COVID-19 related, just to be a part of the conversation. Everyone is overwhelmed. Take a step back and really consider who the right people are to reach out to and what it is they are doing. The pitch has to make sense and it has to fit with the recipient.

“Make sure your pitch is strong and relevant. The bar is really high in the news right now for company announcements. If you’re not meeting or exceeding that bar, then it might be smart to sit back,” Doyle advised.

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