Pitching stories to journos successfully — a PR guide
by Marisa Louw (@marisalouw) As public relations professionals, pitching stories to the media is a key part of what we do daily. Why is it, then, that I read so many stories about media receiving bad pitches?
What is the definition of “pitch”? It’s an argument used by a person trying to sell things or persuade people to do something. Or, at least, that’s what the Oxford Dictionary tells me. It also says that lobbying is to try to influence or persuade someone to support a cause. In both these definitions, “persuade” seems to be key. So, what exactly does it mean to persuade someone? To make somebody do something by giving them good reasons for doing it.
My Twitter newsfeed often alerts me to journalists writing about PR pros who don’t know what beat they work on. Sometimes they complain about the poor use of the English language. They also write about PR pros not understanding what they need to keep their audience interested.
PR requires strong sales skills
When I was a student back in 1992, I worked at a retail clothing store as a floor salesperson. I learnt that you can’t sell someone something they don’t want or need. If the customer wanted shoes, it was useless trying to sell them a pair of sunglasses.
Before we pitch to a journalist, we first need to identify their need. If they write about current affairs, no amount of persuasion is going to get them to write about entertainment.
Once you have established that the customer wants a pair of shoes, you need to analyse the customer. What’s their style? It’s unlikely that the sporty female will buy a pair of stilettos.
Each journalist has a style of writing or writes about a specific topic within a beat. Not all entertainment journalists write about opera. It’s our responsibility as PR pros to make sure we understand the needs and style of the journalist we pitch to.
After-sales follow-up techniques
Perhaps it’s time agencies send their PR teams [and clients — ed-at-large] on sales training. I’m not a fan of the follow-up phone call after emailing a pitch. If the pitch were persuasive enough, the journalist will use it.
If I check my media-monitoring report and I find that my pitch wasn’t published, it means that my sale was unsuccessful. It’s no use running after the customer if they’ve decided not to buy a pair of shoes. How would you feel if the salesperson ran after you with a pair of shoes you haven’t tried on and aren’t interested in trying on?
What’s important is to thank the customer when they buy the shoes. A happy customer who bought something they need and feel good about their reason for buying it will be a returning customer.
If we, as PR professionals, can learn how to sell and how to say “thank you”, we’ll achieve much better results for our clients.
Journalists are clients, too
I like to think of the journalist as my main client. If I can sell a story to a journalist that their audience would find interesting, my paying client benefits.
When a good story is widely read, the publisher is happy and that makes the editor happy, who wants the journalist to find more stories like that. If the story you pitched had a positive influence on the statistic that matters — readership — the journalist will return to you for more stories. How is that not a win-win situation?
Redesigning the roles of PR teams
If we want to build pitch-perfect public relations agencies, it’s time to redesign the roles of PR teams. Group account directors should focus on client service and team management. Account directors must spend 80% of their time pitching and the rest on mentoring team members. Account managers should focus on content creation and messaging, and some pitching. Account executives and PR assistants must be admin-driven while learning from their mentors.
Pitch-perfect PR is quality over quantity
For me, the perfect pitch comes down to relationships and experience.
When you start out in PR as a young graduate, don’t expect a glamorous job. While you build solid administrative foundations, make time to establish media relationships. Social media makes it so much easier today to get to know a journalist and build a solid relationship. As you advance to the next level, where you become responsible for writing the press release, you’ll know the journalists and understand what their readers want. Your messaging will be clear and focused; that is what your paying client wants, is it not? By the time you move to the point in your career where you become responsible for pitching, your targeting will be precise; quality over quantity.
I would rather pitch one exclusive to a journalist who I know will publish my story than use the spray-and-pray approach and get no coverage.
Marisa Louw (@marisalouw) is an independent PR practitioner. She started her career in marketing in 1996 with an administrative role at Naspers. Over the years, she has worked in marketing departments at multinationals such as Ford Motor Company and Aventis Pharmaceuticals, NGOs such as the Independent Electoral Commission, and agencies such as McCann Worldgroup. In 2011, she went independent.
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.
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