Pitching Perfectly: How to Sell a Story to the Media (or Kill Your Chances of Getting One)

By on Friday, January 18, 2013

I really enjoyed attending the “Perfect Pitch” workshop organized by the PRSA-NCC chapter yesterday. The event included a panel discussion with four journalists: (1) Dion Haynes –  real estate editor for The Washington Post, (2) Jayne O’Donnell – retail reporter for USA Today, (3) Hank Silverberg – reporter for WTOP, with a focus on Northern Virginia, and (4) Andrea Stone – an independent journalist and consultant, who used to work at USA Today and the Huffington Post.

Danny Selnick talks while reporters Dion Haynes (Washington
Post), Jayne O’Donnell (USA Today), Hank Silverberg (WTOP) and  Andrea Stone (independent journalist) get ready to look over
story pitches written by PR professionals.
Much of the advice offered was common sense. As Dion Haynes, pointed out, there is no formula for a perfect pitch. Rather, it’s about storytelling – giving journalists a sense of what a story is. Journalists are not sitting in their offices waiting for us to call them and ask them to publicize a cause, organization, company or product. Rather, they are looking for good stories, that interest them.
Here’s a few tips I jotted down from the workshop:
Don’t send mass-broadcast emails to journalists – instead research who covers the story topic fits within. All of the reporters talked about how much they hate receiving news releases via mass-broadcast emails. Don’t do it. Instead, research the reporters to see what their interests are, and only send your story pitch to the people who might be interested.
Pitch a new story – not the one the journalist wrote last week. While sharing resources can be an important part of relationship-building with reporters, don’t just try to latch onto a story that the journalist did last week. They can’t go back and “redo” that story. Offer a new take on the topic and something that hasn’t been done before.
Keep your pitches reasonable in length and pitch by email. Many of the pitches put on the screen in the workshop for the journalists to react to were way too long, in my opinion. All of the journalists on the panel preferred being pitched by email instead of over the phone. Many said they simply don’t have time to deal with the calls, and that many of the calls they get from PR people are a waste of their time.
Don’t mis-spell their names or show you don’t really know their names – If a journalist is listed in the media directory with a first name as an initial and writes under a byline using a different name, use their byline name. If they spell their name differently – such as Jayne O’Donnell who spells her first name a little differently than the standard Jane, don’t mess it up.
Realize the deadlines and perspectives that different types of media outlets work under. Hank Silverberg at WTOP was pretty clear about not wanting to be pitched weeks in advance before an event. But Jayne O’Donnell and Dion Haynes both pointed out that print dailies operate on different time frames and are planning coverage in advance. It’s also important to not send pitches when major news is breaking. Radio does not need b-roll or a CD-ROM, but might need photos.
Offer real people who are quotable. During the workshop, someone asked about using quotes from focus group participants. Unfortunately, since the quotes could not be sourced, the journalists really felt that they would not be used, even though at least one thought the quotes could be reviewed as background material. It’s important to provide sources who can be named and quoted easily – and make sure those people are available when you send out the news release, so if a journalist bites, you can get them easily.
Use a good subject line when sending a pitch. Because of the volume of email journalists receive, crafting a great subject line is very important if you want to pitch a story. The first 2-3 sentences of your pitch should encapsulate the entire story.
Include weekend contact information if you send out a press release for a weekend event. Pet peeve of journalists: when PR people send out releases on a Friday about a weekend event, and then don’t answer their phones after 4pm on Friday. Provide your cell number or list a contact who is willing to pick up the phone on the weekend.
Play to their egos a little bit. Dion Haynes recommended referencing in your story pitch a couple of stories the journalist has written, to demonstrate that you know what they write about.
Referencing other media outlets can hurt your pitch. Don’t suggest that reporters imitate a story already done by another media outlet. They are competitors with each other and they do want to feel like they are getting something new.
Avoid using jargon. One of the pitches sent in by a PR person used the word “biophilic” – which I’m not even sure really is a word. The reporters called them on it and pointed out that the role of PR staff is to translate the jargon and internal-ese of an organization or company into something others can understand.
Consider media outlets that aren’t part of the traditional news media. Andrea Stone pointed out that many news sites are drawing huge audiences and making money. She encouraged PR people to consider these younger outlets and to not look down on them.
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

Everyone wants to know what you think.

Pin It on Pinterest