While some communications professionals have the benefit of focusing solely on media relations, the majority of us must take a varied Marketing Communications approach for our organizations, merging public relations with social media management, event planning, product promotion, and a dozen other communications roles.
For those of you tasked with media relations either as part of your job or as your single area of focus, I’ve got a major grievance with the online media relations world to air: I find the current state of pitching to be infuriating. Modern communicators need to break the cycle of bad pitching practices and start giving media relations the strategic attention it deserves.
If you ever hang out on Twitter to talk communications, you’ll see many instances of the hashtag #PRfail. It is just what it sounds like and it does not just apply to brand snafus: There is a constant stream of journalists calling out poor PR practices, bad press releases, and awful media pitches. Articles have been written; chats have been hosted; digital communicators even gather around the virtual water cooler or IRL to groan about bad pitching — but from what I can tell, nothing is changing.
The communication industry’s continual inability to meet journalists’ needs is a failure, not just of individual professionals, but of leadership. While proper pitching seems like PR 101, the increasing number of disgruntled journalists hints that this is not a malady of the occasional untrained staffer, fly-by-night agency, or rogue freelancer. Day-to-day journalist outreach has proceeded without oversight by senior managers in our profession for too long, and it’s high time we step it up. We must address the lack of understanding as to how the media really works and our disconnected processes.
A basic understanding of journalists’ priorities would serve our professional communities and help educate the newest entrants to our profession. There are numerous articles on the correct processes for creating and distributing press releases, yet journalists are still overwhelmed with inappropriate and ineffective releases and pitches. I have worked with agencies that take this approach (mass mailing every reporter under the sun with little tailoring or personalization) and while staff complains amongst themselves, no one stands up to the boss and for some reason, clients keep rolling in. They roll out three months later when they do not see any tangible results but none stop to ask why or even notice any of the red flags. This is not rocket science and it has to stop.
My simple approach to improving press releases and pitches is the following: Be S.M.A.R.T.
S: Strategic Stories that are well planned and developed, that are…
M: Meaningful to the recipient (hint: this does not mean your boss), with…
A: Accurate facts & newsworthiness distributed to media lists that are…
R: Relevant and
While email and social media have provided a zillion corners for us to cut, a mental exercise, that I recommend avoiding leaning on your digital laurels is to pretend that you are actually going to call the journalist, interrupting their day, and you only have 10 seconds to make your pitch. Could you do it or would you feel ridiculous? If you’re not comfortable doing that with your target journalists, then rework your list. This kind of thinking will help you get crystal clear on who you should (or should not) pitch on any given day at any given time.
While this seems like basic PR, these tenets are missed every. single. day.
I learned media pitching in the old days when (gasp!) we had to get on a real phone with journalists (or snail mail them a press kit and hope for a call back) and I am telling you if you are ever dressed down by an angry reporter for wasting their time—knowing that his entire newsroom can hear him and probably all the people in your office can too—you will never, ever make that mistake again.
If you are considering pitching journalists, the service that I recommend when starting out in media relations is HARO or Help a Reporter Out.
H/A/R/O for those who do not work in public relations is “the most popular sourcing service” connecting journalists and bloggers with relevant expert sources to meet journalists’ demanding deadlines and enable brands to tell their stories.
HARO provides journalists with a robust database of sources for upcoming stories and daily opportunities for sources to secure valuable media coverage. HARO distributes more than 50,000 journalist queries from highly respected media outlets each year. Its straight-forward pitching process allows sources to find topics related to their expertise, industry or experience while allowing journalists and bloggers to spend more time writing and less time sourcing. HARO reaches more than 800,000 sources and 55,000 journalists and bloggers, making it a vital tool for brands and reporters alike. HARO is owned by Cision, a leading global media intelligence company headquartered in Chicago. ~ HelpAReporter.com
Basically, HARO is a pitching service that matches journalists with sources. It is a safe space for pitching because you can only contact the journalist when they post a request or query. Its awesome because you cannot spam reporters and while in-and-of-itself HARO does not count as a comprehensive media relations strategy, it is certainly well-used by publicists and communications professionals.
The beauty of the service is that you do not have to be a professional to use it. I have taught clients how to use it and I have used it for myself. Any small business owner, entrepreneur, or solo-practitioner can hop on and respond to editorial requests that garner media mentions.
Yet herein lies the issue:
ANYONE can respond to media requests.
Let’s remember, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And if you decide that you should, like in the case of pitching journalists via HARO, make sure you have a solid plan in place.
Know what topics you will respond to and keep to your top three areas of expertise, niches or branding goals.
Write out the basic text of likely responses ahead of time so that you have well-written verbiage available on short notice.
Have all of your digital assets gathered in one place online so you can send links (for example your bio, photo, and company page should be shared as a link, not attachment unless specifically requested.)
If you do not have time to provide a thoughtful response, skip it. A random email that irritates the journalist is not worth it.
Include links to your social media so that if you are included, the writer can share via social media mention too.
Having recently found my self on the receiving end of several HARO requests, it became painfully apparent that those in charge of promoting themselves or their companies had no clue how to pitch a journalist.
It made me sad to see so many mistakes and while HARO provides rules for sources, they are clearly not being adhered to.
In my recent experience, of the 27 responses that I received, two were totally off-topic, which resulted in an automatic delete, pitch unread. For the completely-unrelated-to-what-I-was-talking-about pitches, I am not sure what went wrong there. Perhaps their happy pitching fingers responded to the wrong query?
Of the remaining 25 reviewed HARO responses, 12 were passable.
Yep, only half of the HARO pitch responses I received were professional.
The others were either unreadable, ridiculous, or tedious. For example, one was written in ONE SOLID LONG PARAGRAPH IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Ok! Stop yelling at me!It’s B2B marketing, not a worldwide catastrophe. The response was not easy to read and really undermined the sender’s presentation, so it got deleted, mostly unread.
Three of the pitches basically said ‘call us for more information’ without offering any details as to why their expert, service, or product was suitable for the article. This is unacceptable because the entire premise of the HARO service is to get quotable information to the journalist as quickly and easily as possible because they are on a deadline.
You must expect that there is a tight turnaround on the deadline (one or two days) and often the journalist is reaching out globally, so navigating timezones and schedules become a hassle. And you must stop to wonder, why would an already pressed-for-time writer, working late at night, try to schedule a phone call with a stranger to see if they might, possibly, maybe fit their story? Nope, that’s not how it works.
Three of the pitches I received attempted to get me to sign up for a newsletter or product demo without answering my questions or directly responding to my query. Fail! Selling or attempting to get sign-ups on HARO is an automatic delete and if you get reported to HARO too many times, they will freeze your account, so this is a really bad idea.
Two of the responses that I received were direct sales pitches for books on the topic I had queried. Those examples, while read, did not make it into my article. No underpaid and overworked writer wants to buy a book on the topic he is writing about while on a deadline. How fast do you think these people can read? Even with overnight shipping or immediate download is it reasonable to think that a journalist would read a book to get their question answered, rather than speak to the author of the relevant book? Just answer the question and sign off as the author of Such and Such. It just does not make sense in any way to pitch a book to a journalist on deadline unless they specifically say they are reviewing books.
If you wrote a book that is relevant, answer the query and then add a link to the book at the bottom.
Below are my top 10 tricks for writing successful media pitches:
Think like a journalist. Assume the journalist is investigative and is only looking for facts and experts; do not provide fluff.
Stay on topic. Journalists are very specific. There’s a reason for it. If they want pharmaceutical case studies don’t send alternative medicine success stories.
Write professionally. Yes, a friendly tone is fine, but also, don’t be weird. Write your response as if your email was going to be shared with your boss, your biggest customers, your largest investor, or your greatest competition. Show your best self.
Bulletpoint your expertise. Long explanations about how awesome, smart, talented, and experienced you are, are unnecessary and tedious. A simple statement of background, experience, or expertise can be managed in one or two sentences with a link to your bio online.
Make your quote printable. The vast majority of queries on HARO are for quotes and specific answers to questions. Do not write your query like a high school kid who did not do their homework. Specifically, give your quote or response as you would want it printed. Yes, they may edit it but if you give them something professional to work with, you have a much better chance of being included.
Format counts. Generally, just the facts, please. Make sure you do not have odd images, gifs or links in your signature and for heaven’s sake, don’t attach and send images or attachments unless specifically requested. Use a link to share any additional information and label the link for ease of use.
Do not try to hook the journalist with a “call me.” This is an automatic fail except for the very rare case where a journalist states that there will be phone interviews. If that is the case, assume that you still have to pitch yourself to earn the phone interview, so even then, do not respond with a message for the journalist to call you or your expert.
Downloads and demos are a bad idea. Occasionally, a writer will want a product sample or a product demonstration. Of course, if they ask, make one available, but for most queries, they are asking for information. Under no circumstances should you just send a meeting request for a product demo. Assume that you still have to pitch yourself to earn the demo.
Pitch people, not products. Certain times of the year we will see a lot of queries for products, for example as we gear up to the endless stream of holiday gift guides and end of year best-of lists. These two types of requests are the exception. In every other scenario, you need to pitch a person, not a product. You can mention the product but also offer an expert who can give trend insights, market data expertise, or can tell the customer story.
HARO is not a sales platform. Do not ever, under any circumstances, try to sell your journalist anything or suggest in any way trade or payment for coverage. That’s bad form and will likely get you blacklisted. If you have samples, offer samples, without the expectation of coverage.
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