Media Relations 101: Pitching a Story, Not a Fit, and Dealing with Reporters on Your Own Terms

Based on hundreds of discussions with countless clients about “the darn media,” it’s clear to me that many business people really don’t understand what journalists want or how they produce their finished products. As a public relations practitioner and former journalist, I’ve worked on both sides of this equation for the past 30 years. If that experience has proven anything, it’s this: Journalists’ needs are fairly straight forward and if you take care of those basic needs, everybody wins.

How do I get started? 

First, pitching a story is about giving that reporter or producer individualized attention. Start by spending some time online, in front of a TV or at the newsstand and deduce what he or she is interested in. Too many people shortcut this step by blasting their email pitch to dozens or hundreds of names on a list. A better and more effective method is to send your pitch to one person at a time and to try to refer to something you know that reporter has recently worked on. Something like this: “Sarah, since you’ve been writing a good bit about successful minority entrepreneurs, I thought you’d like to know about Alva Garcia, who has grown her information technology company from scratch to more than $25 million in annual revenues in the past five years.”  Be sure to respect reporters’ situations and work with them within in their limitations.   

Be aware of their deadlines, for example. If you call them by phone, ask them right up front, “Are you on a deadline or do you have a minute?” Be ready to say, “No problem, I’ll try you back tomorrow.” In short, recognize that most journalists — like everyone else — are stressed, very pressed for time and are covering a lot more than they used to.

Unique pitch? No? Go back to the drawing board.   

Journalists are being pitched constantly. They get a pile of news releases, emails, phone messages, Facebook messages, etc., every day. The one thing that will help you more than anything else in pitching is recognizing that your pitch is just one of many and you have only a few seconds to make or break your pitch. If it feels like all the others you’re dead, and you only get one shot. You must give them something that truly is unique and sets your pitch above the deluge of story pitches they get every day. 

More than a few business people are stunned when told that not everything they do is front page, top-of-the-website news. Remember, journalists are besieged with story pitches and news releases. There is no possible way they can cover all of them. You’ve got to dig deep to for an angle that makes your story or your organization verifiably unique. 

Facts speak louder than….

In my days as a business news editor, I heard PR people use the same clichés countless times to try to convince me that their story was worth my time. This still goes on today as PR people with no sense of what it’s like to produce a quality news product every day breathlessly proclaim things like, “This new product is amazing!” and “This is a great program that is really making a difference.”

The problem is that none of these claims means anything unless supported by facts! And since every company makes these same or very similar claims, they do absolutely nothing to elevate your company or your pitch above the fray unless you can provide the supporting facts.

A journalist needs you to provide proof to take you seriously. If your new product really is amazing, you need to quickly explain what specifically makes it different and better than competing products. If your people really do make the difference, you need to back that up with details on what specifically makes them special – training programs, number of employees with advanced degrees, number of patents issued to your team, etc. In short: It’s all about verifiable facts, not hype. 

Preparing for the phone call or email from a news outlet

Besides active pitching to get media coverage, some companies and organizations will find themselves needing to respond to incoming media inquiries. Given that news reports can live on the Internet in myriad forms and seemingly forever, and can go viral in a flash, responding effectively is essential. 

Generally, the bigger the organization, the more likely you are to attract unsolicited media attention. But even very small companies can pop up on the media’s radar for a variety of reasons, such as a merger, a lawsuit or a game-changing new product.

So, how do you prepare for the phone call or email from a news outlet?

First, don’t be bullied by the deadline demand, which basically goes like this: “I’m on deadline and I need to talk to so-and-so within the next 30 minutes.” Responding to such an impassioned demand under pressure rarely produces good results.   If you allow the reporter to totally control the schedule, you may lose control of the entire story. Realize it is fine to tell the reporter you will do your best to answer his or her questions but you’ll need more time. Responding with something like, “We’ll get back to you within the hour,” can be a good way to buy yourself and your company some time, evaluate the situation and prepare to respond effectively. It’s also perfectly reasonable to probe the reporter for details on what information is need. Ask for the main questions or issues being covered and explain that you want to gather the information in order to respond as clearly as possible. 

Second, have a press kit ready at all times. This enables you to cover many media questions quickly and with consistent facts and messaging. Depending on the reporter’s questions, you might send parts of the media kit or the entire package in response to their query. Your kit might include: 

  • – Company history/timeline
  • – Bio on the CEO or president
  • – Photos or graphics, such the company logo, shots of key
  •    products/people, facilities, etc.
  • – Fact sheets on products or services
  • – The most recent annual report if your company is publicly traded 

And critical strategy No. 3: Have a crisis communications plan in place. From financial meltdowns to workplace violence, product liability and so many other scenarios, a crisis can slam into any organization at any time. How well you communicate with your numerous internal and external stakeholders can make or break the ability of the organization to withstand the damage and move on. Preparation before a crisis hits will greatly improve your company’s survivability.

Media Coverage is harder than you think 

If you are starting to get the idea that getting media coverage is harder than you thought, you’re starting to get it.Winging it won’t do.You’ve got to do some homework and preparation before you make your pitch. 

Keep in mind that it’s often easier to get coverage in smaller markets. Pitching in a smaller market like Oklahoma City is generally less competitive than doing so in a major market like Dallas or Los Angeles. There usually just aren’t as many compelling stories happening every day in a smaller city than in a big one, so it can be easier to get a reporter or editor’s attention provided you have a pitch relevant to the outlet’s audience. 

Pursuing positive media coverage, preparing for reporter inquiries and developing strong media relationships are subjects that could fill volumes.These are skill sets most business professionals have never developed.   If you’re not sure your organization is ready for prime time, call a professional.