Editors and TV Producers Reveal How PR Pros Can Get Their Stories Told
What could the producers and editors of The Wall Street Journal, “The Dr. Oz Show,” BuzzFeed, Parents magazine and NBC’s “Today Show” teach you about successfully pitching a story to the most sought-after media outlets in America? Plenty! I had the privilege of attending the 2018 PR Bootcamp: Media Relations Conference hosted by New Product Events in New York City, where we heard editors and producers of major consumer-facing publications and television shows reveal how PR professionals should (and should never) approach them with stories.
What’s more, our Maccabee agency just hosted former Twin Cities Business editor-in-chief Dale Kurschner for a “Lunch N Learn” workshop to hear Kurschner’s perspective from his years spent on the receiving end of hundreds of PR pitches. The recurring themes that emerged from these experts will prove invaluable for PR pros looking to improve their media relations game.
PERSONALIZE your pitch – to the person and publication you’re pitching
When there’s limited time and budget, and the size of our media target list is as daunting as the pressure to get our client coverage, we hope making the pitch lovably quirky will be enough. And then we blast it out to the news media. If my writing is clever, nobody will care that I didn’t customize the pitch by referencing their past coverage or personal interests, right?
Wrong. Every single editor at the PR Bootcamp event noted how obvious it is when they’re pitched with a template. The resounding advice was to deeply research the brand/publication, readers and journalist you’re pitching. Many news sites have reporter portfolio pages sharing past coverage. That, plus access to Cision, Muck Rack, social media channels and Google gives PR pros no excuse. Worried about taking up too much time and budget on research? Michael Smart, president of Michael Smart PR (at left), advises spending 80% of your time on the top 20% of your media list.
What about how many editors and reporters to pitch at any one publication? Kurschner advises that if the story is pressing, it’s ok to pitch multiple contacts who may be applicable. If it’s not urgent, take the time to find the best target to pitch.
Get to the point
Editors and reporters at the PR Bootcamp said they receive hundreds of emails each day (and that’s a low estimate for the national publications represented at the event, such as Rachael Ray Every Day magazine). Editors try to read every pitch, but if you can't catch their attention in your subject and first line of your pitch, they won’t waste their time. All editors at the PR Bootcamp event reiterated that a pitch should be concise and to the point. Many added that when you use keywords in both the subject line and body of the email, it allows them to search if your pitch isn’t immediately usable but could be in the future. Ellen Byron, news editor at The Wall Street Journal (at right), noted that this searchability is particularly helpful when she uncovers a pattern in a number of pitches she receives or in research she is conducting.
Another way to help the journalist you’re pitching is to spell out the “why.” Why is your pitch relevant to their audience? Don’t be coy; sometimes the connection isn’t as clear as you think. And many times, the reporter or editor still needs to sell your story to the rest of their team. Help them help you.
Keep in mind that the “why” needs to matter to the publication’s readers (not necessarily your client). Kurschner (at left with author Karina Wiatros) cautions against pitching, say, a corporate ribbon-cutting, which is entirely self-serving. If, however, you can offer an exclusive interview with a CEO about a newsworthy topic their readers should hear about at the ribbon-cutting, you have a much stronger pitch. “It’s like at a restaurant,” Kurschner said. “If you just put health food in front of someone, they won’t eat it. Put some dressing on and make it pretty, and they’ll dive right into it and eventually get to the good substance.”
As for the question of whether your subject line should be entertaining or informative, the consensus falls with the latter. Kurschner recommends treating the subject line like a headline or lead… and keeping it to just 6-8 words.
Follow up with media
But not too soon, and not too many times. None of the journalists at the PR Bootcamp said that a follow-up email would be unwanted, but many cautioned against following up too soon (give them a couple days to see your pitch). A few noted that following up more than twice could land a PR pro on their SPAM list.
Every single national editor at the New York event emphatically shared a disdain for phone calls (in my un-scientific calculations, perhaps 90% had a slide with “DO NOT CALL” prominently displayed in bold type). Kurschner, however, notes that some of the best stories he was pitched at Twin Cities Business came from phone calls. Not sure whether or not to dial? Consider whom you’re pitching (an editor at a major national publication likely has less time for phone calls than a local reporter, for instance) and how strong your pitch is for that particular person and publication. If you have a story you know a local editor won’t want to miss, try a call. If they’re too busy, they probably just won’t answer, Kurschner said.
Refer to editorial calendars
But don’t be surprised if the official calendar changes. An editorial calendar is a great place to start for insight into what a publication might be focusing on in any given month. However, since they are set so far in advance, there’s always the possibility that a better theme will come up. Don’t be discouraged if a reporter responds to your pitch only to say they are no longer covering your topic that month. If you want to know if calendars have changed before taking the time to write a pitch, you can send a quick email asking if the publication is still planning to feature that particular theme.
Consider the Medium
Are you pitching a print publication? Digital? TV? These media sources differ profoundly in timing and deadlines. Print publications require long lead times; it’s often necessary to pitch 3-4 months in advance of the issue you’re aiming for (or even as much as 6 months ahead, per Hearst Lifestyle Group lifestyle director Taryn Mohrman, at right. TV could require your subject to be ready for an interview the same day. Don’t pitch a TV show if your client isn’t willing to jump on an immediate opportunity, said “Live with Kelly and Ryan” producer Joni Cohen Zlotowitz.
Digital publications such as Huffington Post and Greatist have the most flexibility, but they’re more focused on traffic-driving, searchable content. To that end, digital publications are also more likely to run with evergreen content, and they’re more open to writing about a subject that they’ve covered before. While senior editor Molly Simms of O, The Oprah Magazine cautioned against referencing her publication’s past coverage of a topic in your pitch because they probably won’t devote space to it again, lifestyle editor Lyndsay Matthews of Hearst Digital said that digital will “swarm a topic as much as possible until they kill it.”
The intertwined relationship between public relations and the news media isn’t likely to dissipate any time soon. Both B2C and B2B clients still recognize the power of a perfectly placed story with the credibility that a third-party source offers. It’s incumbent upon marketers and PR professionals to hone our skills and take the time to make the most of our media relations efforts for a win-win that achieves compelling media content as well as great coverage for our clients!
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Karina Wiatros is a senior account executive at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.