Back in January, I shared a quick post on LinkedIn that I pitched a story to a reporter in November 2018 and finally, in January 2020 (you read that right) the story went live on newsstands. Pitching media can be a very frustrating part of PR, but it’s so worth it when it comes to fruition and turns out to be an amazing story. My friend Justin commented that I should write a blog post on this and how to manage clients (or bosses and execs within your company), showing them that results take time…in this case a LONG time. Here are a few tips in media relations patience.
Know Where Your Expertise Is
I’ve been pitching media throughout my entire career and can honestly say it’s taken a long time to develop this craft. And some media has been easier than others. For example, I’ve had great success (Borat voice) in the national consumer and local market spaces, and a fair amount of trade. But healthcare has sometimes been more challenging, as well as tech. I worked for an agency for a quick six months several years ago with mostly tech/startup clients. That media was a TOUGH nut to crack, and not the nicest. One reporter, I distinctly remember tweeting about me after I pitched him (not by name) saying that some PR pros are so disingenuous. I still remember this and it stung. (I HATE when journalists do this, but that’s another post for another time.)
All this to say, know which areas you’re good at and keep with that. And if you’re feeling not as successful, keep learning and reading articles in that area, and follow those reporters closely to know what they’re reporting on. (You should keep reading and following regardless, even if you think you’re an expert on the topic since the media is always changing.)
Set Expectations, Right off the Bat
Sometimes when I get media interest, I don’t tell anyone. That’s because so many times I’ve gotten a positive email response, and then I am ghosted hard. It’s so defeating because you’re like “Yes! They like this” and then crickets. Remember in Sex and the City when Miranda said,
“It’s like those guys you have the great second date with, and then never hear from them again. I pretend they died.”Sex and the City
That’s media relations for you. So before you get an email at 10:57 a.m. and by 10:58 you’re running around the office telling everyone, take a step back. Answer your email right away when you get a response and try to provide as much information as possible, then you wait. My advice? Don’t tell anyone yet unless it’s 1) super promising, such as they want to have an interview or are sending follow up questions or 2) you need to give your client or boss frequent pitching updates. If that is the case, then say you received a response and they are reviewing. (In a lot of cases, they say something like “This is interesting, let me take a closer look” or “Thanks for this” and a follow-up question, or something like that. Don’t take this as the be-all, end-all because like I said, I’ve gotten this before and then nothing. So just say that you received a response and you will stay on them/follow up and keep them updated. The more you can communicate to your client or boss, the better, to show them you’re being active and not passive in this process so if it doesn’t come to fruition, you can honestly say you did everything you could. And never promise placements. The news media is so fluid and rapidly changing, there is never a guarantee. (Especially right now, when everyone’s focus is on coronavirus. Sorry but your story is NOT important unless your client has the virus.) Tell people that upfront and often. And hopefully, if you are constantly communicating and sharing where you’re pitching and how often, your client or boss will stay even keel.
Follow Up, But Not Too Much
And speaking of follow up. This one is a toughie. There’s a fine line between diligence and stalking when it comes to media follow up. In the instance I mentioned above where it took 14 months, I was very lucky to have an editor who kept me in communication and was transparent with me throughout the process. She let me know that the story was on hold, when it was being reviewed again, and when it was scheduled to publish throughout that time. This is very rare when it comes to the media. They are usually busy and writing other stories, talking to sources, etc. so they don’t always make you the priority. Which isn’t a criticism, just reality. When you don’t have someone who is communicating with you as I did, I recommend following up every few weeks on a longer lead story, and then if it’s supposed to be shorter turnaround time, maybe once a week. This is only if they’ve positively answered you. If you don’t hear ANYTHING (which is so often), only follow up one or two times before you take a break for a while, because clearly they are not interested.
Last year, my company was fortunate to have Michael Smart come and do a training at our office. If you aren’t familiar, Michael is the Oprah of media relations. He knows it all, and if he doesn’t know it, he has people in his network who do. He’s made a living out of doing trainings all over the country on media relations. We are part of his Inner Circle, too, which has been so helpful.
So, how do you follow up? According to an informal survey of members of Michael Smart’s Inner Circle, 80 percent of their placements have come from following up! Back to my “fine line” suggestion: Michael says that reporters are OK with persistence, just “don’t be annoying” and NEVER follow up the same day, or if they already said no. Kind of “duh” but worth repeating. I sometimes change the subject line but sometimes it’s worth keeping the “re:” in there so they know it’s a follow-up. I always include the line “I know you’re busy” to let them know I am aware of their time but want to make sure they got the email. I keep the email short and sweet, and if there is any new information to share, I make sure to.
A Case For the Phone
When it comes to following up, I am team PHONE. Some journalists say don’t ever call them. I know, when I get a call I am like “OMG WHAT’S HAPPENING” but to me, this allows you to break through the clutter. Get in a private room (I would NEVER do a pitch call at my desk — the horror!) and practice first. Write it down. (Just don’t be like Gigi in He’s Just Not That Into You when she’s clearly reading from a script!) Make sure you can get your pitch done quickly. There is a good chance they’ll say “email me this” or in some cases, I’ve already emailed them and they look for my email while I am on the phone with them. News desks at broadcast stations are typically the nicest people, so always call them and be nice and friendly and just HUMAN. Because that’s all we are anyway. You’re not calling Oprah (I’ve got Oprah on the brain today.) You’re just calling another person.
One more point about the phone: I pitched a reporter an annual survey my client has done for the past two years and only received a response once, which wasn’t promising. This year, my client released the new survey and I email pitched him again, then followed up once a few days later. Nothing. A week later, I saw this reporter wrote a story on the same exact subject with no mention of my client. I was so defeated. But alas, I picked up the phone (in a closed-door conference room, of course!) and called him. He didn’t answer, so I left a voicemail. This is not something I recommend doing but in this case, it was super quick and friendly and I basically said that I read his story and not sure if he was planning to write something similar again but a reminder my client put out this survey if he wants to use some of this data in future stories and I’d love to work together in the future. Short and sweet. Ten minutes later I had an email in my inbox. He said he missed my email but actually UPDATED HIS STORY to include the survey and a quote from my client. SCORE! This was a home run for the client, and I sent him a note right back thanking him and that we were thrilled. Sometimes the follow up makes all the difference. And people DO listen to voicemails in 2020. It’s still real.
Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basket
Yes, media is harder to reach these days because newsrooms are shrinking, but there are also lots of alternatives to pitch today. Of course we want The New York Times and the TODAY Show, but think about other niche sites out there that reach a better target. Have an open mind when it comes to pitching and find new outlets (and tell your client why this is a good route, too). I read the HAROs and ProfNets every day to look for people and outlets to pitch later. Maybe the query wasn’t a fit for my client, but the outlet or person could be good to pitch to later. Also consider podcasts or contributed content.
Or you can go the brand journalism route and publish the content long-form on your client or company’s blog or newsroom, sharing the story there. I’ve been connected with Jake Jacobson since he spoke at a Ragan Conference about his time at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. “Tell good stories and people will find them” he advises. They had an instance with lawnmower accidents several years ago and they posted tips to avoid them on social media and a lot of people were sharing the post. Local news saw and contacted them, and stories ran locally, then it was picked up nationally (by none other than GMA). All because they took the time to write it up themselves first, then share. This video is excellent and goes into depth on how they did it.
Trust The Process
You can’t just email someone and expect a beautiful and perfect story to run the next day. You gotta put in the work. Have a plan of attack from the beginning, and a solid media list that is ever-evolving and updated. Follow the media you want closely, and don’t be afraid to interact with them on Twitter. Don’t be afraid to find new outlets and be creative. And don’t hesitate to follow up respectfully. The whole saying “always underpromise and over deliver” has never been so true when it comes to media relations. Have patience. It will come together! And if it doesn’t, find a new angle or story. It’s out there.