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Perfect Pitching

Happy Hour Is Over; Here's the Mixology Guide for the Pitcher

By Jon Boroshok

Originally Posted

As companies cut their ad budgets, they’ve started to rely more on public relations to help drive sales and build brands. At the same time, some top-shelf publications have downsized or folded completely due to lost advertising revenue, resulting in less overall editorial space. This means that happy hour is over, as competition for media coverage and product reviews has intensified. Agencies will be showing their clients smaller clip books as the number of available significant media outlets decrease, but each hard-earned clip will carry that much more weight. Contrary to the business model of many agencies, inexperienced, junior PR practitioners just a few years removed from using their older siblings' IDs are not well suited for media relations. It takes a seasoned veteran to merge media relations skills with business and life experience. Here is a mixology guide to media relations success: Know your client and subject matter: Work without a script! PR professionals add value to media relations by bridging the gap between client and reporter. We need to know what our clients do, what their market is, and be able to speak intelligently enough to interest a reporter in speaking with our client. Reading from a script makes a PR practitioner sound like a telemarketer, and works against winning coverage. A media pitcher needs to think critically and quickly. Having some business and life experience helps -- it’s a shame that most agencies let the under-aged work without a net. Key message points: Just like you wouldn’t want to slur your speech while trying to impress a prospective date at the CornerBar, you must make sure you’ve developed a set of key message points that make your client’s story relevant for each of their target audiences. Know these message points, and make sure they’re worked into conversations and media pitches whenever possible and appropriate. Be prepared to explain them -- don’t just read them. Targeting: Know where to find your audience. This is the classic Wall Street Journal vs. trade journal dilemma. Clients tend to think that they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread, and that their story belongs in The Wall Street Journal. Even if they’re right, The Wall Street Journal might not be the best place for them to be covered. We must educate and counsel our clients to make sure they understand that the best place for them to be covered is wherever their target audience is. If your client makes widgets, they would probably have better results if they were covered in Widgets Weekly. It’s often easier to be featured in a standalone article in a targeted trade publication than to receive a one-line mention that will go unnoticed in a daily business monolith. This is Marketing 101 -- it’s all about targeting. Pitch the right reporter: Fewer journalists are being asked to cover more stories because publications have cut staff. Journalists are overloaded and have become less accessible, so it becomes tougher to quickly identify the right contact for the right pitch. It’s not unlike leaving the bar without the phone number of someone you just met. When you find a related article, it’s still time-consuming to find a way to contact the writer, as email addresses and phone numbers change often and are not readily accessible. Even media list services tend to have outdated email information, but a good, up-to-date resource like Contacts On Tap can help. Part of our job is to find and reach the right media contact, and part of our job is to make sure our clients understand and accept that this takes billable time. Timeliness: When the press calls for information, good, senior PR practitioners know that they must return calls or respond to emails in a manner of minutes, not the next day. The reporter’s deadline will be here soon, and you can bet that as soon as the reporter leaves a message, he/she is calling your competition. This is not the time to worry about sounding too anxious. Always include contact information: Any email ever sent by the agency or client should offer full contact information (name, title, location, phone number, and email address). Never assume the media knows you or how to reach you. When you return a phone call, make sure you leave your phone number, slowly and clearly. PDA batteries can die. Don’t send out a press release or post one on your Web site without current contact details. Know editorial lead times: In bar language, know when closing time is before they announce last call. Weekly and daily publications, along with Internet and broadcast media usually have short lead times. What you tell a reporter on a call now could be public knowledge in as little as 15 minutes. On the other hand, monthly magazines and trade journals often have lead times as long as 6 months. Knowing the lead time for the media outlet you are contacting will enable you to properly pitch a story, and position that story within the timeframes and constraints of a particular journalist. Many reporters have Thursday deadlines -- unless you have urgent, breaking hard news, never do media pitching on Thursday. Don’t rely on editorial calendars: While Ed Cals are an essential tool in your media relations mix, they are not the be-all and end-all. Like that guy you think was looking at you all night, many Ed Cals are the figment of the advertising department’s imagination, and have no basis in reality. Other times, the contact listed has left the publication, or has no idea about the article until a PR flack calls to pitch. Be proactive and create/find your own opportunities! Easy access to information: A user-friendly online pressroom is a must. All press materials should offer full contact information (name, title, location, phone number, and email address). For details about the online pressroom, see The Online Pressroom - A Requirement for any Company Web Site. News vs. marketing: Do you have something newsworthy to tell the media, or are you crying in your beer? Unless your company or client is large and/or public, the announcement of a new product or service may not be news to a reporter. Partnerships are not really news to anyone except the companies involved. Everyone is a Microsoft or Sun partner -- it’s not going to result in coverage. Signing a major (public company) client is news, especially if you can show that the deal actually produces revenue, and quantify how much. Avoid pitches and press releases for trivial things, and don’t send one out every few weeks for the sake of keeping your company’s name out there. Many reporters will treat your company like any spammer and ignore future emails, including some that may have been newsworthy. Avoid Hype and buzzwords: Like a bad pickup line at happy hour, using jargon and buzzwords in press releases has always been taboo, but tech companies have stooped to new lows as they scramble to create a "buzz" and attract investors and customers. While such buzzwords and opinionated superlatives are appropriate for advertising, sales, and marketing materials, they are inappropriate for press releases and media pitches. The media has grown skeptical, cynical, and tired of jargon-crammed releases. Some have installed filters to screen and trash buzzword-filled emailed press releases. Public vs. private -- size matters: Even the "techiest" of tech reporters shows more interest in a company's stock ticker symbol than the solutions that company offers. If the story being pitched isn't about a large, publicly held company, or about signing a large, quantifiable deal with a publicly held company, some reporters just aren't interested. Others won't even consider covering a company they've never heard of (does this mean they take their cues from better-informed competitors?), and it is rare that a reporter will return a call about a smaller or privately held company. Editorial decisions seem to resemble radio play lists, where each song has been tested by a focus group before the artist gets played into the ground. As PR practitioners, we walk a fine line of prodding reporters to ferret out the smaller, lesser-known companies, take some risks, and cover something that readers don't already know about, while having to explain to our clients why reporters will resist such prodding. Customer contacts for media: Don’t underestimate the value of customers! While the media is tired of pitches that amount to nothing more than marketing hype and salesmanship, they’re still interested in results and success stories. Real problems solved for real (paying) customers are attractive to reporters. Reporters don't just want to hear a vendor executive pontificate -- they want to speak with someone who had laid down cash and bought into that vision, and they want to know how well it worked and what problem it solved. Read more about customer references and case studies at Gold Ore For The PR Pro. Real ISP vs. AOL: AOL may be the world’s largest Internet Service Provider, but many tech journalists seem to have a bias against AOL users. Right or wrong, a PR contact pitching from an AOL address may be perceived to be less knowledgeable/credible, and is taken less seriously than someone with a company or personal (vanity) domain. Many techies call AOL "America's Training Wheels," and display this same snobbery toward free mail services like Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, and Juno. A spam filter may delete a pitch coming from an AOL or freebie account without being opened.

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