Pitching news angles to media – should we call to follow up?
Pitching news angles successfully to media is always one of the toughest PR tasks. There is no simple answer to handling these situations because the best approach needs to vary according to each unique situation. It is a game of percentages – you need to use your judgment and prepare thoroughly to increase your chances of success.
Phone or email pitch?
The two best ways to pitch to media are by phone or email. An overwhelming number of journalists prefer receiving email pitches. For instance, the 2017 Cision State of the Media Report found the preferences of 1,500 US and Canadian journalists for receiving pitches were:
More than 90% of journalists prefer receiving email pitches compared with 2% preference for phone contact. Therefore, simple logic would suggest sending all pitches by email. But feedback is vital. A journalist can all-too-easily just delete an email pitch, which leaves you in the dark about their reasons why. Also, it is much easier for them to delete an email than spend time arguing on the phone with you about the merits of your proposal.
In addition, you are usually pressured by your boss or client to give some progress reports on journalists’ responses. If you can get through by telephone you are more likely to gain useful feedback to report, and at least you can say you have spoken directly to the journalist.
Using the phone enables direct feedback, but is effective only if:
- you have the reporter’s direct line or cell phone number
- you already have a good working relationship with them
- the topic of your pitch is within their specialty area or at least relevant to them.
This phone contact creates the opportunity to bounce the angle off the reporter and to fine-tune your material according to their feedback. You can even do a major rewrite to suit the interest of the journalist based on their comments, especially if they are in a mainstream media outlet.
Interestingly, the Cision survey reveals that journalists are more positively motivated if you have done your homework and researched their past work. This ranked ahead of the merits of the material you are promoting. The takeaway is that you must do this labor-intensive background work to achieve best results.
Using contact databases
If you need to find new media contacts, you can try journalist contact databases like Response Source, Journolink, and Help A Reporter Out (HARO). Also, you can pay a specialist media release distribution service like PR Newswire and ereleases to reach out to journalists. Such databases are valuable when you are preparing a national email distribution or phone contact list. But it is still highly advisable to try to make personal contact with the journalists in key outlets if you can (again, after doing your homework so you can demonstrate that you are familiar with their good work).
Another factor is that your approach to the reporter will affect their attitude towards any future contact you make with them – they are likely to respond well in future if you cooperate well with them now.
If you already have an established contact
Ensure your existing contact and proposed angle are relevant and you have enough news value to interest that reporter. The smart thing is to already maintain a good working relationship with a reporter who covers your industry. This can be easier said than done, but when you can, it is worthwhile. For instance, as CEO of a not-for-profit organization, I knew the chief reporter from the daily newspaper who specialized in that sector, so it was easy to reach them and get their response.
If you know who you want to reach, but haven’t made previous contact
If you know who you want to reach, but don’t have the direct contact information, you can still call the news outlet main switchboard and ask for the office of the news editor or chief of staff. However, their PA takes all such calls and screens them as the first line of defense. Inevitably, the PA will only take a message; they won’t transfer your call to the reporter, or they will pretend the reporter is out or already on the phone – and so you are stuck. The best you can achieve is for the PA to give you the newsroom email address to enable you to do an email pitch via the news editor/CoS. Having established this contact, it is probably OK at that point to attach your media release and hope for the best.
You may be very lucky and find the PA is prepared to give you the reporter’s email address. If not, you can work out the individual’s email address once you have learnt their name by finding out the email contact info for other people within the organization and using the email address protocols to send an email to the reporter you want to reach.
If you don’t know who to contact
Identifying and reaching the relevant reporter will greatly improve your chances of pitching success. So how do you find the right person to pitch your idea to?
Do your homework. If you are aiming at print media, read the publication you are interested in to find out the bylines of current journalists who may be relevant because they cover your topic. If bylines aren’t shown, do an online search of the media outlet’s website to identify journalists who cover topics similar to yours. You can also search via Google or LinkedIn for the media outlet and particular topics to see if you can find reporters’ names.
Same with TV and radio. Start by watching and listening to relevant programs to learn the names of relevant, current reporters.
Odds against journalists returning calls
Even if you have the journalist’s direct contact number, much of the time they will not answer calls. As we all know, newsroom staff numbers continue to be cut and their workload increased. Journalists usually have to write content suitable for their associated news website as well as their traditional mainstream media channel, creating greater workload pressure. Otherwise, they may be out of the office, already on the phone, or may not be answering calls while they are busy writing to meet a deadline.
One of the things I have learnt from hard experience is that few journalists will ever return a call unless they already know you and you have a constructive working relationship with them. Even then, the chances are they will not call back due to pressure of work, etc. If you are making a cold call and they don’t know you, they are even less likely to accept your call or use your material, and they certainly won’t want to spend time listening to you arguing with them to support your case.
This leaves little option but to use email. As noted above, the frustration for you is they can more easily ignore emails, check their inbox at a more convenient time, or gain some time to to consider the news angle being pitched or research the topic before they respond to your email.
“Have you received my media release?”
Many PR people will email a media release cold to the news editor or chief of staff, and will then call to see if their carefully prepared missive has been received, accepted and relayed to a reporter. This is an opportunity to quickly find out their response, and if it is negative, to pitch the angle elsewhere, especially if the story has been pitched as an ‘exclusive.’
The odds are that they will not act on your release – for a multitude of reasons – and usually they won’t discuss why, so calling to follow up will just antagonize them.
However, the pushback from many journalists is that they don’t want to be hassled by such follow-ups. Esther Schindler of the Internet Press Guild, says, “Nothing sets a writer or editor’s teeth on edge more than an eager young voice saying, “I’m calling to see if you got the press release we sent.” It is all too-common practice to have follow-up calls made by the most junior, inept, PR officers. But “when we’re in the middle of a tight deadline, the last thing we want is a phone call that contains no new or useful information whatsoever.” She says such calls harm the sender’s reputation.
The quandary is that unless we do speak to the reporter about the release in question, we won’t know what their attitude is, and the story might never get off the ground for reasons that we will never know about. If we know the reasons, we can try another angle or quickly rewrite the material to change to a more attractive focus the reporter is interested in. By making the contact, at least we can report to the client or boss about the facts of what happened. This means we remain under pressure to follow up, even if the reporter doesn’t like it.