Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Square peg, round hole; Pitching holiday stories

Let’s try this again.  I started writing an earlier version of this entry, but got sidetracked along the way.  By the end of draft number one, I had discussed audience identification and magazine freelancing, the importance of news angles, shareholder census mapping and somehow got sidetracked into a brief history of the Roman Senate.  Okay, that’s not true.  In all honesty, I don’t know a thing about shareholder census mapping, so…yeah.

I’m going to try and make this draft a little more focused.  However, with that said, I DO want to let you know that entries on audience identification and digging up news angles for your pitches are upcoming.  If you want a brief history of the roman senate, you’ll have to buy me a beer first.

I wanted to talk a bit about the news peg and how it can help your organization, particularly during this time of year, when newsrooms are literally being inundated with holiday story pitches.  What is a news peg, you ask?  I’ll tell you.

The Peg:

In simplest terms, a news peg is a story that relates to a news event that is happening “right now”.  Journalists will toss around words like “news cycles” and “angle trees” but really, a peg is just something that can help you find something timely and relevant in your story to make it of interest to a news agency.  A peg doesn’t necessarily have to relate to a singular news event, but it does, in some way, have to relate to a larger and current news item, like, say, a holiday. 

For an example, the recent news involving Tiger Woods was a national story.  It caught the attention of the world, really.  It was the topic of conversation around watercoolers, in bars, everywhere people gathered.  This, my friends is a great example of a news peg.  Think of it as a peg you can hang your story on.  For instance, if you had a business or an organization that deals with domestic disputes, marriage counseling, conflict management, etc., this is a news peg you can pitch a story on.

News pegs can happen at any time, that’s why it’s so important to try and stay on top of the news of the day whenever possible.  If you run a small orthopedic clinic and the star of the local team goes down with a foot injury, you suddenly have a news peg you can pitch a story on.  But if you’re unaware of the injury, you might miss a great opportunity to earn some free coverage for your business.

And right now, we’re in one of the biggest news-peg seasons of the year; the holiday season.

Newsrooms are overwhelmed by holiday pitches every year, starting in mid-October all the way through into January.  And while newsrooms get weary of all the holiday pitches, they also understand that this time of year is unique in terms of newscoverage.  It’s the time of year they actually get to cover good-news stories and so they’re always on the lookout for new, fresh, happy holiday stories.  This means a couple of things to your organization. 

First, if you’re not pitching a holiday story during the holiday season, it had better resonate with the newsroom audience in a way that makes it irresistible to cover. 

Second, it means you’re in competition with just about every other organization to get the small amount of available time on local newschannels. 

Your Holiday Pitch

Think about your organization.  Think about what, if any, events your business does during the holidays.  How is your organization impacted by the holidays?  What do the holidays mean to your organization and its employees?  These are all important questions to ask when thinking of pitching your story during the holidays.

For most non-profits, holidays are a slam dunk.  You are already out in the public doing work with the downtrodden, the needy and the less fortunate, in general.  The problem with the holidays for non-profits is that the story you’re pitching is probably just like the story most other non-profits are pitching.  And, really, a news entity can only cover so many soup kitchens and gift giveaways. 

This means you have to find something different, something that sets you apart from everyone else.  Regardless of whether you’re a small business or a non-profit, you need to tell a story that a newsroom will find both intriguing and new.  Here’s a short list of the kinds of stories newsrooms cover every single year:

1.    Clothes drives
2.    Food drives (many newsrooms actually participate in many of these)
3.    Soup kitchens
4.    Parades
5.    Holiday decorating
6.    Gift drives
7.    New Years resolution stories
8.    Fun seasonal stories (i.e. ice skating rink opens, Xmas tree cutting, holiday shopping, etc.)
9.    Charity events
10.    The battle over municipal holiday religious displays

Starting about the time Halloween ends until the first week of January, these are stories you will find being reported on over and over regardless of what station you watch or listen to, or newspaper or magazine you read.

Take a look at that list.  Just because they are already being covered by newsrooms, it doesn’t mean you can’t pitch your own story relating to one of these news pegs.  Again, the problem is finding the particular angle that makes your holiday pitch unique.

While it’s impossible to give every story scenario for every small business and non profit here in this blog, I can give you some tips when it comes to finding a way to make your holiday story pitch different enough to perhaps garner interest from your local news entities.

1.    Kids and animals sell.
  So does sex, but I’m guessing that most of you don’t want to go the “Go Daddy” route of attracting attention.  And, frankly, neither do the news stations.  Stories with children and animals are always fun and cute and will draw immediate attention from reporters, producers and editors.  One of the most memorable stories I remember covering when in television news was a local animal shelter throwing a holiday party for lost and abandoned animals.  It was both visual and fun.  Cats and dogs dressed up in holiday gear, presents given out on Christmas morning.  Not only did the shelter get some great coverage, but they managed to adopt out several of the animals featured in the story.  This same shelter became a regular on the news to discuss animal issues, including speaking out on the practice of giving pets as gifts. 

2.    It’s not a commercial.  If you’re pitching a charity event, remember that the story is the event and the recipients of the charity, your organization is just part of the story, not the story itself.  Newsrooms know that when organizations pitch a charity event story, the goal is to get coverage for the organization itself.  What they don’t want to do, though, is create a commercial for the small business or non-profit.  You have to be aware of this.  Don’t pitch it like a commercial for your organization.  Focus on the good-works portion of your story and offer characters that are recipients of the charity, not an officer of your non profit or business.  While the story will garner positive coverage for you, the focus has to be on the actions, not the company.  This is particularly true for small businesses as newsrooms are always wary of for profit companies pitching a charity story.

3.    Remember your visuals.  The holidays are fantastic for news partly because of the visuals involved.  Pictures of extravagant holiday light displays, the colors, the smiling, happy faces of children, the grateful look of people going through a free food line, toys, trees, delicious eats, this time of year offers up some wonderfully powerful images.  When you’re pitching a story to a newsroom, it’s always important to highlight potential visuals, but it’s even more important when pitching a holiday story.  This is also an area where you can set yourself apart from your competition.  By offering up unique visuals, you give journalists a reason to cover your story instead of someone else who might be doing something very similar.

4.    Characters, Characters, Characters.  The holidays also offer a great opportunity to tell some fascinating human interest stories.  Is there someone your non-profit helps that is particularly fascinating?  Do you have an employee that does something really special during the holiday season?  Is there a fun tradition that your organization takes part in that plays up there fun side (for instance caroling, dressing up as Santa for the local schools, etc.).  Telling a good holiday story that focuses on a colorful or interesting individual tied directly to your organization is another way to set yourself apart from your competition.  When I was working at KOA radio, we had a guy who used to call our show every holiday season.  This guy called himself Mr. Christmas and dressed up in a mask and rented a semi-trailer and encouraged people to help him fill it up with toys that he would then donate to local charities.  Toy drives aren’t unique, but when they’re run by a guy who dresses up like a Christmas superhero, they become interesting for newsrooms. 

5.    Make it unique to your organization.  Everybody gives away food or coats or blankets at the holidays.  Well, nearly everyone it seems.  But what if your business or non-profit doesn’t have anything to do with coats or blankets or food?  What if your organization works with schools to raise funding?  Or perhaps your small business is a hair salon.  Instead of doing the same thing everyone else is doing, play to your strengths.  Offer free hairstyling for poor families for holiday parties, or gather donations of school supplies to give to needy students.  Whatever it is that your organization does it can be used in some way to set you apart from everyone else when it comes to pitching your holiday story.

Again, I’ll reiterate, that you don’t have to avoid the common stories that newsrooms already cover during the holidays.  You just have to pitch it in a way that makes your story different from what they’ve covered every year, year after year.  New Years resolution stories are a great way to catch the attention of folks who are usually pretty numbed by all the holiday stuff in early January.

The holidays are also a way to get interactive.  You don’t have to pitch a traditional newsroom to catch the eye of your audience or of journalists.  Competitions are always attention getters during the holiday season.  Challenge other businesses or non-profits in a charity drive of some sort, or challenge your constituents.  Get people on board to participate in your challenge and offer an enticing prize.  You’ll draw people into your organization that might not know much about you at first, but like the cause you’re working to help.  This can help grow your audience and base of potential customers and clients. 

And, of course, remember, just because the holiday season will be over in less than a month, it doesn’t mean that news pegs go away.  They are out there every day and the more you are caught up with the daily news, the more prepared you’ll be to pitch your organization when opportunity arises. 

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