Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Timing is everything!

As we prepare to head into 2010, there are a few things we hold self evident; We no longer have to say "aught" before the date (aught one, aught two, aught nine, etc.) although we can still say it just because it's fun to say...aught, that the success of small businesses and non-profits are essential to the survival of our republic, girls with glasses are hot, and that timing is everything.

I come to you with this entry for a couple of reasons.  First, as we go along and hopefully you learn more and more about handling your own public relations and media outreach, you will be successful in targeting your audience, creating your message, focusing on a story, identifying media outlets to pitch, keeping up with your social media efforts and so on. 

Second, and most importantly, I'm doing this entry as public service to journalists who constantly complain to me about pr folks calling to pitch them stories at the absolutely worst time.  Nothing angers a rabid journalist more than trying to pitch them a story when they're up against a deadline or desperately chasing down a lead. 

Before I get to my do's and dont's of pitch timing, let me tell you something about journalists in general.  They are overworked and underpaid (like most of us), they have strict daily deadlines that must be met, they never really leave their work at the office, they are irritable, cynical and nearly always tired.  These are generalizations, of course, but after working for fifteen years as a journalist, I feel pretty confident that it fits most of my former colleagues. 

With that in mind, I have to tell you that there really is never a perfect time to pitch a story, there are simply better times than others.  But don't get disheartened.  As a small business owner or non-profit director pitching a story for the first time, you will likely get the brush off, unless your story is really, really good.  Early on in this process you are an unknown entity to them.  And, like everyone else, journalists like to work with people they know and trust.  Given their paper thin margin for error, that makes sense. 

This is where the relationship aspect of pr comes into play.  Hopefully, you've taken them some Christmas cookies or St. Patrick's Day beer or maybe just some sandwiches on Saturday for a much needed lunch for the weekend crew.  As mentioned before, this is a great way to make some initial contacts in your local newsrooms.  There's a catch to this, but I'll get to it when I get to the tips, stay tuned.

So when IS a good time to pitch a story, particularly if you're still a relative unknown to folks in the newsroom?  There are a couple of answers to this question.  First there is long-term timing, daily timing and the never-ever timing.  Perhaps we should start with when NOT to pitch.

Pitching-Timing No-No's:

For the most part, newsroom timing is fluid.  Journalists are always prepared for the unexpected and are always looking for that breaking news story to spice up their issue or broadcast.  With one eye on the current news and another eye on what might be news, they tend to be a bit distracted.  Frankly, it's the perfect profession for people with ADD.  However, even as fluid as it can be, there are still some instances when their time is irrevocably tied up.  Mostly these times include daily news meetings.  While every newsroom holds their meetings at different times, you can bet the house that, regardless of when, the reporter, producer or editor you're pitching will, at some point, have to attend these meetings.

1.  Meeting times are not a good time to pitch.  It's not even a good idea to pitch right before a meeting.  Obviously when they're in a meeting, they are unavailable.  Right before a meeting, they are generally catching up on missed phone calls, preparing for the meeting and taking care of any other issues they need to attend to.  They don't often want to get into a long pitch.  A good rule of thumb is not to pitch ten to fifteen minutes before the daily news meetings.  You can find out when your local newsrooms hold their meetings by making a simple call to the newsroom.  You likely won't have a problem getting them to tell you their meeting schedule.  If you do, explain that you will be pitching them stories and want to be respectful of their time.  Nothing endears you to a journalist more than being respectful of their schedule (except maybe free food or alcohol).

2.  Never, EVER pitch a morning news broadcast before the show.  Morning show producers and reporters are perhaps the toughest to pitch because they are among the most stressed workers in the newsroom.  They come in the night before and have to digest the news of the previous day, figure out what the biggest news of the new day is, and keep track of any breaking overnight news.  They are focused, tired and the last thing they need is to deal with a story pitch while juggling news crews, tracking down leads and putting together a multi-hour show.  Duncan Shaw, Executive Producer for KCNC-TV in Denver says he regularly receives calls from folks pitching stories at 2, 3, 4 in the morning, assuming he has time to talk since his shows don't air until 5am.  This is a big no-no. 

While it might make logical sense to catch a morning show journalist early, before the craziness of the show takes over, that logic flies out the window when you realize that the craziness takes over the minute they walk through the door. 

An addendum:  Also don't pitch a producer or editor immediately after their show is over.  They have to do things like record promos for the next day, talk about any technical issues they might have had during the show and then, perhaps most importantly, decompress.  They will have at least one, mandatory meeting to attend before they leave for the day, they have to start putting together their show for the next day and will have tons of emails and phone calls to follow up on.  In other words, the window to reach a morning show reporter, producer or executive producer is very slim.  Your best bet is to catch them about an hour after their show is finished, but before their morning meetings begin.  In other words, you'll generally have about a 30 to 45-minute window.  During this window, you can try to reach the Assignment Editor, the show producer or the executive producer. 

3.  Never wait until the day of an event to pitch said event.  Newsrooms need time to prepare.  They like to plan, even if they know that more often than not, those plans will end up as a heaping, flaming pile on the floor.  Newsrooms also have very few resources these days.  The pre-schedule their photographers and reporters whenever possible, to cover as many stories as they can in a single trip.  Sometimes that means a photographer will hit three or four different events in a few hours.  Reporters may start on one story but be available to cover another, bigger story if something breaks.  In other words, if you want to be in the mix for coverage, they have to know ahead of time so they can work you into the schedule, both in terms of manpower and on their rundown sheet.  If you call a couple of hours before your event is happening, it's almost guaranteed you won't be on the news that night.

4.  Don't pitch during the meet n greet.  Sometimes your first interaction with a newsroom will be when you pitch them, that can't always be helped.  But hopefully, you've taken my advice and made an effort to reach out to a newsroom ahead of time, laying the groundwork for what, hopefully, will be a productive relationship for both parties.  When you walk into the newsroom, arms full of food and beverages, keep in mind this is a get-to-know-you meeting, NOT a pitch.  It's okay to tell them about who you are and what you do and why you think you might have some good stories for them in the future, but try to avoid walking in, handing them a donut and immediately saying, "Man, have I got a story for you!"  Journalists will really appreciate the effort you're taking to simply meet them without having to listen to a pitch.  Take the time to ask THEM questions.  Find out when their meetings are, ask when is the best time to pitch them, find out what they're looking for in a story.  They'll respect that you are taking the time to find out about them and discover what you can do to make their jobs easier and they'll remember you for it when you make your first pitch.

5.  Don't always be pitching.  This kind of goes in the, "ways to develop a relationship" section, but I'm putting it here because it's important.  If you go to a media mixer, or end up at a party where you run into local journalists, avoid the temptation to pitch a story.  As I said earlier, journalists are always "on".  In other words, they're always thinking about news, and they enjoy their time away from the pressure that news brings.  At parties, they'll often be "talking shop" with other journalists.  This doesn't mean they automatically want to be pitched.  Take the time to just listen in on the conversation if possible.  You'll learn a lot, trust me.  Strike up a conversation with them that doesn't have anything to do with news.  Talk about family, or sports, hell, even the weather.  Also, comment on a recent story they did; if you liked it, tell them so.  This not only tells them that you are educated about their work, but they will appreciate the flattery.  

Pitch-Timing Yes-Yes:

1.  Learn the schedules for your local newsroom.  Whether it be print or broadcast, they will all have meetings and other items that will make them unavailable to you, know this schedule and avoid pitching them immediately before, during or after these times.

2.  Learn the personnel.  Different producers, reporters and editors have different schedules.  Unlike an office environment, newsroom folks aren't chained to a desk.  They walk around, eat lunch when they feel like it and adjust their schedule based on their abilities.  Their primary goal is to produce the best product possible by the deadline.  The best bet is to target one or two specific shows to pitch your story to.  If you know your stories are more often than not going to be a better fit for the weekend show, then get to know that weekend crew and their schedule.  If you think the Fashion section in the paper is going to be your conduit to media coverage, get to know that editor and reporter.  In this way, you will be able to know their schedule and know the best times to pitch them.

3.  Know WHO to pitch.  Again, this will change from newsroom to newsroom and from show to show, but knowing who to pitch your story to is just as important as when to pitch.  In some TV newsrooms, the Executive Producer is the best person to pitch, in others, it's the Assignment Editor, in others, it might be the reporter.  Getting the pitch to the right person goes a long way towards successfully getting media attention.

4.  Don't limit yourself.  I have been accused in the past of taking a shotgun tactic to my pitching.  I disagree.  A shotgun approach is simply sending your release and pitch to everyone in the newsroom.  This is a waste of time and just annoys journalists.  I do, however, send multiple pitches to newsrooms when I can.  I always send my pitch to the assignment editor or desk editor, and you should as well, because they are the gatekeepers to the news meetings.  I also send out a pitch to at least one line producer, an executive producer and one reporter.  That's four targeted pitches per newsroom.  That increases my chances that someone will like my story enough to at least get it onto the list for the news meeting.

5.  Personalize your pitch.  For each pitch I send out, I personalize it for the individual getting it.  I have their name at the top, and I add a short note to the top of my email explaining why I'm pitching them and why I think the pitch is good for their audience.  Sending generic pitches a good way to get ignored. 

Oh, but back to the timing issue:

We've discussed the never-ever timing issue a bit, and gone over the daily timing issue as well.  But the long-term timing issue is still very important.  As I said in a previous paragraph, you should never wait until the day of an event to pitch a story.  The long-term view is tricky, as you have to catch journalists far enough ahead of time to give them time to prepare, but also close enough to the event so they won't forget. 

It gets even trickier when you realize that the long-term timing issue changes not only from newsroom to newsroom, but also with the type of media you're pitching.  Here's a basic rule of thumb to consider when pitching an upcoming event:

1.  No more than a week out for broadcast.  While it's true that broadcast outlets like to plan ahead, they are also less focused on long term stories than newspapers or magazines.  If you pitch a story to a tv or radio station a month ahead, they will likely forget you unless you do some major follow up in the weeks leading up to the event.  If you have an event scheduled for a Thursday afternoon, it's a good idea to pitch them that Monday.  That's three days in advance, giving them time to plan, but not so far away that they'll forget.  Regardless of when you pitch, you'll want to follow up on the day of the event to remind them, just in case.

2.  If you're looking for a more in-depth package or story to be done on your organization or event, then a little farther out is appropriate.  Sometimes it takes a little more effort to put together a more comprehensive story together.  In these cases, you'll likely be working with an individual reporter and not a producer as much, so a couple of weeks ahead of time will work.  In some rare instances, say a morning show or daily special reporter (you know, the one who goes out and reports on some fun or unusual activity taking place around town) they put together their schedules a month or so in advance.  Ask them specifically when the best time to pitch them is and adjust your pitch schedule to them.

3.  For daily papers, a week, to two weeks out is appropriate.  

4.  For magazines, plan ahead and pitch up to six months in advance.  In the case of magazines, every year they put out a monthly schedule, detailing what kind of stories they will be focusing on in the upcoming year.  Find out which issue is best for your story and pitch immediately.  While magazines also have some sidebar and filler information they include which can be pitched up to a month ahead of time, your best bet to make a magazine is to pitch way, way in advance.

5.  Know what kind of story you want.  Is your story a 30-second mention at the 10pm show?  Is it a featured article in the business section?  Is it a package piece on the weekend?  The bigger the story you want, the more time the newsroom needs to get it together.  This is particularly true for print, but it is also applicable for broadcast entities as well. 

As a rule of thumb, and as a reminder; no more than a week out for broadcast entities, about two weeks for a daily print entity, and up to six months for a magazine.  While, again, these are generalization, if you operate with this rule of thumb, you will find you will have a better chance at successfully pitching your story.  Plus, if you're familiar with this pitching schedule, you'll be better prepared to adjust to those rare instances when the rule doesn't apply.

Just like social media, you can get into trouble when you try to do to much at one time.  You know your organization, you know what kind of coverage you want and you probably have a pretty good idea which news sections or shows your story will be a good fit for most of the time.

My advice?  Target a section in the newspaper, one or two shows at your local tv and radio station and one magazine to pitch regularly.  This will keep it managable for you and will allow you to grow a relationship with the journalists working your targeted outlets faster than if you pitched randomly. 

Finally, don't be afraid to make mistakes.  You WILL call at a wrong time, you WILL interrupt a journalist on deadline and you WILL likely annoy them at some point.  PR pro's who've been in the business for years still call at the worst possible time every now and then, so will you.  It's okay.  It's not the end of the world.  Simply apologize, and ask them when a better time would be to call.

For this reason, I always send out an intial email pitch and follow up with phone calls over the next couple of days.  This way they have seen the pitch and I don't have to take up as much of their time explaining why I'm calling.  Even if you call a journalist when they're very busy, most of the time they'll be gracious, but probably curt, with you.  Don't take it personally and let them know you're trying to be respectful of their time. 

Trust me, even if they don't cover your story, they'll love you for thinking about them and you'll find more success down the road.

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