Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A journalist's plea for better PR

Pitching a media outlet certainly has it's pitfalls.  It's like a machine.  You have a lot of moving parts and if just one of those little gears or pulleys gets out of whack, it can ruin the entire effort.  Timing, character, story, newsworthines, concise and interesting pitch letter, correctly targeted individuals in correctly targeted outlets. 

Done correctly, the best you can do is give your story a chance, there's never a guarantee your story will be picked up.  There are other factors that you simply can't control that could undermine your efforts.  That's why doing it right is so important.  There's already enough stacked against you making a misstep along the way can ruin any chances you might have.

 Inside the modern newsroom
The News Gatekeeper:

With that said, I offer you this: an article written on a blog run by a professional journalist.  Misty Montano is an assignment editor at KCNC in Denver.  I've worked as an assignment editor (at KUSA) and believe me when I tell you it's the hardest job in the newsroom.  It also might be the most underappreciated.  You're swamped with requests from producers, listening to multiple scanners, keeping track of truck crews, reporters, photographers, scheduling satellite link-ups, reading faxes (seriously, some people still fax).  You get the idea, the assignment editor is busy, very busy.

Add to this their responsibility to constantly update the news files, fact check stories, contact potential interviews and stay on top of potential breaking news stories, you can understand why they might not have the time they'd like to spend reading each and every one of the hundreds of emails they receive every day. 

That's right, hundreds.  Hundreds upon hundreds.  These are emails from local authorities, charities, businesses, everyone who has a story to pitch, or a complaint to be made.  And the assignment editors have to go through each one. 

Why does this matter to you, the small business owner or non-profit?  Here's why:  The assignment editor is the gatekeeper of news for local media outlets.  You have to get through them most of the time just to get your story considered.  This is why I often pitch individual reporters and producers, not that they're easier marks, it's really a numbers game.  Get more than one set of eyes on your pitch and your chances increase.

The trick is getting those eyes to actually read your email.  This is where Misty's blog entry comes into play.  Here is an excerpt from the entry.  Click on this link to ragan.com to read the entire entry, it will definitely be worth your time:

Essential information

When the newsroom is buzzing and there’s no down time, I scan the e-mails when I can. I look at:

  • Who is sending the e-mail
  • E-mail subject
  • Content in body of e-mail
In seconds I make a decision to file the e-mail or delete it. If you make me search for the important information, Who, What, Where, Why, How, I will delete it. If that information is easily accessible I will immediately copy/paste the information into the appropriate planning file. If I don’t have time to file it, I will leave it in my inbox until I have the time.
I do NOT have the time to search through an e-mail to find out whether it’s of interest.  I may not even have the time to open an attachment, as happened this morning. If all your information is in an attachment and I’m slammed on the desk, I will delete it without opening the attachment.

So I beg of you, if you are e-mailing story pitches, make sure you put the pertinent information in the body of your e-mail. You may have the most gorgeous, cunning, clever press release ever attached to the e-mail, but I won’t see if it I don’t open it. I can’t stress enough that most likely I won’t have the time to take the extra step of opening it.

Subject, blank:

Misty brings up a very important point, actually TWO very important issues: subject line and attachments.  In order for journalists to even open your email, you have to add a subject line.  This matters because without it, they'll likely never even look at what your sending, they just don't have the time.

More importantly, you have to make sure that subject line is interesting enough to get them to open your email.  I tend to make sure the journalist knows that it's a story pitch.  Something like this:

STORY PITCH: local charity plans to save city millions.

This works because, 1) the journalist knows it's a story pitch and 2) the subject is at least interesting enough that they'll likely read the pitch letter.  Of course you have to make sure your actual pitch agrees with the subject line, otherwise you'll simply anger the journalist who will feel tricked.  Don't do that.  Make sure you subject and your pitch match up.

Put it in the body:

The second issue is just as important.  You've already heard how little time journalists have.  If you're lucky, and I've said this before, the journalist will read the first sentence or two of your pitch, maybe the entire pitch letter, provided it's interesting enough and short enough and gets to the point quick enough.

What they DON'T have time to do is open attachments.  If you're sending a press release, put it in the body of your email.  If you're sending a video, put it in the body of the email.  Whatever you want the reporter or producer or editor to read or see, make sure you put it in the video.

This is often one of the biggest mistakes I see clients make when handling their own public relations.  They assume that journalists, like most other folks, will take the time to open their attachments.  This is a false assumption.  This is a pretty simple rule to follow and one that will increase your chances of getting the story covered:

Don't make the journalist open an attachment, put all pertinent information in the body of the email.

It's that simple.  So there you have it.  You can put all of your time and effort into crafting your story, writing your release and pitch letter, timing it right and targeting the right people in the right outlets, but if you don't put in a good subject line or put your information in the form of an attachment, you will cripple your chances.

Alone, either one is enough to ruin your pitch, combined, it's a death knell.  Don't make these mistakes.  You put too much time into your PR efforts to let these issues foul up an otherwise good pitch.  They may seem like little things to you, but to a journalist under the pressures of the newsroom, they matter, and they should matter to you as well.

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