Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Perfect Pitch

The press release is dead, or at least some folks would like you to think.  With the advent of social media and networking, businesses are investing more time and money into creating spaces on platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Digg and focusing their attention on maintaining and growing those sites.  Of course, this means fewer and fewer resources allotted to public relations efforts.
Give me your best pitch, baby

As usual, I'm left carrying the flag for public relations, in all of its many forms.  From media relations, to community outreach to even the lowly press release.  In previous posts, I went over how to build a basic press release.  But there's one element, I believe, is way more important than your press release; The Pitch Letter.

You have to get them to the release first:

You don't have to spend hours upon hours crafting a press release.  It has to look good, it has to have the basic information and it has to present an interesting picture of your story.  But, and here's the frustrating part for so many small business owners and non-profits, many journalists never even get to the release itself.  They take one look at the subject line, read the first sentence and quickly move on.

So what are you supposed to do if journalists either never even look at the release or, if they do, spend all of three seconds reading the first sentence or two?  Your best bet is to capture them with a pitch letter.

Actually, letter is a bit of a misnomer because it's not so much a letter as it is a paragraph.  Three, four sentences designed to grab the attention of the journalist and intrigue them enough move on to read the release. 

Think of it like this...the release is there to provide information.  Information that journalists can use as they're writing their story, your story.  If your story gets picked up, journalists will be able to refer to the release for quotes, background information and details.  No, this doesn't make the release obsolete, or mean it's dead, it just means that the release isn't your primary sales source.

It's the pitch letter, or paragraph, that will ultimately sell the story.  So how do you put together a pitch letter?  It's as simple as 1, 2, 3 (with maybe a 4 and a 5 thrown in for good measure). 

Writing the Pitch Letter:

Writing the pitch letter doesn't have to take forever and it shouldn't cause you to pull a brain muscle thinking of how to put it together.  Here are some tips to writing a solid, effective pitch letter that will improve your stories' chances:

1.  Make your first sentence a grabber - Make a statement, introduce a captivating concept or story.  For example, instead of writing:

"A Brooklyn man says his auto security system helped police arrest a suspect in a string of auto thefts."  you should write:
"Brooklyn police say a revolutionary auto security system could help lower auto-crime rates nationwide."

The second sentence is stronger and makes a bold statement.  Of course, your statement has to be true.  You can only write that second sentence if a Brooklyn police officer actually made that statement.  If so, you can go with it.

Here's another example.  You decide which is better.

"A man who survived for seven days lost in Canyonlands, Utah survived after being stuck under a boulder and cutting his hand off."

"John Templeton knew that cutting his hand off would be the only way he'd survive after being lost in Canyonlands, Utah for seven days."

I posit that the second sentence is a much stronger opening sentence than the first one.  Here's why.  The first sentence takes perhaps the most compelling aspect of the story and buries it at the end of the sentence.  Meanwhile, the second sentence places it right up front, along with the individual's name, providing an instant character. 

While they both give some facts in the first sentence; he was lost in Canyonlands Utah for seven days, the second sentence uses more active tense.  This makes for a more interesting sentence as well.

This first sentence is perhaps the most important aspect of your entire pitch.  Remember, you're not writing an essay or a news story.  You're writing a simple paragraph designed to give information and grab attention, so make that first sentence as strong as possible.

2.  Keep It Short and Simple - This is a, um, a different version of the KISS that I learned in school, but it's essentially the same thing.  Simple is better.  It's always better.  You don't have to pack all of your information into your paragraph, just the pertinent stuff.  Remember, you don't want to put more than three facts in any sentence, more than that gets confusing.  You want the journalist to be able to quickly grasp the concept or focus of your story.  When you start to get beyond three or four sentences, tops, then you have to ask yourself, "what can I cut to shorten this?"

3.  Provide a Call to Action - This isn't like, come on down, or we'd sure like to see you at the event.  It's more like, "John Templeton is available for interviews on Wednesday at either your studios or at his home."  You have to let the journalists know exactly what you are offering them.

By stating that you have interview subjects, when they're available and specific locations, the journalist is now thinking of potential interviews, logistics, timing.  You have put the idea of an interview into their head.  Offer up a couple of interview subjects and let them know that you can also assist in rounding up any other interview subjects they may want to talk to.  You are making an assumption that they will do the story and that they'll need to talk to someone.

You can also state something like, "You can set up your cameras at the starting line of the race and we will grant you access to all areas of the event."  Again, you are assuming they will cover the story, which isn't an awful thing. 

4.  Give specifics - You don't want to give too many facts, that's what the release is for.  But you do want to give them some specifics, and not just about the story.  If you have an event you want covered, you need to provide some information that will grab interest beyond just the opening sentence.  Let the journalists know about potential interviews (as mentioned above) but also let them know about particular visuals, locations, times, anything you might think would be of interest to the journalist and, most importantly, make their job easier.  You can put this information in the last sentence or two.

5.  Let them know where to find you - It's all good to tell the journalist about the story and some facts, but none of that does any good if they don't know when, where or how to get ahold of you.  Your release should have contact information at the top, but this is such important information, it's worth putting in the pitch letter as well.  This is as easy as saying, "I can be reached at any time at..." then give your phone number and email address.

First Impressions...

Remember, your pitch letter is your first contact with the journalist you're pitching your story to.  Four sentences might not seem like a lot, and it may seem like a lot of pressure to place on a single paragraph, but writing a good pitch letter is a key element to the success of your story's success.

One final note.  Because the pitch letter is so important, this is an area where rewrites are probably a good idea.  One trick journalists use when writing their stories is to read their copy out loud.  This works with a pitch letter as well.  Write your pitch letter a day before the pitch if possible and then revisit it before you send it out.  If the first sentence doesn't sound strong enough to you, or grab your attention, then rewrite it.  Most of the time, it's not about doing a total rewrite, it's about rewording the sentence you have already.

So there you have it.  The pitch letter, while very important, doesn't have to be so difficult it prevents you from pitching your story. 

Focus on your release, but don't forget your pitch letter, otherwise, the entire story might just be forgotten as well.

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