Wednesday, September 1, 2010

5 Reasons Why Your Press Release Didn't Work

I've spent a lot of time in this space talking about all of the little things that can make the difference between a successful PR push and one that ends in miserable failure.  Hopefully you have been following along and have learned some valuable lessons without actually having to, you know, go out and make the kinds of mistakes that rookie PR pro's make every day.

We've discussed building relationships, crafting your story, making the follow up phone call, writing your release and timing your efforts.  We've covered just about everything from A to Z.  There are still a ton of tricks to be revealed and insight that will help you succeed in getting your story covered by a local news outlet.  But in the end, good PR comes down to some very simple techniques that, if followed, increase your chances of earning news coverage. 

I don't do this very often, but I want to share with you an article written by an actual reporter working in an actual newsroom that discusses some of the major mistakes all PR pro's make when pitching a news story.  The article comes from the website, "Localnewser.com" and I think it is one of the best written articles about why some stories get covered and others don't. 

In a rare move, I'm going to paste the entire article here, because I think it's that valuable.  I'll have some analysis after the article and some insight into why these five issues matter so much.  In the meantime, read this article, take it in, and then re-read it just so it's ingrained in your mind. 

Five Reasons Why Your Release Failed:
So you spent all that time crafting the perfect news release and—full of confidence and high hopes of massive news coverage and a satisfied client—you sent out your releases.
And zippo.  Something went wrong.  Systems failed.  The news trolls (like me) somehow missed the chance to make you happy.
But why? Why would a reporter read a solidly written news release with a beefy story to back it up and not jump at the chance to do a story--a minute and a half on the local news or a few inches of copy in the local paper?
Here are five common reasons why:

1.  You Didn’t Make Me Feel Special
We just got off on the wrong foot, that’s all.  I’m an overworked reporter and my feelings are very, very easily hurt.  I was interested when I saw that you’d sent me a possible story (you thought of me!) and then, quickly, I realized you hadn’t truly thought of me at all.  I was just a number to you.
The “Dear Mark” on your cover letter proceeds to suggest that a story I might do—and remember, I’m a television reporter—would be of interest to my “readers.”  My what? I don’t have readers.  This isn’t a personal letter—it’s a mass mailing.  My feelings just got hurt and for better or worse, you’ve started to lose my interest.  Now I’m not looking for a way to do the story, I’m thinking of how many other reporters have the same release in their hands.  It feels far less special.  It feels like wire copy to me now.
Recently, I got an email early on a weekday, tipping me to a potential story.  It was fantastic, because I was about to walk into the morning editorial meeting, where reporters are called upon to have story ideas.  I hate not having story ideas.  So your email was perfectly timed.  I felt good.  I felt good about you thinking of me.  And I was ready to pitch your story.
Then I got into the meeting and another reporter pitched your story.  In fact, everybody had gotten your email.  I didn’t feel so good about you after that.  And for that matter, I was even tempted to bust on the story when the other reporter brought it up.  Instead of making me feel special, you made me feel ordinary and I decided to work against your story, instead of for it.  Yeah, she's been shopping that thing around to everybody...
2.  I Was Ready, but You Weren’t
Okay, so you got me.  I read the release and I thought it would make a good story.  And my producers (or editors, at a paper) agreed with me.  If I’m a television reporter, I may even have been assigned to a newscast immediately—they wrote your story on the newsroom's assignments board in dry erase marker, which is as good as it gets! Pending breaking news, you’re a lock!
And so I called you.  I said we wanted to get interviews and shoot some video and do a live report at noon—basically, we needed to go directly from the television station to you, so that we could have a story ready to air in less than three hours.
And you said “today?
Yes.  Today.  In fact, now.  In broadcast and print, when that release goes out, you better be ready to jump.  If you mention an executive who has news, he’d better be ready to do interviews immediately.  If you mention a new cattle-combing machine, it’d better be in town, up and running, and ready for cameras.
If you say, “let me make some calls,” I have to go to the producer of the noon newscast and throw cold water on my own story.  “Hey, looks like it’s not as much of a go as I thought.  Sorry.  This might not happen for noon after all.”
Now the noon newscast producer doesn’t like me anymore, and the executive producer wants to know why the story didn’t make the show.  When something falls through, news producers don’t think, “okay, cool, we’ll do it tomorrow.”  They think, “okay, it’s dead.  What else do we have?
3.  You Buried the Lead
Look.  I’m in a newsroom that’s about three-quarters the size it was just two years ago.  Some of my friends lost their jobs and nobody’s been hired and I have to work a lot harder than I used to.  I’m not quite as happy with my job as I used to be, and I’m a bit cranky about that.  Short tempered.  Irritable.  I’m also forced to work fast and I don’t have a lot of time to chat or read.
So your news release—the one your client finally approved—well, it was just too long and too boring for me.  It had all the stuff the client wanted in there, all that corporate stuff, but I just read the first two paragraphs and didn’t see a story.  It didn't jump off the page and scream why are you sitting there?  You're missing a great story!
There was all this stuff at the top about the company and how it was responding to global this and that and how a green initiative something or other resulted in… I don’t know.  I couldn’t figure out what the story was.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a story in there.  But it didn’t read as a story the way I report stories.  It read like a news release.
Put yourself in my shoes.  Would you go on the news at six o’clock and have the first thing out of your mouth be the first line in your news release?  Would it make any sense at all?  Or would it sound like corporate blather?  If the top of your news release reads corporate, and not NEWS, you stand an excellent chance of losing me.  Because I’m just too damn overworked, tired, and coffee-deprived to do the work for you, sifting down to the fifth paragraph and then thinking of how to translate what you wrote into the language I use to tell stories.  So I move on.
4.  It’s Like… You Don’t Get Me
I read the release and I liked it.  I saw a story in there.  I thought it could even be a good story.  I told my bosses and they agreed with me.  I probably told them all about your story in my language, describing how I’d make it into a kickass television story (or newspaper story).
So I called you.  And we weren’t getting each other.  It was trouble from the start.  You see, as a television reporter I’m always thinking about who I’m going to interview and what I’m going to show.  If I can't think of a way to tell that story with images, I'm probably going to think that's a story that's never getting onto the air at my television station.
Maybe it's better as a newspaper story.  But newspapers like pictures (and, increasingly, video), too.
At any rate, I called you and said I wanted to do the story and you suggested that I interview your company’s PR guy in the company conference room at headquarters.
That sounded horrible to me and I almost gave up right there.  But I said, well, the story’s about your new aircraft baggage loading device that you say will cut airline costs.  So let’s meet at the baggage area, you show me the device in operation, we’ll get some great video and interview a few of the crew members who will be working on the machine—baggage handlers (you know, regular people, not spokespeople).
And you freaked.  Baggage area?  That’s going to be tough, you know, with regulations and stuff.  And we’d really rather you didn’t speak with any employees.
And my story started drying up before my eyes.  Because a PR guy in a fancy conference room—even with your company’s super nifty logo on the wall in chrome—bores me and gets me in trouble with my boss.
Watch my newscast and see who we interview.  Do you see a lot of conference room talking heads?  If you don't, then you know a story with spokespeople and handout pictures (no matter how nice your press kit is) just won't be cutting it.
Don’t you get me at all?
5.  My Day Changed…and You Got All Offended
So we agreed we had a good story here and I called and you were happy and your client was happy and we both decided to do the interviews with regular people (I know you prepped them—and that’s cool with me as long as they don’t sound like they’re reading lines) and we were going to get a look inside the factory with some great video opportunities.  And then—to top it off—you said the magic words:  “and we’re only giving this to you.”
And then an elementary school caught on fire.  That dry erase board with all the cool stories listed?  They grab the eraser sometimes when schools catch fire, or planes miss runways, or mayors turn up in handcuffs.  Suddenly everybody in the newsroom’s working the same story.
And our cool factory exclusive gets scrubbed.
I call—really sorry, but we’ve got breaking news… and I’m hoping we can maybe do the story later in the week.  (Odds are we’ll be doing a full day of follow-up coverage on the school fire tomorrow)
And you are irritated.  You’ve made calls, put things in motion, you know?  The company’s switching things up to accommodate the news crew and they roped off a parking place for our live truck and they've moved fast to give them everything a news crew could ask for (even bottled water, for heaven’s sake!) and now… you feel like you’re going to look bad.
So you say fine and hang up and you want to forget you ever pitched me the story.
But here’s the thing.  I totally still like the story.  I even feel bad and will argue with my bosses that we need to do the story.
But you took the hit with the client (don’t they know that reporters cancel all the time?) and you did damage control and pushed the story somewhere else.  But the TV story never happend, and nobody ever parked the big shiny TV truck outside the factory, which would've made everybody so happy.  But why?
I thought we had something special.
What This Means To You:

I hope you read this in its entirety and that you took every single reason to heart.  In essence this is a short recap of everything this space has tried to convey over the past year.  Most of these examples are easily fixed, and yet they are the kinds of things that paid PR professionals do every day!  It's understandable that you might make some of these mistakes.  I mean, hey, let's face it, these faux-pas are being made by folks who are supposedly experienced PR pro's.  That's their job and yet they manage to screw it up on nearly a daily basis.

You have a business or a non-profit to run.  How can you be expected to get everything right?  The answer is, you don't.  You're allowed to make mistakes, you WILL make mistakes, it's a given.  Don't stress too much over the mistakes you make, they will happen.  The key is to minimize the damage that those mistakes make.

That's why I liked this article so much, I just HAD to post the entire thing in this space.  If you follow the advice this space has given in terms of creating your story, putting together your press kit, building relationships, timing your release right and making sure your follow-up is solid, you can overcome a number of superficial mistakes.  But the five reasons listed above aren't just superficial oversights.  They constitute some major reasons why stories aren't covered by a local news outlet.

Let's start with #1.

Like actors, I've always said that reporter have huge egos.  One of the best ways to ingratiate yourself with a reporter is to play to that ego.  Producers and editors don't have the kind of egos you'll find with on-air talent.  You have to woo them with facts and a good story, but if you make a reporter feel special, you'll have a good chance of having them carry your story into the news meeting, which is vital to the survival of a pitched story.

Here is my one quibble with this point:  Unless you're pitcing a story to a reporter that you already have a relationship built with, pitching several individuals in a newsroom is actually a good strategy.  I have a few individuals in the Denver media that I have very close relationships with.  For instance, if I pitch the local CBS affiliate, I pitch to one person.  This is a person that I have worked with for years, a person I have the utmost respect for and a person that I often run stories by to get his opinion of the pitch.  When I send a pitch to that station, I send one pitch to him, so he gets it first.  I give him the first shot at the story.  If he doesn't want it, there are no hard feelings and I simply ask that he forward it to the desk or to others in the newsroom that might be interested in the story. 

However, there are a few newsrooms in the city that I don't have personal relationships established.  In those newsrooms, I send my releases to three, sometimes four individuals.  I send it to reporters, the desk, a producer and an executive producer.  This covers my bases.  If one person doesn't like the story, I have three others that might like it enough to take it into the newsmeeting. 

Point #2:

There is no excuse for this.  I have covered this more than once in the past few months.  Sending out your release is really just the beginning of your work.  If you send out a release, you HAVE to be ready to step up if a reporter actually decides to cover your story.

Remember, you only get one chance with a local newsroom.  If you pitch a good story, and they accept it, but you're not prepared to actually follow through with a quality interview, then you're shooting yourself in the foot.  Reporters and producers remember when an interview doesn't come through.  And the next time you pitch a story, they'll remember that you failed them once and they'll be less likely to schedule you for another chance.  If you send out a pitch, you had better make sure your schedule is cleared and you're ready to do what it takes to make sure the interview comes through.

Point #3:

This is a mortal sin when it comes to pitching a story.  When I taught PR to college students, one of the biggest challenges I had was breaking them of their 12 year habit of writing thesis statements and english papers.  Your first sentence had better be compelling and it had better tell the story immediately.  Imagine your first line as the first line of TV story or as a headline of a newspaper atricle.  Once you write your first sentence or two of your release, take a moment, then go back and read it out loud.  If it sounds like something that a TV story would lead with, then go with it.  If it sounds like an english paper, scrap it and start over.

You have to grab them with the first sentence, period.  Most journalists won't read past the first paragraph, hell most won't read past the first two sentences.  If you haven't captured their attention in that time, your pitch is doomed. 

I recently pitched a story involving homeless cats and the financial impact it has had on local taxpayers.  I didn't wait until sentence number three or four to get my point across.  I stated loudly and unequivocably in the first sentence: "Homeless cats in Denver are costing taxpayers over one-million annually in housing, adoption and euthanization."  That's the story and that's the kind of lead that a tv producer can lead with, or a newspaper can make a headline out of.

Point #4:

This point might seem tricky, but it's really not that complicated.  This is an aspect that needs to be considered long before you ever send your pitch out to a newsroom.  As you're writing your release, you have to consider what kind of visuals are available for your story.

In fact, you should even mention the available visuals in your pitch letter.  Letting journalists know what kind of visuals they have to work with can mean the difference between being covered, and being relegated to the dead list. 

Plus, and this is important, newsrooms don't take a story and decide to cover it hoping it will work out.  They expect you to come through.  The best line in the entire article was this:  
When something falls through, news producers don’t think, “okay, cool, we’ll do it tomorrow.”  They think, “okay, it’s dead.  What else do we have?
I know this was written as part of point number 1, but it applies to point number 4 as well.  If you don't have the kind of visuals a journalist is looking for, they may scrap the story and move on to another story.  And this doesn't just apply to television anymore.  Newspapers, radios and even magazines are using video more and more.  Even if they aren't looking for great video, they'll at least want good photos.  If you promise quality visuals, and you should, then you have to come through.  Otherwise you'll be labelled as a person who doesn't come through and that will make any future pitches that much harder to sell.

Point #5:

Finally we get to the last point.  This requires that you have patience and understanding.  One of the best things you can do is be amenable to change.  By understanding the stress and deadlines and pressure that reporters and producers and editors are under, you'll quickly endear yourself to local journalists. 

Be aware that breaking news, especially on the local level, supercedes everything.  If you're scheduled to be interviewed and they have to cancel, don't get upset.  If you throw a fit, you don't get anything.  Trust me, journalists feel bad if they have to cancel a story.  They'll do everything they can to reschedule and get the story on at a future date.  But if you get angry and throw a fit, they'll let your story just die. 

By understanding their situation, you'll build relationships and grow a rapport with journalists you'll want to work with again in the future.  We've covered this in several posts here, and being respectufl of a journalists time and limits will go a long way to getting more stories covered in the future, even if it means sacrificing a story today.

As a small business owner or non-profit, understanding and embracing these five tips will go a long way to making sure your story pitch succeeds.  And in the end, that's what it's all about.  Certainly you have work to do long before you make your first pitch, and the follow up is equally as important.  But by keeping these tips in mind, you can definitely increase your chances of a pitch success.  And really, in a world and an industry where there are no guarantees, that's the best you can hope for.

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