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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Feel the Passion!

Recently I spent a day going around to local newsrooms to introduce a friend to reporters, assignment editors and producers.  Whenever possible, this is a great way to begin to build relationships with local journalists and get a feel for how to pitch your stories to the separate newsrooms.  Some newsrooms are more open to "feature" type stories, while others are really only looking for hard news stories.  By meeting the journalists in their respective newsrooms, you can get a feel for how to pitch your stories. 

But one of the biggest reasons to spend time at your local newsrooms is that you get to actually have conversations with the reporters, producers and editors that will be receiving your pitches.  I always tell clients that when they have a chance to meet journalists, do more listening than talking.

The importance of this bit of advice came to the forefront last week during my little "mini-tour".  We were chatting with the producer of the number one morning talk show in Denver and we began discussing media pitches.  It was a discussion that brought to light one of the biggest mistakes PR professionals make all the time.

Hi, let me tell you about a great story you might be interested in!

First, a bit of insight:

We've covered this in-depth in this space before, but it's worth mentioning again.  Newsrooms are flooded with press releases every day.  They get hundreds upon hundreds of pitches, releases and alerts on a daily basis.  This isn't even counting the number of stories they glean from listening to the local scanners, or the ones pitched individually by journalists who might have been alerted to a story through more "unofficial" channels.  In other words, they are constantly swamped with potential stories.

And it's not just emails coming across their desk.  When I worked in newsrooms, we still received a ton of faxes, and even today, the number of faxed releases might surprise you.  But one of the most time-consuming and annoying pitches they get are the phone calls.  Most of the time, these are first-time pitches; cold calls from a large PR firm halfway across the country where some first year PR account manager is simply calling every newsroom on their list making their pitch.

Here's the problem with this approach:
1.  Generally, these calls are ill-timed, catching journalists when they're at their busiest
2.  Journalists like to look at information rather than have it told to them over the phone
3.  Most of the time, these pitches are scripted out
4.  The PR person is often surprised when they actually talk to a live person and they      aren't prepared to make a live pitch.
Here are some interesting comments from the producer we spoke to, Nathan Lynn, producer of 850 KOA's "Good Morning Colorado" program. 

"They always ask to speak to Nathan, and when I tell them they've reached him, they panic a little.  Then they go right into their script.  I can tell when they're reading directly from a script and it doesn't inspire me to want to book them as a guest."

Take that in for a second.  Imagine you're a business and you've hired a large PR firm to manage your account and get you some quality earned media coverage.  You would expect this large, experienced firm to make quality pitches on your behalf.  You would hope they would craft your message, release and pitch, target appropriate media outlets and individuals in those outlets and bring some passion to the effort.

Instead, what normally happens is the firm sends out a media blast to every conceivable newsroom, puts together a pitch script, hands a list of newsrooms to call to the account manager and hopes for the best.  This is a bit like throwing a bunch of stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks.  It may generate some results, you might even get a couple of hits, but the money spent for the results will likely end in disappointment.

Advantage, small business:

This is where small businesses and non-profits often have an advantage over the larger firms, particularly if you're handling your own PR.  In a word, you bring passion to the table, and that passion can often be the difference between a successful pitch and a failed one.

Granted, you probably don't have as much time to devote to your PR efforts as a large firm who has either an in-house staff or can afford to hire a firm to focus on pitching.  But let's face it, you don't need a large firm.  You're not necessarily looking for national media exposure.  For most small businesses and non-profits, you're going to get much more of a bounce from your local media than an article in USA Today or the CBS Evening News. 

Outside of the fact that national news outlets are losing viewers and readers at an alarming rate, your potential customers are tuning into local newscasts to find out what is happening in their immediate area.  That's not to say that a mention on a national news outlet or magazine wouldn't be nice, but given the time you'll spend to get that mention, you're better served focusing on your local outlets instead.

This brings us back to why your PR efforts can often be more successful than those of a large firm.  You know the area, you know the audience, you know the trends of the local newsrooms.  Heck, you might even know a few of the local journalists.  You can often do a better job at targeting local newsrooms, editors, reporters and producers than the larger firms.  But the one thing that you offer that the larger firms usually don't is passion. 

You know your product, service or business better than anyone.  It is what you do, it is your lifeblood it is why you get up in the morning.  Who better to make your pitch, then, than you.

Tips for the phone call:

With that said, there are some things you can do to increase success when it comes to making your phone call pitch.  Keep this in mind, it is very rare to make a cold call phone pitch and have a newsroom pick up your story.  In almost every instance, it is always a better idea to send an email release and pitch letter beforehand.  Then you make your follow up phone calls to try and close the deal.  When making that phone call, remember these tips:
1.  Be natural - It's okay to write out a script if you really need it.  But it's usually better to simply list the important points of your pitch.  Reading from a script can drain the passion you naturally have for your story.
2.  Practice - For most, making a pitch is not something that comes easily or naturally.  You have to practice your pitch to make it sound natural.  Record yourself and play it back.  Do it over and over in front of a mirror until you feel comfortable with it.  Then make the pitch to a friend or colleague and get their feedback.
3.  Be prepared - If you're lucky, the journalist will be interested in your pitch.  If this happens, you have to be prepared for them to ask you questions.  You might get through your pitch just fine, but if you falter when they ask you questions, you're going to ruin your chances. 
4.  Be conversational - Anyone who has taken a public speaking course has heard this a million times, but it matters.  You don't want to be stiff or awkward.  Yes, you're going to be nervous, that's okay.  But you still have to be able to talk about your story in a way that interests them.  I still get nervous when I make my phone call pitches, and I've been doing this for years.  I simply remind myself that I'm pitching a good story and that journalists always want to hear a good story.  That puts me at ease.  Instead of thinking that I'm being a pest, I approach it as if I'm providing a service, actually being of help, to a newsroom.
5.  Be confident - Don't apologize for taking up their time and don't apologize for calling them to pitch your story.  Be confident in your pitch.  You've already sent them information, so in most cases, they'll already be familiar with your story.  You simply have to remind them of the email you sent and then explain why your story would be good for their audience to see or hear. 
6.  Get to the point - As we've said before, journalists don't have a lot of time to spend listening to phone pitches.  When you make your phone call, let them know who you are and why you're calling.  In some cases they'll remember your email.  If they do, simply ask them if they're interested in the story and would like to schedule and interview.  If they don't remember the email, they'll ask you to refresh them on the pitch.  If this happens do this:
     a. Tell them what the business is
     b. Tell them immediately about the event or story
     c. Mention the newspeg, let them know why this is a timely/important story
     d. Explain why it's a good story for their newsroom and audience.

You can do all of this within two or three sentences, literally 30-seconds.  If you're lucky, you'll get two minutes to talk to the journalist, you have to make the most of every second.
7.  Don't pester - Let's assume that the journalist has either read your email, or has listened to your pitch and responds with a "not interested".  Now you have to do a little tightrope walking.  You don't want to simply give up, but you also don't want to pester them.  If this happens, reiterate why it fits with a current newspeg or how it will be of interest to their audience.  You might even ask why they're not interested in the story.  Make sure they know that you're asking for future reference so you can make better pitches to them down the road.  Most of the time the journalist will tell you.  Finally, you can ask if there might be another treatment of the story that they'd be interested in.  In other words, you're pitching a package piece or feture story.  They might not be interested in devoting so much time and space to your story, but they might be interested in a shorter VO or a reader or a calendar listing.  You're simply trying to get the outlet to run something on your story, so if you don't get the bigger treatment, then try for something smaller.  After that, thank them for their time and let them go.  Most reporters will sit through two, maybe three follow up questions from you, but not much more.  Again, remember that their time is valuable.
8.  Be passionate - This doesn't mean yelling or jumping up and down as you pitch your story.  What it means is that you feel your story is important and that it is valuable to the newsroom.  Trust me, journalists can hear if you really care about your story.  If you are hesitant or blase about your story, how can you expect them to get excited over it?  
A short story:

Here's an example of how being passionate and persistent can really pay off during a follow-up phone call pitch.

I was pitching a story for Chase Bank in 2006.  They were releasing their "Blink" card nationally and Denver was one of the first markets to get the card.  Chase had already rolled out the card in Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Dallas before they ever got to Denver.  Being fifth on the list put us behind the eight ball a bit since the story had already been covered nationally, and had been picked up at least once in both local newspapers.

We initially sent out an email release announcing the release of the card locally.  This made it a local story, instead of a national afterthought.  It was a chance for local journalists to dive deeper into how the card works and personally ask questions of Chase Executives.

Every time I made the follow up phone call, I was asked why they should spend time on a story that had already been covered several times on the national level.  My simple response was this:

"Over 500-thousand Colorado residents will be receiving this card and this is the first time you'll be able to talk personally with Chase executives to localize the story."

In almost every case, this was enough to convince them to schedule an interview.  However, I ran into a major roadblock when I started calling media outlets on the other side of the state.  Editors and reporters of these smaller outlets flatly refused to cover the story.  At first I was taken by surprise at the myriad of denials.  after four refusals, I started to wonder why these smaller outlets weren't interested.  I had tried the new technology aspect and even wondered if it was just a matter of limited time on the broadcasts or space in the newspapers. 

During my sixth call, while talking to the editor of the Idaho Springs paper, I asked him why he wasn't interested.  He answered that Chase had no banks in his area and therefore the story had no impact with his readers.  I immediately kicked myself for not thinking of this earlier and then addressed his concern.

I mentioned that Chase DID have branches on the Western Slope of Colorado, only they weren't called Chase, they had a different names such as Wachovia, National and Western, all of which I knew WERE located on the Western Slope as well as Idaho Springs.  I mentioned that thousands of residents in his area would be receiving the card in the initial statewide rollout.  More than that, several other banks would be rolling out similar cards in the upcoming year, meaning many more of his readers would be impacted by the "Blink" card or cards just like it.

After a short pause, the editor asked if I knew exactly how many Western Slope residents would be getting the card.  I told him I'd get that information within an hour and get right back to him.  After hanging up, I found out that nearly 60-thousand residents would be getting the card and called him right back.  Within minutes I had booked an interview, and started calling back the newsrooms that had refused the story earlier.  Armed with my new information and knowing that it was good story, I managed to book all of those previous denials and went on to book several more outlets on the Western Slope.

Lesson Learned:

This pitch was very successful because I was passionate about the story.  I KNEW it was a good story and that it had a place in newscasts and newspapers across the state.  I also did not just give up when I was given a denial.  I asked a simple question and received a simple answer to which and could respond. We also did not simply blast out our press release.  We targeted key media outlets and key individuals in those outlets.  This saved us time from having to call every single outlet in the state and we didn't waste our time trying to explain the pitch to a journalist who simply wouldn't care about the story.

As a small business owner or non-profit, you have the ability to bring that kind of passion and planning to your pitch.  You don't have to get every media outlet in the state to cover your story.  You can target the top outlets and make your pitch with them.  The fact that you truly care about your pitch is also an advantage.  Again, producers, reporters and editors can hear when you care.

If you practice your pitch, be confident, to the point and prepared, your phone call pitch will always have a better chance to succeed than a larger firm that is, usually, only going through the motions.  This isn't a case of David vs. Goliath, it's really more a matter of passion.  You have it, they don't.  Use that to your advantage and you'll find yourself doing a lot more media interveiws in the near future.

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