media strategy

Doing Your Pitch Homework

by | May 11, 2012

This is Part 2 in a five-part series titled The Art of the Pitch. Part 1, Four Factors That Make for an Ideal Pitch, can be found here.

Know the Subject

In order to create an effective media pitch, a PR practitioner should know the industry well enough to know why this particular pitch is relevant.

“This could have a major impact on the industry” by itself is probably the biggest cop-out you can have in a media pitch. It suggests that the PR person hasn’t done enough research to know what impact, if any, there might actually be. Show, don’t tell, is a common theme used by journalists, and it should apply just as well for PR practitioners. Does the story you’re suggesting change legal precedent? Make us safer? Provide a new or better service to society? Improve upon an existing product in a meaningful way? General platitudes about “impact,” “shakeup”, and “trends”, without explanation or elaboration, will get you nowhere.

Know the Media

It’s not enough to know the industry – you’ve got to know the media that covers that industry. What outlets have covered this subject before? Which ones have done the best job? Is there a specific beat reporter, or should you go through an assignment editor?

Some publications allow contributed articles; some do not. Some have daily deadlines; others plan stories for weeks or more. Has the story you’re pitching been covered to death already? These are highly relevant details that should help shape your outreach.

Know the Journalist

Part of the PR professional’s job is to put him or herself in the shoes of the journalist. Make sure you’ve got the right contact before firing off that email. Try to avoid the “shotgun” approach in which you simply replace the name at the top and blast out a pitch to 100 people. Have they covered this issue or service before?

Customize. Empathize. Humanize. This approach may take longer, but it will likely yield better results.

Part 3 of The Art of the Pitch will be posted next week, in which we’ll discuss “Crafting the Pitch”.

This is part one in a five-part series titled The Art of the Pitch. Join us each Friday from May 4 through June 1 as we discuss successful media outreach strategies. 

Just as advertisers try to “pitch” consumers a message they hope will resonate, public relations professionals pitch journalists with suggestions for stories, on behalf of their clients. But not all pitches are created equal, and it helps to understand what circumstances create the most favorable conditions for eventual media exposure.

For our purposes, let’s assume you’ve got a fully-prepared spokesperson ready and available to do an interview . All you need to do is secure and arrange the opportunity.

#1 – Business Relevance

The most vital step in any media relations program is to consider what kinds of coverage make the most sense from a business perspective. Coverage in the Baltimore Sun likely won’t do much good for a business that operates solely in Seattle, for example, nor will coverage in a consumer interest publication for a B-to-B manufacturer. If you want to sell more widgets, focus on the media whose audience may be interested in those widgets.

#2 – Current Events

News, by definition, is the reporting of a recent event.  Journalists need sources to comment on these events, so the more you can match the needs of your source to the needs of the journalist, the better it is for everyone.

General, how-to stories work well enough, but the most successful pitches address a current event and provide a source for commentary.

#3 – Source Expertise

This one may seem obvious, but it’s worth considering for a moment whether the topic you’re pitching aligns with the expertise of your spokesperson. Sometimes PR people get a little trigger-happy with the media relations before doing due diligence with the source, and that’s a mistake. For example, with our law firm clients we are careful to check that a certain case or court ruling is something they’ve been following, and could speak about with authority.

The last thing you want is to secure an interview with a journalist, only to have the source decline because they’re not familiar with the subject.

#4 – Timeliness

The world of public relations revolves rapidly. What’s hot today is old news by tomorrow. Media deadlines are short, so timely outreach is vital. PR departments (and their agencies) need to pay close attention to what’s making news (or better yet, what’s likely to be making news in the near future). Make sure that your spokespeople are available and not, say, taking a cross-country flight in the next few hours after pitching an interview. Journalists won’t wait.

This is a bird’s-eye view of four critical elements that make for an ideal media pitch. Part 2 of The Art of the Pitch will be posted next week, in which we’ll discuss “Doing Your Pitch Homework”.

Law firm public relations is a tricky and competitive business. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the United States has about 759,000 lawyers. When a national news story of legal importance breaks, many of them would love to be a quoted source of expertise within that story. Unfortunately, the math suggests that most will be disappointed if they simply email the Wall Street Journal, offering to contribute. So what is an enterprising, media-friendly attorney to do?

Find your niche. And no, your practice area doesn’t count. It is a starting point. For example, for every attorney that focuses on United States patent law, there are thousands with the same qualifications. By narrowing the scope of your media relations efforts, you winnow the field, qualify your story prospects and better your chances of responding in a timely and helpful fashion to specific media opportunities. Go beyond “patent law” and find areas that match your background on which to focus. The human genome. Business method patents. Semiconductors. Major litigation. Something, anything, that creates a more specific public relations agenda will do wonders for your efforts.

After months of careful planning and preparation, a company launches its new product. The news media picks up the story. A prominent publication features an article online, and the reviews are glowing. Congratulations on the great PR coverage!

But wait, what’s this? Dozens of comments attached to this very article? Well, how flattering. Let’s just click these and see what the kind readers have to say…

Uh-oh. You’ve just entered the Danger Zone of online media – the comments section. These anonymous, thinly-moderated forums attached to most articles can be mocking, misinformed, off-topic and downright nasty. Do you respond? Complain to the editor? Ignore them? Tell your PR firm to begin an Astroturf campaign to drown out the nay-sayers? (I am kidding about this last one.)

Here are a few suggestions for dealing with the comments section.  Keep in mind that each situation is unique and appropriate responses may vary.

Keep an eye on the comments, but don’t overreact. People will make disparaging remarks. Welcome to the Internet. The vocal minority has the megaphone, and they are not afraid to use it. Don’t mistake a few negative responses for general public opinion.  Except for extreme situations, plan on letting much of this stuff slide.

If some comments offer legitimate, specific points of criticism, respond using your full name and title, and remain emotionally neutral. This can be a powerful rejoinder, serving to diffuse hostility and bring some light to the situation. People, even anonymous ones, appreciate companies that are willing to engage at a personal level. In this situation it also helps to have social media channels at the ready. If you’ve felt the need to respond via comments, chances are you should also make a statement via Twitter, Facebook and the company blog.

Notify the journalist or website moderator. Sometimes online discussions can turn downright hateful. Some media police for this sort of thing, but it’s not unreasonable to pick up the phone to alert them of something that’s attached to your story that needs removal. Hate speech, racism and profanity would fall into this category. But be careful to only use this option when necessary; calling to complain about all the negative comments in your story, frustrating as they may be, will probably get you nowhere while also irritating the journalist that wrote the story. Choose your battles carefully.

Comment sections are the Wild West of online media. By proactively monitoring and responding to each case as appropriate, companies can keep tabs on what is being said, offer direct responses when appropriate, and help keep the worst offenders at bay.


I remember being in elementary school and visiting the fire department. During the tour, the fire chief discussed several things but what I remember most were his words about how every home should have multiple fire extinguishers; that each family should have an evacuation plan; the importance of the “stop, drop and roll”; and that every bedroom on a second floor should have a portable ladder in its closet.  Learning to “stop, drop and roll” was certainly easy and appeared to be a no-brainer, but I remember being mortified when I got home armed with all of this new knowledge and expertise to discover that my parents not only didn’t have portable ladders (I had a second-floor bedroom), but there was nary a fire extinguisher in the house or any kind of evacuation plan – discussed or written. It all seemed so irresponsible despite being what appeared to be such an obvious and fundamental need.

This same sentiment can be applied to businesses – big or small – when they find themselves in an unlikely situation where internal and external communication must be managed delicately. While the majority of large corporations and businesses have plans in place to address potential conflicts or adverse issues, there are still plenty of companies that don’t.

Termed crisis communication plans, these well thought-out processes and steps can be just as critical to a business as an evacuation plan would be to a family dealing with a fire in the middle of the night. A crisis communications plan is often the Holy Grail for business owners that need a strict and formal guide to light the way for how they are to deal with their situation – step by step – during what would most likely be a very tense time when emotions run high.

Plans should be as comprehensive as possible and include employee designations, contingency plans and prepared statements (which can be modified if necessary). Author Otto Lerbinger wrote in his book “The Crisis Manager” that there are at least seven different crisis categories that can either be considered acts of nature or human error. Preparing for both is necessary and in today’s communications realm, social media will also require a significant focus. While this endeavor will require a concerted effort and a lot of time, the payoff is invaluable. While some crises are much more dramatic than others, developing a plan that considers the situations with the most potential, can save a company valuable resources, not the least of which is its reputation.

As the fire chief once said, having an evacuation plan will make all the difference should your house catch on fire.

Conventional wisdom suggests that getting one’s message out is easier than ever. Anyone can create a Twitter account, for example. But sending a message and actually getting through to the target audience are two different things. When it comes to effective message distribution, companies face several hurdles— including lack of interest, distrust of subjective information sources, competition from other messages, and numerous distractions (Internet browsing, smart phone games, text messaging, etc.). The compacting of message length is a profound issue for practitioners of PR and their clients. A study by Erik Bucy and Maria Elizabeth Grabe, published by the Journal of Communication, showed that the average sound bite for a presidential candidate on the nightly network news is about 7.8 seconds.

If you’re a corporate spokesperson trying to explain a nuanced rationale for a company action that’s under fire, your time slot isn’t much bigger. Moreover, we live in a world where the most common type of message – the text message – is 160 characters. (For why this is so, see here). And while a corporate message isn’t likely to be sent primarily via SMS, the point is that attention spans are getting shorter, not longer, and messagers need to act accordingly. By the way, Twitter also uses the 160 character format, but automatically reserves 20 for the messenger address, so one is left with 140 characters for this potent form of social media.

I realize I’ve already exceeded my allotted 160 characters, but I hope I’m making the case that message quality has never been more critical. So, let’s consider what goes into a good message:

Your message should speak to your audience. It needs to address the issues or values they care about. Too many messages are “inside-out” – they communicate the worldview of the organization looking out at the world instead of reflecting the audience’s perspective. When BP’s former chief executive said, in light of a catastrophic oil spill, that he’d like to get his life back, it made sense from his point of view, but obviously not to the audience he was hoping to address.

Your message should offer a distinct solution or perspective. Too many messages emphasize points that are not special. The law firm that knows business. The printing company that cares about quality. The auto dealer that offers the best deal. These points are really a requirement of doing business. They’re the ticket to the dance, so to speak. Snow Communications developed a campaign for Hormel Foods Specialty Products Division to speak to the many corporate customers that sell Hormel’s food products under their own private labels. Our message, “Brand Spoken Here” speaks to Hormel’s customers’ needs and offers a capability that Hormel can uniquely offer in this space.

Your message should be simple and clear. “Death tax” is a powerful way to characterize an estate tax that primarily taxes people with substantial assets. “Vouchercare” is an equally effective way to characterize the Republican approach to limiting future Medicare costs. Subway’s “Eat Fresh” redefined the fast food market along lines that heavily favor Subway.

In summary, keep your messages short, clear and considerate of the audience’s perspective if you want to make an impact.

In the February issue of Upsize Magazine, Katy Tanghe writes about the importance of establishing key messages before conducting media outreach. Read the full article here.

The Sony public relations team finds itself in the midst of a very difficult situation these days.  Hackers have broken into the PlayStation Network, its digital media and online gaming delivery service, possibly stealing sensitive customer data. With 77 million users, this could be one of the largest data breaches in history. The entire network has been offline for 13 days (and counting) while Sony assesses the damage and improves its own security by rebuilding the entire network from the ground up. In the meantime, Sony is dealing with furious customers, a sliding stock, at least one class action lawsuit, and no shortage of bad press.

It doesn’t help that Sony waited until six days after the breach to warn that customer banking information may have been compromised. That’s an eternity, both in terms of credit theft and crisis communications.

The key to effective crisis communications is to have a plan in place that allows for swift communication in the event of an incident, even while the damage is still being surveyed. Otherwise the public impression is that the company is dragging its feet (regardless of whether scores of employees are working 80 hours per week to fix the problem). Communicating before the extent of the damage is fully understood is difficult and uncomfortable. But it’s still better than remaining silent while hoping the IT team doesn’t turn up anything else.

A pre-developed crisis communications plan identifies spokespeople, key publics and preferred mediums. It allows for swift, centralized responses that minimize rumors and address key concerns. Perhaps most importantly, it anticipates various crises and the best response methods for each. Naturally, some details have to be filled in later because every crisis is unique, but in the age of social media every hour saved is crucial.

The Sony communications team deserves some credit for its handling of the situation so far – the PlayStation blog has posted numerous updates and alerts over the past week. The company posted a formal statement detailing actions being taken. But by delaying its admission of the most damaging details (that user credit card data may have been compromised) for nearly a week, Sony made a bad situation even worse.

The other day I met the owner of a small technology start-up at a local fundraiser. As we were exchanging pleasantries and small talk, I told him that I worked in public relations and he asked me if I thought social media was replacing traditional media relations, and if I thought that reporters were becoming less influential. I do get asked this from time to time and my answer is always the same. I read something recently that sums up my feelings:

“The trend we need to see emerge for the industry is the understanding within the broader profession and the business community that public relations is not communication – PR is about identifying, developing and maintaining mutually-beneficial relationships between an organization and its stakeholders. A public relationship is the end goal; communication is merely the means to the end. “

(Stephanie McFarland, APR)

In essence, one form of communication should not be judged against another as my new friend suggested, but merely analyzed and considered in terms of what is most relevant for a company or organization in order to help them build their public relationships. The value of print media is no less critical today than it was ten years ago. Even though newspaper circulations across the country are declining, niche, community and trade publications that serve a unique audience are showing sustainability and growth. Besides, if you look at what people are posting on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, chances are you will see some news article links to all kinds of traditional media.

When we view things from an “either/or” perspective in the PR world, we limit our potential for success. The best recipe for achieving valuable public relationships is usually a creative mix of programs and activities that will best serve your overall marketing objectives.

Last week, a video surfaced of Congressman Patrick Duffy making some ill-advised comments about his $174,000 salary and his “struggles” to pay the bills. During the meeting, a member of the audience asked Duffy what he was paid, and whether Duffy would be willing to take a pay cut. Duffy’s response has received a fair bit of criticism online and, of course, by the opposition party:

After acknowledging his $174,000 annual salary, Duffy went on to say,

“I can guarantee you, or most of you, I guarantee that I have more debt than all of you. With 6 kids, I still pay off my student loans. I still pay my mortgage. I drive a used minivan. If you think I’m living high on the hog, I’ve got one paycheck. So I struggle to meet my bills right now. Would it be easier for me if I get more paychecks? Maybe, but at this point I’m not living high on the hog.”

According to Census data, $174,000 is three times the median salary in Polk County, Wisconsin, which the Congressman represents. You can see why this comment is causing a bit of controversy and finger-wagging.

Unfortunately, the Polk County Republican Party came to the conclusion that it would be best for the video to just disappear from the Internet (not exactly an easy task). It began by removing the video from its own blog page and YouTube channel. Then it upped the ante by serving a takedown notice to the website TalkingPointsMemo, which was also hosting the video.

Two reasons this is bad strategy:
a) It’s ineffective. A quick YouTube search now brings up multiple copies of the video. See the Streisand Effect.
b) It’s bad PR. What was a one-day story has turned into a multi-day story. What was seen by a localized group of people is now being seen by a much more widespread audience. Attempts to scrub the Internet and liberal-leaning news websites only send the message that you’ve got something to hide. This in turn generates more interest in the original story, more media scrutiny, and more viral distribution of the remarks.

The Congressman probably wishes he could take back his original comments. But the best strategy now would be to clarify his remarks to the best of his ability, forget about trying to make the video disappear, and move on.

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